A love poem written 2,600 years ago by Sappho, the greatest female poet of ancient Greece, was published on Friday for the first time after its rediscovery last year. Sappho's verses expressing love for her female companions on the Greek island of Lesbos have shocked and delighted generations of readers ever since they were first composed. Her works once filled nine volumes, and the ancients called her the "10th muse," but little of her work has survived to modern times.
The 12-line poem, only the fourth to have been recovered, was found on papyrus wrapped around an Egyptian mummy. It was published with an English translation in the Times Literary Supplement. "She obviously had emotional relationships with women of her circle, quite possibly sexual," the poem's translator, Oxford University academic Martin West, told Reuters. "They seem to have had some sort of society in which they could be in each other's company quite a lot, rather cut off from men," he said. "But they were clearly able to have plenty of fun."
The poem was rediscovered last year after researchers at Germany's Cologne University identified a papyrus once wrapped around a mummy as part of a third century B.C. roll containing poems by Sappho. They noticed that some of the verse fragments on the crumbling Cologne material matched parts of lines already identified as Sappho's on a papyrus discovered in 1922. By combining the two they were able to reconstruct the original, adding likely missing words in the gaps that remained. In the newly published verses, originally sung to music, Sappho laments the passing of time as she compares the youthful bodies of dancing girls to her own weak knees and white hair.
The first four lines of the translated verses read:
"You for the fragrant-bosomed Muses' lovely gifts,
Be zealous, girls, and the clear melodious lyre:
But my once tender body old age now
Has seized; my hair's turned white instead of dark."
(Tim Castle, via Reuters)