18 Sep 2005

Sappho and the Leucadian Leap

Sappho (also spelled Sapho, Saphon, Saffo and Psappha), is said to have been born on the island of Lesbos in the second half of the 7th Century (B.C.E.).

Her work was collected in nine books at the great library in Alexandria, where she was canonized as one of the great lyric poets. Indeed, an epigram attributed to Plato proclaimed her the Tenth Muse. Eventually, however, all nine books disappeared. What remains today are mostly fragments. Nonetheless, Sappho is the first surviving female author in the Western tradition who, some claim, is on equal footing with the likes of Homer.

According to Margaret Reynolds, it was during the 4th Century (B.C.E.) that the legend of Sappho’s leap made its first appearance in Menander’s drama, The Lady from Leukas.

Though Menander made Sappho the first to take the Leucadian leap, he was employing poetic license, for the legends actually tell of many others who had tried the leap, which was supposed to be a kill-or-cure remedy for hopeless passion. That too, was an invention, based on folk memories of a primitive ritual sacrifice to Apollo, in which some guilty and unlucky person was thrown off the cliff in order to propitiate the god.

[Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, New York: Palgrave, 2000] She goes on to point out that the significance of Phaon in Sappho’s story was probably “a literary mix-up.” It seems that “Phaon” is another name for Adonis, the beloved of Aphrodite.

Sappho wrote poems naming Adonis and lamenting his demise in the name of Aphrodite, and later interpreters seem to have assumed that she was speaking in her own persona and confessing a personal passion. Little changes in the literary world: the same assumptions are regularly made today about writers, especially women writers.

It was Ovid’s Epistulae Heroidum that truly immortalized the legend of Sappho, Phaon and the Leucadian leap. Commonly referred to as the Heroides, this is a collection of fictional letters from women to men, mostly to men who had betrayed their love and abandoned them for other women. The fifteenth letter, entitled “Sappho to Phaon,” tells the story of Sappho in anguish following her abandonment by Phaon, which leaves her devoid of all self-worth, unable to draw upon her powers of song. It is to the rock at Leucadia that her mind turns where, according to a Naiad, she may cast her body into the sea without harm and thereupon immediately ease her of all passion. But, Sappho is of two minds:

My old powers of song won’t awaken for me:
the plectrum falls silent through grief, and silent the lyre.
Lesbian women of the waves, those to be married: those married,
Lesbian women, names sung to the Aeolian lyre,
Lesbian women, beloved women, who made me infamous,
cease to come, in a crowd, to the melodies of my lyre!
Phaon has stolen what pleased you so before,
ah me! I nearly said, as once I did: ‘My Phaon.’
Make him return. Your singer too will return.
He gave my genius power: he snatched it away.

Ovid leaves us, then, uncertain whether she means to take the leap and live free of all passions or to wait for Phaon’s return.

In her book, Fictions of Sappho 1546-1937, Joan DeJean shows in detail how the legend of Sappho was received in the West from the beginning of the Early Modern era. That reception has been replete with unresolved ambiguities and uncertainties as the Sapphic narrative was repeated and recast over the centuries. These ambiguities and uncertainties relate to a host of issues regarding her sexuality, her gender, her identity, all of which are beyond the scope of this brief note. Nonetheless, the essential point is that the Sappho of legend is a complex character and the Leucadian leap is a complex event such that they are the well-spring of myriad combinations and permutations that defy a rational reductionalism which yields a clear-cut solution. Hence, the Sappho of Pacini can be wildly different from that of Gounod, yet both be consistent with the Sapphic narrative.

Gary Hoffman