In her own Words


220px-Alkaios_Sappho_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2416_n2“I have no complaint
Prosperity that
The golden Muses
Gave me was no
Delusion: dead, I
Won’t be forgotten…”

These prophetic words were possibly sung or spoken but certainly written by one of the greatest writers the ancient western world produced: Sappho. To her contemporaries she was one of ancient Greek’s divine Muses.

Finally, after all that build-up on this blog I got to see “Sappho in 9 Fragments” by playwright Jane Montgomery Griffiths last Friday. If you ever get the chance to catch this wonderful show – put together with great passion by director Jessica Ruano and actress Victoria Grove – do go, for it is witty, thought-provoking, sexy and full of love. Love for one of the world’s greatest poets but also for love itself, the act of falling in – and out of – love time and again.

The play is underpinned by fact, namely the scarcity of Sappho’s surviving work, which is only available to us in fragments. This fragmentation has, over the centuries, allowed Sappho’s words to be twisted and moulded into whatever – mostly male – interpreters wanted them to be.

The show was performed in the confined space of the lovely ARCH1 venue here in London, where a metal frame or scaffold laced with sturdy ropes had been erected in the centre of the room. This interesting artistic device allowed “Sappho” (Victoria Grove) to move only within the spider’s web that history had woven for the poet. It was a full-blooded, emotional and stunningly athletic performance by Victoria Grove and will stay in my mind for a long time.

And, if like me you should be so fortunate as to meet Victoria Grove before or after the show, be prepared for a beguiling smile and an eye-watering handshake – my goodness, that young lady is strong!

Stardom for all Eternity

What would it feel like to be a mega-star of the literary world for most of one’s lifetime? To have wise men and women hang on one’s every word, to be elevated to the title of 10th Muse by people who are also stars in their contemporaries’ eyes? Mega-celebrities who feel they must raise one of their numbers to that eternal pedestal of fame and declare that person divine?

The rest of us humble mortals are blinded by such talent and close our eyes lest such brightness of genius should burn us; yet, we snatch at the hem of a celebrity’s toga and hope a fragment of that charisma, that talent, that divinity will rub off on us.

220px-Sir_Lawrence_Alma-Tadema,_RA,_OM_-_Sappho_and_Alcaeus_-_Walters_37159Sappho correctly concluded that she would not be forgotten after her death, but she can’t have imagined how she would be endlessly reinterpreted through the ages and have her very essence vilified and raped, celebrated and sanctified, and swallowed whole before being regurgitated over and over for centuries.

The Magic of Words

When the Iklaina tablet was found in the ruins of a medium-sized Greek town not so long ago, archaeologists speculated that literacy during the late Mycenaean period was far less centralized than previously believed. To be able to read and write was for many centuries regarded as something magical, mysterious and otherworldly, for even during Mycenaean times it was mostly rich aristocratic big-wigs who were literate.

220px-AncientlibraryalexIt took nearly 600 years before the written word was no longer regarded as something only spirits and gods might be able to create. Even during King Arthur’s time, around 670 AD, literacy seemed like something Merlin might conjure up over breakfast before playing chess with a dragon. Interestingly, in Welsh folklore the ability to use “words” or rather the skill of poetry is part of a magician’s tool box.

Once the Linear B alphabet ancient Greeks had used was transformed into what we now utilise as our 26 letters of the alphabet, poetry and literature really began to flourish in the Western world. Enter Sappho and her contemporaries.

Of course, ancient Egyptians and Chinese people would snigger at us backward barbarians, for they could read and write more than 3,000 years ago. Good for them! But hieroglyphics don’t compare with the sheer bravura and musicality of Sappho’s words and even Chinese people admit they get muddled with all those complicated symbols, so what use are such fragments in a contest of writers from antiquity?

220px-Metileme_by_Giacomo_FrancoBorn around 620 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos, which lies off the coast of modern day Turkey, Sappho is widely credited with being one of the earliest and best writers in the western world. Although only fragments remain of her work, we can judge by poem no. 1, which is a Hymn to Aphrodite and thankfully complete, how great her writing is.

Falling in Love with a Word

120px-Petra_townAlthough Greece was a very political country and Sappho herself was exiled for political reasons and forced to leave Lesbos for many years, her poetry deals with politics between two people, not party politics of men.
She writes poems about two people, who fall in and out of lust, passion, love and reason – for falling in love is, of course, very much like losing one’s reason. One could argue Sappho’s poetry deals with the most important politics of them all, namely the politics between men and women, women and women.

Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ play intertwines poet Sappho’s lament with the modern day love-trials of a chorus girl called Atthis, a name that stems from something the 3rd century philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote about Sappho, namely that she was not unlike Socrates in her sexuality.

Reputedly, Socrates loved men, while Sappho loved women (although her poetry fragments show she also flirted with men). “What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her…” wrote that old gossip Maximus of Tyre.

The Object of Desire

220px-NAMA_Aphrodite_SyracuseYoung and inexperienced chorus girl Atthis is seduced by the star of her show, but poet Sappho is seduced by the trappings of fame. While Atthis laments the lack of love an unequal partnership has brought her, Sappho suffers from an abundance of love. Both women are trapped by the wrong kind of love, one feels; love that stems from pure selfishness.

Love for the written word has had scholars through the ages get their knickers in a twist of how to interpret Sappho’s words – and life – in a way that would suit them best – but not always with the intention to devour or obliterate the person who wrote the poetry. It seems to have been more a question of being unable to see the wood for the trees for those scholars, of being so blinded by stardom and talent that one only sees fragments…

It made me think of French actress Brigit Bardot, who once intimated that her life had been stolen and destroyed by men, because they wanted her to be whatever they desired rather than see her for what she actually is. All that they chased after and grasped at were fragments of Bardot, but they never sat down to meet Brigit.

Described by her contemporary Alcaeus as “violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho”, the woman portraying her in Jane Montgomery Griffith’s play writhes, screams and struggles in history’s cobweb against the injustice of it all, just as Atthis laments being trapped in a spider’s web woven by a promiscuous seductress. Both women are in a loveless relationship that ultimately destroys who they are. While Sappho is seen only in fragments because she well-beloved, Atthis is only able to see fragments of the object of her desire, for she is blinded by love.

Beware what you wish for, Lovers

Roman bust of Sappho found at SmyrnaWhat writer doesn’t dream of achieving immortality with their words? Sappho did, but at a terrible price, for we will never be able to see her and her work as intended – just as we are unlikely to ever catch a glimpse of Norma Jean behind Marilyn Monroe’s blonde bombshell mask or hear Mozart’s music without being prodded by Austria’s tourism mammoth in case we forget the legends little Amadeus inspired after his untimely death, aged 30.

Could it be the very pinnacle of fame Sappho achieved that fragments her – rather than the scarcity of surviving manuscripts?

Scarce Facts of Love

220px-Bust_Sappho_Musei_Capitolini_MC1164She was born sometime between 630 and 612 BC and probably died around 570 BC. Poet Sappho was exiled from Lesbos sometime between 604 and 594 BC; nine books of her work formed part of the Library of Alexandria’s collection. She counts Cicero, Alcaeus and, rather surprisingly, Gregory of Nazianzus, among her many fans. She has been a lesbian icon for centuries.

(all pictures from Wikipedia)

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