A New Sapphic Poem ~ Wading into the Morass

In case you haven’t heard, Dirk Obbink has recently announced the discovery/publication of two ‘new’ poems by Sappho and they’re causing quite the flurry of activity on blogospheres (as you may have already seen), twitterspheres (ditto), and no doubt, in private emails and departmental coffee lounges around the world. But first, a taste of the media coverage, from Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian:

Sappho is one of the most elusive and mysterious – as well as best-loved – of ancient Greek poets. Only one of her poems, out of a reputed total of nine volumes’ worth, survives absolutely intact. Otherwise, she is known by fragments and shards of lines – and still adored for her delicate outpourings of love, longing and desire.

But now, two hitherto unknown works by the seventh-century lyricist of Lesbos have been discovered. One is a substantially complete work about her brothers; another, an extremely fragmentary piece apparently about unrequited love.

The poems came to light when an anonymous private collector in London showed a piece of papyrus fragment to Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at Oxford University.

According to Obbink, in an article to be published this spring, the poems, preserved on what is probably third-century AD papyrus, are “indubitably” by Sappho.

Not only do elements of the longer poem link up with fragments already known to be by her, but the metre and dialect in which the poems are written point to Sappho.

The clincher is a reference to her brother, Charaxos – whose very existence has long been doubted, since he is mentioned nowhere in previously discovered fragments of Sappho.

However, Herodotus, the fifth-century BC historian, named the brother when describing a poem by Sappho that recounts the tale of a love affair between Charaxos and a slave in Egypt.

In this poem – though it is not the precise one that Herodotus mentions – the writer addresses her audience, seeming to berate them for taking Charaxos’s return by ship from a trading trip for granted.

Pray to Hera, says the narrator, “so that Charaxos may return here, with his ship intact; for the rest let us leave it all to the gods, for often calm quickly follows a great storm”.

The poem goes on to say that those whom Zeus chooses to save from great storms are truly blessed and “lucky without compare”. The poem ends with the hope that another brother, Larichos, might become a man – “freeing us from much anxiety”.

According to Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of ancient literature at Oxford University, the poem could be read as a play on Homer’s Odyssey, and the idea of Penelope waiting patiently at home for the return of Odysseus. Sappho frequently reworked Homeric themes in her poems.

Sappho, who was born in about 630BC, is known for her lyric verse of longing, often directed at women and girls – the bittersweet feeling of love, impossible-to-fulfil desire and the sensation of jealousy when you see the object of your obsession across the room, talking intimately with someone else.

She was admired in antiquity for her delicate, passionate verses. The only evidence for her biography comes from within her poems – and the naming of her brothers, Charaxos and Larichos, adds substantially to a sketchy knowledge of the poet’s life.

Sappho’s poems, which were lost from the manuscript tradition and were not collated and copied by medieval monks as were so many surviving ancient texts, have been preserved by two main means: either through quotation by other authors (often as examples of particular syntactical points by ancient grammarians) or through the discovery of fragments written on ancient papyrus. There is hope yet for more poems to come to light, preserved in the Egyptian sands.

Obbink’s article, with a transcription of the original poems, is to be published in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.

The Guardian also links to a translation of one of the poems by Tim Whitmarsh: Read Sappho’s ‘new’ poem

Slate offers translations of both poems by Thomas H. Buck: Read Two Newly Discovered Sappho Poems in English for the First Time

Tom Payne offers a verse translation in the Telegraph:A new Sappho poem is more exciting than a new David Bowie album

There is no doubt that the discovery is significant, and assorted Classicists are quoted in the media saying as much. E.g., Harvard’s Albert Heinrichs in the Daily Beast:

[...]“The new Sappho is absolutely breath-taking,” said Albert Henrichs, a Harvard classics professor who examined the papyrus with Dr. Obbink. “It is the best preserved Sappho papyrus in existence, with just a few letters that had to be restored in the first poem, and not a single word that is in doubt. Its content is equally exciting.” One of the two recovered poems, Prof. Henrichs notes, speaks of a “Charaxos” and a “Larichos,” the names assigned by ancient sources to two of Sappho’s brothers but never before found in Sappho’s own writings. It has as a result been labeled the Brothers poem by Prof. Obbink.

“There will be endless discussion about Charaxos and Larichos, who may or may not be Sappho’s brothers,” Prof. Henrichs commented. One important point in that debate will be the Brothers poem’s clear implication that Charaxos was a sea-going trader. The historian Herodotus, writing about two centuries after Sappho, also describes Charaxos as a wayfarer—a man who traveled to Egypt, where he spent a fortune to buy the freedom of Rhodopis, a beautiful slave he had fallen in love with. Upon his return home, Herodotus relates, Sappho brutally mocked her brother’s lovestruck folly in one of her poems.[...]

Darmouth’s Margaret Williamson told NPR:

[...]In an email to NPR, Margaret Williamson, a classics expert at Dartmouth College and the author of Sappho’s Immortal Daughters, agreed: “I don’t see much room for doubt that these are fragments of Sappho poems. They certainly sound very like her: they’re in the right meter and the right dialect, and they are prayer-hymns of a kind she often wrote, addressed to Hera and Aphrodite, goddesses worshipped on Lesbos whom she appeals to in other poems.”

Williamson added that the first poem, which mentions Sappho’s brothers, is especially remarkable. “It’s very exciting to have a new Sappho poem that isn’t about erotic love or beauty,” she writes. “Here, for a change, is a poem that seems to refer to other relationships. … We’ve had far fewer poems of this type up till now, and as a result it’s been too easy to interpret her poems as the lone cry of a woman in love, rather than looking at the cultural context these quite sophisticated poems grew out of.” [...]

That said, and in light of what we’ll be presenting below, it’s useful to compare a similar discovery a decade ago which we dutifully reported on: New Sappho!. In that article (the TLS links are now dead, alas), one has a nice description of how another fragment was found in an existing collection:

[...] A recent find enables us to raise this number to four. In 2004, Michael Gronewald and
Robert Daniel announced the identification of a papyrus in the University of Cologne as part of a roll containing poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage, is the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century bc, not much more than 300 years after she wrote.[...]

We should also note that Issue 4 of the online Classics@ was devoted to all sorts of papers relating to that 2004 discovery and is probably also worth (re)visiting.

As mentioned in the Guardian piece above, Dr Obbink will be officially publishing the find in a forthcoming issue of ZPE, but it should be noted that in the initial days of the announcement, a draft version of the article was available on the web. It was taken down somewhat quickly — which possibly/probably led to some scholarly suspicion. I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned it did show up at Scribd subsequently (I can’t vouch for the veracity of that link; it is blocked at my school).

That pretty much wraps up what the world ‘outside the Classics community’ is reading. Inside Classics circles, there is a growing drumbeat in regards to the provenance of the fragments and it’s not unfounded. While most of the media coverage just mentions ‘a private collection’, Bettany Hughes in the Times opened her version thusly:

It is the bolt from the blue that every historian dreams of. Professor Dirk Obbink was minding his own business recently in Oxford when he took an anonymous phone call. The elderly gentleman on the end of the line had material from an ancient Egyptian burial in his possession. He’d noticed that scraps of the cartonnage (the Egyptian equivalent of papier-mâché, made of recycled papyrus) bore the ghostly imprint of writing. Might these words, the stranger wondered, be of any interest?

Professor Obbink, one of the world’s leading papyrologists, thought they might. Prising the layers of shredded papyrus apart, he had to hold his breath. Because here — pretty much instantly recognisable — were delicate, fragmentary lines of the elusive ancient Greek poet Sappho. [...]

I should mention that I’ve only read the first couple paragraphs of that piece because, of course, the Times put up a paywall a few years ago. Despite that, many Classics types have — perhaps riffing on the 2004 find — been suggesting a possible Oxyrhynchus origin, but Hughes’ rather prosaic intro does reflect, it seems, what is probably one aspect of the origin. In Obbink’s paper, the official description mentioned:

Occasionally, in places, ink-traces are obscured by spots of adherent material that appears to be light-brown gesso or silt, specs [sic] of which are also to be seen on the back.

… the gesso — if it is there — would strongly suggest we’re dealing with mummy cartonnage. Even so, we don’t get any other clues where this elderly gentleman may have come across this fragment.

That said, I don’t think the sketchy provenance here is on the same level as the sketchy provenance of other recently-found papyri, especially the Gospel of Jesus’ wife (see, e.g., Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Latest) where the provenance story itself is fishy and serves to exacerbate the issues of authenticity. For the record, I am not at all questioning the authenticity of this find; I have major doubts that someone in this day and age is capable of faking a poem, with the proper metre, era-authentic handwriting, etc., that would pass for a bit of Sappho. I do, however, find the lack of details regarding whence it did come rather disturbing beyond the usual reasons one gets when provenance is brought up and sadly, they all reflect badly on Dr Obbink. All we know is that he was approached by some private collector and even the circumstances about that are sketchy. To wit:

  • Under what circumstances was Dr Obbink approached? Why did the anonymous collector ‘choose’ him? Was he looking for a buyer?
  • Given Dr Obbink’s previous work with the Sappho fragment from 2004, was he specifically chosen for some reason? Did the collector know/suspect he had a fragment of Sappho?
  • How were the fragments presented to Dr Obbink? Were they glass mounted in a way that might suggest they came from an old collection? Were they presented in some other way?
  • How did the ‘mummy cartonnage’ idea come up? Was it just from physical examination or did the collector suggest that was the origin?
  • Did the collector give any further details where he had acquired the fragment?
  • If it does come from mummy cartonnage, does the collector have just these fragments or are there a lot more to come? Is Dr Obbink sitting on a number of other fragments? Can we expect semi-regular publications of ‘new’ Sappho chunks in the near future?
  • Where are the fragments now? Does Dr Obbink have them or were they returned to the collector? Are they in a museum or should we expect to see them showing up at Sotheby’s or Christie’s in the near future?

I could probably come up with a pile of more questions, but you can see how just the provenance question is a major issue and reflects badly on how Dr Obbink brought this to the public. For more scholarly reactions in this vein, see the contributions of various other bloggers which I list at the end of this piece.

Even more annoying, perhaps,  in this ongoing issue is the lack of a decent photograph. The Daily Mail and Greek Reporter both include a pinkish/reddish photo, which is identified as one of the fragments in question, but I can’t really match it up to the transcription in Obbink’s draft article. Another photo that’s making the rounds ‘looks’ more reasonable, but is actually from 1922 according to the Daily Mail. (Last photo on the page). [apologies for not including the photos themselves; I seem to be having issues in that regard]. Of course, the fact that the draft article does not include any photos doesn’t help these matters either.

With the foregoing in mind, I think the MAJOR lesson that needs to be be taken from all this at this point is that this Sappho discovery is a great example of how not to use the media to present a major discovery, even if some of that media has Classical training. It is noteworthy, e.g., that there does not seem to have been an official university press release on this one (indeed, the only think I found at Oxford was a link to the Daily Beast coverage). Even the Gospel of Jesus’ wife cadre recognized the importance of this aspect of promulgation. Without an official source ‘close’ to the ‘star’, it is far more likely that subsequent and/or derivative (or derivative of derivative) coverage will only further cloud the issue rather than reveal it. If an official university version is put out, it will inevitably be picked up by some of the ‘big’ press release places (Science Daily, Eurekalert, PhysOrg) which will lead to the item being seen by an even wider audience than the somewhat parochial Classics community which seems to be dealing with it now. Similarly, adequate support material should be made readily available, including the draft of the publication (and not taken down quickly) and adequate photos with transcriptions. The Gospel of Jesus Wife folks actually did all this very well and generated a great deal of discussion about the content of the document, which should, of course, be the focus. They did make some errors in judgement, but the ‘plan’ was carried out well. In the case of the Sappho fragments we have analogous provenance issues, but the lack of other substantive material appears to be preventing any substantial discussion taking place on anything except the provenance. That’s a crying shame for such an obviously important find …

Speaking again of provenance, here’s a smattering of the blogposts worth checking out …

Adrian Murdoch:

Paul Barford:

David Gill:

Judith Weingarten:

Also worth noting is Francesca Tronchin’s ‘Storification’ of the discussion in the Twittersphere:

… and her post:

… I’ll be adding to this list over the next couple of days (I know I’ve left some folks out)

UPDATE (a few hours later): I just realized Dr Tronchin (and others) mention a blog that has been set up to discuss the find. The discussion began with some grammatical and restoration matters, but now has devolved into a discussion of provenance issues … Discussing the New Sappho poems

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2 thoughts on “A New Sapphic Poem ~ Wading into the Morass

  1. On the 2004 discovery, “a decade ago which we dutifully reported on: New Sappho!. In that article (the TLS links are now dead, alas)”, subscribers can still reach the original articles. I’ve given some live links on my blog post which should work. All good wishes, Judith

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