Two new Sappho poems discovered

Although the 7th century B.C. Greek lyric poet Sappho of Lesbos was one of the most revered poets of antiquity and highly prolific, by the Middle Ages most of her works were lost. Only one complete poem and parts of four others have survived, including three fragments among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Now two new poems have been found on a 3rd century A.D. papyrus in private hands.

The anonymous owner brought the papyrus to Oxford University classicist and papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink who recognized its enormous significance. The condition is exceptional. Harvard classics professor Albert Henrichs calls it the best preserved Sappho papyrus known to survive. The two poems are 20 and nine lines each, with a total of 22 lines preserved in their entire length. The last seven lines are missing three to six letters from the beginning and end of verses and there are only traces of the last line remaining.

The subject matter is even more exciting than the condition.

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.

The Brothers poem contains no such mockery, but rather depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker — perhaps Sappho herself, but the loss of the poem’s initial lines makes this unclear — advises that a prayer to Hera would be the best way to ensure this success, and expounds on the power of the gods to aid their favorites. The poem’s final stanza speaks of Larichos, presumably Sappho’s younger brother, “becoming a man…and freeing us [Sappho’s family?] from much heartache.”

The second poem is an appeal to the goddess Aphrodite, possibly a prayer for aid in securing the affections of a new lover.

The source of the papyrus is not known. It’s most likely to have come from Egypt where the dry climate preserves papyrus like the Oxyrhynchus fragments.

Dr. Obbink has published a paper about the discovery which is available online here (pdf). It includes a transcription (not a translation) of the text, so those of you who can read Aeolic Greek can read the full poems.

UPDATE: The Telegraph has a translation of the Brothers Poem!

Still, you keep on twittering that Charaxos
comes, his boat full. That kind of thing I reckon
Zeus and his fellow gods know; and you mustn’t
make the assumption;
rather, command me, let me be an envoy
praying intensely to the throne of Hera
who could lead him, he and his boat arriving
here, my Charaxos,
finding me safely; let us then divert all
other concerns on to the lesser spirits;
after all, after hurricanes the clear skies
rapidly follow;
and the ones whose fate the Olympian ruler
wants to transform from troubles into better –
they are much blessed, they go about rejoicing
in their good fortune.
As for me, if Larichos reaches manhood,
[if he could manage to be rich and leisured,]
he would give me, so heavy-hearted, such a
swift liberation.

12 thoughts on “Two new Sappho poems discovered

  1. I am amazed that this is getting so little attention in the media – an almost complete poem from Sappho which no one has probably read in some 1500 years! It’s a wonderful discovery.

    1. Very much agreed, especially since it’s the first instance of her brothers’ names being found in a poem rather than just in reports of the poems from other ancient sources like Herodotus.

  2. She mocks her brother for helping a woman he loved, then (maybe) prays to the gods to get the love of someone she liked…hypocrite much? This was probably illegally obtained, and it’s so sad to think any other history that was with it was sold to people that will hide it away in their private collections and keep its secrets away from scholars. Ugh.

  3. Gosh, a sibling mocking another sibling’s love life – who’d have thunk it? {wry grin} [Besides, we only have Herodotus’ word for that; maybe the tone was more “teasing” than “mocking”. If only *that* fragment turns up someday so we can find out!]

    It *is* sad that more isn’t known about the origins of the fragments, but I’m delighted that they survived at all.

  4. What a wonderful find. Dr. Obbink’s commentary is illuminating on some details of Sappho’s life and her belief system. I am looking forward to seeing translations (several, as different translators are bound to see different meanings in the poems).

    linesaved, I’m baffled by your response as it does not reflect what livius wrote nor Dr, Obbink’s analysis. You seem to have stopped reading at Herodotus. I suggest you re-read the posting (especially the end) and then read the paper by Dr. Obbink. It is quite fascinating, and goes to prove once again that historians writing from centuries old hearsay rarely get things right.

    1. And Herodotus, even in his own time, was particularly well known to have a penchant for fabulism. He could have been passing along hearsay rather than reporting from his own reading.

      Wasn’t that paper fascinating? It makes me yearn to learn ancient Greek dialects.

  5. This is how i would transcribe her last poem.

    SAPPHO’S LAST DISCOVERED POEM. (Reappraised as Lyric).

    My body once so tender known, by age is dragged from there,
    Turning now from black to white my crown of flowing hair,
    Trembling knees must now support the heavy heart I bare
    They once were fleet and followed sharp the flight of dancing deer.

    But then why should I mourn my fate
    When to grow old we merely wait.

    From dawning love and youth they say
    Timotius went ‘world’s end’ that way.
    Youth, time and beauty, age must grey,
    To take us all,like him,away.

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