Hymn to Demeter: Connections with Sappho as Author

Illustration: Sappho Kissing her Lyre, by Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891)

Ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter (7th c. BCE):

Arguments for Sappho as Author

“According to Ann Suter, a woman may have composed this anonymous hymn. The focus on Demeter’s power, Persephone’s coming of age, and the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the de-emphasis of Zeus, may point in that direction. We know that female poets [during the 7th-6th c. BCE], such as Sappho and Korinna, composed dactylic hexameter verses. In examining the Hymn to Aphrodite, Richard Janko notes a number of verbal parallels between its opening and Sappho’s epicizing narrative of the wedding of Hektor and Andromache. Korinna says she reworks ‘stories from our fathers’ time’ and sings of ‘heroes male and female.’ It is possible that other women composed hymns or epic verse, although their performance venues certainly would be more limited than those for traditional bardic poetry.”

from “The Homeric Hymns, Translation, Introduction & Notes,” p. 11,
by Diane J. Rayor (2004)
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Ann Suter: on The Female Poet of the Hymn to Demeter

“Until now, most work on female authorship in the ancient world has been on lyric poets, for the excellent reason that very little in other meters by women has survived to us. But we know that women composed in other meters; we know that they composed in the epic hexameter. We know that women entered musical competitions, and we know that they composed for performance at women’s festivals and for the cults of goddesses. There is, in short, no a priori reason why a woman should not have composed the HDem.
“Richardson notes as well, that ‘[m]any words and forms are found in the Hymn which do not occur in Homer, Hesiod, or other early epic (Hymns, Cycle, inscriptions, etc.).’ He lists peculiarities in diction, formulae, forms, usage, and the treatment of the digamma. Could this wide-ranging difference from its companions in Archaic hexameter indicate that the Hymn is part of a separate female tradition, another strain of the oral tradition? Skinner suggests the possibility of such a female poetic inheritance in the lyric tradition, and O’Higgins one for iambic poetry. There perhaps existed such in the hexameter tradition also, if the HDem. is any guide.
“It has long been noted, but never explained, that there are no clear and unambiguous references to the Hymn in literature until the post-Classical period, ‘no direct mention of the Homeric Hymn and scarcely anything which can reasonably be identified even as a reminiscence or echo of it’ in classical literature. Likewise, the myth of Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s wanderings in search of her seems unknown to Attic vase painters until the second half of the 5th century, and even then, references seem to be to a version different from the Hymn’s. If the Hymn, and the core story upon which it is based, were the work of women, and performed only at all-women’s festivals, it is quite understandable that it would not be readily available to the eyes and ears of a male public and included in their artistic productions, especially given its depiction of Zeus.”

from “Beyond the Limits of Lyric, The Female Poet of the Hymn to Demeter,”
by Ann Suter, Kernos 18 (2005)
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More Signs of Sappho as a Possible Author for the Hymn

“[A]fter Demeter has instructed the men of Eleusis in the establishment of the Mysteries, she and Persephone go to Olympos “for the company of the other gods. There they dwell beside Zeus” who is (still) delighting in his thunder (L-484-485). The poet then praises the goddesses, invokes them once more, and asks for their gifts in return for her song. This ending is an excellent example of what Skinner [in Greene, “Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches,” 1996] describes in Sappho: “In none of these texts does Sappho close her eyes to the ontological reality of the masculine order. She recognizes it, as a prior and controlling presence, but still avows the ethical superiority of her nonnormative subject position, her radically woman-centered approach to existence.”

from “Beyond the Limits of Lyric, The Female Poet of the Hymn to Demeter,”
by Ann Suter, Kernos 18 (2005)
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Sappho as “Myth-Weaver”

“According to Maximus of Tyre (Greek, 2nd. c. A.D.), “Socrates called love a Sophist, Sappho a myth-weaver (μυθόπλοκος).” ~ (Sappho, Fragment #188)

from Greek Lyric: Sappho and Alcaeus, edited and translation
by David Campbell (1982)
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Female Sexuality as a Cosmic Force

“The most striking feature of this myth is the way it reinforces the idea of sexuality as a cosmic force by associating it with two goddesses and portraying it as a world-shattering power. Agricultural fertility, and potentially human life, is temporarily destroyed by Demeter’s mourning and Persephone’s annual disappearance from and return to the earth is also linked with the cycle of vegetation.”

from Sappho’s Immortal Daughters
by Margaret Williamson, p.112 (1993)
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Sappho, Aphrodite and Demeter’s Mysteries

“In poem (fr. 2) Sappho summons Aphrodite to her temple in a grove of apple trees. In this shrine the goddess is asked to ‘pour gracefully into golden cups nectar that is mingled with the festivities.’ […] What is remarkable is the claim of these young women also to be ‘companions’ of Aphrodite and the degree of intimacy suggested by the goddess pouring nectar for them. […] One may…compare the figure of Demeter, who in the Hymn to Demeter serves as a nurse to the mortal child Demophoôn. Foley (1993, p.88) observes that this humanizes the goddess and prepares for her role in the Mysteries.”

Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society,
edited by André Lardinois, Laura McClure, (2001, pp 77-78)
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Gender Issues in Greek Literature, Demeter and Sappho

“Classical literature, far more explicitly than much later Western literature until the 19th century, virtually begs us to ask questions about gender. Plato and Aristotle confronted such issues directly. Most Greek comedies and tragedies commonly taught put gender at the heart of the plot and allow their female characters to challenge male authority and assumptions. […] What is largely missing, however, is a female perspective that could provide a glimpse of what ancient women meant to each other and the concerns that were of the greatest significance to them. Although we have very little to go on in this respect, the fragments of the poet Sappho have of late been successfully taught in translation to a broad general audience. In my view the text that can best supplement Sappho in putting the experience of ancient women and its symbolic importance into some perspective is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.”

from “The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Translation, Commentary, Interpretive Essays,” p. xi, by Helene P. Foley (1994)

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Ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter
English & Ancient Greek, Illustrations, Commentary