Hymn to Aphrodite | Study Guide

Sappho

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Hymn to Aphrodite | Context

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Women in Ancient Greece

Females in ancient Greece were not as favored as males. Many of the infants abandoned in the hills were girls. Sappho's family was wealthy and referred to as a citizen family. This afforded them more freedom and opportunity. Aristocratic families allowed girls to be educated. They learned to read and write and were encouraged to take part in athletics. Sappho was the only girl in a family of three boys. Only two of her brother's names have been recovered. Their names were Charaxos and Larichos. Education for girls placed an emphasis on dancing, musical studies, and gymnastics. Sappho may have had instruction on the lyre which is a stringed instrument like a guitar. She would go on to use her lyre to perform many of her poems.

Women in ancient Greece were considered fit for only a few roles. They could be wives and mothers which was the key role most held. Grecian women also worked in shops and various guilds. The notable difference was that the Spartan women were also trained for combat. Spartan women could own land. The rest of Greece did not allow women to inherit land or own it. Most women were at the mercy of the men in their lives. Several women rose above these constructs, and their names are known centuries after their deaths. Aside from Sappho there was Arete of Cyrene (c. 400 BCE–c. 340 BCE) who was a female philosopher, Agnodice of Athens (c. 300 BCE) who was a doctor, and both Gorgo of Sparta (520–490 BCE) and Aspasia of Athens (c. 470–410 BCE) were leaders. In "Hymn to Aphrodite" Sappho challenges these gender roles by depicting Aphrodite as a warrior riding a chariot down from the heavens to rescue Sappho and be her ally.

The Arts in Antiquity

During the time in which Sappho lived, art was viewed as more than mere decor or collectibles. Art was used for political purposes and to signal wealth and power. Notable celebrities in Ancient Greece had their likeness or exploits captured on Greek pottery, vases, or even minted into coins. These depictions indicated a person of great position and popularity. Art was also used to gain favors from the gods. Music, dance, and storytelling were major sources of entertainment and those who possessed these talents were in high demand.

The Island of Lesbos

Lesbos is the third largest island in Greece. It has a turbulent past that includes invasion, possession, and subjugation of the population. As a result the culture on the island was quite influenced by the continued influx of new ideas with each new ruler. A key characteristic of the people who lived there was that women were held in higher regard than on other Greek islands. Records indicate that Sappho was born on Lesbos, and her family was very wealthy. Aphrodite is given many of these independent characteristics in Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite."

Cults

In Sappho's time it was common for followers of a certain god or goddess to create a gathering of like-minded believers. These believers came together to worship the deity, celebrate and take part in rituals, and petition for favors. The "Hymn to Aphrodite" is a good example of a petition to a goddess. Scholars believe that Sappho was a member of the cult of Aphrodite. Aphrodite was a very popular goddess worshipped in Ancient Greece. She is referred to as the goddess of love. Members of Aphrodite's cult worshipped her for many reasons which include fertility, sexuality, and protection for sailors.

Schools of Thought

In Greece citizens with popularity and wealth were allowed to found schools. These schools generally focused on a certain aspect of teaching and education. Some focused on philosophy, while others promoted the arts. Music and poetry were offered in Sappho's school. Several scholars argue that it was not Sappho who ran the school. They suggest it was run by her protege Damophila (c. 620 BCE) who carried on Sappho's traditions and songs.

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