Given modern perceptions of Sappho it is, I am sure, going to seem at a minimum counterintuitive that early Christians would have had an interest in Sappho. The issue is not helped by the fact that a story about Saint Gregory of Nazianzus ordering the burning of Sappho’s poetry has been frequently repeated both in print and online. There is no basis for it in any reliable historical source. Mention is first made of it in the Renaissance, possibly as the result of confusing attitudes and policies of later times with those of Gregory’s time. Whatever the explanation, it is ironic any credence was given to such a story, for not only was Gregory very interested in Sappho in particular, but he was also a keen advocate for appreciating the relevance to Christianity of art and literature generally. A prominent figure in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Gregory is not well known to ‘Western’ Christianity, especially among English speaking Christians. An excellent place to familiarize yourself with him is a brief talk given by John McGuckin, who is a priest, poet and scholar at Columbia University, available on youtube here.
There are a variety of possible explanations for Gregory’s interest in Sappho that relate to both his personal circumstances as well as how Sappho had been received within the Judaeo-Christian tradition in ancient times. It is worth noting that Gregory was from what is today a region of Turkey occupied by Hittites in very ancient times. That happens to be an area that Sappho may have had some cultural connection with, for modern linguistic analysis suggests that her name, which does not mean anything in Greek, derives from Hittite or a related ancient Turkish language. What did ‘Sappho’ mean in Hittite? ‘Holy one.’ I am basing this on an article by Edwin Brown that is available online here for those who want more granularity.
But whether or not Gregory knew the meaning of Sappho’s name, he would have had reason to look to her because of his interest in female spirituality. Celibate all his life, he had an especially close relationship with his mother and older sister. His mother’s influence on him is noticeable in his receptivity to dreams as a legitimate form of personal religious experience. Both because of his celibacy and because of the close connection between dreams and poetic expression in ancient Greek culture, it is not surprising that Gregory provides a poetic narration of one of his own dreams with imagery that clearly has erotic overtones in how he describes his otherwise spiritual inspiration from a ‘visit’ by two mysterious virgins. Sappho not only composed dream inspired erotic verse, but her poetry was well known for inducing a special consciousness analogous to sleep. Gregory’s reference in one of his poems to being in a sort of spiritual coma is considered to be an echo of Sappho.
While it is thus possible to imagine a number of personal reasons Gregory may have had for his interest in Sappho, I want to emphasize that his interest also relates to Sappho’s reception within the Judaeo-Christian tradition generally, a reception which is closely connected to an aspect of Sappho’s poetry that has not received the modern scholarly attention it deserves. Sappho would have been known to Gregory primarily as a wedding song poet: the wedding song (epithalamium in Greek) was the genre of literature that in ancient times Sappho in effect ‘owned.’ Because of the special importance Sappho manifestly attached to the spirituality of love, her wedding songs were charged with meanings that were physical as well as metaphysical. They appear to have even had a liturgical function as an integral part of the wedding ceremony itself. It is in such poetry that Sappho also addressed the topic of virginity, which would have been of special interest to a celibate Christian such as Gregory.
The significance of her influence on the Judaeo-Christian tradition in this regard is profound. Origen began his commentary on Song of Songs (Songs) with the comment “this book seems to me an epithalamium [wedding song],” a characterization that his readers, including Gregory, would have taken to be equivalent to saying “this sounds like Sappho.” As remarkable as the implications of this characterization of Songs are for what they tell us of how Sappho was perceived by early Christians, what is perhaps most remarkable of all is how it relates to something neither Origen nor Gregory would have realized. For it has only been in the past several decades that modern scholarship has argued for a date of composition for Songs that allows for the attribution to its author(s) of a variety of Greek influences, the most significant of which is unquestionably Sappho. Some of this scholarship is discussed in Ariel and Chana Bloch’s translation and commentary of Songs available online here. Some have argued for specific echoes of Sappho in the imagery of Songs, but what I think can most reliably be related to Sappho are the defining characteristics of Songs as a work of literature. The allusive but sensual imagery strongly suggests that it is in part or whole a dream narrative; that it also was taken to be an allegorical love poem at a very early stage would appear to explain how it likely came to be accepted into the Biblical canon; the prominence of the female voice in Songs has been noted many times and even led to speculation that it is the composition of a woman. Taken altogether, those elements point towards Sappho. In this regard Origen’s characterization of Songs should be weighed carefully, for he, like Gregory, also would have had all of Sappho’s poetry available to him. If he thought Songs sounded like Sappho then perhaps there is far more of her in Songs than we can ever realize.
In the future I intend to publish an extensive study comparing Gregory’s poetry with that of Sappho. In the meantime, I maintain a blog here that includes some of what I have already written about Sappho, including the text and translations of most of her poetry, as well as many links to the work of others on her.
Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City. Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.