Sappho is one of the first song-writers we know of in history, partly because she was one of the first singers to write down her songs, in around 600BC. We still know about her because she was considered the best song-writer for about a thousand years after her death. While best known as a singer of female desire, her lyrics were so powerfully felt by men and women across the centuries that she became known as the tenth muse, joining the ranks of the 9 divine muses – the goddesses of art and inspiration. But after a millennium of celebrity status, Sappho's works were almost completely lost. Of the nine volumes of her songs that once graced the shelves of libraries at Alexandria and elsewhere, only a few pages survive today – most of it scattered bits and fragments of different songs.
Andromache Karanika, professor of classics at the University of California Irvine has written extensively on Sappho and early Greek poetry. She joins us to talk about the tenth muse, her life, and works, and why they were lost.
This episode features a musical recreation of Sappho's famous fragment 31 (beginning at the 33:33 mark in the episode). The rhythm of the song you'll hear is Sappho's original rhythm, and the pronunciation of words is fairly close to how Sappho would have spoken. The melody, however, is not Sappho's. We'll probably never now, sadly, how Sappho's melodies sounded like. The melody here is based on several medieval European melodies that were composed for the rhythmical patterns that Sappho popularized. These melodies have been revived recently by the members of the Vivarium Novum (a college near Rome for the study of classical languages), for the purpose of reanimating Latin poetry (which follows the same rhythmical patters as Greek poetry). You can hear some of their musical renditions of the Roman poets on their YouTube channel “Tyrtarion”.
Sappho, Alcaeus, Lesbos, Herodotus, Longinus, Solon, Plato, lyre, papyrus