Diane Rayor: “Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.”
Ellie Brigida: Hey, everyone. 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: This episode, we’ll be talking about why we only have excerpts of Sappho’s work, and where we find them.
LC: As we do each episode, we’re going to start with one of Sappho’s fragments, chosen by our resident poet, Alyse. Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear our own version of the poem as a song. Alyse, will you tell us about the poem, read the poem?
Alyse Knorr: Yeah, absolutely. So, for today we have Sappho’s Fragment 55, and the translation is by Julia Dubnoff. Here it goes. “When you lie dead, no one will remember you / For you have no share in the Muses’ roses. / No, flitting aimlessly about, / You will wildly roam, / a shade amidst the shadowy dead.”
EB: So bright and cheerful.
LC: Like that’s so intense! So intense for our morning–good morning, listeners!
AK: No one will remember you when you’re dead–hi!
EB: Wow. Yeah, that is–I mean, the description is gorgeous. Like, beautifully written.
LC: It really reminds me of Emily Dickinson, to be honest.
AK: Ooh, why?
LC: Like some of her–I don’t know just thinking about some of her poems, like “The Chariot” or “The World Feels Dusty,” like these poems. It really felt like that kind of vibe, like very…
AK: A tiny poem about death. Very, very ED.
LC: Very, very Dickinson. Oh my god. Am I–am I learned, in poetry?
AK: You’re very fancy.
EB: Are you a poetry scholar?
LC: Oh my goodness, I feel so smart. Was that good analysis of the poem?
AK: It was pretty great.
EB: Yes. It definitely is reminiscent of Emily. I always tell people too, when I’m trying to explain Sappho to people, I’m like, imagine if–like imagine Emily Dickinson. Like Sappho is as important if not more important, just more people know who Emily Dickinson is because she’s more contemporary.
LC: Absolutely. And we had another poem for this episode as well, which I feel like we should give an honorable mention to and read, because it’s pretty short.
AK: Sure. So the honorable mention poem is Fragment 105. We almost went with this one for the episode because it’s also really pertinent to the content of this episode, which I can talk about, for both of these poems. But first, I’ll just review you Anne Carson’s translation of Fragment 105: “as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch / high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot– / no, not forgot: were unable to reach.”
EB: Yeah, I love the assonance, right? Is this assonance, with that h’s?
LC: Oh my gosh, Ellie.
EB: Now am I learned?
AK: It’s alliteration, but you were so close.
EB: Oh, assonance is the vowels.
AK: Yes. Yes, exactly. But there is lots of assonance in here because you’ve got “apple,” “branch.” So there’s that “A” sound kind of going throughout with apple, and yeah.
EB: I was so close.
LC: You’re very smart, Ellie. You’re very smart.
AK: You heard the rhyme.
EB: Thank you, Leesa. I did. Well yeah, I love the, like, “high branch, high on the highest branch.” Ooh, that sounds like I could really riff on that. “High branch, high on the highest branch.”
LC: Oh, we should have written a song for this one.
EB: “High branch, high on the highest branch.”
AK: Ooh, I like this.
LC: This can be a bonus song.
EB: Okay, cool.
AK: We’re jamming here. Our listeners can’t see all of us, like, dancing in our…
EB: Yes, yes.
LC: Three white girls boppin’. It’s great, it’s great to see.
EB: It’s great. So why did this one not make the cut for this episode, for the song?
LC: Because we already wrote the song for 55.
EB: Because we’re not gonna write another song.
AK: I think y’all were more inspired–if I could be so bold, I might guess that y’all were kind of more inspired musically by Fragment 55.
AK: But both fragments are really kind of thematically in line with the content of today’s episode, which is about the fragmentation of Sappho’s work into these little, tiny chunks of papyrus that we find in the desert, and piece together like puzzle pieces. And so, how do we find them? Like how do you dig up a Sappho fragment out of the desert? How do you tell that Sappho wrote it? What are the ethical implications around digging Sappho out of the desert? All of that is what today’s episode goes into, so these poems kind of felt right for that.
LC: Yeah, I think that when we had written this down, when Ellie and I did our songwriting session, you had put both of them there. And we were more inspired by Fragment 55 to write a very slow…
EB: …art song…
LC: …funeral kind of song. So when I–
EB: Dickinson song cycle, really.
LC: Yes, Mary Dickinson song cycle. I think that was maybe our inspiration for that.
EB: It was.
LC: Um, so that’s why, and so–but when I was reading through, when we were putting together the episode, and I was reading 105A, what I really liked about it is the out-of-reach part of it, because I just feel like there’s so much Sappho that’s out of reach. So I thought it deserved an honorable mention.
AK: Okay, so with 105A, you’ve got the classic Sappho, like, the apple is a very erotic image. It’s like this very fruitful, red, you know–and so this idea of like, we can’t quite reach the apple is really in line with Sappho’s ideas about the erotic. But also, just like you said, Leesa, it has a lot to do with kind of the fragmentation of her work and how it leaves us with these gaps that are sometimes hard for us to reach through. But the other fragment, 55, is in nice tension with this, because just as lively as the image of the apple is, you’ve got this like funereal, kind of more somber, gloomier meditation on death in Fragment 55. And what’s really interesting to me about that fragment that today’s episode proves is that when Sappho says “When you lie dead, no one will remember you,” against all odds, against the incredible vastness of space, time, and the sands of the desert, we do remember Sappho. We do. She has transcended death, she is still roaming, in our times, like Fragment 55 says, and it’s because of this chance, amazing miracle of archaeology that we found these tiny fragments, that we do have her surviving past the bounds of death itself. And so that is the connection to today’s episode content.
LC: Amazing. Alyse, thank you so much for choosing these poems and just being an awesome human.
AK: Thank you.
EB: I know, you just got me so inspired for this episode. Let’s do it!
LC: I’m so ready for it.
AK: I can’t wait to hear it, guys.
LC: So we kept asking scholars we spoke to about papyri and how they’re found, and we kept coming up with answers like this.
Marguerite Johnson: ‘Cause classicists are sort of lazy scholars. We let the archaeologists find the papyri or whatever, or the archive, let’s find it in the library. And then these poor papyrologists have to piece it together, and muck around, and then we sit back and get our copy all done, typed up nicely in Greek, for us to use it. So we’re sort of indirectly watching what happens.
EB: Classic Marguerite, am I right? So we went out and found a papyrologist to talk us through the whole process. Leesa and Alyse managed to “dig up” one of the best papyrologists. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
LC: Oh, Ellie. Oh, you just did that.
EB: I did it and I’m not ashamed. But Leesa, why don’t you tell us all about the papyrologist that you talked to, because they’re pretty awesome.
LC: We had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Malcolm Choat, who is a professor of History and the head of the Department of History and Archaeology and the Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University. So for our listeners who are not Australian, we call the humanities “the arts” there, for reasons I do not know. His current research interests center on discourses of authenticity, debates over cultural heritage, and the reception of the ancient world, as well as papyrology and the history of Roman and Late Antique Egypt. He did such an amazing job explaining the entire process to us, so we are basically just going to talk to him this episode. We hope you like it.
EB: Here we go. There’s so much content here, so I’m excited for this.
LC: So first things first, we asked him to break it down. What is papyrus, and where do we find it?
Malcolm Choat: At a most basic level, the most common writing service in the ancient world was constructed of strips of the papyrus plant, cut very thin, that is mostly grown in the Egyptian delta. Strips of papyrus cut very thin, layered horizontally and vertically and wet, and then hammered down to make into a sheet. Those sheets could then be joined together to make a roll of papyrus. And this was a standard book format in the ancient world. So you would write out on a roll, held horizontally, and the poems of Sappho would have originally been copied in one of those. Or you could have single sheets of papyrus on which you could write a letter. Much later, in the Roman period, for reasons that are still not totally clear, but probably have more to do with Romanity than Christianity, people decided that it would be good to take a sheet of papyrus, fold it over, lay it on top of one, and then bind a cover on to it, and make what we call a codex, which is the ancestor of our book. So now we have books, and we don’t have rolls. That change in book technology took place in the Roman period. It was heavily adopted by early Christians, but it was used widely throughout the Roman world.
LC: I’m just thinking about how different my bookshelf would look right now with a scroll. Like, do you think they would have made scroll covers?
EB: Well I think about it’s like–what do they call them? Cartographers, who have maps? Like, that’s what it’s like, right?
EB: You have all of the, like rolls of things. Instead of a bookshelf, you would have, like, I don’t know.
LC: Like a wine rack?
EB: Yeah. Oh, I like a wine rack for scrolls.
MC: When we talk about papyri, there’s two ways we can talk about it. We can talk about it narrowly. You talk about it narrowly, and that’s just papyrus that I’ve just described. But we can also talk about, within papyrology, things that are written in ink on movable surfaces. So this could be, what’s also very common, writing on a bit of potsherd, a broken bit of pot, so we call them ostraca, because they used to use them in Athens to ostracize people. They wrote the name of the person they liked the least on a bit of pottery called an ostracon, because it was the person that got ostracized. And now we just call all of these things ostraca even though they’re tax receipts or little letters or notes to self.
AK: Wait, what happens after your name gets written on the potsherd? What happens then?
MC: Oh, okay, so then the returning officer, if you like, in essence, counts up all the ostraca. And then the person who gets the most votes gets ostracized and sent away from the city.
AK: Whoa, that sucks.
EB: So I don’t know how to tell you this, Leesa. But, um, we all put your name on the potsherd.
LC: You and Alyse? I’m voted off the podcast?
EB: Yeah, you’re ostracized.
LC: That’s so mean.
EB: We’re all Sweetbitter, it’s honestly so rude. I can’t even keep it up. Of course you’re not ostracized. I’m so sorry. That’s so horrible. The Greeks are savage.
MC: And these were the first writings on potsherds that people knew about. So they were called ostraca, and then that name stuck for everything else. So we have hundreds of thousands of ostraca as well, from around the Mediterranean. But people also write on wood. And of course, they write on walls, and all sorts of things like that. And then they write on parchment, made from goats or sheep, cow skin. And that’s a much more deluxe format. The big codicis from late antiquity, sort of the oldest big books we have, our earliest full copy of the Christian Bible, these were all written on parchment. It’s not something used for writing a letter to your friends, it’s something when you’re making a really nice copy. So our latest copies of Sappho in these deluxe parchment codicis, for instance. And that’s at the high end of the scale. At the low end of the scale is writing on potsherd, and in the middle is papyrus of various quality. Now, the thing why most papyrologists work on Egypt is that papyrus doesn’t survive. So try writing something on a bit of paper and putting it out in your backyard, in a wet climate in Australia, or most places in the US, for instance, England, Europe. If you go back there in a year, you’ll find that your paper is sadly dissolved and disintegrated. But if you do the same thing in Egypt, and you go and bury it in the desert, when you come back in a year, your paper will still be there almost identically because there’s virtually no humidity. So in the sands of Egypt, papyri are preserved there that had been lost everywhere else in the Roman world, in the Mediterranean world, because it was too wet. So there were once papyri used right from England, across into Central Asia, right out to modern Portugal and North Africa, and down into Africa, and probably right up into modern Russia. But it’s just too wet, so we only have them from Egypt. And a couple of other places, some places in modern Syria and Mesopotamia, Iraq. But from elsewhere, they are ones that would have had to be preserved in another way. So in some places in Greece, in Herculaneum in Italy, the libraries were set on fire. So they were carbonized. So these are the Herculaneum papyri. In the north of England, at Vindolanda, up near Hadrian’s Wall, a lot of wooden tablets were preserved in bogs, because there was no air in the marshes. And so the tablets were preserved. But in Egypt, there’s no moisture. So outside of the delta–where Alexandria is, where the Library of Alexandria was–it’s too wet there. But everywhere else in Egypt, it’s so dry that papyri that were put in the ground just stayed there, often moths and worms and other things got in them. And they were broken over time. But some things survived as they were in antiquity. So we’re actually reading the original documents that people wrote. So this is very different from how we have other Classical literature, which is copied and recopied and copied, maybe copied, like, 10 to 20 times between when it was written and now, or more. Whereas the papyri, we have the actual copies that people wrote at the time. And so this can be literature, or, more interesting to me, even though literature is fascinating, the documents of everyday life: letters, petitions, tax receipts, sales documents, rental contracts, everything that was used in writing, because the Roman world and the Greco-Roman world was a society that was addicted to bureaucracy and paperwork. And the Byzantine world, even more so. So people just wrote everything down and it had to be in six copies, the sale of the house or something like that to go to every different office. And so we just have this myriadic panoply, maybe 1.5 million papyri from Egypt, the vast majority of which haven’t been edited yet, that is sitting in various places around the world just waiting for people to find, to read those documents, to decipher the handwriting, to translate them and feed them into our historical knowledge, and also to work out more about how scribes work.
LC: So listening to that I just got this mental image of Malcolm like surrounded by all of his tax returns and bills and every letter that he got in this paper house.
EB: I love it. It’s also like such a papyrologist thing to do, you know, of just like, you know, “Somebody might need these.” Like, if I was about papyrologist, I’d be like, “I wish there were more papers that people just kept around. Therefore, my house is a paper house.” Honestly, love it. I hope that years and years and years, centuries from now, Malcolm is like–have you ever seen “The Good Place”?
EB: You know, like the guy on the wall?
LC: Yeah, yeah, the guy who’s like the perfect–yeah, yeah, I know who you’re talking about.
LC: I can’t remember his name. But probably there’s a million people listening right now, just thinking like–
EB: I know, being like, “This dude!” But I feel like that’s Malcolm for archaeologists.
LC: Yeah, absolutely. Also I think what we should do is we should–if I’m listening to Malcolm, if I’m hearing him correctly–is we should get some fancy papyrus, and we should transcribe all of our Sweetbitter episodes on it for future generations.
EB: Yes. Because they always–
LC: That’s how we keep Sappho going.
EB: Yes, the fancy–
LC: Because computers don’t exist.
EB: No, no. But papyrus is forever…some of it.
MC: Right, so after a while, people just threw away their documents. So like, imagine the time. Like you might keep the last five years’ tax records, but you don’t keep all the tax records going back to when you first submitted taxes, you know. While some people keep every letter that they ever sent, people don’t keep every bit of paper that they’ve required. You don’t keep every receipt ever, you just keep the most important things to the computer or something. You might have your most recent rental contract, but only someone who stores everything, like me, actually keeps everything. So over time, two things happened. First, people simply threw out their old paper, their old papyrus. And so in places near the towns in the Nile Valley, there were vast rubbish dumps where it was just full of papyri. So the most famous is at Oxyrhynchus, whose papyri are now stored in Oxford and owned by the Egypt Exploration Society–excavators, the people that were papyrus treasure hunters that worked there in the 1890s and early 1900s–came upon a rubbish dump from the town that had all the papyri that had been thrown away for hundreds and hundreds of years. So firstly, people simply threw it away, and it stayed there in rubbish dumps. Secondly, and this happens quite a lot with archives, people would put them in a jar, and just leave them in a house when they left. So a number of archives we have from places–like Aphrodito in upper Egypt, or Philadelphia in the Faiyum–they were carefully stored, or maybe they’d roll them up and put them in a wall. Or maybe they’d have a place in their monastic cell where they stored their papyrus. And they simply left them there, for whatever reason. They weren’t important to the people that lived there last. In a place called Kellis in the Dakhla Oasis, they simply threw all their papyri on the floor when they left. And places can be abandoned and houses can be abandoned for a range of reasons. But the process is the same. These documents were no longer needed, and they were discarded. Sometimes we come upon the archive of what’s clearly administrative archives, what’s now in modern Faiyum, the capital of the Faiyum Oasis in Egypt, which was Crocodilopolis, the city of the crocodile, in antiquity. What clearly happened in 1880, was that some people found the remains of the state archives there, that had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. But the same thing eventually happened. Those documents were there because at a certain time in late antiquity, someone just said, “Whatever, we don’t need a single one of these documents. Take these five documents, and leave the other thousands there.” So eventually–and what was important was copied into other formats. So for instance, you might have a roll of Sappho, let’s say, and over time it’s getting a bit moth-eaten and threadbare, and you copy it into a deluxe parchment codex, once you’ve done that, what do you then do? You just get rid of the roll, or you can reuse it, you can turn it over and use it for your tax records. And then after that, after the statutory period, whatever the statutory period for keeping tax receipts was in Rome and Egypt, then you just throw that away as well. And so for a wide variety of reasons, these things were just discarded up and down the Nile. It wasn’t necessarily because people hated them or didn’t want to get them, they just didn’t need it anymore. And plainly, not many people were wildly interested in keeping hundreds of thousands of documents in their houses, or taking them when the whole family moved somewhere else.
AK: I’m like–I’m recalling that just the other day, I printed off some Taylor Swift lyrics off of my laptop because I wanted to–I was gonna go play a guitar outside and I was like, I’ll bring these lyrics. And then on the back of them, I wrote up like the grocery list for that day or something. And then I threw it away. And I’m like, oh my god, this thing is what you just described.
MC: This is exactly the same thing. And this is why we have a lot of the literature from that time, is because people reused it. Papyrus is ubiquitous, but it’s also expensive. If you’ve got a chance to reuse something for a shopping list, then you take that opportunity. And that’s why we often have things that have literature on one side and these documents on the other side. And those documents then provide a good way to date the literature, because they might have a date of the tax return, or it might have someone’s name, we say, “Oh, we know that guy! He lived in 146 CE.”
EB: “Oh, I know him.”
LC: Can you imagine the papyrologists being like, “Oh, it’s Jim. I know Jim.”
EB: Yes, of course, the infamous Jim. And his tax receipts, looks like he’s trying to evade his taxes this year, actually.
LC: Oh my goodness, I really love this. And just like Alyse said, like, there’s so many times when I’ve written some random quote or like, lyrics on a piece of paper, and thrown it away, or like use it for a grocery list. So it’s just so cool to think, you know, we’re not so different.
EB: I know. I’m like looking at my desk right now. There’s papers everywhere. So, yeah, I understand that.
LC: And then someday a papyrologist is gonna dig through and be like, “Oh my god, it’s Ellie. I know Ellie.”
EB: “We know Ellie. Oh, she did that really awesome podcast many years ago.” And that’s why everyone remembers her in antiquity.
LC: Famous, famous.
MC: Or it might tell us where, “Oh, look, this is a list of people from Oxyrhynchus, so this papyrus must have come from there.” And so the process is exactly the same. You reuse, you throw away. What unfortunately, now in the future, there’s less and less things for people to find from the 21st century, because they have to look in these things instead of–while someone might be able to find your shopping list and say, “Well, Taylor Swift herself was there and she printed out her own lyrics. And she wrote this tax return, this shopping list on the back.” That’s a problem for the future historians of the 21st century. It’s not so much of a problem for the historians of Rome and Egypt.
EB: I don’t know about all of you, but I am loving this episode. We’re gonna just take a quick break to hear from some sponsors, and we’ll be right back.
EB: So the next thing we really wanted to know from Malcolm is when were Sappho’s poems first found, and where did we find them?
MC: So, I mean, to go back a little bit in this story, while Sappho was well known, the poetry of Sappho was well known in antiquity, it would have been, like all literature, made into editions in the Library of Alexandria. And then they would have been sent around and some of them turned into the very last copies we have from antiquity, the sort of parchment codicis, and some of them just turned into things that were found up and down Egypt. It seems that by the Byzantine period, you know, the 10th to 12th century, that Sappho’s poetry was lost, for whatever reason. Other people are more qualified to speak to you about why that happened. And then, like so many lost works of Greek literature, which were known only from fragments. So there’s two types of fragments. One is a fragment of papyrus, a little bit of papyrus. The other one that we call fragments are quotations of an author that are embedded in a later author. So a Byzantine writer might write, “As the heretic poet Sappho said,” and then quote a bit of her poetry, and then spend the next page talking about what an un-Christian thing that was to say, or something like that. But, it gives us a line of a poem.
EB: I feel like that’s also like me being like, “In the words of the gay goddess, Sappho.”
LC: Don’t you mean heretic, Ellie?
EB: Yeah, I’m like, we’re different. Yeah, we have very different interpretations of who Sappho is and was.
LC: I really like this idea that someone criticizing Sappho has kept her alive. Like, it’s like–
LC: You’ve written a burn book, right?
EB: We know Regina George forever, because someone wrote about her in a burn book. How many pop culture references can we relate to Sappho?
LC: Ellie, I have one thing to say to that, which is: the limit does not exist.
MC: And so up until the 19th century, between, say, Byzantine times and the 19th century, that was all we knew of Sappho. Then in the 19th century, people started discovering papyri in Egypt. This had happened in the late 18th century, and as more and more people started visiting Egypt, it picked up pace, people started finding them. Then the Egyptians worked out that Europeans would pay a lot of money for them, and that rapidly increased the pace. What really increased the pace was people from Europe, and then America, discovering that last works of Greek literature were on these papyri. And then suddenly, everyone started flooding into Egypt to try and buy these. So in the process of the rediscovery, if you like, of these papyri around the late 18th century onwards, but really started in earnest in the 1880s and 1890s–then fragments of Sappho started to turn up at well known, certainly a well known site such as Oxyrhynchus, but also at a range of other sites up and down the Nile. They’re not, of course, in what we call Atbara rift, the Faiyum Oasis and below, because the delta was too wet for things to survive. So in Alexandria would certainly have been lots of deluxe rolls of Greek authors, just all rotten and forgotten, unless they were taken somewhere else. So over, then, the last 120 years or so, a bit under 40 papyrus fragments of Sappho, and they’re not all on papyrus–some were on ostracum, some were on parchment–have turned up. So they’re in a variety of media, they’re in a variety of sorts of handwriting, from really nice, neat literary handwriting, to this sort of everyday cursive that people might use for documents. And they’re in a variety of formats. So there’s both rolls and codicis–books, if you like. And so all in all, that means that in their process, we recovered a bit under 700 lines of Sappho, which, when you consider that in antiquity people estimated she’d written 10,000 lines of poetry, is a pretty small amount. So we have a relatively small amount of papyri, and a lot of it is of Sappho. And like all papyri, a lot of it is very fragmentary. Some of it is only a line or a word or half a poem. But from what we know, what we knew in the manuscript tradition already, quotations that existed, and from comparing bits of the papyri, we’re in a much better position now to assess her work than we were, say, in the mid-19th century, when we had very little idea.
EB: I’m so happy that we live now and not in the 19th century. Because–
EB: We can make this podcast. I mean, first of all, 19th century, when we wouldn’t be able to really make a podcast.
LC: Ellie, Ellie. We may never have met.
EB: Huh! Oh!
LC: I know.
EB: Audible gasp. How horrible! But actually.
LC: Can you imagine?
LC: Not knowing each other.
EB: I can’t.
LC: Or Alyse. It would be such a sad life. Or if we did meet, we’d be sending each other letters, like ten page letters.
EB: Across the continent.
LC: Across the continent.
EB: So Malcolm talked to us about the fragments that we do have, and how you can piece them together like puzzles.
LC: And I know a lot of you have been doing puzzles because it’s been lockdown, and I’ve seen them all over my social media. Y’all are loving puzzles.
EB: So here’s Malcolm, to talk more about puzzles.
MC: So that’s the sort of top-down picture of what we know. There’s obviously, like, far more detail, you could go into on the various bits that survived, but that’s really for a Sappho expert to comment on.
LC: We’ve had a few of those.
MC: Yeah, exactly. So I take it the you’ve got Sappho experts comment on the content, rather than the physical artifacts.
AK: It sounds like what you’re saying is that you can literally piece together these little scraps, to kind of see what–is that what we’re doing here is like, you know, reassembling?
MC: So that’s exactly right, this happens in two ways. Firstly, you can find, at a site in Egypt, a piece of papyrus that is broken into a range of pieces. When you take it back to the magazine, or in the old days, they would take it back to Europe or America. You can’t take artifacts out of Egypt anymore, but you could in the old days. So for instance, the Oxyrhynchus papyri are all in Oxford. And then the papyrologist would have to sort of find various fragments and line them up and say, “Okay, this goes with this.” Although we thought we had a bit of this page, but actually, I’ve pieced together the whole page. So when we find papyri on site in Egypt, we always have to do that. A letter that I reconstructed was of about–it was in 30 different fragments. And over a year or so we gradually put the mosaic together to make 75% of the sheet. But the other thing that happened is that apart from the–if you take out the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the vast majority of papyri on the market, in collections today, have come through the antiquities market. And so those haven’t been found by people excavating for papyri. They’ve been found by people just going out–Egyptians mainly–going out into the countryside, near their towns, and indeed in their own houses, digging, finding papyri, and then selling them to dealers in Egypt who sell them to dealers from overseas, from Europe, America, Australia. And so in that case, what happens frequently is that different parts of the same papyrus are sold to different collections. And so then you not only have to piece the fragments in your collection back together, but you have to find the fragments that are in other collections, and then get photographs of them. Now you can do it digitally, of course, you can Photoshop, you can put the fragments together and line them up. Because what you’re not doing is taking a bunch of papyri from Australia or England and taking them somewhere else to actually physically put them up. And so one of the things that affects all of papyrology is that parts of the same text are in different collections. You don’t even have it all there yourself in one place to assemble. And that’s exactly what happened. So you put these fragments together, and then you still have gaps in them. And we call them lacunae. So a lacuna is just a gap. And so you get the start of the line, and then the papyrus is gone, and then you have the end of the line. And then you have to reconstruct what was in there. So if it’s a very formulaic document, and you have 10,000 documents, and they all say, “I stopped at the house of this man and asked him what he owned,” and then one papyrus is missing the bit where it says “house,” well you know that the word that’s lost is house. But if it’s in a work of literature, then of course you don’t know what was missing there, because you may have no other copy. It’s fine if you have other copies, because then you can say, “Okay, well, we’ve got another copy. And it says this.” I leave aside the problem that most of our copies transmit slightly different things, of course, if we were to debate literature. Let’s leave that problem aside for a second. But if it’s an unknown word, then you sort of have to guess and then you have to be, and yoy say, “Okay, so in the gap, the poet was obvious. She starts talking about a house here. So she was obviously talking about buying a house or something like that.” So you not only have to fit the fragments you have together, but you have to try and reconstruct what was in the missing parts. And people have elevated that to a question of a sort of science almost. It’s really the operation of imagination. And so people are creating. And so sometimes when you read a translation of ancient literature–and indeed frequently, and even perhaps always–if you’re reading a translation of something that survives only on papyrus, part of what you read has been invented by modern scholars on the basis of what they think was there.
LC: I love that the word “gaps” wasn’t fancy enough for papyrologists. They’re like, “No, it’s lacunae.”
EB: Yes. Well, I wonder, is that Latin?
LC: I have no idea.
EB: Like it sounds Latin. Did you know that I took six years of Latin in high school?
LC: Oh, wow. That’s useful.
EB: It is useful right now, so thank you, Latin. But apparently the definition of lacunae, it comes from the Latin word for “lake,” which is “taking a plunge into the pit” or “a leap into the lacus,” “a leap into the lake.”
LC: Okay. Okay.
EB: I sort of love–I’m like, how many pop culture references can we make in this episode? It’s the Lady of the Lake. Yes, it’s so fancy and ridiculous that they had to make a new word. But also I love the imagery of that, like jumping into the lake of emptiness and finding something or creating something there.
LC: And I mean, I think that that leads really beautifully into the next part of Malcolm’s amazing, informative interview, where we actually spoke a little bit about Sappho’s work, specifically, and I know we’ve touched on it before, and this is something that we’ll definitely explore more in later episodes about translation and about the erasure of her identity–but we spoke with him a little bit about Sappho’s work and how these lacunae–
EB: Eyebrow raise.
LC: –impact it.
MC: Yeah, indeed. So her work is a good example of something that other people would have told you that people will want to either read agendas into it or censor it. So there’s that effect on her poetry. But then because so much of it survives on papyrus, so much of it has to be reconstructed–even just little words, reconstructed. And that can change the sense of what it is entirely. And then you’ve got to try and translate it. So Sappho is an excellent example of that process as it applies to works of literature.
EB: So I know what you’re all dying to know, which is: how do you find this piece of papyrus and know that it’s Sappho?
LC: Yeah, I mean, that to us was a question that we’d been really wanting to ask. So you’ve got one of the fragments, for example, and it translates as like, “Celery.” Like how do we know that it was Sappho who wrote “Celery”? It just seems really strange.
MC: Yeah, good point. How do you know? There are two ways. One is you might think, “Okay, so this is obviously in the Aeolic dialect, its themes seem to line up with the things that we know, the sort of things Sappho wrote about. So maybe it’s her.” And people will make arguments about this. Or it could be, “We know Sappho wrote a poem about topic X. And here’s a poem in the dialect that she wrote in that appears to be on topic X. So maybe I’m going to argue that is it.” But for more certainty, you’d want to actually have some real, some tangible thing to compare it to. So this could be one of the fragments in the manuscript tradition. So someone could have cited a line, sometimes not because they liked the poetry but because they had an interesting dialect or form, because that dialect of Greek was no longer used and someone could have copied out some lines to show people who were learning Greek this strange dead archaic dialect. But that gives you a line, and then if you find that line, you can say, “Okay, this is it.” This is the way we identify a lot of works that turn up in papyri that don’t have their titles. And then to do that, that used to have to be done–back when Grenfell and Hunt were excavating for papyri at Oxyrhynchus, they just knew all that in their head. They could look at that and say, “Oh, this is plainly the work of Thucydides. Or look, this is one of the letters of Paul.” Well it was easy for the New Testament, because every Sunday they were reading the New Testament, and most other days. But now what we have is something called the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, the TLG. And it contains a database containing all the works of Greek literature. And so if you have a word, you put it in, and it tells you all the texts in which that word appears. And if it’s a word like “and,” well, obviously, you’ve got to do a bit more work. But if it’s a rare word, then it will show up in a far less amount of things. And then you can say, “Okay, okay, so it could be this.” And then if you have a few words, then you might say, “Okay, look, this is exactly it.” Even if you’ve got four or five words in a row. And yes, it could be someone saying–the text could have originally been someone writing, “Here’s a weird dialect that doesn’t exist anymore, I’ll now quote a line.” But the default position is normally that it was a copy of the poem. And of course, if you have a whole sheet, or four or five lines, you can be sure that it was the text that you’re interested in or the text that you’ve identified. So basically, we transcribe the Greek or the Coptic or the Latin or the Arabic, or whatever language we’re working in. The Greek has the best tools for doing this. And then we feed it into these databases, or we’re so legendary that we just know off the top of our head. So what happened with the Sappho papyri, the recent ones? Was it someone was able to recognize them by sight, because they knew the poet so well, the poetry so well? They said, “Oh, wow.” They didn’t need to run it through the TLG. But most of us mere mortals would need to use databases, and that can be a lengthy process.
EB: I love just the way he speaks. Like, oh, you know, if you’re legendary, then you could tell it was Sappho.
LC: You’re a legend, mate.
EB: Yeah, yeah.
LC: I just–can you imagine being at that level, where you just are like, “Oh, I recognize that ancient papyri, that’s Sappho.”
EB: Yeah, it must be Sappho. It’s very, very cool.
LC: Who knew?
EB: I love to just like–who knew?
LC: Who knew papyrology was so cool? Apparently Malcolm did, but nobody else.
EB: Not us mere mortals.
LC: No, no, he seems to me equal to gods.
EB: That who can identify Sappho from looking at a piece of papyrus.
LC: We are rewriting the poem. Fragment 31, eat your heart out.
EB: Yes. But it’s so cool just to see, you know, at this point how prolific Sappho is that if you find new Sappho, you can tell that it is Sappho.
EB: That’s really cool. I wonder, and maybe we didn’t get too much into this, how would you know it was Sappho when you–like the first Sappho that was ever found on papyrus? How would you know?
LC: She references herself in her poetry a lot, which is how–because we have “Ode to Aphrodite,” right? That’s like the first poem, and that’s in a book that’s like, “This is Sappho, who was so amazing.” And so, obviously, I don’t know everything. And I’m not legendary, if you will. But I do think that she references herself enough in some of her works, that they were able to get a sense of her poetry and the way that–like the writing that it was in and stuff. But yeah, it would be really interesting to find the people who can identify Sappho on site.
EB: It’s so cool. I also just love how he talks a lot about imagination in papyrology. So this next quote, I thought, was just really interesting from him. Here we go, Malcolm, here we go.
MC: I do like the gaps. I like incomplete data sets that the papyri is about. I like being able to fill them in with our imagination. And I like the partnership with antiquity that you get with that. There’s like a very real reader response theory here. Actually, the reader is literally writing part of the text.
MC: Lots of people, I think, want a lot more security and surety about what’s going on in the text. But I like that process of being able to think collectively, or individually, about what the poet might have meant here by actually putting, literally, words into the page that we don’t know if they were there.
LC: So, a lot of information in this episode. I just am floored at the amount of papyrology information that I needed to know that I didn’t know that I needed to know.
EB: I feel like my brain has grown five times the size.
LC: At least.
EB: At least.
LC: Your head has remained intact, thankfully. Something that we’re going to talk a lot more about next week is the relationship between colonialism and papyrology.
EB: And Malcolm did speak to us about this, but we’ve also been trying to speak to some papyrologists from Egypt. Unfortunately, it’s been a bit difficult with scheduling. Corona has made everything difficult, as you all know, but we’re doing our best. We’re still hoping for the interview that we can incorporate into the next few episodes, where we’ll be continuing our discussion on papyri and recent discovery of poems.
LC: So, if you know an Egyptian papyrologist, hit us up. They don’t have to live in Egypt. But just–we would love to get some more perspectives on this issue.
EB: Before we head off to our “taste of what’s to come.” I love saying it, can you tell? We would really love to give a shoutout to the people who have given us their reviews for our review competition. We are still having that competition. So, to recap, we want you to write us a review on iTunes as a haiku.
LC: If you’re finding it hard to find inspiration, we suggested a haiku. However, you don’t have to do a haiku, you can do any kind of poem that you want. And we just wanted to read you a couple of reviews that we’ve had so far. Ellie, would you like to read the first one for us?
EB: I would love to, I’m so excited. Alright, so this first one is from OldHats, from the US, and it reads as follows: “of laughter, distant friends, as if wine close, nerds, hand in hand, remember her.” Oh, god!
LC: It’s so good, it’s so good.
EB: It really got me.
LC: It really did. And it was written like a Sappho fragment. So if you go check it out on the review store, you can see how they’ve written it like a fragment. OldHats.
EB: We are hand in hand with you, OldHats, you’re correct.
LC: Yes. And this second one is from Taylor from the US as well. And this one is written like a haiku. So this is an example of a haiku if you need a refresher: “Women so sweet-voiced / they carry her legacy / dear Sappho rejoiced.” I think Sappho would be proud of that one.
EB: Are we the sweet-voiced women?
LC: I think so.
EB: Oh my god, thank you, Taylor.
LC: Thank you so much.
EB: I feel like I’m just like, “Oh, my voice is sweet? Stop.” Thank you, Taylor. And now, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Ariel Sabar: This is, you know, Oxford and the Museum of the Bible and the Greens are becoming suspicious. And that’s when the investigation–the police investigation–begins.
Malcolm Choat: Then the Egypt Exploration Society had no choice but to accept what we had all thought unimaginable. I should say that this is still alleged, that there’s ongoing legal action and legal cases, which is why a lot of people still kind of comment on it.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode is going to be released on the 17th of December. As always, stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for Fragment 55, written and performed by us.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps. Especially written reviews on Apple podcasts.
LC: Especially poems.
EB: Yeah, especially poems on Apple podcasts. And as a reminder, you will win a tote bag if you’re our favorite.
LC: Yes, Alyse’s favorite. She is the poetry expert.
EB: Alyse is the poetry judge. Or, if you have the means, you can support us on Patreon. We’ve created a Patreon-only discord channel where you can chat with us and other patrons all about Sappho.
LC: We just keep adding and adding to the Patreon, because I just love all you guys so much. Speaking of which, thank you so much to our new patrons this week, or these past weeks: Kelly, Jessica, and Cheryl, and a special shoutout to Tayler with an E, which I know is important, as a Leesa with two E’s, who signed up at our Hera tier–you are a queen. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our artwork is by Istela Illustrated, music is by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. Special thanks to Old Songs, Marguerite Johnson, and Malcolm Choat for sharing their love of Sappho with us.
LC: You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website in the “About” section. We also have a bunch of merch on our website, which is a great holiday gift for the sapphic in your life.
EB: I am loving my nail clippers and you all should get some.
LC: Who knew that they needed Sappho nail clippers? It will certainly be a gift that they will never expect.
EB: Oh no, and they will never forget.
LC: We also have gorgeous Sappho plectrums and a couple of different tees.
EB: And now, without further ado, our song for Fragment 55.