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Musical Performance of Sappho’s Songs in the New Posidippus Papyrus

Ronald Álvarez

Universidad de La Sabana

The expression Cα<π>φώιουc ἐξ ὀά<ρ>ων ὀάρουc in Posidippus’ epigram 55 Austin-Bastianini, transmitted in P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 (P.Mil.Vogl. inv. 1295r), could indicate a real musical performance of Sappho’s poems in the Hellenistic period, inasmuch as ὄαρος can mean ‘song’. The expression is found in the first couplet of an epigram describing all the things that Moira prematurely took away from a girl who used to work daily at the loom: πάντα τὰ Νικομάχηc καὶ ἀθύρματα καὶ πρὸc ἑώιαν | κερκίδα Cα<π>φώιουc ἐξ ὀά<ρ>ων ὀάρουc (cfr. Angiò, Cuypers, Acosta-Hughes and Kosmetatou 2016).

There have been three lines of interpretation in the scholarship onto the epigram. The first interprets the expression as ‘Sapphic (or feminine) conversations (or confidences)’, arguing that the poet is alluding to girls’ conversations found in Sappho’s poems: Lefkowitz (2001); Austin and Bastianini (2002); Pretagostini (2002); Di Benedetto (2003); González-González (2010). The second understands it as ‘Sapphic (or feminine) songs’, offering as parallels the use of the ὄαρος in Pindar and songs of women weaving in the wider European context: Bastianini and Gallazzi, adiuv. Austin (2001); Hutchinson (2002); Ferrari (2003); Magnelli (2002); Calderon Dorda (2008); Nagy (2015; 2016). A third is proposed by Gutzwiller (2005), who translates ‘whispers answering whispers to the music of the morning shuttle, as in Sappho’.

In my paper I present the arguments of scholars for each view and offer new arguments in favor of the second, that is, the musical interpretation; furthermore, I propose a new characterization of the songs in question. I note that other epigrams from Palatine Anthology (AP VI 46, 160, 174, 288), and passages in the Odyssey (V 61-2; X 221-8, 253-5) associate labor at the loom with singing; literary models in turn will have entered into the corpus of songs sung by ancient Greek cloth-workers, a pattern of which we have many examples from ancient and modern cultures (cf. Barber 1991; Gioia 2006; Karanika 2014). Second, Philodemus describes in epigram AP V 132 a gorgeous girl who has the sole defect of not knowing how to sing Sappho. Other sources too seem to point to the performance of Sappho’s poems in the Hellenistic period. This is the case of P.Köln XI 429 (inv. 21351 + 21376) (III B.C.E.), an anthology containing Sappho’s poems and musical signs, according to Rawles (2006). Another Possidipus epigram (51 Austin-Bastianini) in the new papyrus mentions Cα[πφῶι’ ἄιcμ]ατα that are to be sung before the tomb of a girl. Thus, it is entirely likely that Posidippus is depicting a girl singing traditional work songs taken and adapted musically from Sappho’s poems.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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