Diane Rayor: “Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.”
Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, a podcast where we investigate the truth and controversy surrounding Sappho, her life, the Isle of Lesbos, and her relevance today. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: Each episode, we’ll be centering around a single poem. The first poem we’ll be discussing is the only whole Sappho poem we have: “Ode to Aphrodite.” We’re going to have Alyse, our resident poet, read the poem to you now. Alyse, would you do us the honor?
Alyse Knorr:: Yes, but I’m going to ask Leesa if she would do me the honor of reading the part of Aphrodite in this poem, because the poem actually has Sappho’s voice and Aphrodite’s voice together.
LC: I can sure try.
AK: You’re gonna be great. Alright, here we go. This is Sappho’s Fragment 1, “Ode to Aphrodite”: “On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite, / child of Zeus, weaving wiles: I beg you, / do not break my spirit, O Queen, / with pain or sorrow // but come–if ever before from far away / you heard my voice and listened, / and leaving your father’s / golden home you came, // your chariot yoked with lovely sparrows / drawing you quickly over the dark earth / in a whirling cloud of wings down / the sky through midair, // suddenly here. Blessed One, with a smile / on your deathless face, you ask / what have I suffered again / and why do I call again // and what in my wild heart do I most wish / would happen:”
LC: “Once again who must I / persuade to turn back to your love? / Sappho, who wrongs you? // If now she flees, soon she’ll chase. / If rejecting gifts, then she’ll give. / If not loving, soon she’ll love / even against her will.”
AK: “Come to me now–release me from these / troubles, everything my heart longs / to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you / be my ally.”
EB: I love it. I like–the back and forth really brought it to life for me. I felt like I could see Leesa as Aphrodite. It was just–it was magical.
LC: Such a compliment.
AK: Descending from the heavens.
EB: Yes. Goddess of love.
EB: Yes. It’s beautiful. So let’s give a little bit more about Alyse. So Alyse Knorr is a professor of English at Regis University, and since 2017, co-editor of Switchback Books. She’s also the author of three poetry books and one nonfiction book. Welcome, Alyse. Thank you for reading that beautiful poem to us.
AK: Oh, man, thanks so much for having me.
EB: So we want to talk a little bit in our first episode about how this podcast came to be. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the podcast. We are obviously very happy to have you on board.
AK: Man, not as happy as I am. Because I am a lesbian poet. And so Sappho is–I kind of think of her as, like my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother. And so I love Sappho, I’m one of her artistic descendants. I just am really passionate about her work, about teaching her work, reading her work. My own poems often respond to her work. I had an appearance on an episode of Buffering the Vampire Slayer a while back. This is how the podcast part of this got started. I appeared on Buffering the Vampire Slayer because they needed someone who knew a little bit about Sappho to come on and give some context to the scene from “Buffy” where Willow is writing Sappho lyrics on Tara’s back, and it’s super sexy and very, very gay. And so–
EB: We recall–I recall the scene very well.
AK: Don’t we all. So I just came on that show and I gave a really brief introduction to Sappho and some of the things that are super exciting about Sappho. And then from there, as legend has it, Leesa heard and I guess Leesa should pick up the story from there.
LC: Basically, this is where I was a creep. I tried to find a podcast about Sappho to kind of elaborate on what I’d heard and I couldn’t find anything, so I figured why not create it myself?
AK: That’s awesome.
EB: Yes, I agree. If it doesn’t exist, you have to make it yourself.
AK: I mean, when something doesn’t exist that I want to exist, I just am sad and disappointed and complain about it, so actually Leesa’s very ambitious.
EB: Yes. And we’re very, very happy that the legend of Sweetbitter had occurred. Alyse, for our listeners, this is an intro to Sappho. So can you tell us who Sappho is?
AK: That’s easy. Sappho is the best poet of all time. And she’s also–
AK: Yes, so there you go.
LC: Podcast done.
EB: Podcast over.
AK: We’ve covered it. She’s okay. So she’s an Ancient Greek lyric poet writing 2,500 years ago on the island of Lesbos in Archaic Greece. And so that is where the term “lesbian” comes from, because Sappho wrote about being a woman loving women. So she is the OG lesbian.
EB: So she’s where we all came.
AK: She is! I mean, quite literally, she’s influenced every songwriter, writer, like any kind of expression of an individual voice is somehow reaching back to the tradition that Sappho was a part of, and really established and popularized. And she’s the very earliest surviving woman writer in the West. So when you read Sappho, you’re reading the very first time in the western worlds that you heard the voice of an individual woman.
EB: That’s pretty incredible. I’m like, just speechless. So Sappho is pretty amazing.
AK: Yeah, she’s a total badass. And I have another quote for you. This comes from Dudley Fitts, a scholar who’s writing in an introduction to one of the translations of Sappho. And here’s this quote that I just love that sums up who Sappho is and how little we know about her, and how much of what we say we know about her is like rumor or speculation. Here we go: Sappho is “a lyrist unparalleled, a great beauty, no great beauty, a rumor, a writer of cultist hymns, a scandal, a fame, a bitchy sister to a silly brother, a headmistress, a mystic, a mistress of the poet Alkaios, a pervert, a suicide for love of a ferryman, an androgyne, a bluestocking, a pretty mother of a prettier daughter, an avatar of Yellow Book neodiabolism; a Greek.” I would just add to that list: a legend.
EB: Yes. And we’re here to keep adding on to the legend of Sappho, right? We’re trying to insert what we know, talk to different people. People far, far, far in the future are going to look back and be like, “Wait, what do we know about Sappho? Let’s look at this. This podcast.”
EB: So we’re gonna do our best. It’s a big–
LC: –it’s really just on us–
EB: –big responsibility.
AK: I feel like I’m just–I just want to right here make a little shoutout to the future archivists listening to this, and say, “You’re welcome. Because we’ve now written the title of your next paper, which is called ‘The Self-Mythologizing and Meta-Commentary of the Archive of Sweetbitter Podcast.'”
EB: Yes, and we’re looking forward to seeing that research paper.
LC: So getting back to Sappho, one thing that strikes me as I engage online is that everybody seems to have a lot of certainty about who she was and what her sexuality is. But we don’t really know anything, right?
AK: It’s true. I mean, we’re gonna get into that a lot on future episodes. But what I’ll say now is that there’s this really symbolic reference people come back to a lot with Sappho’s life and the mystery of her life. And it’s–in 1980, there’s this book called “Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary.” Their page on Sappho, in this dictionary of lesbian peoples, is entirely blank. It just says “Sappho” at the top, and then it’s blank, which is meant to symbolize how much of her work and her life is just completely lost or unknown to us. She wrote, when she was alive, 10,000 lines of poetry, and we have only a tiny fragment of that left because it was burned, it was lost, it was forgotten, it was neglected. And because she lived so long ago, we have very few historical accounts of her life that are reliable. A lot of what we know about her just comes from the poems. And when you look elsewhere, you might see legends about her, or in the first few hundred years after her death, she was used as a stock character in plays the Greek authors were writing, and they really caricatured her and made her out to be a slut and made her out to be married to a guy named Kerkylas of Andros, which just translates, in Greek, you know, from the Greek, to “penis from the island of man,” you know, or like “Rod Johnson from Dude Island.” So we can’t rely on what we know about her from antiquity because a lot of that is jokes, or comedies, or legend, or other literature people wrote around her. So we don’t really know for sure whether she was married or not. In her poems, she talks about having a daughter named Cleis, named after her mother. She talks about having girlfriends in her poems, she talks about a little bit of her family’s life in her poems. And so it’s probably most reliable to go off of what her poems say about her life, but of course poets don’t always write literally autobiographically. Sometimes they alter things or write with a little bit of self-mythologizing or something like that. It’s kind of like the way Taylor Swift will sing about one of her exes, but it’s like, how much of that is true? Like probably some of it is true, about Harry Styles, but some of it might not be true. It’s the same exact thing with Sappho, because she’s writing in that tradition. She’s writing from her own individual voice, but also as a character performer.
EB: Yeah. And so you’re talking a little bit too, like we don’t know about Sappho’s life in particular. But also, even from the poems, we don’t have a lot. So why is “Aphrodite” the only poem that we have in its entirety?
AK: Well, first let’s talk about why we have not very much Sappho. And so there’s–well there’s two places you get Sappho when you find Sappho fragments. Everything we have of her is fragments, bits and pieces of her poems that are literally being dug up in archaeological digs, and found on little, tiny scraps of papyrus that are puzzle pieces you have to put together to find more complete parts of poems. The biggest archaeological dig we find Sappho in is this ancient trash heap that just has so many things that are important. I mean, not just Sappho, but also bits of the Bible, bits of many different Ancient Greek writers, and also just like everyday life things, receipts from the doctor’s office, or they found, I think, a note from a boxer promising to throw his next match for a bribe, grocery lists. And so it’s just literally whatever you would throw out. So you can find these little mutilated, torn up scraps of Sappho and papyrologists will stick them together, and that’s kind of the number one source for Sappho’s poetry. But we can also find Sappho’s poetry when Ancient Greek teachers–Ancient Greek and Roman teachers–are trying to use her in their textbooks as examples of good writing or good rhetoric. So that’s actually where “Ode to Aphrodite” comes from, is that there was this Ancient Greek rhetorician who was writing about the arrangement of words, and he quoted Poem Number One by Sappho, “Ode to Aphrodite,” as a really good example of vowel arrangement. And that’s how we have Fragment 1, is we just got it from this textbook from ancient times.
EB: So can you talk to us a little bit more, from a poet’s perspective, about the structure of the poem?
AK: So first off, just remember that Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love and beauty and, to people in Sappho’s time, the gods are super literal. They’re around, they’re influencing your day to day life, and you can pray to them, and you should pray to them, and praying to them is a huge part of your culture. There’s rituals and festivals going on all the time to talk to the gods and ask the gods for what you want. This involves dancing and singing and huge choruses of girls and women. So in this poem, Sappho is asking Aphrodite to help her out with this problem that she has, which is that there’s this girl she really likes who doesn’t like her back and you can–I mean, you can even picture this whole poem happening on a stage with a–we don’t really know for sure how this poem would have been performed or sung or where, but one theory is that it would have been performed at a huge festival. So picture that call-and-response where Sappho cries out for help to Aphrodite, like a prayer or an entreaty or like an outcry. “Aphrodite, I need your help. This girl that I like doesn’t like me back.” And then Aphrodite shows, and Sappho’s like, “I’ve done my part. I’ve prayed to you, I’ve been faithful. I’ve been faithful to you, so you need to be faithful to me now, Aphrodite, you owe me.” And then Aphrodite says, “Okay, yeah, like I will come help you out. I’ve got your back and I’m going to help you get this girl to like you. Even if she’s unwilling to like you, she’s gonna like you. She’s gonna love you back.” And so Sappho at the very end comes back in and says, “Okay, please do that. Be my ally. I need you here.” And so this is a great example of Sappho’s work because Sappho is writing about eros, the Greek concept of erotic love and desire and yearning for what you don’t have, which is a very important aspect of eros, is that you’re yearning for something you don’t have. And eros is a force that takes over your whole body. When you love someone, you can’t control it. It just takes over you, it paralyzes you, it liquefies your body, you’re a victim of eros. Sappho has a great poem about that, right? Fragment 31.
LC: We’ve all been there.
AK: Yes, right? And so this is a really nice introduction to the way Sappho is thinking about love and eros as this divine, magical thing. And what’s weird is that for a long time, scholars thought that this poem was a heterosexual poem, as they did for a lot of Sappho’s work. And they would translate it that way. But the great translation we read at the top of this episode is from Diane Rayor, and it’s one of the best ones. So, we’ll be talking about all of that in future episodes.
LC: Yeah, we’ll be getting to that in a lot more detail. And we had the pleasure of speaking to Diane as well, so you’ll be hearing from her.
EB: So for our listeners who have just listened to this episode, and are wondering if they should stick around for future episodes, spoiler alert: you should. What are you, Alyse, most looking forward to on the podcast?
AK: I’m looking forward to everything.
EB: Of course.
AK: We’ve interviewed scholars and experts and singers and musicians and theater performers from across the world, who love Sappho and are experts in Sappho, to bring you their perspectives and their information. I mean, just people who have dedicated their lives to studying her or to creating work inspired by her. You’re just gonna hear from all these people whose lives have been touched by Sappho and have just really dedicated a ton of time and energy to pursuing these mysteries about Sappho and her life. So we’re going to be exploring on this podcast, you know, what is the big deal about her writing? Why is she the best poet of all time? What makes her work so eternal and beautiful and powerful? What is her influence into today? And then just also like, what is the deal with all these mysteries and controversies in her life? The coolest thing for me in thinking about Sappho is that when you read poems about love by someone who lived, you know, 2,500 years ago, and you read them today, and you think–like Leesa just said–it’s the same now. It’s the same feeling of love that I have in my body, as this woman who lived in an ancient, completely different time, place, and culture from me. She felt the same way. And so that, I think, is incredible. And I’m really excited about that. I’m excited about, you know, looking at what Sappho symbolizes for the lesbian community, how that’s been contested over time. We’ve got scandals for you. We’ve got music for you. It’s just great. This is a great podcast.
EB: It really is. I wish–
AK: I know.
EB: I was like, “I wish we’d made it. I wish somebody made a podcast like this.”
AK: I’m such a huge fan of this podcast that we’ve made. Like I’m a genuine fan.
LC: There we go, straight from Sappho’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter.
EB: Thank you so much for joining us today, Alyse. It has been amazing talking to you, as always.
LC: As we mentioned earlier in the episode, Sappho’s poetry was performed or sung in her time.
EB: And we all love to sing, so we really couldn’t help ourselves. We’ve written a song for each episode of this podcast based on a different genre or style of contemporary music that we felt matched the poem. And they’re all pretty great, if we do say so ourselves.
LC: If we do say so ourselves. So stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for “Ode to Aphrodite,” performed by us.
EB: For all of you out there, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths: And the thing that is consistent about Sappho’s story is that her story is one of men trying to make her in their own image.
Chris Mason: And then you just see her footsteps and her face. I mean, Sappho always as these images that bring you back to a particular person. It is very powerful rejoinder to them, to the war-like culture of Greece, but it’s also a love poem.
Tracey Walters: Sappho has a love of women. For me, there’s a beauty in that, a freedom in that. A woman who can love unconditionally and love as she chooses.
Diane Rayor: It’s this human instinct of love and desire and longing for each other. And it doesn’t have to be gender-specific, even though some of it clearly is. And so I think that’s really important now, where we’re trying to get away from, that your identity is strictly who you have sex with. So it’s not, “I’m a this or I’m a that,” but that there’s a fluidity here. So I think Sappho’s poems still feel up to the moment.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps us to get to more listeners. Or, if you have the means, you can support us on Patreon. If you join before November 1st, you’ll receive an exclusive Sweetbitter tote bag.
LC: You can find us on social media, on Twitter and Instagram, at @sweetbitterpod, or visit us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Theme music is by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. Special thanks to Beck Martin, Kristen Russo, and Old Songs.
LC: We would also like to take this opportunity to thank our day one Patreon supporters: Jacob, Cara, Emily, Mim, and Adriana. You guys rock.
EB: And now, without further ado, our original song for this episode, “Ode to Aphrodite.”