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«Oral Tradition and Sappho R. Scott Garner Over the last several decades there has developed among scholars an increasing willingness to examine the ...»

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This article belongs to a special issue of Oral Tradition published in honor of

John Miles Foley’s 65th birthday and 2011 retirement. The surprise Festschrift,

guest-edited by Lori and Scott Garner entirely without his knowledge,

celebrates John’s tremendous impact on studies in oral tradition through a

series of essays contributed by his students from the University of Missouri-

Columbia (1979-present) and from NEH Summer Seminars that he has directed

(1987-1996).

http://journal.oraltradition.org/issues/26ii This page is intentionally left blank.

Oral Tradition, 26/2 (2011): 413-444 Oral Tradition and Sappho R. Scott Garner Over the last several decades there has developed among scholars an increasing willingness to examine the many possibilities that existed for the oral performance of non-epic poetry in the song culture of the early Greek world.1 However, perhaps because archaic lyric and elegiac poets are often considered to have been individual artisans displaying unique brands of creativity, philosophy, and emotion,2 there has been an unfortunate reluctance by scholars to delve beyond the ancient performance arena itself and consider how other aspects of the poetic process are themselves indebted to oral traditional practices. In a recent monograph, I attempted to redress part of this scholarly imbalance by demonstrating that much of archaic Greek elegy should be viewed in light of the oral-formulaic techniques that lay at its compositional core (Garner 2011). In this essay I would like to build on those earlier arguments in order to raise the possibility that Sappho’s stanzaic poetry also might be understood as oral, traditional, and even formulaic.

Of course, the idea that Sappho’s poems are to one degree or another related to oral traditional compositional techniques is not novel. Milman Parry himself raised the idea as early

as 1932 (29-30):

The same forces which created the poetic epic language of Homer created the poetic lyric language of Sappho and Alcaeus. The scant remains of these two poets do not allow us to show, as we can do for Homer, that their diction is formulaic, and so oral and traditional. We do know, however, that Solon and Theognis were still following an oral tradition of iambic poetry, and that they lived at that time, always so precious for our own knowledge of oral poetries of the past and present, when verse-making was oral but writing known and used as a means of recording and keeping. All that we know of the use of writing in Greece at the beginning of the sixth century 1 See, for example, Nagy 1990a, 1990b; Gentili 1988; for Sappho in particular and her awareness of positioning herself within this performance-based society, see Lardinois 2008 and the bibliography therein. On the dominant early Greek cultural mindset being steeped in orality more generally, see Havelock 1963, 1982; Thomas 1989.

2 Sappho in particular is especially often put forward as the epitome of this Greek poetic individuality.

Thus, for instance, Bowra once stated that “Sappho seems to have been sure of herself and her art” (1961:246) and Svenbro claimed that Sappho 1 more specifically “is the poem of an individual” (1975:49). Such issues are also at the heart of more recent debates concerning Sappho’s position within or against masculine norms of behavior; see, for example, Skinner 1993, 2002; Greene 2002; Winkler 2002.

414 R. SCOTT GARNER points to the same thing for Sappho and Alcaeus. Yet while we may feel some doubt as to the way in which they made their verses, there is not the least doubt that their poetic language was drawn from an oral tradition: only in an oral poetry does one ever find such a variety of forms that have each one its own metrical value.

For Parry it was this last distinctive characteristic of coexisting metrical by-forms and the corresponding thrift with which they were employed that constituted firm evidence that a given poet was working within a formulaic oral tradition.3 But since the output of poets such as Sappho and Alcaeus was not preserved in large enough quantities for such analysis to be conclusive in the same way that it was for Homer, Parry made no further effort to detail any possible relationship between the Lesbian poets and oral-formulaic compositional techniques, and in fact only a handful of other scholars since Parry’s time have pursued the issue in any depth, either in relation to Sappho specifically or with respect to early Greek lyric more broadly.4 Instead, the few recent attempts to analyze the relationship between lyric and oral traditional poetic techniques have tended either to proceed in the quite problematic direction of exploring intertextual parallels between lyric and epic5 or to limit their analysis to diachronic issues of metrical development.6 The result, then, has been that some scholars have dismissed altogether the oral traditional nature of such poetry while others have accepted the idea of a predominantly oral context for performance and transmission of the poems but have done so without taking the additional step of considering the specific expressive means by which these poems achieved their desired effects within such traditional arenas.7 3 See especially Parry 1930 and 1932.

4 Though “lyric” originally designated only poetry sung to the lyre or another stringed instrument, here and throughout this essay I use the term synonymously with “non-epic” to include iambic and elegiac poetry as well.





(Cf. Gentili 1988:32.) My choice in this matter is not meant to diminish the role that instrumental accompaniment or lack of it helped determine issues of genre in the ancient world, but is instead aimed at underlining the variability with which such accompaniment actually seems to have occurred in the early Greek poetic landscape and the interdependence that such genres had on each other. See further Gentili 1988:32-49, Garner 2011:4-6.

5 As a small representative sample of works exemplifying this approach in conjunction with Sappho in particular, see Page 1955, Harvey 1957, Svenbro 1975, Hooker 1977, Rissman 1983, and Schrenk 1994. More recently, Winkler (2002) has similarly suggested that “Sappho’s use of Homeric passages is a way of allowing us, even encouraging us, to approach her consciousness as a woman and poet reading Homer” (46), though elsewhere he argues that archaic lyric “was not composed for private reading but for performance to an audience” (41).

6See, for example, West 1973, Nagy 1974 (with further theoretical refinements found in Nagy 1979, 1990b:439-64, 1996, and 1998), Haslam 1976, Berg 1978, and Bowie 1981.

7 For a fuller account of these methodologies being applied to early non-epic Greek poetry, see Garner 2003:389-91. The few notable exceptions to this pattern of scholarly inattention toward oral traditional practices being present in lyric have been found in discussions of elegy, most notably in the work of Giannini (1973:61) and Barnes (1984:ch. 3; 1995). Even in these perceptive studies, however, only isolated aspects of meter and enjambement are considered without further discussion of the larger processes involved.

ORAL TRADITION AND SAPPHO 415

Sappho and Oral Performance

Before we look into the specifics of traditional compositional techniques used by Sappho, what can we first say with certainty concerning the original performance arena for her poems?

We know from both internal and external testimonia, for instance, that the usual means for presenting lyric poetry to an audience in archaic Greece involved active performance, with performance modes varying from monodic to choral and with instrumental accompaniment (or the lack thereof) further helping to define the performance arena.8 For Sappho in particular this connection between music and poetic production is made even stronger by the depictions of the poet within archaic and classical vase painting, where musical instruments and singing play prominent roles, even when Sappho is pictured as reading the poetry from a book while sitting.9 Positioning Sappho’s works within a more specific performance frame, though, is a much more difficult task. On one end of the spectrum, it has been argued that the majority of Sappho’s poems must have been private monodic poems for limited audiences within an intimate thíasos and that much of the significance of the poems is thus hidden from anyone outside that original religious group; however, it has also been put forward that Sappho’s poems, however intimate they may seem, were actually the remains of great choral activity on the island of Lesbos and that their content should be viewed primarily with this larger audience in mind.10 Unfortunately scant evidence remains as a basis for such speculation, and in all likelihood many of Sappho’s songs were probably performed and re-performed in a variety of different contexts such as weddings and funerals where the line between private and public would have already been blurred for the audiences involved. However, even if we imagine these poems as being performed for the most intimate of audiences, it is quite clear—as André Lardinois (2008) has observed—that Sappho herself imagined her own fame and that of her subjects as carrying on through the memory of her poetry’s actual performances rather than through its textualized transmission.11 Nevertheless, at least in the cases of the poems that have survived to us today, textualization did indeed enter into the picture at some point. When and how this process

occurred is, however, unknown, though at least three possible scenarios exist:

8See further Bowra 1961:3-4, Campbell 1964, Herrington 1985:192-200, Gentili 1988:24-49, Nagy 1990b:

19-20, Gerber 1997 (espec. pp. 96-97), Garner 2011:4-6.

9 Yatromanolakis (2001) provides a catalogue of vases from 610-540 BCE on which Sappho is positively labeled or more tentatively identified. For a fuller discussion of these vase depictions alongside the relevant literary evidence, see also Yatromanolakis 2007.

10 This lively debate concerning issues of Sappho’s audience and the circumstances of performance has now extended over several decades, and the above possibilities are only the most disparate of the many contexts that have been envisioned for Sappho’s performances. A few of the more important forays into this discussion are represented by Merkelbach 1957; Calame 1977:367-72, 1996; Hallett 1979; Gentili 1988; Parker 1993; Lardinois 1994; and Stehle 1997:262-318. Cf. more recently Ferrari 2010:31-38.

11 See especially fragments 16 and 94.

416 R. SCOTT GARNER

–  –  –

(2) Sappho’s poems were originally performed orally and were written down quickly afterward by Sappho herself or another individual present as either a performer or an audience member.

–  –  –

Scenario 1 is closest to the view held by scholars such as Nagy (1990b) and Gentili (1988:19) who view the fossilizing of lyric poetry in written form as a product of cultural change that occurred only later in the Greek world, with few readers of poetry existing in large numbers before the fifth century.12 Under such circumstances, the transition of works into written form would be rather separate from the original processes of poetic composition and performance;

accordingly, poets such as Sappho would rarely have been composing with the idea of written dissemination of their works as a primary goal. Instead, the impetus for such textualization would have been likely to arrive from an external source, perhaps in Sappho’s case as the result of prominent families on Lesbos wishing to create poetic texts as possessions that heightened their status by strengthening their connections to the poet.13 On the other hand, Scenarios 2 and 3 imagine Sappho herself as the motivating force behind our texts, with the qualitative difference between the two scenarios being only whether the written words were initially the scripts or the revisions of the original performances.14 The pre-existence of written texts might seem especially likely if we view Sappho’s output as primarily choral, since textualized versions might act as aids for teaching complex pieces to a company for singing and dancing in a group performance, but comparative evidence has shown that even choral output regularly occurs without reliance on writing.15 One might also point to the lack of internal and external references linking written composition with Sapphic poetry as evidence that standardized written texts came only later, but such evidence is regularly lacking for the entirety of the early Greek poetic corpus and could simply be coincidental or the byproduct of lyric poems being primarily situated in the oral performance arena. In any case, it is 12 Cf. Ford 2003.

13 The suggestion is that of Davison (1968:101).

14 These two scenarios would then fall much more in line with the view held by Gerber concerning early Greek lyric more generally (1997:3-4): “In spite of the prodigious capability of the early Greeks to preserve poetry orally, it seems difficult to believe that contemporary copies of lyric poetry did not exist, especially for longer poems.” Gerber does, however, admit that the evidence is slender for such written transmission without prior oral circulation.

15 Cf., for example, Gentili’s discussion (1988:20-21) of a non-written choral tradition in the Gilbert

–  –  –

now impossible to determine at exactly what point writing entered into the composition or transmission of Sappho’s poetry, and the very fact that her output has survived to us through such a variety of sources—including literary quotations, inscriptions, and scattered papyri—indicates that the circumstances of textualization may have varied quite a lot from one poem to the next.



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