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Sappho and her Brothers

Eva Stehle

Paper 3: Sappho and Her Brothers

The newly-published poem by Sappho, which Dirk Obbink (2014) has dubbed the “Brothers Poem,” is rhetorically unlike any other extant (and readable) example of archaic or early-classical lyric.  Lines 11-16, however, do have some affinities in language and theme with Pindar’s epinicians.  The similarities suggest that the Brothers Poem could be an exemplar of the kind of poetry prominent families produced for themselves before Simonides and Pindar professionalized its production into different praise genres.  And at first blush the Brothers Poem appears straightforward, as one might expect of a quotidian, occasional form:  the speaker is arguing that the situation calls for her prayers, not irrational optimism.

Yet, while such in-house great-family poetry may well be the background for this poem, close attention to the rhetoric shows that Sappho has subtly and indirectly fashioned a more radical critique that shares some stylistic qualities with her love poetry.  Like Pindar a century later, she adapts a tradition of poetic position-taking to express a deeper vision, in her case a woman’s lightly-veiled critique of her family’s political outlook.

To demonstrate, I begin with a comparison of Sappho’s lines 11-16 with Pindaric statements about the gods’ care in renewing the fortunes of a deserving house, using Isthm. 1.32-40 and Isthm. 4.14-23.  I conclude that it was probably a common trope in great-family poetry, a counter to the pervasive Greek sense of cosmic flux.  Sappho and Pindar share metaphorical use of eudia, good weather, to express the idea of revived fortunes.

I then show that Sappho uses this trope to characterize the conception that she is opposing.  The first- and second-person forms in the first two stanzas reveal the relationship between speaker and addressee.  I connect that relationship with the contrast in how each sees the solution to the current anxiety.  The addressee asserts that Charaxos does/will come, with a “full ship”; the speaker proposes that she pray for him to come “captaining his safe ship.”  That the difference between “full” and “safe” is significant is confirmed when she adds, beginning a new stanza, “and find us safe and sound” (9).  She thus hints that she perceives a threat not just to Charaxos and his cargo but also to those at home.  She next recommends simply entrusting “the rest” (i.e., the cargo) to the gods -- since, we must deduce, that for her the danger to the whole family’s safety appears as the greater problem.  But instead of saying this in opposition to the addressee’s concern with cargo, she invokes the trope, the emotional basis of the addressee’s anxious conviction that it must come, in order to set his/her mind at rest about it.

Then in the last stanza Sappho undermines the idea that the cargo per se will bring well-being.  Its first word, kammes (and we, 17), contrasts with kēnoi (those, 15) whom the gods make wealthy.  We might be freed from grief if Larichos “lifts his head and finally becomes a man.”  The domestic threat must be connected with Larichos’ behavior.  Line 20 recalls 12, but its optative expresses the speaker’s doubt in contrast to the trope’s serene indicative.

Finally I will deal with the vexed problem who the addressee in the poem is. I suggest that the addressee is a male family member, which would explain speaker-addressee relations in the opening (cf. Hector telling Hecuba to pray in Iliad 6).  Notionally, if not in performance, it could be Larichos himself.  This poem is like Sappho 16 Voigt in its strong but inexplicit contrast of conventional male poetic perceptions with Sappho’s female perspective.

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New Fragments of Sappho

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