The Mysticism of Sappho
The poet Sappho, the tenth muse, stirred the world in her life. Beyond the grave, she continued changing it from Hades or (I pray) Heaven. She won the heart of every man and woman who's had the pleasure of reading her verses. "Indeed, it makes my heart beat sweetly in my breast." With the love I have for her through paper flesh and ink words, imagine my distress at the cruel misreading that my generation has adopted. Today, Sappho is remembered as little more than an erotic author. She is spoken of as secular figure for nontraditional romantics to rally behind. I understand that sensual love is an emotion she felt and expressed, but her sight to the mystic cannot be ignored. Empathize with my heartbreak as I see a muse being stripped of her divinity.
Sappho had a complicated relationship with Eros. In some lights even a toxic one. With fragments like, "To Eros, you burn me," "Eros, bittersweet loosened of limbs troubles me. Sly, uncontrollable creature," and "For me, Eros has the sun's beauty and brilliance," It's easy to say that Sappho was torn about Eros. She was obsessed by it. She was in love with it. "Now Eros stirs my soul, a mountain wind overwhelming oak trees." She was almost defined by it. Like any hopeless romantic, sometimes Eros is a thing which ate away at her. Other times, Eros was her only bliss.
Sappho seems to mean something different than our common understanding when she uses the word Eros . She definitely means something physical and desirous, judging by how she spoke of the objects of her affection. But, despite her many odes to Eros, Aphrodite, and Adonis, she rarely talks about sex (which is held to be essential to eroticism today.) Yes, sometimes she sighs about the beauty of the young groom, or the bare ankles of a young girl, but when it gets down to sex she shares little words about it beyond, "Virginity! Virginity! Why do you leave me? Never shall you return". This too is often thought to be one of her later poems. The evidence leads me to say that Sappho was an erotic poet, in the most Platonic sense of the word. I mean Platonic in both senses. The first being no, or very little, touching. The second is tied up doctrines of Plato, I'm thinking particularly what is laid out in The Symposium about love. More will be said about this soon.
Expanding on her understanding of Eros, Sappho's relationship with her lovers is devout. At times she speaks of them as being, "like a god" to her. Her poems aren't just odes of love, but a libations. With lyrics about pouring sacrifices at altars and praying for the delivery of lovers, there is something conspicuously spiritual about her approach to romance. She does have a few poems, like those to Atthis, about pure human desire. But in many other poems to Atthis she keeps the same mystic approach. It seems as though sexual desire was often left out of not only her verses, but even her affection.
But what exactly did Eros mean to Sappho? This brings me to my favorite of Sappho's poems, famously known as Hymn to Aphrodite.
(I looked around at different translations and even attempted my own, but because of the complexity of Ancient Greek and the notion some words have which isn't fully present in English words I encourage my readers to search for the poem themselves. Delphi Classics offers three translations in their eBook, as well as the original Ancient Greek.)
In Hymn to Aphrodite, Sappho's heart is in anguish because of a deep seeded desire for the unnamed girl she is in love with. So, Sappho asks prays to Aphrodite, mentioning that she's placed herself in Aphrodite's care before. The poem then relays words which Aphrodite had shared with Sappho. The goddess promises to make the girl love Sappho, although it will be against the girl's will. This exposes Aphrodite, at least to Sappho's knowledge, as not entirely benevolent - for disregarding free will is contrary to benevolence. Sappho ends the poem by expressing hopes of an alliance with Aphrodite. Some translators say the Ancient Greek, in that verse, carries the notion of an alliance in battle.
What would drive Sappho to agreeing to those terms of service?
In another poem, Sappho begins by addressing the reader/listener. She relays Gods coming to the cradle of the reader/listener, and endowing them with gifts. When Pan comes to give he says, "They have forgotten the veriest power of life. To kindle her shapely beauty and illumine her mind withal I give to that little person the glowing and craving soul." It seems like that the poem is not about the reader/listener, rather a poem about herself told in the second person. This glowing and craving soul is the center of Sapphic spirituality. "Aphrodite... who made Sappho at thy will, ah, how comes it my frail heart is so fond of all things fair. I can never chose between Gorgo and Andromeda."
This profound desire for all things beautiful is what directs Sappho to the gods, particularly to Aphrodite. Sappho's understanding of Eros as divine divine led her to the knowledge that Eros must come from the divine. This is why her relationship with Eros is complicated. Because Eros is divine but she is human. Her role is to serve the divine, and ask of the divine, but never can she add to or exploit divinity. So she seeks the aid of Aphrodite. Aphrodite is goddess of all that is fair, all that Sappho desires. But Aphrodite herself is not entirely good, which is why in fulfilling Sappho's desires Aphrodite ignores the free will of humans. Bittersweet Eros.
Here is where we find something that can be better understood with Platonic thought (not because Sappho was influenced by Plato, she died long before Plato was born). In The Symposium, Plato describes love as having nothing so that love can always desire. Sappho, as a muse, as a person who participates in the divine but is not herself divine, points to this emptiness. The hurt which she lives with and constant desire elevates the soul of her readers to the same spiritual knowledge. The next step is seeking the divine, which Sappho did although the divine was unsatisfying. Nevertheless, there is something mystic and beautiful about this, "emptiness then desire for the fair" spirituality which Sappho embodies.
But, this can only be seen if you consider Sappho's writing something more than just erotic. Yes, a desire for all that is fair includes sex. But it doesn't stop there. Sappho shows that emptiness and desire ought to transcend union with other human beings, and soar to union with the perfection of being itself. Ignoring this mysticism of her poetry isn't just a misreading, it's an attack on the muse who understands human emptiness. She might not know how to satisfy this emptiness, but at least she doesn't ignore it.
On another note, I believe the Spanish poet Juan de la Cruz fulfills the emptiness Sappho leaves behind because of a more thorough understanding of divinity. I'll elaborate in a future article. I recommend his book The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Happy Sunday, and please say a Hail Mary for the soul of Sappho.
- Jose-Hector Guardiola
Sappho. Delphi Complete Works of Sappho. 2015. eBook.