Today, only few poems by the ancient Greek poetess Sappho have survived, but thanks to new findings, two new works have been recovered, giving experts hope to find even more.
These previously unknown poems by the great poetess of the 7th century B.C. came to light when the owner of an ancient papyrus consulted Oxford classicist world-renowned papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink about the Greek writings on the tattered scrap.
Despite Sappho’s fame in antiquity and huge literary output, only one complete poem survives until today, along with substantial portions of four others. One of those four was only recovered in 2004, also from a scrap of papyrus.
“The new Sappho is the best preserved Sappho papyrus in existence, with just a few letters that had to be restored in the first poem, and not a single word that is in doubt. Its content is equally exciting,” said a Harvard classics professor upon examining the papyrus.
One of the two recovered poems speaks of a Charaxos and a Larichos, the names assigned by ancient Greeks to two of Sappho’s brothers, though never before found in Sappho’s own writings. The poem is set to cause discussions about whether or not the two men are Sappho’s brothers. It depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker may be Sappho herself, but the loss of the poem’s initial lines makes this unclear.
A horizontal line on the papyrus indicates the end of the first poem and the beginning of the next, an address to the goddess Aphrodite. Only scattered words from this second poem can be recovered from the papyrus, which grows more tattered and illegible to the end.
The two poems share a common meter, the so-called Sapphic stanza, a verse form perhaps devised by Sappho and today bearing her name. Both belonged, therefore, to the first of Sappho’s nine books of poetry and their recovery gives a clearer glimpse into the makeup and structure of that book. “All the poems of Sappho’s first book seem to have been about family, biography, and cult, together with poems about love/Aphrodite,” Dr. Obbink writes.
Sappho wrote in a dialect of Greek called Aeolic, which is significantly different in sound and spellings than the Attic Greek that later became standard. The handwriting on the papyrus allowed Dr. Obbink to establish its date as late 2nd or 3rd century A.D., almost a millennium after Sappho first wrote. It was not long after this time that Aeolic texts and other non-standard dialects began to die out in ancient Greece, with the focus of educators and copyists shifting on Attic writers.
The new Sappho papyrus probably came from the Egyptian city of Oxyrynchus, home to a large Greek-speaking population in antiquity and the source of most of these papyri, “since in its dry climate even plant-based materials can survive intact,” explains Dr. Obbink, also head of Oxford University’s Oxyrynchus Papyrus Project.