January 31, 2014

Two new poems by Sappho discovered on an ancient scrap of papyrus


Auguste_Rodin_-_SapphoTwo new works by the Greek poet Sappho have been discovered on an ancient piece of papyrus. James Romm writes at The Daily Beast that the poems were discovered when the anonymous papyrus owner “consulted an Oxford classicist, Dirk Obbink, about the Greek writing on the tattered scrap…His article, which includes a transcription of the fragmentary poems, will appear in a scholarly journal this spring, but an online version has already been released.”

One of history’s most well known and admired poets, much of Sappho’s work has been lost to the ages. Prior to this new discovery, only one complete poem and portions of four others had been salvaged. Harvard classics professor Albert Henrichs called the discovery “breath-taking,” and notes that its “content is equally exciting.” The new work is the first time Sappho has been been found to refer to “Charaxos” and “Larichos,” believed to be two of the poet’s brothers. The second poem will sound more familiar to those of us who know Sappho as a writer of love poems; it’s addressed to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Both poems are written in the meter that has come to be knows as a Sapphic Stanza.

Obbink dated the papyrus itself to almost a millenium after Sappho wrote. Romm writes, “It was not long after this time that texts written in Aeolic and other non-standard dialects began to die out in the Greek world, as the attention of educators and copyists focused increasingly on Attic writers. Sappho, along with many other authors, became a casualty of the narrowing Greek school curriculum in late antiquity and the even greater selectivity of the Middle Ages when papyrus scrolls were recopied into books.”

It’s thought that the papyrus came from Egypt, but nobody knows for sure. The black market for papyrus relics “means that many of them emerge not from archaeological digs but from souks, bazaars and antiquities shops.”


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.