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Oral Tradition and Sappho
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Oral Tradition and Sappho

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 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

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...