Hymn to Aphrodite | Study Guide

Sappho

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Hymn to Aphrodite | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

"Hymn to Aphrodite" begins with an unidentified speaker calling upon Aphrodite the goddess of love. The goddess Aphrodite responds and names the speaker Sappho. Sappho begs the goddess to hear her and not to ignore her in her time of need. She states in stanzas 3 and 4 that her heart is broken and grieving due to the inattention of an unnamed lover. Since this lover has rejected her, she tells Aphrodite she cannot not take rejection from the goddess too. Sappho reminds the goddess of her attention and devotion to Aphrodite in the past. In stanza 5 Sappho reminds Aphrodite of the many songs that have been created and sung in the goddess's honor. Stanza 6 shows Sappho mentioning the fact that the goddess has heard and answered her prayers in the past and asks that she do so again.

Aphrodite asks what has caused Sappho such turmoil. Aphrodite soothes Sappho's fears and assures her that though her lover is reluctant, soon Sappho's desires and love will be returned in equal measure. The final stanza continues Sappho's petition for Aphrodite to help ease her misery and to come to her aid.

Analysis

Form

"Hymn to Aphrodite" uses a form that scholars eventually named "Sapphic" after Sappho. Most experts agree the style is Aeolic. Sappho utilized it uniquely. Traditional Aeolic form is a type of formatting that uses a consistent number of syllables in every line of a poem. This is different from modern verse that has many variations. Originally, this form called for only three lines in each stanza, but it was later converted to four. The first three lines are longer than the fourth in each stanza. Sappho changed this Aeolic form by combining the Aeolic with an Adonean line. This combination became known as Sapphic and was named for Sappho.

Style and Structure

"Hymn to Aphrodite" consists of seven stanzas. Each stanza has four lines written in Sapphic meter. Sapphic meter is a way of composing a poem that emphasizes a long syllable and then a short syllable followed by a free syllable. A free syllable may be either long or short. Ancient Grecian poets often adopted a quantitative meter with five extra syllables at the end referred to as an Adonean line. This style is seen in the "Hymn to Aphrodite" throughout. In the following excerpt, the L is a long syllable, the S a short syllable, and X is for an anceps. An anceps is a syllable that can be either short or long.

Shimmering-throned immortal Aphrodite,

Daughter of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee,

Spare me, O queen, this agony and anguish,

Crush not my spirit.

The stanza can be noted as the following:

SX-SS-S

SX-SS-L

SX-SS-S-X-SS

Written out this would be:

Short, anceps-short, short-short

Short, anceps-short, short-long

Short, anceps-short, short-short-anceps-short, short

A closer examination shows that this poem takes the form of a traditional prayer. In the Grecian practice, a traditional prayer has three sections. Each has a specific function. The sections include the identification of and praises for the deity, a reminder of past deeds, and then the request. In Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite," the first part is the identification of the deity. "Throned in splendor, immortal Aphrodite! / Child of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee / Slay me not in this distress and anguish / Lady of beauty." The next section is a reminder of past deeds. "Hither come as once before thou camest, / When from afar thou heard'st my voice lamenting, / Heard'st and camest, leaving thy glorious father's Palace golden." The final section of a traditional Grecian prayer includes a request. "Come then now, dear goddess, and release me / From my anguish. All my heart's desiring / Grant thou now."

The Power of Hope and Faith

Within the stanzas of "Hymn to Aphrodite," it is evident Sappho is in the depths of despair and heartbreak. While the circumstances of her interactions with the unnamed lover are not offered to the reader, it is clear the object of her affection has been indifferent and is unresponsive to Sappho. She pleads with Aphrodite as the goddess of love to "spare me, O queen, this agony and anguish / crush not my spirit." It is in this time of desperation that Sappho turns to her faith in the hope that Aphrodite will help. Aphrodite responds with "Who wronged thee Sappho?" and Sappho begins to be hopeful. Aphrodite consoles Sappho with the declaration that "if now she flees, quickly she shall follow / And if she spurns gifts, soon shall she offer them." With this statement Sappho gains hope that the unnamed lover will come back to her. Sappho suggests the changes that can be brought about by prayer, petition, and a willing deity.

Imagery of War

Sappho purposely presents images in "Hymn to Aphrodite" that evoke the feeling of a battlefield. She calls the goddess Aphrodite to ride her chariot down to help ease Sappho's suffering and to stand beside her in her hour of need when she says "Slay me not in this distress and anguish / Lady of beauty." She asks Aphrodite to compel the unnamed lover to fall in love with her whether it is what the lover wants or not. This is a type of domination and control. Sappho demonstrates a desire to overpower a lover who has hurt her. She implores Aphrodite to "be thou my ally." The choice of the word ally suggests Sappho wishes Aphrodite to do war on her behalf.

Feminine Power

Sappho was a powerful woman in her time, and the characters in her poems are as well. Aphrodite is depicted as a "guile-weaver" and as capable of forcing humans to do her bidding. The goddess lives in a house made of gold and rides a powerful chariot pulled by "beautiful swift sparrows." Aphrodite is shown as a strong woman capable of assisting rather than the watered-down version of the goddess depicted in the works of Homer's Iliad (c. 750 BCE) and Odyssey (c.725 BCE). Sappho further cements the great power of the goddess by juxtaposing her helplessness with Aphrodite's past intercessions.

Allusions to Homer

During the time in which Sappho wrote, the public would have been aware of the work by Homer. Tales about the Greek gods and their interactions with mortals were well-documented in stories, songs, poetry, and depicted in art. In "Hymn to Aphrodite" Sappho depicts the goddess of love as a mighty goddess capable of compelling and commanding others. Aphrodite is not the weak and flowery goddess shown in Homer's work. She is capable of doing battle on a mortal's behalf. Chariots were the transportation of choice by male gods, not goddesses. In this poem Sappho places Aphrodite on equal footing with the male gods. In Homer's Iliad Hera the goddess of family and Athena the goddess of wisdom and warfare are in a chariot to attend the battle. By placing Aphrodite in a chariot, Sappho is connecting the goddess of love with Hera and Athena. This suggests that love is war.

In Homer's rendering of the gods and goddesses in the Iliad, chariots are pulled by winged horses. In Sappho's version the chariot is pulled by winged birds. That the birds are sparrows is also significant. In Sappho's time the consumption of a sparrow or its eggs was considered an aphrodisiac. Aphrodisiacs are substances believed to increase sexuality.

In Homer's work Aphrodite is depicted as having a lovely smile which Sappho alludes to with "All in smiling wreathed thy face immortal, / Bade me tell thee the cause of all my suffering." This allusion indicates Sappho's deliberate intention to draw a comparison between Homer's image of Aphrodite and Sappho's depiction.

Ambiguity

It is possible to read this poem from two different perspectives. Sappho deliberately creates this vagueness. From one perspective the poem can be read as an injured lover grieving the loss of attention by a former lover. The injured party is asking Aphrodite to intervene and bring the lover back. Read from a different perspective, Aphrodite comes to Sappho but tells her that there is no controlling true love. With this passage Aphrodite could also be saying that she is not sure her intervention will work because true love cannot be controlled. This is most evident when the goddess says "For, though now he flies, he soon shall follow, / Soon shall be giving gifts who now rejects them. / Even though now he love not, soon shall he love thee / Even though thou wouldst not." No names are given so that the reader doesn't have enough information to determine whom the lover will follow or to whom the lover will give gifts. Aphrodite tells Sappho that she will be loved by someone but does not directly state that it is the unnamed lover Sappho has petitioned the goddess to compel. Most telling is the last line in which Aphrodite states that "Even though now he love not, soon shall he love thee / Even though thou wouldst not." This shows that true love cannot be stopped even if the person who is in love is not someone desired.

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