and The Poet Sappho
Aphrodite Emerges from the Sea
In ancient Greece, there was a goddess of extraordinary power - Aphrodite. We are used to thinking of Aphrodite as a
kind of benign patron of romantic love, but for the Greeks, she was far more dark and dangerous.
The mother of the gods, Gaia, had grown tired of having sex with her husband, the God of the Sky. So, in cahoots
with her son, she cut off his testicles. These were flung into the sea. From the seething waters, the goddess
Aphrodite emerged. She was sex incarnate, with more than a whiff of danger.
"Shimmering-throned, immortal Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, enchantress, I implore thee, O goddess, fulfil me in
what I yearn to do. Be my ally in all things." - These words are around 2,700 years old, sung by a female poet called Sappho.
One of the rare images we have of her is from the fifth century BC, 200 years after her death. She is an elusive figure,
but she is one of my heroines, because to know Sappho is to enter the charged world of worshipping Aphrodite.
My Sappho trail starts, not in Greece, but in a hidden corner of a city in Britain. Oxford. Throughout the ancient
world, she was celebrated as one of its greatest poets. For centuries, Sappho's poems were lost, known only through broken
lines reproduced in the works of classical writers. But today in Oxford, scholars are transforming our understanding of Sappho.
Delicate Powm Fragments
Just over 100 years ago two young classicists from Oxford, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, came across an ancient rubbish
dump in an Egyptian city called Oxyrhynchus. The rubbish was being used as organic fertiliser by local farmers. But Grenfell and
Hunt knew that they had struck gold. They grabbed what they could and shipped it back to Oxford.
Now, when you look more closely at what they got back, and see just why this rubbish is so special. There were hundreds
and hundreds of these tin boxes, When this one was packed. It was March 3, 1900. Underneath we see the fragments themselves.
And these are covered in words. Here you see Egyptian hieroglyphics and Coptic and Arabic and Latin, and lines and lines
of ancient Greek.
This room holds a library of writing that had been lost for close on 2000 years from all over Asia Minor, north Africa
and the eastern Mediterranean. Among the finds being discovered here are fragments of Sappho's lost poetry.
Dirk Obbink is in charge of translating this vast archive. He believes he has found a new fragment of a Sappho poem. One
of the reasons Sappho survives in fragmentary form is that across time her work was censored, destroyed, considered too hot
to handle. Her sacred poetry opens up a sensuous, remarkable world.
To experiences for myself, I'm tracing the journey that young girls across the Mediterranean made 2700 years ago to study
under Sappho on her island home. Lesbos. 700 BC. I should probably admit that I'm a bit of a Sappho addict. It's not just
because her poems are fragmentary, and so it's genuinely exciting when any new lines are found. It's also because she writes
so lusciously, so exquisitely, both about the Greek landscape and about what it is to be human. She describes the winds
caressing soft bodies… And, actually, she's the first ever to describe love as bittersweet, although she is more accurate,
and talked about it being sweet and then better.
"When I look at you even a moment, I can't speak. My tongue snaps and subtle fire races under my skin."
Thousands of years after these lines were composed, Sappho's legacy lives on. It's because of her that we have the words
"Sapphic"and "lesbian", meaning women's love of women, because many of Sappho's poems are addressed to women and girls. But,
for me, Sappho means so much more. She offers a window on to a mysterious world.
What you have to remember about ancient Greece is that there was no separate word for religion. There were gods and goddesses
everywhere and everything - every breath of wind, around every corner - and so keeping that supernatural world on-side was an
immensely important job. Sappho reveals how even falling in love was an act of the gods.
The deity who presided over love was Aphrodite, along with her tricky consort, Eros. And this holds the key to understanding
who Sappho really was.
Women were believed to be primal creatures, closely connected to the elemental, life-giving forces of the earth, and so sad
for was well-placed to interpret the will of Aphrodite. It seems that through reciting her poetry with young girls, Sappho was fulfilling the role of a priestess.
Edith Hall studies the lives of the women of ancient Greece and her research suggests that Sappho was more than simply a poet.
Edith Hall "We don't know whether she actually ran something like a school or whether it was more that she was in charge of rituals at
the Temple, but almost all the poems that we've got any substance of are actually hymns to Aphrodite where they're asking Aphrodite to
come into the presence of her and other young women. So, we know that those are designed to be performed in temples, which makes it
highly likely that she is some kind of priestess."
Why is it important for people on earth to understand Aphrodite's power?
Edith Hall "Well, the Greeks were just a lot less hypocritical than we are and they divided up their female gods, so when you wanted to
attract a lover and asked her to give you special allure, you went to Aphrodite."
Women do seem to have this kind of special relationship with the divine.
Hall "Women were certainly seen as being much more in touch with the physical self, with giving birth and life and with dying.. Women
have a particularly close relationship with Aphrodite. In many Temple cults, we know there were lots of women servants. But there's
something about Aphrodite's which means that women were absolutely regarded as symbolising sex."
Through her sensuous poetry, Sappho was performing a vital role - educating young women about the world ahead of them and about
the charged power of love.
In Sappho's day, poetry wasn't written down but recited, accompanied by a lyre and dancing. And today, Sappho's birthplace, the
ghosts of these rituals survive. Local girls are taught the very steps their ancestors would have learnt, close on 3000 years ago.
Sappho's sacred poetry seemed to give women a sense of themselves, but ancient Greece was no feminist paradise. Women knew their
place, as is all too apparent 200 years after Sappho in the city that gave birth to one of the greatest political experiments of