The Lexicon in Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite”

Pretty much every frosh, even those of us who ended up loving Writing Sem, has complained about it at some point. All those different types of motive start to get confusing, and if you find yourself scrambling to finish a D2 at three in the morning, you might wonder whether it’s worth it. But what if the lexicon isn’t just a tool to present your argument clearly and convincingly to readers in any discipline – what if it could help you enlist divine support to win over the object of your unrequited love?

That’s what the ancient Greek poet Sappho does in the poem known as the “Ode to Aphrodite.” The text isn’t just a lament for the girl Sappho loves; it’s also a well-structured argument to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, whose help Sappho hopes to enlist. (The speaker in the poem is explicitly identified as Sappho herself.) As she moves through her argument, Sappho deftly employs each part of the writing lexicon to get the goddess on her side.

Sappho begins by praising the goddess in the first stanza, her introduction. The description isn’t necessary for Aphrodite herself, who knows, after all, that she’s immortal, sits on a golden throne, and weaves wiles. Instead, this first stanza is Sappho’s chance to orient the situation for her listeners by introducing the main figures (like key terms) in her poem: the all-powerful Aphrodite and the helpless Sappho. In the final two lines of the first stanza, Sappho moves from orienting to the motive of her ode. Aphrodite has the power to help her, and Sappho’s supplication is motivated by the stark difference between their positions.

Sappho then states her thesis clearly at the beginning of the second stanza. Just as a good paper will present the thesis in the introduction, Sappho makes sure that we – and Aphrodite – know what she wants: “but come here.” Once she’s established her motive and thesis, Sappho begins to ply the goddess with evidence, pointing out that she’s helped her with unrequited love in the past. She links this evidence explicitly to her thesis in the second stanza: “come here, if ever before [you did the same thing].” When Sappho says “come to me now, too,” she’s analyzing her evidence to support her thesis. The seventh and final stanza acts as her conclusion, where Sappho reiterates her thesis and leaves Aphrodite to make her choice.

— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Sappho Fragment 1, “Ode to Aphrodite” (my translation):

Immortal Aphrodite on your golden throne,
daughter of Zeus, wile-weaver, I beg you,
don’t crush my spirit, queen,
with anguish and pain:

but come here, if ever before,
hearing my cries from far away,
you left your father’s golden house
and came here

with your chariot yoked, and beautiful
quick-winged birds led you over the dark earth,
fluttering their fast wings down from heaven
through midair.

Soon they arrived, and you, blessed one,
with a smile on your immortal face,
asked me what had happened now and
why I had called you

and what I wanted more than anything to happen
in my crazy heart. “Whom should I persuade now
to love you? Who, oh Sappho, is
doing you wrong?

For if she runs now, soon she’ll follow,
and if she won’t accept gifts, soon she’ll give them,
and if she doesn’t love now, soon she’ll love you,
even reluctantly.”

Come to me now, too, and free me from cruel
cares, and do what my heart longs to
see done, and you yourself
be my ally.