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Comparer en histoire des religions antiques

Claude Calame
Bruce Lincoln

Thirty-six views of Mytilene : Comparative Approaches to Ancient Lesbos

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Par définition la littérature comparée compare. Dans la présente étude, j’envisage les contributions que la tradition de la discipline centrée sur les textes et le langage peut apporter à l’étude comparative des religions. Je réponds à l’appel à jouer dans le « champ des polythéismes » et à comparer, utilisant comme exemples les poèmes lyriques de Sappho. Bien que les érudits aient souvent traité la poétesse de Lesbos comme l’auteur de poèmes érotiques, ou comme une fidèle d’Aphrodite, leur relecture fait apparaître un polythéisme plus large. La comparaison des fragments de Sappho avec ceux de son contemporain Alcée, avec des poèmes d’Asie mineure et d’Égypte, avec un hymne du Rig Veda et avec un poète lyrique chinois situe la poétesse de Lesbos sous différents éclairages. Elle aboutit à un appel à inclure les humanités, avec l’anthropologie et l’histoire, dans l’étude comparative des religions et à respecter ses formes plus ouvertes et associatives de lecture et d’analyse.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Spivak, 2003, p. 2 – 4.

1My training began in comparative literature. Little could be further from how I conceive my project at present, but nonetheless, I want to use what are sometimes considered literary objects as a ground for thinking about comparison. Of course, for comparative literature as a discipline, the act of comparison is imperative. In the United States, the heyday of comparative literature came with the flight of intellectuals from Europe, especially from Germany, before, during and after the Second World War, including such luminaries as Erich Auerbach, René Wellek, Leo Spitzer, Renato Poggioli, Claudio Guillen, and Paul de Man. And it centered on comparison within the European literatures, drawing on the impressive competency of these refugees in the European languages, including Latin and Greek. But with the passing of the generation of refugee scholars, and the importation of so-called “theory” into the Anglo-Saxon world of literary studies, the project of comparativism waned. In 2003 the American scholar Gayatri Spivak published The Death of a Discipline, urging that comparative literature as an academic field resuscitate itself by extending itself to new geographies, new comparisons, collaborating with social sciences, but this has not in fact occurred, and the center of gravity in North American literary academia has shifted to cultural studies, multiculturalism, and postcolonial studies, mostly conducted in a hegemonic English, rather than a renewed comparative literature.1 And the project of comparison has faltered in an uneasy alliance with so-called “area studies,” a form of social science seemingly hopelessly corrupted by its funding by the US government as part of a neo-colonial enterprise.

2The field of classical studies is, should be even more than it is, interdisciplinary and comparative in relation to the divisions of labor of the contemporary academy. Classicists compare Greece to Rome, Sparta to Athens, archaic Greece to classical, classical to Hellenistic, Greeks in the Roman empire to Latin culture under Rome. As I became more focused on ancient Greece, turning away from comparative literature in practice, as it changed, it seemed to me that classical studies offered an extraordinary matrix for comparison and interdisciplinary work. It has seemed to me necessary to move beyond even traditional classicists’ forms of comparison, however, in the tracing of influence or diffusion, or common structural features, for example, to consider the multiple differences not just among different ethnicities and dialects of those who came to call themselves Hellenes, but also those people at the edges of the ancient Greek and Roman world, especially around the Mediterranean, Africa, and Asia Minor, and then extending even further into Asia. In the present case, I am concerned especially with temporal and geographical contiguity, and with those cultural forms we sometimes name “religion,” although I stretch the model of comparison to include sites with no such contiguities in order to point to specific and significant differences.

3As I have become more and more interested in the phenomena we now treat together as “religion,” including the politics of polytheism and monotheism, the question arises : How can we separate “religion” from other phenomena of these cultures, including the Greek ; should we define Athenian tragedy, for example, as a literary form, a political event, or a religious performance ? In the case of the archaic Lesbian fragments, my subject here, even to define them as “poems,” or “religious texts,” produces difficulties, productive obstacles to assimilating these objects into contemporary categories such as “religion”. My title refers to an attempt to rethink the nature of comparison, not to compare religions, not pantheons, not structures, but rather to compare texts and performances sometimes considered religious, part of cult practice, and to sketch out ways in which comparison with other cultural situations might illuminate the specificity of the ancient Lesbian fragments. I focus here on practice, on cult, on performance and worship rather than on reified deities, on fragments rather than on belief.

4I take my title from Hokusai via Wallace Stevens via Jacques Rivette. “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” is an ukiyo-e series of large, color woodblock prints by the eighteenth-century Japanese artist (1760 – 1849). The series depicts the sacred Mount Fuji in differing seasons and weather conditions from a variety of different places and distances. Beginning from the archaic poetry of Lesbos, this chapter will draw back from the specificities of cult practice on the island to consider the value of increasingly remote comparative lenses. Among them will be other archaic songs and hymns, later Greek poetry and cult, ancient Near Eastern and African examples, Vedic song, and so on, to the somewhat arbitrary and distant comparandum of Chinese empire. Although I move from relationships of temporal and geographical contiguity to more remote objects of comparison, my point is to “play” with the potentiality inherent in comparativism, not to limit myself only to those cultural situations that are easily juxtaposed in time and space. How widely can we “pan,” how valuable are the varieties of comparison possible ? Questions that arise, and that I make note of but cannot answer yet : Can we use contemporary monotheism as a frame of contrast for considering ancient polytheisms ? Are contemporary polytheisms so contaminated by post-colonialism as to render them irrelevant to a study of ancient Lesbian polytheism ? And I must set aside for the moment other burning questions, such as a definition of performance, of enunciation, of transmission of the texts, etc.


  • 2 Calame, 1977/1997, 1992/1999, 2009a.
  • 3 Yatromanolakis & Roilos, 2004.
  • 4 Lincoln, 1981, p. 73.

5As all who work on Sappho are, I am deeply indebted to the work of Claude Calame on Sappho and on Greek choral song ; Calame himself uses comparative studies in initiation rites to illuminate the choral performances of women in the archaic Greek city.2 Among questions that persist in the study of this Lesbian poet : are Sappho’s songs choral hymns, prayers, monodies or personal meditations containing myths, fictions, songs rhetorically framed for seduction?3 Perhaps comparison with other traditions will allow for further triangulation, a speculative fix on these matters in relation to the question of religion. What follows are really only sketches, hypotheses concerning a case study. The question is not : compare or not compare ? But rather, what might we learn from what form of comparison ? I have been strongly influenced in this effort to expand the mission of comparative literature into my work on ancient religion by the work of Bruce Lincoln, and Marcel Detienne. For example, in Emerging from the Chrysalis, Lincoln used anthropological case studies of female initiation rites among the Tiyyar of India, the Navajo of the American Southwest, the Tiv of Nigeria, and the Tukuna of Brazil, all observed and analyzed by twentieth-century anthropologists, fearlessly to interpret the historically remote Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Attica, which were performed in so-called “pagan” antiquity. Lincoln points out the difficulties of extending his analyses of ritual initiation to a period when anthropologists, of course, did not yet exist, when the sorts of evidence available for analysis of contemporary cultures, although at a different stage of development, cannot be retrieved and we must rely on such materials as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a song that Lincoln argued allows us to speculate that a “ritual resembling that described in the myth was actually performed for some or all women in these regions upon their arriving at puberty.”4 He emphasizes the differences, the methodological crisis that emerges with the stretch from a ritual last performed in the 1930s, for example, and reconstructed on the basis of witnesses’ testimony, and the work on a ritual of archaic and classical antiquity :

  • 5 Lincoln, 1981, p. 72.

A much more serious set of problems arises […] when one wishes to study rituals of the more distant past or of civilizations that have disappeared. In this case the researcher must make use of such evidence as may exist. […] Literary sources […] may offer valuable testimony. Certain historical, mythological, and narrative texts contain accounts of rituals, occasionally in disguised form but often quite plainly laid out.5

6Lincoln acknowledges that his reconstruction of the Eleusinian ritual from the materials available is “highly conjectural,” yet it has proven invaluable in its influence on scholars’ understanding of the role of such rituals in women’s experience in Greek antiquity. With an admirable lack of anxiety about comparing what some would call “incomparables,” Lincoln boldly juxtaposes phenomena from radically distant cultures, both historically and geographically.

  • 6 Detienne, 1990 and 1994, Detienne & Hamonic, 1994, Detienne & Cartry, 1996.

7Marcel Detienne also argues for considering together phenomena that might seem to some as “incomparable.” In a series of edited volumes, he has presented work from experts in a wide variety of disciplines, using various languages, in a great polyphony of examples, usually grounded in history and anthropology, to illuminate aspects of culture made newly intelligible through such efforts of juxtaposition.6 And in a programmatic work, Comparing the incomparable, he conducts a polemic with those who would limit comparisons — nationalist historians, for example, and classicists in particular :

  • 7 Detienne, 2000/2008, p. 27.

Having become a “we/I”, a comparativist moves among communities that differ increasingly from one another the more fragile the bridges between them become, always carrying with him or her a little bunch of questions, as if to sweep over as extensive as possible a field of investigation that is as yet without limits.7

  • 8 Detienne, 2000/2008, p. 37.

8But why limit the effort of comparison to ethnologists and historians ? As Detienne argues later in the same volume, in answer to the question “What is the use of comparison ?” : “I have joined the camp of those who prefer a history that is open to all human societies across both space and time.” [emphasis added]8 Although Detienne probably would not endorse my more literary practice of comparison, I am inspired to try to bring together diverse objects, and to observe what their diversity tells us about the ancient religious texts, if they are indeed texts, or indeed religious, texts like the Homeric Hymn to Demeter analyzed by Lincoln, or the poems/hymns/prayers attributed to Sappho.

9In my opinion, juxtaposing songs, or poems, from a variety of cultures, with a view to understanding their relationship to divinity, is as methodologically justified as juxtaposing foundation practices in ancient cultures with modern tribal cultures, rituals from India’s Vedic past with rituals observed and recorded by twentieth or twenty-first century anthropologists, practices concerning homicide at various sites in antiquity and in the recent past and present. My practice is no more arbitrary than that of those assembled in these collective volumes of thematic subjects ; and in fact, one could argue that comparing cultural artifacts from historically distant cultures, from prehistory to late capitalism, or even from colonialized societies invaded by anthropologists, may be more intellectually suspect than setting alongside one another religious/hymnal/poetic texts from before the common era. Is the criterion of selection in such examples simply that the cultures are at a similar stage of development ? How is this to be determined, and on what scale of development ? Is a tribal practice in Africa in the twentieth century, viewed by anthropologists from the colonizing powers, really at the same stage of development, in any sense, as the urban polis culture of ancient Greece ? In any case, if I do compare what seem to some to be disparate objects, one might say that the choices are governed by various sorts of rhetorical figures such as metaphor, or substitution, metonymy, a form of metaphor determined by such relationships as “part for whole,” and proximity, or antithesis, examples defined by their opposition, and so on.

10I have selected examples for comparison that are linked by some of these sorts of relationship : proximity, opposition, difference, similarity. The proposed comparisons are meant to reveal difference, to bring into focus the specificities of these differing examples. And I use them to consider where the works of Sappho might fall on a spectrum that has as possible ends a completely secular song, erotic, perhaps in nature, and at the opposite end a song that is addressed to a divinity, or divinities, praise and a prayer. If we locate Sappho’s lyrics along this spectrum, we see that her songs, her poems, her hymns, her prayers, differ from all the others, and the comparison illuminates certain features of Sappho’s practice. She is neither as focused on prayers uttered to divinities as some, nor as intimate and personal in her lyrics as are some of those songs addressed to lovers. Although one may want to classify her songs as religious artifacts, their status may prove more ambiguous.

Sappho, fragments 1 and 2

11Sappho’s fragment 2 invokes the goddess Aphrodite :

  • 9 Daley, 2011.

Be here for me from Crete in this holy shrine […]
Here you, Kypris, take […]
in golden wine cups, luxuriously
mixed with our festivities, nectar

  • 10 Segal, 1974 ; Yatromanolakis, 2004.

12Scholars have commented on the incantatory, almost magical sound of this fragment.10 One imagines the poet-singer performing this song in a ritual context, invoking Aphrodite, goddess of eros, summoning her to the place of performance, a glade near a temple, with the features portrayed in the lines of verse. We cannot know where or when this ceremony first took place, or even, indeed, if it was a religious performance, in our sense. Because the voice in the poem uses the first person plural, calling the addressee, the goddess, to descend, we imagine a group of worshippers, but the song might just as well have been performed on a non-ritual occasion, a symposion, or for festivities of which we know little. Yet it resembles the first fragment of Sappho, establishing a seeming intimacy between divinity and worshipper. While the second fragment speaks of a collective, the first poem, even more like a prayer, a hymn, perhaps, than the poem summoning Aphrodite from Crete, calls the goddess from her father Zeus’ home in the heavens, and entreats her to help her single devotee, here explicitly named Sappho :

Upon your intricately wrought throne, deathless Aphrodite child of Zeus weaving lures. I beg you
don’t break my heart with longing nor with grief Oh queen
But come here, if once at another time
you heard my cry from afar
and you responded, and came leaving your father’s house golden
chariot yoked […]
Come again, free me from painful
care. However much my heart desires to make happen,
make happen. You yourself
fight on my side.

13Is this a religious hymn, a prayer, a playful parody of a hymn ?

  • 11 Roche, 1998, p. 11.

14Feminist classical scholars have tended to frame Sappho as a love poet, rather than the composer of ritual hymns, and as a worshipper of Aphrodite, to the exclusion of other gods. In part because of the intensity of these two poems, the atmosphere of intimate supplication, and the way in which the worship of Aphrodite corresponds to our own ideas, aesthetic and religious, constructed through the legacy of Sappho’s verse, we may read her poetry through the lens of this particular devotion, as a henotheism, devotion to one particular, favorite god among the many of a polytheistic pantheon. The introduction to Paul Roche’s translation Love Songs of Sappho, republished in 1998, begins : “The ancient Greek poet Sappho writes of Aphrodite the goddess of sexuality, of soft beds, roses, groves sacred to the goddess… ”11 The author of this statement is me. Contemporary literary and feminist classical scholars have read Sappho as a lover and a poet, rather than the composer of ritual hymns, and as a worshipper of Aphrodite, to the exclusion of other gods.

15If some scholars have been more comfortable seeing Sappho as devoted single-mindedly to Aphrodite, it may be because most of us are interpellated into traditionally monotheistic cultures. Jacques Lacan, in his seminar on Sophocles’ Antigone, concurs :

  • 12 Lacan, 1986/1992, p. 260.

[…] we no longer have any idea what the gods are. Let us not forget that we have lived for a long time under Christian law […] If you read the Phaedrus, […] which is a reflection on the nature of love, you will see that we have changed the very axis of the words that designate it […] We Christians have erased the whole sphere of the gods.12

  • 13 Parker, 2007, p. 445.

16According to Robert Parker, author of the recent Polytheism and Society at Athens, “Greek polytheism is indescribable… Gods overflowed like clothes from an over-filled drawer which no one felt obliged to tidy.” Responding to scholarly attempts to order the Greek pantheon, Parker sets structuralist paradigms for understanding Greek polytheism against what he regards as the chaotic illogic in actual cultic practices : “It is difficult to read a sacrificial calendar or a few pages of Pausanias without bewilderment.”13 Although he has done much to illuminate the details of Athenian polytheist worship, Parker remains skeptical about tidying up the drawer.

  • 14 Detienne, 2000/2008, p. 57 – 78.
  • 15 Parker, 2007, p. 399.
  • 16 Parker, 2007, p. 402.

17Exemplary of the untidiness of actual worship are the divinities invoked in time of war. To experiment with, or play with these gods, as Marcel Detienne has urged, is to come to terms, in Athens alone, with Athena, Enyo, Enyalios, Ares and Athena Areia (invoked by the ephebes in their oath), Athena Nike, the Hyakinthides Parthenoi.14 These Attic heroines “had saved the city by themselves serving, on a variously identified occasion, as the pre-battle offerings demanded by the gods as price of victory.”15 Also implicated were Zeus, especially as Zeus Tropaios (“Of the Turn”), Artemis Agrotera, who received a pre-battle sphagion, a “slaughter-sacrifice.” Pan too figures in the field of battle ; and the temenos of Apollo Lykeios was “the main training ground for the cavalry and hoplites of Athens.”16 To say for example that Ares is the god of war is to tidy up this picture mercilessly. The informing (and implicit comparative) presence of monotheism may trouble our understanding of ancient polytheism, as we try to enter into the world of the ancient Greeks.

18If Sappho has been associated with Aphrodite, what would it mean to understand the body of Sappho’s work otherwise, to read what gods there are besides, beside Aphrodite ? And is it sufficient to categorize women’s worship, for example, as focused by stage of life : Artemis for adolescence and initiation, Aphrodite and Hera for the stage of marriage — or focused by social class, Demeter for citizen class women, Aphrodite and Adonis for sex-workers ? Is this not serial henotheism ? The realities may be much less tidy.

Comparison of Sappho to herself

19Some of the many gods who inhabit Sappho’s poems seem to belong to the world of Aphrodite. Eros, for example, shook her heart, as does a wind falling upon mountain oaks (fragment 47), that Eros descended from heaven, dressed in a purple cloak (fragment 54) ; fragment 130, from Hephaistion’s Handbook on Meter, quotes Sappho : “Eros, the limb-loosener, again stirs me/ like a sweet bitter irresistible creeping beast.” Other divinities mentioned include those associated with Sappho’s vocation as a singer. She often names the Muses, sometimes accompanied by the Graces, but this too might be seen as ancillary to a devotion to Aphrodite.

20What of other divinities addressed by Sappho, who are more sharply distinguished from Aphrodite ? The most significant of these were the gods of a triple shrine on the island of Lesbos, invoked in a song that demonstrates most fully the polytheistic reference of Sappho’s work. This is fragment 17, which summons not Aphrodite, but the goddess Hera :

  • 17 Daley, 2011. On this poem, see Calame, 2009a, p. 2 – 7.

Near me, as I pray you that you may appear
Lady Hera your elegant figure
to whom the sons of Atreus prayed. Those glorious kings
having won many prizes,
first around Ilium, then on the high sea,
but then setting out for this place were not able to complete the voyage
until they appealed to you and to Zeus of the supplicants and to Thyone’s son who excites desire.
Now be gracious, and help me also in accord with the ancient ways.
Sacred and beautiful […]
maidens […]
gather round […] […]
to be […]
to arrive at the shrine.17

  • 18 Burkert, 1985, p. 134.

21How are we to understand this reference to Hera, associated most often with weddings and marriage, rather than with seduction ? Hera was not deified as a mother : her son, the monster Typhaon, was born parthenogenically, as was Hephaistos, who was thrown out of Olympos when his mother saw his crippled body. She was also known for violent rage, against Dionysos, Proitos’ daughters, Io ; at her instigation Herakles kills his wife and children in Thebes in a fit of madness, the inversion of marriage ; Hera festivals, according to Walter Burkert, represent “a deep crisis in which the established order breaks down and the goddess herself threatens to disappear.”18 In relation to Sappho’s request for help in her address to Hera, there were enormous risks in voyages by sea in antiquity, and embarkations were often accompanied by vows and sacrifice, libation and prayer, and garlands thrown into the sea : The Homeric visit of Menelaos to Lesbos concerned the insecurity and dangers of crossing from Troy back to Greece. Sappho’s fragment 17 is just one moment where we see another Sappho, not the single-minded, erotically fixed, ecstatic worshipper of Aphrodite ; she asks for help from Hera, for safe passage by sea for some friend or companion or lover.

22Nestor in the Odyssey recalls that as the Greeks left Troy, Menelaos was unsure of the route to take over the sea and back to Greece, and met with him at Lesbos, asking “the god” to give them a portent, and the god gave them a sign to take “the middle main sea” for Euboia (Odyssey III, 168 – 176). “The god” here may refer to Apollo. The archaeologist Nigel Spencer comments in detail on cultic remains discovered on the island of Lesbos :

  • 19 Spencer, 1995a, p. 296.

In Lesbos […] there was the important cult of Apollo Maloeis at Mytilene, and another named ‘Apollo Napaios’ is referred to by Stephanus of Byzantium (its exact location and date is unknown). It has even been suggested by Schiering that the archaic cult building on the acropolis at Pyrrha in Lesbos first discovered [by Boehlau] in 1906 – 1907 may have been devoted to the same god.19

23Apollo Maloeis is mentioned by Thucydides (III, 3, 3), who notes in passing that the whole city of Mytilene, Sappho’s city, was said to celebrate the festival in the fifth century. The direct address to Hera rather than to Apollo in Sappho’s fragment 17, a prayer to beg her to manifest herself to the singer of the song, strikingly widens and opens the sense of Sappho as addresser of divinity, one focused perhaps on female divinity.

Comparison of Sappho with Alkaios

24The polytheism practiced on Lesbos is confirmed by Alkaios, Sappho’s contemporary, in his fragment 129 :

  • 20 Campbell, 1982, p. 297.

[…] the Lesbians established this great conspicuous precinct to be held in common, and put in it altars of the blessed immortals, and they entitled Zeus God of Suppliants and you, the Aeolian, Glorious Goddess, Mother of all, and this third they named Kemelios, Dionysus, eater of raw flesh.20

  • 21 Tarditi, 1967.

25Giovanni Tarditi, in a characteristic interpretation, once argued that these altars represent not the Sapphic triad, but a very ancient Aegean religious form consisting of two masculine divinities subordinated to a goddess at the center, related to preHellenic and protoHellenic triads. This goddess bears the name “Eolia” here ; she is thus the protectress not only of the Lesbians, but of all the Aeolians, and her cult “antichissimo.” Her representation as boôpis, in his view, refers to the Magna Mater in the form of a cow, and has no reference to the Olympian Hera.21

26Alkaios names Zeus first, and asks the three gods of the shrine to hear his prayer, to rescue him and his friends from hardship and exile, and to allow an avenger to pursue his enemy, Pittakos, ruler of Mytilene. Alkaios is focused here on the politics of the island of Lesbos, and his masculine perspective differs radically from that of Sappho. Elsewhere Alkaios nostalgically recalls the Lesbian precinct of Hera and its famous beauty contest (fragment 130b), but the gender distinction between the two contemporary Lesbian poets marks the structures of their address to the gods. Questions raised, perhaps unanswerable : Does Alkaios’ polytheist practice illuminate Sappho’s ? is Sappho declining to acknowledge Apollo, subordinating Zeus to Hera, refusing the militarist connotations of Alkaios’ songs, as in other of her poems she declines the Homeric legacy celebrating warriors and war, choosing Anaktoria over cavalrymen, infantry, and ships at sea (fragment 16) ? Is her selection of female deities significant, centering on Aphrodite and Hera while subordinating Zeus and Apollo ?

Comparison with Asia Minor

  • 22 Mason, 2008, p. 60.

27If we extend our experimentation, our comparative play, the range of others multiplies. Although we may think of the island of Lesbos as Greek, part of modern Greece, therefore European and westward-facing, in fact Lesbos lies very close to Asia Minor, and is a near neighbor of modern Turkey. In the pre-classical period, Lesbos looked toward Asia. Hugh Mason has argued for the possibility that Lesbos was “under Hittite control in the Late Bronze Age,” citing “the Anatolian appearance of the name Lazpa, a possible Hittite etymology for Mytilene, the association of Makar’s law code with King Muwa-walwi, and possible connections of the Pelops/Myrsilus myth with Lesbos.”22 Other aspects of religious practice on the island of Lesbos may connect it with Asia Minor. A structure on the island of Lesbos excavated by Chatzi in 1973, near the harbor of ancient Mytilene — according to Nigel Spencer — contained :

  • 23 Spencer, 1995a, p. 298 ; see also Spencer 1995b, p. 38 – 40, especially “‘Greek’ and ‘Native’ group (...)

two archaic statuettes which were representations of the goddess Kybele. One of the statuettes (from which the goddess’s head was missing) had been built into a later wall nearby and showed the deity sitting, taming a lion in her lap, […] it is tempting to suggest that the temple here in Mytilene is [an] example of duality of worship in one building. Alkaios speaks of such duality in worship at the pan-Lesbian shrine at Messa in central Lesbos in the archaic period.23

28Kybele was the great mother goddess of Anatolia, goddess of mountains, of wilderness, of ecstatic states bringing on raptures of prophecy and an indifference to pain, and her worship may have extended to the island of Lesbos, where she presided along with the other traditional divinities of the Greek pantheon.

  • 24 Lopez-Ruiz, 2010, p. 35.
  • 25 Lopez-Ruiz, 2010, p. 109.

29Carolina Lopez-Ruiz’s recent book When the Gods were Born : Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East, describes in detail the connections between motifs of the Northwest Semitic tradition and those of the Greeks, examining Ugaritic, Phoenician and Hebrew counterparts to the creation myths that include the figure of Hera. She argues for fluidity of contact, and for a great variety of cultural influence, “exchange, borrowing, adaptation and the like,” as a result of “traveling religious specialists,” “interaction for commercial or even religious reasons (often inseparable), as, for example, at the Samian Heraion, at the Heraion at Perachora … ”24 she adds : “The position of his [Zeus’] sister and principal consort Hera is like that of Anat, Baal’s sister and partner (though not consort).”25 There are signs of “foreign merchants, artists, and craftsmen in Greek territory”, whom she argues may have been absorbed into artisan workshops, and also of bilingual or bicultural families, or households that included slaves, wet nurses, teachers, friends.

  • 26 West, 1997, p. 531.

30Contacts and exchange may have allowed for various forms of connection between Western Asia and Lesbos and are ripe for comparative study. Comparison here is founded on historical and territorial contacts between Greek-speaking peoples and societies in neighboring regions. In his East Face of Helicon, Martin L. West compared Sappho’s antiphonal fragment 137 with “the so-called divine love lyrics of Sumer, which include erotic dialogue songs between Inanna and Dumuzi… Among the love songs and excerpts which make up the Song of Solomon, too, we find fragments of he-she dialogues.” He notes that although there is an abundance of Near Eastern elements in Sappho’s verse, her Lesbian contemporary Alcaeus “offers little material for comment”26.

  • 27 Watkins, 2007, p. 317 – 318.

31In an essay called “The Golden Bowl : Thoughts on the New Sappho and its Asian ic Background,” Calvert Watkins discusses the use of the conjectured dépas in the newly discovered Cologne fragment, Sappho’s fragment 58, on the inevitability of human aging and death, which uses the exemplum of Eos’ (Dawn)’s rapture of the mortal Tithonos, who ages but is made immortal. He takes issue with West’s emendation of the papyrus, urging comparison between this text and Luvian materials, and he “explores the relation between a set of poetic formulas in early Greek and Anatolian languages of the second and early first millennia having to do with the cosmography of the rising sun in macrocosm, and going up into bed in microcosm… The Luvian word for “sky, heaven,” represented as a bowl in Hieroglyphic, is [he argues] the likeliest source of the Greek word dépas, Mycenean dipas, in the second millennium, together with the associative semantics of dépas and “heaven” evidenced in Hittite and Luvian texts in the second millennium, and in early Greek poetry in the first.”27 Watkins translates Sappho’s fragment 58 :

For once, they said, rosy-armed Dawn for love went up into the bowl, carrying Tithonus to the ends of the earth, and he fair and young, but nonetheless in time grey old age caught him, having an immortal wife withal.

  • 28 Watkins, 2007, p. 318.

32He argues : “And for Dawn to ‘go up into the bowl for love/lust, ’ 24 eroi depas eisambomenai — as would seem quite appropriate after an abduction — is pace West immediately comparable to the sexually directed epic lekhos eisanabainein, huperoion eisanabainein, and might well have appealed to Sappho : the depas has become a love nest into which Dawn carries off Tithonus, bearing him to the ends of the earth.”28

33Comparison with Luvian hieroglyphs, as well as material from Stesichorus, changes our sense of the new Sappho fragment, allowing for a different restoration of the text but also a mysterious and archaic picture of erotic gratification for the Dawn and her lover, one that links it more powerfully to divinity and to the cosmological domain of the heavens.

Comparison with Ancient Egypt

34Lesbian poetry not only has affinities with the ancient Near East, but is also comparable with the African world of ancient Egypt, and here I pass from connections apparent from historical contact to a more speculative mode. The Egyptian collection of erotic poetry called Poems of Love and Devotion, from the New Kingdom (1570 – 1090 BCE), much earlier than Sappho’s lyrics, has affinities with Sappho’s themes. For example, the catalogue that turns the lover’s head :

  • 29 Faulkner, 1972, p. 43.

Distracting is the [foliage] of my [pasture];
[the mouth] of my girl is a lotus bud,
her breasts are mandrake apples [… ]29

35These lines themselves recall the erotic verses of the Hebrew Bible’s “Song of Songs : ”

A garden locked is my sister,
my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon (IV, 12–14).

36Although these verses were later read as allegories concerning the Christian believer and the church, comparison with other erotic poetry, as in the Egyptian texts, suggests not a religious reference, worship, cult, divinity, but mortal, human desire, unmediated by hymns or prayers to the gods. Sappho’s catalogue of desire is similar, yet her Aphrodite, Eros and Hera are agents in her world, deities to be enlisted in her pursuit of the desired one.

Comparison with Vedic hymns

  • 30 West, 2007, p. 220.

37Sappho’s fragment 58, which mentions Auon, Eos, Dawn, a goddess worshipped in Sparta, if not elsewhere, can also be compared to Vedic hymns, going back to possible Indo-European sources. Although the various goddesses of the Dawn may share a common origin, or beginnings, among the Indo-Europeans, their manifestations in Sappho’s songs and the hymns of the Rig Veda differ significantly, not least because the Sanksrit divinities of the dawn often appear as plural. Homer refers to Dawn as “rose-fingered.” According to Martin L. West, “The spread hand as an image of the sun’s rays may be inherited from older poetic tradition. The Vedic suanguri- ‘with good fingers’ is a complimentary epithet of goddesses, but when it is applied to the solar god Savitr (RV 4.54.4) it is surely to be understood in terms of rays.”30 These are excerpts from a hymn concerning Usas, goddess, goddesses of the dawn in the Rig Veda :

  • 31 Doniger, 2005.

See how the dawns have set up their banner in the eastern half of the sky, adorning and anointing themselves with sunlight for balm. Unleashing themselves like impetuous heroes unsheathing their weapons, the tawny cows, the mothers, return.
[…] The dawns have spread their webs in the ancient way; the tawny ones have set forth the glowing light.31

  • 32 Nagy, 1992, p. 250 – 251.

38West finds further parallels between Eos and the Vedic dawn goddess ; they share an immortality that causes pain to mortals, even though, as Gregory Nagy points out, “The Rig-Vedic Usas is an overtly beneficent goddess, well known for her function of dispelling the darkness (1.92.5, 2.34.12, etc.). Yet her epithet diva(s) duhitar-/duhitar- divas is ambivalent.”32

  • 33 West, 2007, p. 221 – 222.

39The Greek goddess embraces and carries away her mortal lover to the bowl of heaven, or to the ends of the earth, in a phrase that associates Tithonus with the eastern limits from which the dawn arises, where Eos had her khoroi, her dancing places (Homer, Odyssey XII, 4). “Eos’ house (oikia, neuter plural) may be put beside the mythical eastern mountain of the Avesta called Usidam-, ‘Dawn-house’ (Yt. 1.28, 31 ; 19.2, 66).”33

40If there are cosmological implications in the Sapphic fragments, they are less accessible than those in the Rig Veda and later hymns. For the Sanskrit tradition, a new dawn is born every day ; in the fragment of Sappho, the figure of Eos is personified, a goddess and a mythological character who is significantly detached from the phenomenology of the sun’s rising, passing, setting. For Nagy, these ancient resemblances deepen the resonances of Sappho’s fragments, and the legend of her suicide off the white rock, but we can also see how in the work of Sappho, the connections seem stronger among Aphrodite, Selene, and Eos, these goddesses who pursue and destroy young men with their erotic powers. Eos is less the multiple appearances of the dawns, the daily arrival of the sacred being, and more an anthropomorphized lover, a female immortal who desires mortal lovers, like other analogues of Aphrodite. The mention of Eos in Sappho’s work has a narrative aspect, a reference to a mythic ensemble of erotic pursuits, rather belonging in a hymn of praise and supplication, as in the Vedic address to Usas.

Comparison with China

41To conclude, I cite one more Sappho fragment (34), from Eustathius’ commentary on Iliad VIII, 555 (729, 20) :

The stars hide away their shining form around the lovely moon when in all her fullness she shines (over all) the earth.

  • 34 Campbell, 1982, p. 82 – 83.

42A scholion on Apollonius of Rhodes says : “The story goes that Selene comes down to [this] cave [the cave on Mt. Latmos in Caria] to meet Endymion.”34 Is the moon a feature of the night sky, used in analogy to describe the exceptional beauty of a single woman among other lesser beauties, like the stars compared to the moon, or is she the goddess, sister of Helios and Eos, who loves Endymion ? Aristophanes in Peace (406) suggests that only barbarians worship the moon as a goddess ; in fragment 96 Sappho refers to the brododáktulos selánna, “the rosy-fingered moon,” which suggests a comparison between moon and dawn in these fragments. What is their nature — are they heavenly bodies, mythological anthropomorphized figures, or divinities to be worshipped ? There is a tantalizing ambiguity in the Greek texts when they are compared with the divinization of such figures among other peoples, and their appearance as mere features of a cosmos, material elements of a material universe, in others.

43As an example, I juxtapose the Sappho fragments with a text by the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po. This Tang dynasty poet (701 – 762), possibly of Turkish origin, known for his friendship with a powerful Taoist, was once hired by the court bureau charged with producing official documents, but expelled for drunken audacity two years later. He wandered and was involved in a rebellion, arrested for treason, pardoned but legendarily drowned attempting to embrace the reflection of the moon in water, in an intriguing resonance with the tale of Sappho’s suicidal leap off the White Rock. Here is Li Po speaking to the moon :

  • 35 Seth, 1992.

A pot of wine among the flowers.
I drink alone, no friend with me.
I raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three […]
Let’s pledge — beyond human ties — to be friends, And meet where the Silver River ends [… ]35

44Here there is an intimacy between the masculine heavenly body, the moon addressed as a drinking companion, not goddess, a focus on the natural world without transcendence, without a personification, or anthropomorphization of features of the night sky. Sappho’s addressee Aphrodite is a similar intimate ; is her moon a simple heavenly body, a feature of the night sky, like Li Po’s friend the moon ? Is she too a goddess, superior to all the stars, or is she the mythologized lover of Endymion, analogous to Eos and Aphrodite, lovers of beautiful boys ?

45What does all this amount to, tentative, lacunose, incomplete as it must be by definition ? One could go on to compare Sapphic polytheism to monotheism of the present, polytheisms of the past, and to debate the pertinence of contemporary polytheisms, Hinduism among them. Gregory Nagy has compared Sappho’s fragment 1 to Navajo initiation ritual, basing his analysis on Bruce Lincoln’s 1981 book Emerging from the Chrysalis, noted above. Sappho is a woman among men, singing to goddesses, not gods, goddesses who occupy an ambiguous position between anthropomorphized narrative actors, and celestial bodies. She falls at a precise point along a spectrum between secular erotic poetry, secular song, and prayer, an address to a divinity that includes praise and supplication. Comparison illuminates aspects of her fragments, and of ancient Lesbian religion, and elicits provocative questions for literary scholars as well as historians and anthropologists.

46I resist the implicit claim that “religion” should be exclusively the province of social science, that our aim should be to produce “models ;” students of language and literature have much to contribute to what I would call the poetics of religion. Some of what students of ancient religion might inherit from comparative literature seems worth preserving : for example, an attention to original languages. If one cannot read all the languages one needs, one should seek out the best interpreters and translators rather than abandoning the project of comparison altogether. I want to summon also the legacy of the humanities, of literary studies that do not aspire to the state of the sciences, social or human, embracing a ludic, expansive, associative, rhizomic method. Rather than seeking a rigorous critical methodology that scientifically guarantees its benefits, I’d like to call for a looser, more open form of comparison that allows for anachronism as well as synchronicity, relations such as sequence, consequence, diffusion, difference as well as similarity, – of theme, address, rhetoric. It seems to me limiting, perhaps impossible, to try to establish a fixed protocol for the study of ancient cult practices, including hymns to divinities, also known anachronistically as “poems.” We do need to break out of the closed world of the traditional disciplines, and think comparatively, opening the possibilities challenging our preconceptions about poetry, about ritual, about religion, when we encounter such phenomena as ancient song.


1 Spivak, 2003, p. 2 – 4.

2 Calame, 1977/1997, 1992/1999, 2009a.

3 Yatromanolakis & Roilos, 2004.

4 Lincoln, 1981, p. 73.

5 Lincoln, 1981, p. 72.

6 Detienne, 1990 and 1994, Detienne & Hamonic, 1994, Detienne & Cartry, 1996.

7 Detienne, 2000/2008, p. 27.

8 Detienne, 2000/2008, p. 37.

9 Daley, 2011.

10 Segal, 1974 ; Yatromanolakis, 2004.

11 Roche, 1998, p. 11.

12 Lacan, 1986/1992, p. 260.

13 Parker, 2007, p. 445.

14 Detienne, 2000/2008, p. 57 – 78.

15 Parker, 2007, p. 399.

16 Parker, 2007, p. 402.

17 Daley, 2011. On this poem, see Calame, 2009a, p. 2 – 7.

18 Burkert, 1985, p. 134.

19 Spencer, 1995a, p. 296.

20 Campbell, 1982, p. 297.

21 Tarditi, 1967.

22 Mason, 2008, p. 60.

23 Spencer, 1995a, p. 298 ; see also Spencer 1995b, p. 38 – 40, especially “‘Greek’ and ‘Native’ group definition in Lesbos” .

24 Lopez-Ruiz, 2010, p. 35.

25 Lopez-Ruiz, 2010, p. 109.

26 West, 1997, p. 531.

27 Watkins, 2007, p. 317 – 318.

28 Watkins, 2007, p. 318.

29 Faulkner, 1972, p. 43.

30 West, 2007, p. 220.

31 Doniger, 2005.

32 Nagy, 1992, p. 250 – 251.

33 West, 2007, p. 221 – 222.

34 Campbell, 1982, p. 82 – 83.

35 Seth, 1992.


Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature University of California at San Diego

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