In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Language and Agency in Sappho’s Brothers Poem
  • Alexandra Leewon Schultz (bio)

Notes on Provenance

The papyrus fragment containing the text of the Brothers Poem (P.Sapph.Obbink) has no established provenance, since Dirk Obbink’s accounts of provenance have been exposed as fabrications. There is further reason to believe the fragment was looted and sold illegally on the antiquities black market: P.Sapph.Obbink comes from the same book roll as the illegally-acquired Hobby Lobby/Green Collection fragments that were returned to Egypt in January 2021. The present whereabouts of P.Sapph.Obbink are unknown. This article engages with the text of the poem and its scholarly reception, but it is equally important that we continue to investigate the object’s history. I draw the reader’s attention to the important work by Roberta Mazza and others.1

Introduction: Approaching Sappho through Alcaeus

What role should gender play in interpreting Sappho’s poetry? Did Sappho reproduce ancient gender norms, which typically defined woman as the negative antithesis of man (man/woman, public/private, active/passive, powerful/powerless)? Or can Sappho’s poetry offer alternative conceptions of gender roles and agency? These are genuine questions, as we lack contextual data to explain how Sappho composed poetry in a male-dominated society where speech was power. What did it mean for a woman to compose songs in archaic Greece?

From considerations of style to reconstructions of performance context, Sappho’s gender has led many critics to approach her poetry differently from that of other lyric poets.2 Historically this double standard has been most obvious in discussions of her erotic poetry. Yet a double standard has also impacted scholarship on the [End Page 113] recently discovered Brothers Poem; although many of its features can be found in the work of other lyric poets, scholars have interpreted them in gendered terms. Take the poem’s form. Joel Lidov, who perceptively observes that the poem’s “prosaic” syntax, style, and meter are more typical of Alcaeus than Sappho, concludes that Sappho employs these devices to craft an “awkward” persona (2016, 101–105). Or its content: male poets also pray to Hera, but scholars interpret Sappho’s prayer to the goddess as an admission of powerlessness, since women “cannot do anything more active than talk or pray” (Swift 2018, 84).3

In general, scholars are preoccupied with the poem’s gender norms and power dynamics. Regarding the interlocutor’s identity, some argue that a man would not “babble” (θϱύλησθα) or take orders from the speaker (σὲ δ’ οὐ χϱῆ […]), while others doubt that a woman would have the “authority” to command the speaker to pray (πέμπην ἔμε ϰαὶ ϰέλεσθαι […]).4 Meanwhile, though some critics view the speaker as “a person of authority,”5 most have concluded that the poem depicts women’s lack of agency.6 It is worth noting that nothing in the poem’s text genders the speaking ‘I’ as a woman. Perhaps the initial stanza originally included a gender marker, and certainly the performance would have gendered the speaking voice. However, it may be the case that Sappho and her audience were simply less interested in issues of gender than we are.7 The poem’s gender dynamics still merit scholarly attention, but interpretations that isolate Sappho from a wider lyric tradition risk missing what is unique about her poetry—and often import modern prejudice without methodological justification.

In this article, I reevaluate the style and internal dynamics of the Brothers Poem by reading it alongside Alcaeus’s poetry and argue that Sappho depicts women endowed with agency. Critics have thus far mainly focused on reconstructing the religious context that Sappho and Alcaeus shared,8 but by comparing their language we can illuminate how to read Sappho’s poetry both as archaic lyric and as female. In Part I of this article, building on previous studies of poetic diction, [End Page 114] imagery, and themes common to the Lesbian poets, I address features that the Brothers Poem shares with the poetry of Alcaeus.9 Some of these elements in the Brothers Poem have been read as gendered or as admissions of powerlessness, but I argue that these features should be understood instead as a ‘poetics of misfortune.’10 In...