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Sappho’s Choral “I”

Amy N Hendricks

University of Wisconsin-Madison

            This paper explores how Sappho utilizes the concept of the chorus to express relationship dynamics and communicate with specific audience groups. Although her poems are generally assumed to be primarily monodic (e.g., Page 1959; Winkler 1990; Rawles 2011), the chorus has long played a role in discussions of Sappho: Calame (1977) envisions the “circle” of Sappho as something chorus-like, while Lardinois (1994, 1996) argues that many of Sappho’s songs were in fact choral. Recently, scholars have shifted their focus to how the chorus as a construct relates to Sappho’s poetry beyond its performance context (Bierl 2016; Ladianou 2016; Power 2019). By examining traces of the chorus in two of her poems (16 and 58), I argue that Sappho’s “I” reflects the group perspective of the chorus members, offering a unique view from within the chorus in contexts that can be associated with occasions of female ritual.

            Much of the debate regarding Sappho’s chorality has concerned the relationship between choregos (chorus leader) and chorus member, especially due to the characterization of Sappho as the leader of a school or Kreis. As a result, it seems natural to align her with the choregos-figure as didaskalos, as Calame suggests. I advocate, however, for a construction in which Sappho is not the choregos but is instead representative of the choral voice. This interpretation not only engages with traditional choral roles but also provides a context in which to interpret Sappho’s circle. Drawing on Winkler, I suggest that within this choral framework, Sappho is able to communicate outwardly with a public, male or mixed audience while evoking a specifically female experience of choral participation.

            To illustrate Sappho's use of the chorus, I examine the relative chorality of poems 16 and 58. I focus on three aspects that can be identified in her lyrics: the role of the choregos and their relationship with the chorus members; the correspondence of choral performance to specific occasions, especially the wedding and the funeral; and the employment of choral patterns visible in contemporary literary choruses. In poem 16, Sappho positions herself and her companions as members of a chorus, specifically a maiden chorus with a close connection to marriage. Paralleled by Helen, the archetypal bride, Anactoria assumes traditional aspects of the choregos-figure, whose absence from the group mimics a girl’s transition into adulthood through marriage; this interpretation promisingly allows for comparison with other maiden choruses, like Alcman’s first partheneion (=PMG 1) or the Odyssey’s Nausicaa. In poem 58 (the Tithonus poem), the speaker adopts the perspective of an older woman whose choral role has shifted from the marriage choruses of youth to the funeral choruses of adulthood. Through the cluster of choral imagery (dance, the physical body, old age, and lament), Sappho emphasizes the relationship between the wedding and the funeral. By drawing on the similarities between these two choral occasions, Sappho provides a unique perspective on the experience of a chorus member at different stages of her life.

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Early Greek Poetry

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