We have been taught to speak of war and the heroes of war in hushed tones. We have been told that evil Helen’s choice was the cause of the Trojan war. 2600 years ago Sappho, known as the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece, spoke truth to power and unmasked the lies told at the beginning of western tradition.
In a poem addressed to Anactoria, Sappho writes:
Some say a cavalry corps
some say infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars
of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth …
Here, Sappho invokes the heroic tradition celebrated in the epic poems of Homer that shaped the values of ancient Greek culture and all the cultures that followed it, including our own. This tradition tells us that to serve in a war and to be remembered as a hero is the highest goal to which a man can aspire. Sappho does not agree:
…but I say
that whatever one loves, is.
Sappho challenges the traditions that celebrate war in starkly simple terms. Could it be, she asks us, that we should choose to make love not war? Sappho knows that she is challenging deeply engrained values. In The Iliad Achilles’ “honor” is compromised when Agamemnon takes the captive (raped) woman he had claimed. Achilles “metaphysical dilemma” is whether to return home and live a long but unremarkable life or to die on the battlefield and be remembered forever. He chooses to die as a hero.
Knowing the power of the heroic tradition, Sappho offers “proof” of her radical claim in the form of an alternate reading of “Helen’s choice.”
This is easily proved, did
not Helen – she who had scanned
the flower of the world’s manhood –
choose as first among men one
who laid Troy’s honor in ruin?
Contesting the epic tradition, Sappho portrays Helen as having made the right decison. Helen chose “as first among men” a man who was beautiful–a man not dressed in armor or holding a spear. Sappho is quite aware that Homeric tradition portrayed Paris, and those who like Paris did not choose war, as “effeminate.” She quite deliberately challenges this: beauty not soldierly strength is what Helen chose. Moreover, it mattered not to Helen that others would say Paris dishonored his father’s family by “taking” another man’s wife. The choice was hers.
Or was it? Sappho continues:
warped to his will, forgetting
love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
Having stated that Helen “chose,” Sappho invokes love as a powerful force that once chosen, captures Helen’s will. Helen chooses to follow her love, and the rest is history. She leaves her child and wanders with Paris. Sappho offers the listener the opportunity to judge Helen for leaving her child. But she carefully does not allude to the alleged “cause” of the Trojan war – which is that in leaving her husband, Helen “besmirched” the male honor of her husband Menelaos. If love is to be faulted in Sappho’s poem, it is not for harming male honor.
Sappho’s boldness in these simple lines should not be underestimated. She is criticizing Homer, the greatest of epic poets, and the whole tradition he created. This in itself is incredibly daring. But Sappho’s act must be seen as even more daring if we understand that in her day as in ours, to question the military is to court charges of lack of patriotism and even treason.
Having challenged the literary and political conventions that celebrate war and denigrate love, Sappho raises the stakes in a second example intended to prove her point that love is more beautiful than war to Anactoria.
So Anactoria, although you
being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and the light glancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored tread
of mainland infantry.
Having dealt with history and tradition, Sappho returns to the present. She reminds Anactoria, the “you” to whom the poem is addressed, of times spent in the company of “us,” a reference to the community of women that surround Sappho. She invokes Anactoria’s physical presence in images of the “sound” of her footstep and the “light” in her eyes.
Sappho concludes her poem where she began, insisting that she would be more “moved” to see and hear Anactoria than by all the glamor and clatter of armies. If the identification of Anactoria as an army wife in Sardis is correct, Sappho might be trying to convince an army wife to leave her husband. The parallelism between Helen who left her military husband and Anactoria suggests that this may be exactly what Sappho has in mind.
The military and the military industrial complex rule our world today as in Sappho’s time. I dream of the day when Sappho will be taught alongside Homer and a question posed: At the beginning of our culture, we were given the choice between love and war. Our forebears chose war. What will you choose?
Poem #41 “To an army wife in Sardis,” translated by Mary Barnard, Sappho (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012 ). Barnard’s reconstruction of the lines concerning Helen differs from that of other translators.
Photograph of Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete altar to Sappho and Aphrodite in Kato Symi by Catherine Colfax.
Carol P. Christ, who lives in Sappho’s isle, is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement. She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life. She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute.