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Re-Centering Epic Nostos:
Gender and Genre in Sappho’s Brothers Poem

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But always you are chattering for Charaxos to come with a full ship. But these things, I think, Zeus and all the other gods know. For you there is no need to think about them.

Instead, send me and order me repeatedly to beseech Queen Hera that Charaxos arrive here guiding a safe ship

And that he find us safe. As for the rest, let us turn everything over to the gods. For fair skies out of great blasts of wind suddenly appear.

And those whose daimon the king of Olympus wishes to be a protector to steer them at last out of troubles—they are blessed and very prosperous.

And as for us, if ever Larichos should lift up his head and at a certain point become a man, also from many sources of heavy-heartedness would we suddenly be freed.2

The publication of a new Sappho poem in 2014 was one of those rare events that brought classics momentarily into the media spotlight. The papyrus roll from Sappho’s Book 1 published by Burris, Fish, and Obbink (2014) and Obbink (2014b) contains a group of five fragments comprising material from nine different poems.3 Discussion (much of it taking place online) soon coalesced,4 however, around the fifth papyrus fragment, which preserves five stanzas of the previously unknown Brothers Poem. The fragment, quoted in full above, features a speaker, “Sappho,” addressing someone who has been constantly “chattering for Charaxos to come with a full ship.” Sappho tells the chatterer to send her to pray to Hera, so that Charaxos may arrive here navigating (not a full) but a safe ship, and to leave all the rest to the gods. The second half of the poem turns from the [End Page 26] faraway elder brother who is still at sea to those at home on Lesbos, with the final stanza revealing a different source of familial unrest: Larichos, the youngest brother. If only he would lift his head and become a man, Sappho and the rest of her family would instantly be relieved of many sorrows.

While it would be difficult to overstate the excitement generated by this poem’s discovery, its reception has not been uniformly positive.5 Some scholars were thrilled to have proof that Sappho indeed had a brother named Charaxos,6 who is known from later sources as a wine merchant and lover of the courtesan Rhodopis.7 But more than a few others were, I venture, somewhat disappointed at how little they could relate to this new persona loquens, a sister deeply preoccupied with domestic affairs. Where were the crushingly personal attestations to the effects of eros?8 I remember being surprised by the stringent limits placed by the speaker on human agency, especially on the agency of women. Sappho appears to be focusing more on what is out of reach than on what is possible. Her ventriloquizing of the prayer that she summons another to dispatch her to perform only increases our sense of an action rebounding on itself. And the emphasis placed on various layers of mediation—an interlocutor being asked to send Sappho to implore Hera—only affirms, it would seem, the social constraints preventing a woman from acting on her own authority. And yet, that a sister has any role at all to play in her brother’s safe return is in itself remarkable.

Comparisons have been drawn between these stanzas and Homer’s Odyssey: “Charaxos might be seen as an Odysseus figure,” suggests Dirk [End Page 27] Obbink. But no one has yet questioned what it means for Sappho to have inserted herself into the role of epic’s faithfully waiting wife. Obbink carries the Odyssey analogy to its natural endpoint, claiming that, while Larichos may remind us of Telemachos, “Sappho herself evokes the figure of Penelope” (both quotations are from Obbink 2014a). Sappho has clearly usurped Penelope’s role, while her brother Charaxos stands in for Odysseus. This privileging of natal over marital relationships is significant and suggests a deliberate refashioning on Sappho’s part of Homer’s conjugal romance.9

The Brothers Poem belongs to a subgenre of nostos (“homecoming”) prayers composed by Sappho; it has points of overlap, as will be discussed, with Sappho 5, 15, and 17, for which there are also new supplements from the papyrus roll containing the Brothers Poem. The publication of all these new fragments not only expands Sappho’s oeuvre considerably, it also allows us to reconsider elements of her corpus in light of the poet’s apparent commitment to rewriting the (more familiar) epic nostos narrative from a woman’s perspective. As I argue in this article, the Brothers Poem takes as its intertextual point of departure the homecoming of Nestor.10 This nostos, which includes an all-important stopover on Lesbos, models the ideal outcome that animates Sappho’s hopes for Charaxos. In what follows, I trace Sappho’s presentation of a distinctively lyric type of nostos, one that, by artfully re-centering and celebrating what epic had relegated to its margins, recuperates for lyric a position of pre-eminence in relation to and, to a certain extent, even within epic.


Nestor recalls in the Odyssey how, after Troy had finally fallen, he, Diomedes, and Menelaus all ended up on Lesbos. It was on Lesbos that they paused to plot their course westward, as Nestor explains to Telemachos (Od. 3.168–75):

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And, finally, after us came fair-haired Menelaus,

And on Lesbos he found us pondering our open-sea crossing,

Whether we should steer to the north of craggy Chios,

By the island of Psyrie, keeping it to our left,

Or whether we should go beneath Chios, by windy Mimas.

We asked the god to reveal a sign. And indeed he showed one

To us, and he ordered us to cut through the middle of the sea straight to Euboea,

So that we might escape out from under misery as quickly as possible.

Following a divine signal, the Greeks take the more dangerous route, heading straight to Geraistos in southern Euboia and sacrificing there a bull to Poseidon in gratitude for having travelled safely across the sea’s fish-filled pathways. A strong wind, sent by the gods, blows them in the right direction, making their journey uneventful (3.176). But what deserves emphasis here is Nestor’s paraphrase of their deliverance: “The god,” says Nestor, “told us to cut across the middle of the sea, so that we might escape out from under misery” (ὑπὲκ κακότητα φύγοιμεν). Unlike other places where ὑπέκ is used in the Odyssey, there is no immediate source of distress in this scene: the men are safely on shore when they receive their sign. Κακότης must, then, refer to the misery they will face at sea. It is this κακότης—rich in narrative potential but life-threatening to those who are exposed to it—that they are spared.

Nestor’s nostos, at least the way he tells it here, is a story of a homecoming whose short duration and safe outcome makes it, from the perspective of epic, simply not very interesting.11 Judged by epic standards, crucial plot elements are missing. There are no nostos-delaying winds nor [End Page 29] ship-shattering storms, no encounters with strangers, displays of cunning, nor trials of manhood, such as are endured by Odysseus during his protracted journey home from Troy. Nestor’s is an entirely forgettable nostos—unless, of course, you are from Lesbos and concerned about your brother’s perhaps similar dilemma (which route to take across the sea?). Yet Nestor’s name shares a linguistic root with nostos.12 And his escaping “out from under distress” (ὑπὲκ κακότητα) provides, as we will see, a key intertext for Sappho’s Brothers Poem. It is as if Sappho were saying: “Look, all along, buried in the vastness of epic’s monumental landscape were the seeds of a very different kind of nostos: a homecoming swift and painless, focused not on the individual hero’s profit and undying fame, but on the survival and salvation of his natal household.” Lesbos, once part of Priam’s Trojan empire, is the island from which Nestor gained his safe passage across the sea;13 it becomes, in Sappho’s telling, the desired endpoint of a very different journey.

We are told nothing about the business that has taken Charaxos away from home. Most likely, it is trade rather than war. In Book 2 of his Histories (2.135), Herodotus relays that Charaxos, the son of Skamandronymus and brother of the song-maker Sappho, paid a considerable sum to free Rhodopis, a Thracian woman owned by a man named Iadmon. After freeing her, Charaxos returns from Egypt to face the wrath of Sappho, who, according to Herodotus, rebukes him repeatedly in song (2.135.6). Other ancient sources describe Charaxos as a trader in Lesbian wines.14 Neither Rhodopis nor the wine trade are alluded to in our fragment, though mention of his “full ship” in the second line suggests that Charaxos is—or is imagined by at least one of his relatives to be—sailing with considerable cargo. If so, he would not be so very different from Odysseus, who makes his long-delayed return to Ithaca with a ship full of Phaeacian [End Page 30] goods.15 Where Homeric and Sapphic ideologies diverge is in the latter’s pre-emptive repudiation of this style of return. And this brings us back to the first fully preserved stanza of the poem, lines 5–8 [1–4], where two different types of speech acts are sharply contrasted.

Clearly, at least one stanza is missing from the start of the poem. The identity of the poem’s addressee may have been disclosed in these missing lines, but as things stand, it is all but impossible to deduce to whom Sappho says: “You are always chattering (θρύλησθα, 5 [1]) . . . but “it is not necessary for you . . .” (inline graphic, 7 [3]). Are we to imagine Sappho speaking to her mother?16 To her sister-in-law? Or perhaps to her younger brother Larichos, her third brother, or even her Nurse? All of these potential addressees have their proponents. For my purposes, it is not essential to determine which of them is correct, though I find appealing the suggestion that she addresses her mother, a figure with the requisite authority to send Sappho on a religious errand, and someone who is likely to be as preoccupied with Charaxos’s return as Sappho herself.17 It seems reasonable to assume, moreover, that Sappho is speaking to a woman of similar social rank.18 We can easily imagine Sappho telling an older female relative (whether her mother or sister-in-law) to stop “chattering” (pace Bettenworth 2014). But unlike an adolescent brother or a Nurse, this woman would have the authority to dispatch Sappho to Hera’s sanctuary.19 Regardless of how we resolve the addressee conundrum, the speaker’s contrast between two [End Page 31] kinds of ships emerges clearly. How then do these ships symbolically link up with the two styles of speaking that are juxtaposed in the lines quoted above? And what does the contrast signify in terms of the song’s poetics?

Leslie Kurke observes in a forthcoming publication that “the first two preserved stanzas appear to be all about a contrast in ways of speaking, both the style of speaking and the content of what’s said. Thus Sappho contrasts the mother’s silly chattering with the proper, correct kind of speech to be offered by the ego, which should be supplication and prayer (λίσσεσθαι, l.10 [6]).” Also connected with these two modes of speaking is the fullness of the ship: inline graphic (in line 6).20 As Kurke discerns: “Sappho implicitly corrects the content of the mother’s chattering, since inline graphic in l.6 is pointedly contrasted with inline graphic in ll. 11–12 within the ego’s imagined prayer to Hera.” The brother’s mercantile activities have led him away from home, immersing him in the public world of maritime trade.

Sappho and her mother remain ensconced in their private domestic space; their only contact with the broader public is through prayer. I want to suggest, though, that the contrasting imagery explored above also invites a metapoetic interpretation. The “full” ship is, I propose, shorthand for the Odyssean nostos—the homecoming that is freighted, weighed down, both literally and metaphorically. The “safe ship,” by contrast, speaks to Sappho’s lyric appropriation of Nestor’s (essentially non-epic) nostos, which, as we have seen, originates from Lesbos. More specifically, the “safe” ship evokes the type of prayer that is focused on rescue from hardship. It thus anticipates, as I explain shortly, the proliferation in the final three stanzas of ἐκ constructions signaling that out of which one seeks deliverance.


Before we return to the syntax of salvation, there is another Odyssean echo to examine, one that further delineates the intersections between genre and gender that have already begun to emerge. In the first book of the Odyssey, Phemios is entertaining the suitors with his recitation of the “mournful homecoming of the Achaeans from Troy” (1.326–27). Hearing his song from her room upstairs, Penelope comes down to urge him to [End Page 32] sing something else. “Phemios,” she says, “you know many other songs with which to charm mortals—the works of men and gods, which singers perform. Sit by them and sing one of those songs for the suitors, and let them drink their wine in peace . . .” (1.337–40). But before Phemios can react, Telemachos intervenes, reminding his mother that Odysseus “was not the only one to lose his day of homecoming at Troy; many other men also died” (Od. 1.354–55). The bard, Telemachos emphasizes, ought to be allowed to delight his audience “in whatever way the spirit moves him.” As for Penelope, her son bids her to return to the women’s quarters above (Od. 1.356–59):

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So go into the house and tend to your own works—

The loom and distaff, and order your attendants

To get to work. Speech will be a concern to the men,

To all of them, but to me most of all. For mine is the power in this house.

Telemachos sends Penelope back to her chambers, telling her to let the men decide about inline graphic (“speech”). Without saying a word, Penelope does as she is told: inline graphic, 360 (“She, amazed, went back to her room”). This is probably the first time Telemachos has taken such an authoritative stance with his mother to judge by Penelope’s surprised reaction. His intervention has been interpreted as “adolescent rudeness.”21 But after conducting a thorough review of all the places where a inline graphic is ascribed to a female speaker in the Iliad and the Odyssey, Matthew Clark (2001) reaches a more nuanced conclusion. He argues that the term activates a different semantic field in each poem. The Iliad understands inline graphic as essentially a male speech genre: the type of detailed public speech, often involving commands and persuasion, made by men or by women trying to assume the authority of a man. In the Odyssey, [End Page 33] as Clark (2001.353) argues, inline graphic “is available to designate the speech of women as well as the speech of men.” He concludes, therefore, that if Telemachos is rude to his mother, “this is because he is trying to enter a world and a word that would have no place for her as a woman.”22 He is, in other words, applying Iliadic norms to an Odyssean situation. Clark, however, does not comment on the narrative context of Telemachos’s verbal exchange with his mother, nor on the fact that Penelope has been trying to control how and what Phemios sings. Telemachos is undeniably nearing the age at which he will assume full responsibilities within his father’s oikos, and his words can therefore be understood to reflect nascent concerns with authority. But because of the nostos-specific content of Phemios’s song—the bard has been reciting tales of the Achaeans’ homecomings—Telemachos’s speech act takes on programmatic force within the Odyssey.

Here we are shown that singing tales of homecoming (nostoi) is a man’s game. Women feature as important characters, as enablers (or inhibitors) of their husbands’ returns, but they themselves are not the actors, nor are they the verbal recorders, of these actions. A woman may listen to the songs of heroic achievement that are sung in her house, but she is meant to absorb them in silence, neither interrupting the bard nor redirecting his performance. If she disapproves of the way he sings a nostos, she has only one option: to recuse herself from the scene. Her own son, indeed, is the one who orders Penelope to return to her “women’s work.”

Sappho, by contrast, not only does not leave the room when the nostos she hears is not to her liking, she takes charge of the situation, first, by telling the woman who is chattering away in a manner she finds inappropriate (that is, the “you” addressee in the first stanza) what she should be doing instead. And, second, by supplying the script for the prayer she has in mind to replace this mindless babble. Sappho is not exactly herself a poet of nostos, for the ending of Charaxos’s homecoming has yet to be written. But she is the instigator and the negotiator of her brother’s safe return. The listener’s temporal positioning vis-à-vis the narrative in this way accounts for an important difference between lyric and epic nostoi.

Epic’s audience enjoys these tales of homecoming as stories whose protagonists belong to a remote past; the suffering of epic heroes is transformed, through the mediation of epos, into a source of delight for epic’s listeners. For Sappho, however, there is no temporal buffer between [End Page 34] the poem’s narrative content and its communication in performance. The poem’s setting makes it clear that her brother is still at sea or, at least, not yet safely moored, while she is singing. The poem’s audience is thus drawn into and implicated in the song’s events, a narrative situation that Giovan Battista D’Alessio (2009.114) identifies as symptomatic of the difference between the two genres: “In contrast to the heroic tales narrated in the epic hexameter poems, lyric poems entail the possibility of an explicit textual interaction with an audience, which is often mentioned and sometimes addressed: they seem to work as part of a communication process, the context of which later readers usually have to extract from the texts themselves.”

Charaxos’s return depends in large part on the actions taken by his relatives, who constitute the internal audience for the poem. As D’Alessio suggests, however, there may not be a clear division between internal and external listeners. Although the “us” in line 13 [9] probably refers to Sappho’s immediate family, it may also extend outward to the civic community at large. If the poem, for instance, were to be sung at the Pan-Lesbian sanctuary of the three gods at Mesa, the audience might consist of people from all of Lesbos.

Lyric writes its audience into its own script. Epic, by contrast, assumes its audience will be aesthetically distanced from the events narrated so that they can derive pleasure even from inherently distressing narrative content. Penelope weeps as she listens to Phemios’s song, and epic construes this weeping as a failure on the part of the listener to keep the proper aesthetic and emotional distance from what she hears.23 But Penelope’s weeping would not have been an inappropriate response to the performance of a song by Sappho. Like Nestor’s syncopated nostos, Penelope’s failure to derive pleasure from the epic bard’s performance of nostoi clarifies by contrast the very different aesthetics of nostos operative in Sappho. The Brothers Poem illuminates the biases implicit in epic by modeling the gendered norms and expectations of an ideal lyric audience.


Lesbos is not named in the Brothers Poem, but the island can be inferred from the Greek place marker τυίδε, meaning “hither,” or simply “here,” [End Page 35] a Lesbian Aeolic adverbial form used with verbs of motion. Τυίδε in this sense conjoins the time and place of myth with that of performance. Writing of Sappho 17, Claude Calame (2009.5) notes that “the place of the past action [is] indicated by the deictic adverb tuíde which means ‘here, under our eyes’ (v.7).” Although it is a spatial indicator, τυίδε has a relational rather than a specific sense. We understand that Lesbos is what is meant by “here” only because we can project onto both poems the perspective of their original performers and audience. Τυίδε (like the English word “here”) derives its spatial sense from the location of its speaker. Other instances of this adverb in Sappho are perhaps even better known. “But come here, if ever once before,” (ἀλλὰ τυίδ᾿ ἔλθ᾿, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα) implores the speaker of Sappho 1, addressing her divine muse and patron deity Aphrodite (1.5). It is used when the speaker of Sappho 5 prays for the Nereids to “grant my brother to come here” (τὸν κασί]γνητον δ[ό]τε τυίδ᾿ ἴκεσθα[ι, 5.2), and also in Sappho 96: a woman who has left Sappho’s circle is said to be “often turning her thoughts here” (inline graphic, 96.2), where “here,” once again, points to the location of the speaker.24

The same verbal place marker turns up in the Brothers Poem because it is part of the speaker’s projected desire that Charaxos “return here, guiding a safe ship,” (inline graphic, 11–12 [7–8]). So even though no specific location is given, the deictic place marker τυίδε in line 11 situates the place of return as the place of the song’s performance. This, we can imagine, must be somewhere on Lesbos, perhaps (as mentioned earlier) at the temenos of Hera, Dionysus, and Zeus, which also provides a plausible performance setting for Sappho 5 and 17, as well as Alcaeus 129.25

Unlike the contexts just examined, the opening stanza of the Brothers Poem—“always you are chattering for Charaxos to come with a full ship”—contains no “here.” Dirk Obbink (2014b.42) finds this absence worthy of comment: “One notes the absence of τυίδε here, as is specified below in (line) 7 and at Sa. 5.2, which could, but need not imply that the [End Page 36] arrival is to a place other than Lesbos; however, as a shorthand characterization of what Sappho or someone else has said often in the past, the expression may be abbreviated, and τυίδε simply may be understood.”

Obbink’s hypothesis of an implicit, but unarticulated, τυίδε makes sense. When one is chatting with friends or family about the hoped for return of a member of the group, it is hardly necessary to specify this shared space as the desired destination—the place to which we all hope so-and-so will return. Nevertheless, the absence of τυίδε from this first line of the poem remains a telling detail: not because of any sort of semantic ambiguity, but because of the proleptic contrast set up with the second stanza, where the adverb τυίδε does appear. Sappho seeks to replace the addressee’s ineffectual chatter with a formal prayer (one that she will make herself). Prayers, however, require spatial circumscription: if a god is implored to appear, s/he must be told where to show up, and likewise, if a god is beseeched to grant Sappho’s brother a safe return, the place to which he is to be returned must also be indicated. Τυίδε or some other locative is, in this regard, an essential ingredient of the prayer formula. The utterance of this deictic adverb (just like its absence) thus marks the difference between the two registers of speech that are being contrasted: θρυλέειν (casual chatter), on the one hand, and λίσσεσθαι (supplication) on the other.

Sappho hopes that Charaxos, though he is a merchant by profession, will privilege the integrity and safety of his own person and the family that awaits him: “And may he find us safe” ((κἄμμ’ ἐπεύρην ἀρτ̣έ̣μεας, 13 [9]) begins the third stanza, rounding out the first part of Sappho’s prayer, which was focused just on Charaxos himself (and his ship). The prayer is quoted as part of an indirect command: “It is necessary for you to send me and to bid me to pray . . .” This is the rhetorical frame within which the performative utterance is embedded, and, as such, it reveals the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that was necessary to bring the prayer itself into existence, out of chatter.26 We are shown the alternative to supplication (λίσσεσθαι), as well as the stakes involved in choosing the right form of speech. Full ship? Fine, but then don’t be so sure that Charaxos will make his way home alive; he may, but that is for Zeus and the other gods to decide. Safe ship? A much better option. Over this one narrowly defined area of Charaxos’s journey, Sappho and her family on Lesbos stake a certain claim. Epic nostos maybe be profitable, but it is dangerous, perhaps [End Page 37] even deadly. Lyric nostos will bring less wealth and fame, but safety is guaranteed so long as Hera can be turned into an ally.


After Sappho has urged that “we turn over all the rest—that is, everything apart from the beseeching of Hera—to the daimones” she explains, at lines 17–18 [13–16], that those men are blessed and very prosperous for whom Zeus wishes there to be a daimon serving as a protector to steer them at last out of toils (δαίμον’ ἐκ πόνων ἐπάρωγον ἤδη / περτρόπην, 18–19 [14–15]).27 The same shift that characterized the transition from the first to the second stanza—with prayer replacing chatter, a safe ship taking the place of a full ship, and Hera’s domain answering Zeus’s—is mirrored at another level by the narrative focus shifting from Charaxos (and his troubles at sea) to Larichos, the younger brother, who is still at home. “And as for us,” says Sappho at 21–24 [17–20], “if he would raise his head and become at some point a man, we would be instantly freed from many sources of heavyheartedness”:

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The repetition of inline graphic at the same position of the adonian of the third and fifth stanzas (see lines 16 [12] and 24 [20]) invites us to read the two parts of the poem as figuratively parallel. The relief from βαρυθυμία (“heavyheartedness”) that the family will experience is analogous to the sailor’s deliverance from storms at sea: compare ἐκ μεγάλαν ἀήτα̣ν̣ at 15 [11] with ἐκ πόλλαν βαρ̣υθυ̣μίαν̣ in line 23 [19]. The one set of blustery winds are what Charaxos faces in his literal journey across the sea, while, at home, Sappho and her relatives have to navigate the “stormy winds” created by Larichos, whose immaturity is playfully aggrandized [End Page 38] for Sappho’s internal audience through juxtaposition with meteorological dangers.

Larichos would greatly improve their quality of life if he would only make the very slight gesture of “lifting his head.” This head-lifting can be viewed as mirroring in reverse Zeus’s traditional bowing of his head toward the ground, which is how (in epic) the god wills something to happen.28 Larichos’s gesture is the domestic analogue to gestures such as Zeus’s that can only be intuited by the human eye: “fair skies come immediately out of great gales” (inline graphic, 15–16 [11–12]). But could his head-raising also imply that Larichos has escaped “out from under” whatever had been oppressing both him and, by association, his family?29 Taking a step back, we can now appreciate the way that three clauses beginning with the preposition “out of” (ἐκ) lend a syntactic unity to the second half of the poem: the “syntax of salvation” Ι mentioned earlier.

The ἐκ motif is first used of the fair skies that appear suddenly out of blustery winds (stanza 3). It is then reprised twice, first for the daimonic changes of fortune in stanza 4, and then for the domestic tribulations in stanza 5. Those whose Zeus-appointed daimon, “steers them out of troubles (ἐκ πόνων, 18 [14]) are blessed and very prosperous.” Similarly, if Larichos would raise his head, “we would all be freed from many distresses” (ἐκ πόλλαν βαρ̣υθυ̣μίαν). The repetitions create an analogy between the realms of the sky, with its atmospheric disturbances, humanity at large (represented here by the toils men suffer), and the household, with its immobilized family members, burdened by βαρυθυμία. But the source of distress is in each case is short-lived, and all of the images involve deliverance or salvation, precisely what Sappho is hoping Hera will be able to offer Charaxos and what Nestor achieved with his prayer to a god—a prayer that he, too, uttered on Lesbos.30

The unpredictability and danger of sea travel is a topos more commonly associated with Sappho’s contemporary on Lesbos, Alcaeus. In Alcaeus 34, Helen’s twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, are implored to [End Page 39] rescue sea-faring men from “numbing death” (θανάτω . . . ζακρυόεντος, 7–8) by “bringing light to their black ship in the troubling night” (11–12). Alcaeus 73 begins with mention of cargo (φόρτιον) and then transitions to the voice of the ship itself, expressing (in indirect statement) her desire not to be struck by a wave, nor to be pummeled by a reef. To this ship’s desires, the human persona loquens juxtaposes his own desire “to forget these things” and to enjoy the present company. Could the ship’s eagerness to “play it safe,” as it were, be read as an endorsement of the lyric values articulated by Sappho in the Brothers Poem? Is this also a repudiation of the storms, shipwreck, and acquisitiveness valorized by epic?

The same papyrus roll that transmits the Brothers Poem also contains poems that were already known to belong to the first book of Sappho’s Alexandrian poetry collection. Supplements and corrections now enable new readings of three of these poems: Sappho 5, 15, and 17. What becomes clear from a reconsideration of all three fragments is the prominence in Book 1 of the “lyric nostos” theme we have been tracing.

In Sappho 17, the speaker refers to “kings” who came to Lesbos seeking navigational advice like Nestor. In fact, the poem may allude to that very Homeric episode. I print here the first three stanzas of the text with supplements from fragment 2 column ii of the Green Collection papyrus (P. GC. Inv. 105 Fr 2 ii) as it is to be published in Obbink forthcoming:

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Nearby (i.e., in the context of this song/performance) let your charming festival be celebrated, mistress Hera, by (or [End Page 40] with or for) those singing and dancing for themselves, the festival which the Atreid kings established in fulfillment of a vow to you,31 after having completed great ordeals, first around Ilium, and later having dropped anchor here. For they could not find a way before approaching you and Zeus Antiaos, and Thyona’s darling son. But as it stands now, we continue to do . . . [these things as they were done] in ancient times.32

In his edition, David Campbell prints περαίνην as the final word of line 7,33 which gives the sense: “they were unable to complete their journey.” Gregory Nagy (2007.24) had already suggested that navigation, not fair winds, was what was at issue,34 but the reconstructed text of Burris, Fish, and Obbink (2014), which includes γὰρ εὔρην, provides additional support for Nagy’s reading. The γὰρ clause in line 7 secures the causal connection between the choice to stop off at Lesbos and the need to discover (εὔρην) a particular route. If we assume these kings are the sons of Atreus, it becomes tempting to connect their journey to that of the Homeric Nestor, Diomedes, and Menelaus, who sought further directives from the gods on Lesbos. The Homeric account includes only Menelaus, but Sappho’s passage implies a similar context.35 Moreover, the way it was done “in ancient times” (κὰτ τὸ πάλ̣[αιον, 12) is to serve as a model for the current celebration or invocation of Hera.36 The festival supposedly founded [End Page 41] for Hera by the Atreid brothers continues to supply a living link between epic myth and contemporary lyric performance.

A journey ending in a safe homecoming is also the leading concern of Sappho 5, which opens with the speaker’s request that the Nereids deliver her brother to her ἀβλάβη[ν, “unharmed.” In the newly edited opening verses of Sappho 5 published by Burris, Fish, and Obbink (2014),37 it is evident that her brother’s being returned to her unharmed is the centerpiece of the speaker’s prayer:38 “Mistress Nereids, grant that my brother arrive here unharmed.” There is, of course, no way of knowing whether the brother referred to in these lines is also Charaxos (according to the biographical tradition, Sappho had three brothers), but the similarity of theme—a brother returning unharmed—and the deictic adverb suggest that prayers directed at a safe return constitute a sort of mini-genre of their own within Sappho’s corpus. The Brothers Poem was not a one-off; rather, it belongs to a series of poems centering on a certain type of nostos. In addition to Sappho 17 and Sappho 5, we have Sappho 15, where, despite the poor state of preservation, a phrase about “a harbor” and “good fortune” (σὺν] τ̣ύχαι λίμ̣[ ]ε̣νος, 15.7) can just be made out. The occurrence of Doricha’s name a few lines later suggests that, once again, Charaxos and his return hang in the balance. Doricha is assumed to be Sappho’s name for the courtesan Rhodopis, whose freedom Charaxos supposedly purchased for a steep price.

Returning home safely is also a priority for the epic hero. In fact, there is a Homeric formula, using a synonym for Sappho’s ἀβλαβής, which speaks precisely to this point.39 The formula inline graphic (“[so that] unscathed he can come back to his own country” occurs four times in the Odyssey.40 A safe return was clearly not unimportant to epic journeyers and might even be considered a native element of nostos [End Page 42] poetics in epic. Nevertheless, in her strong contrasting of epic and lyric styles of nostos, Sappho appropriates the safe homecoming for her own genre. Particularly in the opening juxtaposition in the Brothers Poem of the full ship with the safe ship, the message comes through clearly that the epic hero’s circuitous and profitable peregrinations greatly imperil his nostos, while also unnecessarily putting his family in harm’s way.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus’s survival can be read as a testament to his wiliness and sheer grit, much of it exercised far away from home. His nostos depends on divine cooperation, but the man himself withstands all manner of battery to his body and soul. The Brothers Poem re-centers the nostos tale, moving it from the sea (where travelers must endure πόνοι) to land. At sea, Charaxos will be at the mercy of his daimon. But on land, his sister’s entreaties may yet sway Hera. By enacting this shift from an epic storyline to a hymnic script, Sappho models in these verses the limitations, but also the power, of women’s speech.


Historical, philological, and prosopographical issues (particularly the thorny question of the addressee’s identity) tend to dominate the scholarly discussion around the Brothers Poem. While such questions will no doubt find their place in future conversations, it is important, I feel, to pay tribute to this remarkable fragment as poetry and to begin to grapple with its complex literary poetics. The fragment offers valuable new insights into Sappho’s artistry, pointing up patterns that were perceptible in other fragments but never so clearly articulated as they are here.

We are now in a better position to appreciate how Sappho’s crafting of an alternative poetic tradition, one where the female speaker exercises voice and agency in relation to the nostos of a male relative, takes shape against the backdrop of Homeric epic. And here I do not mean “epic” in the sense of a static repository of songs and formulas from which later poets incorporated choice selections, but rather “epic” in the sense of a dynamically interactive compositional interface. Sappho, as we have seen, inserts herself and her island into a vibrant network of epic geography and nostoi songs. She reframes and recuperates episodes, such as the ones involving Nestor and Penelope, that have special resonance for her Lesbos-based listeners. In this way, Sappho not only creates a lyric medium in her own image (using that medium, conversely, to project her persona out into the world), she reveals the potential for even the most seemingly marginal [End Page 43] epic matter to give rise to poetic performances of tremendous local—and panhellenic—value.41

Melissa Mueller
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Bettenworth, Anja. 2014. “Sapphos Amme: Ein Beitrag zum neuen Sapphofragment (Brothers Poem),” ZPE 191.15–19.
Bierl, A. and A. Lardinois (eds.) forthcoming. The Newest Sappho (P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1–4). Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, vol. 2. Leiden.
Boedeker, Deborah. forthcoming. “Hera and the Return of Charaxos,” in Bierl and Lardinois forthcoming.
Bonifazi, Anna. 2009. “Inquiring into Nostos and its Cognates,” AJP 130.481–510.
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D’Alessio, Giovan Battista. 2009. “Language and Pragmatics,” in Budelmann 2009.114–29.
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Frame, Douglas. 1978. The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. New Haven.
———. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Cambridge, Mass.
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Lardinois, André. 2014. “Sappho en haar broers: Een nieuw lied van Sappho,” Lampas 47.179–201.
Liberman, Gautier. 2014. “Réflexions sur un nouveau poème de Sappho relatif à sa détresse et à ses frères Charaxos et Larichos,” paper delivered at F.I.E.C. Bordeaux, August 2014 (English version: “Reflections on a New Poem by Sappho Concerning her Anguish and her Brothers Charaxos and Larichos,” trans. Paul Ellis, www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/Fragments/Liberman.FIEC.Bordeaux.2014.pdf)
Lidov, Joel. 2004. “Hera in Sappho, Fr. 17 L-P, V—and Aeneid I?” Mnemosyne 57.387–406.
Martin, Richard P. 1989. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad. Ithaca, N.Y.
Nagy, Gregory. 2007. “Lyric and Greek Mythology,” in R. D. Woodard, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Greek Myth. Cambridge. 19–51.
Nünlist, René. 2014. “Das Schiff soll unversehrt sein, nicht voll! Zu Sapphos neuem Lied über die Brüder,” ZPE 191.13–14.
Obbink, Dirk. 2014a. “New Poems by Sappho,” published in the Times Literary Supplement, 5 February, 2014.
———. 2014b. “Two New Poems by Sappho,” ZPE 189.32–49.
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Pirenne-Delforge, Vinciane, and Gabriella Pironti. 2014. “Héra et Zeus à Lesbos: entre poésie lyrique et décret civique,” ZPE 191.27–31.
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1. I gratefully acknowledge permission to print the text of the Brothers Poem that will appear in Obbink forthcoming. Obbink’s new line numbering has been adopted, with the original numeration of P. Sapph. Obbink indicated in brackets.

2. This and all subsequent translations from the Greek are my own unless otherwise noted.

3. Four of these fragments are in the Green Collection in Oklahoma City (P. GC), while the fifth remains in the possession of a private collector from London: West 2014.1. For the fragments in the Green Collection, see Burris, Fish, and Obbink 2014. For edited texts and commentary on the Brothers Poem, see Ferrari 2014.1–4, Obbink 2014b and forthcoming, and West 2014.

4. For a sampling of first reactions and discussion, much of it focused on issues of provenance, dialect, and authenticity, visit: https://newsappho.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/discussing-the-two-new-sappho-poems/ (accessed 2/2/15).

5. M. L. West, for example, judged the poem on first inspection not one of Sappho’s “most poignant,” even calling it “frigid juvenilia” (see Obbink 2014a), though, according to Obbink 2015.4, he later retracted this overly harsh assessment and wrote the following in an email to Mary Beard: “My initial impression was that it was very poor stuff, and linguistically problematic. But the more I look at it, the more OK it seems. It’s certainly not one of her best, but it has her DNA all over it.”

6. See, e.g., Liberman 2014.1 on the newest Sappho: “It cannot be denied . . . that she composed poems whose interest lies not in their literary quality but in the biographical and historical perspective they provide. This is, in my opinion, the case with the main fragment contained in a column from a papyrus roll recently published by Dirk Obbink.”

7. Until the discovery of this fragment, Herodotus’s Histories (mid 5th century b.c.e.) contained the earliest mention of Charaxos, followed by a 3rd century b.c.e. epigram of Posidippus (referring to Rhodopis as Doricha). On the historical significance of the name’s appearance in Sappho, Obbink 2014b.32 remarks: “We quite simply have had no clue, up until now, as to the kind of information, or its source, that could have given rise to Herodotus’ story in a way that his fifth century Athenian audience might have found credible.”

8. By contrast, as Ferrari 2014.13 notes, the “cri du coeur” of the Kypris poem is more representative of the emotional fireworks for which the Mytilenean poet is famous.

9. Rissman 1983 and Winkler 1990.162–87 are excellent earlier explorations of Sappho’s self-conscious reshaping of Homeric tradition.

10. Od. 3.168–75. This passage is an intertext also for Sapph. 17, as discussed by Ferrari 2014.17.

11. Purves 2010.333–41 traces the association between wind and plot in the Odyssey, noting that “Menelaus’s and Odysseus’s returns are the most interesting in the poem precisely because the central importance of wind in their stories allows for the delays and plot turns through which a narrative can develop” (334). On the storm as a “metaphor of epic creation,” see Telò 2014.307, with further references.

12. On the connection between Nestor and nostos, see Frame 1978.82–115 and 2009. Bonifazi 2009.488 observes that Nestor “lets his audience know that he and Diomedes enjoyed a perfect nostos, as they went back home without any incidents.”

13. Priam’s kingdom at the height of its power was bordered by Phrygia, the Hellespont, and Lesbos (Il. 24.544).

14. inline graphic (“When Charaxos returned home to Mytilene after he had paid for Rhodopis’s release, Sappho rebuked him extensively in song,” 2.135.6). On Charaxos’s wine-trading, see Hdt. 2.135, Str. 17.1.33, and Ath. 13.596b–c.

15. See, however, Ferrari 2014.3 (acknowledging L. Prauscello) on the fact that Odysseus’s ship is full of guest-gifts (inline graphic, 13.41), not merchant cargo.

16. Obbink 2014b.40–41 identifies P. Oxy. 2289 fragment 5 as supplying a few letters, among which are ] ]σέμ.[from the missing opening stanza(s) of the Brothers Poem. West 2014.9 adds that “it is tempting to look for σέ, inline graphic, which would secure the addressee of the poem as Sappho’s mother, a reading accepted by Ferrari 2014 and now also Obbink 2015 and forthcoming. But a consensus is far from emerging. See notes 17 and 18 below.

17. This latter point is made by Ferrari 2014.4, arguing in favor of the mother as the addressee. Nünlist 2014, however, counters that a mother would not concern herself with the household’s economic affairs, while Bettenworth 2014 sees Sappho as rather rudely admonishing a Nurse for her senseless babble.

18. By contrast, Lardinois 2014 suggests that she may be speaking to her third brother, Eurygius; Stehle 2015 proposes Larichos as the addressee, even though he is mentioned in the third person in the final stanza.

19. Indeed, Kurke forthcoming argues on the basis of the negatively marked speech designated by θρυλέω that the addressee is likely to be female. Even apart from her gender, Hera is a natural divinity to approach because of her cultic associations with sea-farers and safe travel: see de Polignac 1997, Pirenne-Delforge and Pironti 2014, and Boedeker forthcoming.

20. The articulation was originally suggested by A. Henrichs, with a correction of the papyrus by M. L. West (see Obbink 2014.42).

21. Heubeck, West, and Hainsworth 1988.120 refers to Telemachos’s “adolescent rudeness, culminating in the outrageous claim that speech (inline graphic) is not women’s business.”

22. Clark 2001.353. On inline graphic and epic, see Martin 1989. Prauscello 2007 demonstrates that the contexts in which the ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει formula appears in Homer tend to involve “a potential threat to socially recognized gender distinctions” (214).

23. Penelope’s response is, in this sense, typical of the “underdistanced response,” wherein “one experiences art without any detachment from one’s own life experience,” as Peponi 2012.34 writes.

24. No other archaic poets, so far as we know, make use of this deictic; when inline graphic appears in later Greek authors, it has a distinctively Aeolic sound to it, and may even be echoing the formulations in Sappho we have just considered.

25. Obbink 2014b.43 notes that “the content of the prescribed prayer strongly resembles Sa. 5.1–2” and that “τυίδε, shared between both versions, is deictic and specific, i.e., ‘to Lesbos’ (perhaps even to Mesa, the place of Hera’s worship and of putative performance of the ode).” The same precinct is alluded to at Alcaeus 129 as the τέμενος μέγα, “the great precinct,” that the Lesbians hold in common, inline graphic (2–3).

26. See further Kurke forthcoming.

27. West 2014.11–12 emends ἐπάρωγον (ἐπάρηγον ante corr.) to ἐπ᾿ ἄρηον, translating δάιμον(α) as “fortune”: “Those whose fortune the ruler of Olympus chooses to turn around from hardship for the better, they become . . .” But I follow Obbink 2015.6 in understanding inline graphic as a possessive genitive with δαίμον(α) and taking περτρόπην as an epexegetic infinitive with ἐπάρωγον.

28. For Zeus’s nodding, see Il. 1.528 and 17.209.

29. Kurke forthcoming calls attention to the “vertical movement” of the last stanza, which also “characterizes the saving epiphanies of the Dioskuroi” in Hom. Hymn Dioskuroi and at Alcaeus 34V.

30. Compare Sappho 1.26, where the speaker begs Aphrodite to deliver her “from cares,” ἐκ μερίμναν, using the same verb (λύω) found in the final line of the Brothers Poem.

31. I adapt from West 2014.4 the translation of ἀράταν as “vowed.”

32. My translation of fragment 17 owes much to Obbink forthcoming. Burris, Fish, and Obbink 2014 suggests that ἀράταν (3) could either be a dual verb (with subject Ἀτρ[έιδα]ι as its subject) or a verbal adjective, in which case Ἀτρ[έιδα]ι would have to be a dative of agent, but West 2014.4 objects “there are no dual verbs in the Lesbians.” I construe Ἀτ[ρέιδα]ι as a nominative plural in apposition to βασίληες rather than as a dative singular.

33. The new papyrus supplements several older readings from P.Oxy 1231 and PSI 123, so the bracketed lines often contain conjectures that have already been verified, so, e.g., τυίδ᾿ ἀπ]ορμάθεν, at the beginning of line 7, is printed without brackets in the editions of both Voigt and Campbell.

35. West 2014.4 observes that “in summarizing the story Sappho evokes both the legend of the Trojan War and that of the Nostoi,” although she changes the details so that Agamemnon and Menelaus reach Lesbos together. See also West 2002 on the Lesbian poets’ engagement with epic themes.

36. Lidov 2004.401 proposes that Sappho may be alluding to “an alternate narrative of the return (of Menelaus), one in which Hera has a characteristic role.”

37. And, with slight revisions, in Obbink forthcoming.

38. Instead of Κύπρι καὶ] Νηρήιδες, as printed by Voigt and Campbell 1982, Burris, Fish and Obbink 2014.6 note that P. GC. Inv. 105 Fr. 3 col. ii 10–29 “gives the opening and the line-beginnings of Sa. 5, and so supplies definitively the long-conned incipit to this poem—πότνιαι Νηρήιδες, giving special prominence to these collective divinities, whether in the context of their cult on Lesbos (FGrHist 477 F14), or in a collective stylization as protectresses of sea-farers and guides for the dead.”

39. I owe to Mario Telò the insight that Sappho’s ἀβλαβής can be read as a gloss on the Homeric ἀσκηθής.

40. At Od. 5.26, 5.144, 5.168, 9.79 (adapted as a first-person utterance). See Telò forthcoming on the role of adjective ἀσκηθής within the Odyssean ideology of nostos.

41. This paper was originally presented at the “Sappho: New Voices” colloquium at Bard College, October 18, 2014. I’d like to thank Lauren Curtis for inviting me to participate in the event as well as the other speakers and participants for their stimulating contributions. Egbert Bakker, Lilah Grace Canevaro, Leslie Kurke, Pauline LeVen, Donald Mastronarde, Alex Purves, Mario Telò, and Arethusa’s referee read and greatly improved earlier versions of this essay with their insightful comments and corrections.