You are here

The Reception of Sappho in Plato's Phaedrus in Light of the Expanded Text of Sappho 58

Mary R. Bachvarova

Willamette University

Recent additions to our knowledge of Sappho's "Tithonus Poem" (P.Oxy. 1787 fr 1 = F 58 Voigt, ll. 11-26; P.Köln inv. 21351 + 21376, ll. 9-20, ed. Obbink) give us a new opportunity to study how Plato engages with her as his intellectual predecessor in Phaedrus (mention of her: 235c2; earlier discussions: Carson, 123-73; duBois, 85-7; Foley; Fortenbaugh; Pender a, b). I first show how Plato used the Tithonus Poem as an intertext in his myth of the chariot of the soul (esp. 246b6-253e4), then how the cicada myth (9258e5-259d6) and elements of the chariot myth shed light on the reception of the Tithonus Poem in Classical Athens, where the original Lesbian persona of "Sappho" was initially reshaped into the proto-philosopher of erotic knowledge acclaimed today (duBois, 98-126; Greene; Yatromanolakis, 109-10, 284-6).

The Tithonus Poem begins by addressing the ever-renewed maiden chorus (paides), mentioning the "beautiful gifts of the [v]iolet-bosomed [Muses]" and the "high-pitched" (liguran) lyre. Next Sappho contrasts her white hair, aging body, heavy thumos, and "knees" that "do not carry me" with her once-black hair and youthful "nimble knees" that "once danced like little fawns." "I mourn these things profusely, but what can I do?," she asks, reminding herself, "It is not possible, being human, to be un-aging." She then pivots to an illustrative myth of Dawn, who, "[…]-ed by desire, went to the edges of the earth carrying Tithonus when he was [b]eautiful and young. But still, grey old age snatched him."

In Socrates' hymn to Eros, the soul is described as the intellect driving a chariot pulled by a white horse representing the desire for the good and beautiful and a black one representing ignorance, wickedness, and the baser appetites, which weigh down the chariot and stunt the soul's wings. The chariot myth reads as a direct response to Sappho's question, refuting the notion that the changing mortal body – indeed changeability – are part of reality, and replacing the unidirectional voyage of Tithonus carried by the desirous winged goddess with ever-repeated voyages to the edge of rotating heaven by the immortal soul desiring to gaze on the blazing light of true reality as it goes through a series of bodies, eventually attaining full initiation, as in a mystery religion.

Sappho F 58.23-6 proclaim Sappho's love of luxury and the sun, which "has obtained for me the bright and the beautiful." But, the older, thematically arranged Cologne papyrus substitutes a non-Sapphic poem mentioning Orpheus. Thus, some have questioned whether these four lines belong to the Tithonus Poem (Janko; cf. Boedeker, Nagy). Plato's response to her song suggests he knew the longer version as a discrete whole. Additionally, he, like the Cologne papyrus (Bierl), made the connection between the message of her song and the rewards of soteriological mystery cults.

Sappho appears to allude to the version of Tithonus' myth in which he metamorphoses into an ever-singing cicada (Janko). Plato, who treats cicadas as votaries of the Muses in Phaedrus, certainly thought so, making the same connection between the high-pitched (liguros) cicadas' song and the sun's heat and light that informs the relationship between Dawn and Tithonus (Pataki). Furthermore, Sappho's open-ended presentation of the myth, which allows the listener to respond to her with the comforting message that she, like Tithonus, will receive eternal life through her songs' performances, is matched by Plato's goal to stimulate the reader to respond as if s/he were actively participating in the dialogue being read, directly addressed in his discussion of the drawbacks of the written word (275c5-278b3, Lebeck, 286-8; Sayre). Finally, Sappho has been interpreted as responding to Mimnermus' complaints about old age illustrated by his own version of the Tithonus myth (F 4, Geissler; Johnson). Thus, when Plato chooses her Tithonus Song as an intertext, he positions Sappho as a fellow philosopher (as defined at 277e5-278b3; see Yunis 240-3) participating in an ongoing dialogue about bodily change and mortality.

Session/Panel Title

Allusion and Intertext

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy