(“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived.
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We don’t even know how much of her poetry Sappho actually wrote down.
The ancients referred to her works as , “songs.” Composed to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre—this is what “lyric” poetry meant for the Greeks—they may well have been passed down from memory by her admirers and other poets before being committed at last to paper. One fragment, in which the poet calls on Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to come into a charming shrine “where cold water ripples through apple branches, the whole place shadowed in roses,” was scribbled onto a broken clay pot.) Like other great poets of the time, she would have been a musician and a performer as well as a lyricist.
The greatest problem for Sappho studies is that there’s so little Sappho to study.
It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.
Densely covered with lines of black Greek characters, they had been extracted from a piece of desiccated cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like plaster that the Egyptians and Greeks used for everything from mummy cases to bookbindings.
After acquiring the cartonnage at a Christie’s auction, the collector soaked it in a warm water solution to free up the precious bits of papyrus.
At present, scholars have catalogued around two hundred and fifty fragments, of which fewer than seventy contain complete lines.
A great many consist of just a few words; some, of a single word.
“As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.