Sappho & the Oral Poetic Tradition

There are 3 themes to consider with respect to the oral tradition as it relates to Sappho:


1.  The oral tradition before Sappho: understanding this tradition is important to understanding all the elements of Sappho’s poetic technique.  Comparative linguistics offers a surprising amount of information about this tradition that relates back centuries from when Sappho lived and to cultures as far away as India.  By contrast, there are troublesome assumptions and evidentiary challenges in arguing for the influence on Sappho of any of the few Greek authors who arguably preceded her. 

 2.  The oral tradition after Sappho: although Greeks had certainly adopted the technology of writing by her time whether she herself read or wrote is open to question.  Considering that (a) it would be two centuries before the alphabet was standardized for all Greeks and (b) the sorts of materials and resources needed to publish on even a modest scale during Sapphos lifetime, it is highly likely that she expected her poetry to be transmitted orally. Furthermore, the very earliest written poetry of Sappho that survives appears to have been written down hundreds of years after she lived.   

3.  The ‘masculinization’ of Sappho: until the last century all aspects of the tradition of Sappho were in the hands of men.  This applies to all the texts where her poetry appears or was discussed as well as all the purported depictions of her in ancient and modern European art. This relates to the fact that until very recently literate culture was in effect masculine culture.  All that is changing rapidly not just in the West but throughout the world and coincides with a truly revolutionary trend in reproductive technology that directly affects women (but of course men as well).  A short synopsis of my thinking on this theme, which I refer to as ‘Our Masculine Past and Our Feminine Future,’ can be found here.


What all this means is that the dichotomy between 'oral' and 'literate' is probably a false one as it relates to Sappho. See an excellent summary of this (and do not neglect the footnotes) by H. Versnel, Coping with the Gods, p226 ff.


Check out this Al Jazeera report on Al Khadra, a Sahrawi poetess.  Among other things it offers an insight into how the oral tradition of poetry existed for millennia and still exists today.  Here is an article that provides some background on this culture where women have traditionally played far more significant roles than in other African/Arab/Islamic influenced cultures.