There are more layers to the new fragment of Sappho recently published by Obbink (2014) than first appear. In this piece, the poem’s speaker refers to a potential homecoming of a man, Charaxos, and to the hope that another male figure, Larichos, “become a man.” Both these figures are believed to be Sappho’s brothers (or the brothers of her persona), based on fragments of Sappho’s own poetry (fr. 5 and 15 V) and attestations from later sources (Hdt. 2.134-35, Strabo 17.808, Athen. 13. 596c). At the beginning of the new fragment, the speaker addresses an interlocutor: ἀλλ’ ἄϊ θρύλησθα Χάραξον ἔλθην νᾶϊ σὺν πλήαι (“oh no, you prattle on that Charaxos is coming with a full ship”, lines 1-2). Obbink (2014: 8) takes these words simply to describe a commercially successful venture, but there may be another layer to this focus on seamanship. I argue that the beginning of this new fragment refers to her brother’s sexual escapades.
Sexual humor, while extensively identified in the genre of comedy, has roots in much earlier poetry. Nautical imagery as a metaphor for sexual activity was a very common trope in Aristophanic comedy, though Henderson (1991:49,161-6) traces earlier instances back to Alcman (fr. 109D, POxy 2307, fr. 1411.13). I argue that Sappho’s words have these sexual connotations. Henderson also discusses the language of “filling” as metaphorically sexual in the case of the verb πιμπλάναι (1991: 141, 161.49, 170). Sappho’s lines combine these images (νᾶϊ σὺν πλήαι). Epicrates, a poet of Middle Comedy, also employs the filling of a ship as metaphor for sexual intercourse (τὴν νέαν τ’ ἐπουρίσας/ πλήρωσον, fr. 10 K). While some scholars are hesitant to see any sexually charged language in Sappho, others (Aloni 1997, Parker 2005) are now willing to attribute fr. 99 L-P, the fragment in which the speaker apparently attacks the Polyanactidae by accusing them of using dildos, to Sappho rather than Alcaeus (labeled 303a V).
Why does Sappho make such a sexually charged remark about her brother here? According to Herodotus, Strabo, and Athenaeus, while Charaxos was in Egypt for commercial purposes, he fell in love with and purchased the freedom of a prostitute (Rhodopis in some versions, Doricha in others). Sappho also supposedly criticized her brother for this purchase (Hdt. 2.134-35). Athenaeus says that she inveighs against the courtesan herself in another poem (13.596c). The new fragment perhaps then alludes to this sexual venture. It should be noted that Obbink does not believe that the beginning of this fragment is the beginning of the original poem. Further context might make the references to Charaxos’ indiscretion more readily apparent. Sappho then is lightly teasing her brother by putting this sexually charged image in the mouth of an interlocutor. I conclude that this fragment belongs in a group that Aloni calls the “Iambic Sappho,” poems which, while not necessarily written in iambic meter, still feature many of themes, images, and aims of the poetry of Hipponax and Archilochus (Aloni 1997: lxvi-lxxv).
Poetics, Politics, and Religion in Greek Lyric and Epinician