Originally, in ancient Greek, ‘sphere’ simply meant ‘ball.’ Though its grammatical gender varied, it was primarily a feminine noun. It is in that sense and with that gender that it bounces into Western literature in the episode of the Odyssey where Nausicaa and her companions are playing catch on a beach (Odyssey 6.100 ff).
Nausicaa is said to be conducting her companions in ‘molpe,’ a curious term that seems to refer to dancing, music and poetry as a single form of performance art. Authorship (including possibly female authorship) and dates of individual episodes of the Odyssey remain debatable, but both from this episode as well evidence from other sources there is no doubt that in general what Nausicaa and her companions are doing here relates to an actual custom among Greek women that dates back to well before writing was adopted. Furthermore, molpe was spiritually significant. As the conductor of its performance Nausicaa is compared to Artemis.
The reference to Artemis as one of those who ‘holds heaven’ (Odyssey 6.150), suggests that the sphere with which Nausicaa and her companions are playing may have been intended (at least by the author of this episode) to be a symbol of the celestial sphere. That suggestion is bolstered by an appeal to what is to be found in the fragments that survive of the poetry of Sappho, who it is readily apparent considered herself as much a musician and choreographer as a poet. That is to say, whereas Nausicaa may be a fictional persona, with Sappho we have the only direct evidence of any substance directly from an actual woman of what constituted molpe. From how she refers to a female performer of molpe as goddess-like (S. 96), followed immediately by a comparison of yet another woman’s beauty to that of the moon, as well as other fragments of poems where either the appearance or movement of women in connection with a molpe performance is related to celestial events such as the appearance of a full moon or the movement of the Pleiades, it is clear that for Sappho choreography was in effect applied cosmology (see S. 154 and S. 34 and how it is surely echoed in a much later Latin poem here).
The Greek word, choros, which among other things was used to refer to a group of dancers (chorus is a derivative) or the ‘dance’ itself (i.e., the choreography), also could signify the place of the dance and in that sense it meant ‘circle.’ It is not possible to say to what extent that implies ‘circle dancing’ or even ‘spherical’ dancing (to leap, as Sappho said she did when she danced, is to add a spherical dimension to a circle), inspired by observing celestial events. The word ‘sphere’ does not appear in Sappho’s surviving fragments, but Anacreon, a male poet roughly a half century after Sappho, from what is now western Turkey not far south from Lesbos, in a playful poetic tribute to her, uses the image of a ‘purple sphere’ as a symbol of sexual arousal in a manner that may well echo something Sappho said. Whatever inferences may be drawn from that poem, it is nonetheless abundantly clear from later poetry and philosophy and pictorial and sculptural iconography that Aphrodite in particular was closely associated with spherical cosmology.
In fact, if you ‘follow the bouncing ball’ that is the sphere as a symbol of ancient Greek female spirituality a number of issues can be spotted that raise intriguing, even provocative questions. I will ‘toss out’ two examples.
I begin with where the ball Nausicaa and her companions are playing with ends up: a last throw of the ball is missed and it lands in a whirlpool; the commotion that causes then awakens the naked but as yet unseen Odysseus, but the ball presumably sinks into the whirlpool, as nothing more about it is narrated. Not just the sphere but the circular motion implied by its sinking into the whirlpool thus becomes associated with the initiation of a sexually charged but never consummated relationship between a much older man and a young unmarried woman. The subtle back and forth, push and pull of the two would seem to be perfectly symbolized by the way the sphere, spinning in the whirlpool, is being pushed out (cf. Artemis, one epithet of whom was not just shooting but ‘pouring out’ arrows) but at the same time pulled in (cf. Aphrodite and the notion of magnetic attraction).
Is there not implicit in this poetic imagery something analogous to scientific theories that did not emerge until well over two millennia later?
My second example: as mentioned earlier, authorship of the Odyssey is debatable, and the Nausicaa episode in particular should be considered a ‘jump ball’ that can be argued either way with respect to the gender of the author. What is not debatable is that the Odyssey in general was enormously important to another poet, Parmenides. Though he is known as the ‘father of Western philosophy,’ he himself would surely be embarrassed by such a title, for the only poem he is known to have composed is one the substance of which he purports to have had dictated to him by a goddess as she sat face to face with him, holding his right hand with hers. Though modern scholarship all but ignores the feminine spirituality implicated in Parmenides, it was not lost on Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy purports to be a dialogue with a personified, poetizing female Philosophy, who at one point in their dialogue quotes a line of Parmenides. From Boethius the ‘ball’ that is the sphere of female spirituality bounces even further, to Hildegard von Bingen and Queen Elizabeth I.
That raises the question: are the claims of Parmenides and Boethius to goddess inspiration comparable and should they be taken more seriously than has been the case to date?
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.
8 thoughts on “The Sphere: A Symbol of Ancient Greek Female Spirituality by Stuart Dean”
Interesting thoughts Stuart. I will mull this over further. However, my first thought is that if we are talking about women’s rituals and spirituality, we should not rush to invoke abstract mathematical or cosmological ideas.
I agree with you that poetry, dance, and music belong together, or at least that they did in Sappho’s time and continue to do so in the traditional dances of modern Greece. Sappho did not write spoken “poetry” as we know it, but rather song lyrics (to be sung while strumming the 7 stringed lyre or small harp). And from Sappho’s songs and from traditional Greece, we know that neither Sappho’s women nor contemporary Greeks “sit around and listen to music.” Rather music inspires dance, movement of the body, usually in community with others. Absolutely right.
However, can’t the moon just be the moon? And the stars just be the stars? Was Sappho really talking about cosmology known through mathematical principles in the rational mind? Or was she talking about physical beauty encountered through the senses of the body?
For me the “great divide” is the “movement” away from valuing the physical world and the body and the senses in favor of the rational mind and an eternal changeless immaterial realm.
So the question I would ask is not did a male philosopher and a male or female epic writer and female poet all refer to spheres, but a more difficult one: when did male (and perhaps also female-written) philosophy turn away from the physical world of the body and the senses in favor of another more perfect rational and immaterial world? Certainly this had happened by the time of Plato’s Symposium (as I read it). Perhaps Parmenides is not the ancestor of Plato but a philosopher focused on understanding and valuing the physical world that changes. I don’t know enough about Parmenides to answer that question.
Thank you. “Mull this over” is the sort of reaction I was hoping to elicit and I am glad you received it in that way. As for the moon and stars just being what they are: yes and I have a short piece on Sappho’s astronomical observations that will be posted on the blog ‘Women in Astronomy’ on November 11. I have some thoughts on your ‘turn away’ question that I may incorporate into my next post.
I enjoy your posts, thanks Stuart, and share your love of ancient Greek, and language generally! Absolutely agree that Sappho considered herself “as much a musician and choreographer as a poet.” That is, to her it was all one craft. On women’s circle dancing she says —
“Thus the women of Crete once danced
in measure round the fair altar, treading
softly on the delicate bloom of the grass.”
In another fragment:
“The moon was coming into view in its fullness
as women took their position around the altar.”
Thank you. The second of your quotes is S.154, to which I link. I am not familiar with the first quote: could you check on the source for that?
See Incertum #16 in “The Poetry of Sappho,” translation and notes by Jim Powell, Oxford, 2007. Powell’s entire text is online in pdf very generously. I don’t think the poem could be by anyone but Sappho. It was included also in H. T. Wharton’s translation (1895), as well as Bergk #54. Here’s the Greek original —
Κρῆσσαί νύ ποτ’ ὦδ’ ἐμμελέως πόδεσσιν ὠρχεῦντ’ ἀπάλοις
ἀμφ’ ἐρόεντα βῶμον πόας τέρεν ἄνθος μάλακον μάτεισαι
mary barnard trans, #23
Thanks for the Powell reference and the Greek text.