- 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...