Lyric Poetry Study Guide: Sappho, Archilochus, Semonides, Alcman

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I. Know the historical period, Archaic, 800-50 B.C.E., in which these poems were composed and what the extant information tells us about the lives of women in this period: Consult Fantham text on Archaic Period Chapter.

II. Be able to give examples from the poems describing the lives of women as children or young women before marriage, as young married mothers, and as older women. Describe the activities and occupations of women: social, religious, economic. Do the male poets and Sappho describe the same activities? How do their descriptions differ?

Be able to define misogyny, give a specific example from a poem, and tell why you consider this example misogynistic.

Male Poets

A. Archilochus: What does he say about himself? How does he describe women physically? How does he describe their interaction with other men? With women?

B. Semonides: What are the animal categories into which he places women? What points of comparison does he make between the animal type and the woman type? How can we interpret these representations in terms of the social context, i.e., the occasions on which the poem originally may have been performed? In terms of what we know about the poet’s attitudes as represented in his other poems? How can we re-evaluate positively the characteristics he criticizes?

C. Alcman: How does he describe the young women in his partheneion (maiden’s song)? How do the women describe themselves and other women--physically, socially, emotionally? What is the social/religious context in which this song may have been recited? What do we know about Spartan society from other sources that we can relate to this poem?


A. Describe Sappho’s description of Aphrodite and her relationship with the goddess. How does her description of the goddesses’ interests or actions express Sappho’s notions of love, i.e., what does Aphrodite do or say that demonstrates what being in love is like? How does Sappho’s presentation of Aphrodite compare or contrast with the description in the Hymn to Aphrodite? How does her description of her relationship with Aphrodite compare with that of another deity described in her poems?

B. Discuss Sappho’s references to and descriptions of heroic women, i.e., Helen and Andromache. How do her poems supply new information or a different perspective from which you can understand those legendary figures?

C. Discuss Sappho’s references to traditional topoi (topics) employed frequently by male poets and consider how (and whether) she presents a different interpretation. Some examples include the references to chariots, infantry, ships. Consider here also her poems of blame and her claim to fame--i.e., how do the reasons for which she blames another and believes she deserves fame are similar to or different from the male authors’.

D. Please give examples of how Sappho describes a marriage ceremony, the bride, groom, bride’s friends, groom’s friends. Consider, for example, what she says about virginity ("maidenhood"), how an apple is comparable to a bride, how the door-keeper is described and why he is important. What do these examples suggest to you Sappho’s thoughts on marriage?

E. Discuss Sappho’s descriptions of family and political relationships. What does she say about her brother, her mother (or a mother), her daughter (or a young girl described as a daughter)? How does she refer to political families or the possible effect on her life because of political dissension?

F. Discuss her representations of the relationships between women, young and old. What does she say about the women she knows, how and why she praises and criticizes different individuals? How does she present her feelings for another person, another person’s feelings for her, another person’s feelings for another person (not Sappho)? How does her imagery further (or hinder for you) an understanding of what she is saying? In what ways are her description of relationships between women comparable (or different) from her descriptions of relationships between men and women, mortal and divine?

G. Hierarchies and Empowerment: To what extent do her poems reinforce or subvert hierarchical structures? How does she show individuals constricted or empowered by their love for another?

Contemporary Evaluations

Consider how contemporary resources, e.g., the video "Dreamwords" or the work by feminist scholars, some examples of which follow, can enhance your understanding of the Greek literature.

Judith Butler, in Bodies That Matter, describes "identification" as a "phantasmatic trajectory and resolution of desire, an assumption of place, a territorializing...which enables identity through the temporary resolution of desire"(99).

Deborah Tannen (e.g. Gender and Discourse, NY 1994) argues that for women talk is a way to create and demonstrate friendship: talking proves involvement and knowing you can talk makes a person feel less alone.

Nell Noddings, in Caring, (1984) argues that women frequently value a position or attitude of caring that "activates a complex structure of memories, feelings, and capacities" (8). The "the recognition of and longing for relatedness form the foundation of our ethic" (6). "Apprehending the other person’s reality.... the commitment to act on behalf of the cared for, the continued interest in and renewal of commitment" are essential elements of caring (16).

bell hooks, in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, writes that we "need to come together in situations where there will be ideological disagreement and work to change interaction so that communication occurs...acknowledge we are divided and develop strategies to overcome fears, prejudices, resentments, competitiveness...The Expression of hostility can be a catalyst pushing us to greater clarity and understanding...(We must) work through hostility to arrive at understanding and solidarity --(a) community of shared interests, beliefs, goals leads to greater clarity and growth" (63ff.). Feminism is a "struggle to eradicate oppression...It is a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination and a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination and a commitment to reorganize society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires" (24).

According to Ellen Greene, apostrophe (i.e., personal address) "can animate lifeless objects and heal the pain of separation and loss. By conferring presence on an absent addressee, the lover transforms the beloved from an object into a subject, effecting in the process a discourse between two subjects." ("Apostrophe and Women’s Erotics, " Reading Sappho, 236).

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