Sappho’s Prescription For A Healthy Heart & the Taoist/Buddhist Concept of Forget (忘)

Stuart WordPress photoA two line fragment of Sappho’s poetry (S.120) reads:

But I am not one to keep venting my anger:
Rather I let some things in my heart go unspoken

Sappho’s word choices here make this as difficult as any of her fragments to appreciate in translation.  Yet, not only do those choices make attribution of this fragment to Sappho secure, they also manifest her importance in an area for which she rarely receives attention: early Greek medical thinking.  One reason her importance in that regard is largely unnoticed is that Western medicine in general has abandoned its own tradition, retaining only the nomenclature and some of the symbolism of early Greek medicine.

This is particularly noticeable with respect to the disciplines implicated by S.120, for Sappho, like other Greeks of her time, deemed the heart to be the location of “the entire range of conscious experience, including perception, thought, emotion, desire and intuition,” and would not have distinguished cardiology from psychology.  Some translators feel the need to give Sappho the benefit of modern anatomical knowledge and use ‘mind’ to translate phrena, the standard Greek word for ‘heart’ Sappho uses here.  Although such a translation is justifiable, it nonetheless betrays what can well be characterized as a symptom of cultural schizophrenia the West suffers from with respect to a wide range of issues that pit mind against body and ultimately spirituality against science.

The contrast with Chinese culture could not be more pronounced, even though early Chinese medical thinking was in many respects not just similar, but identical to roughly contemporaneous early Greek medical thinking.  The language quoted above to explain the meaning of ‘heart’ to ancient Greeks is Harold Roth’s explanation of the meaning of the Chinese pictographic character 心 (Romanized hsin or xin) found frequently in the earliest known Taoist poetry he compiled and translated as Original Tao (hereafter OT (p42))(the evidence for which dates from about a century after Sappho).  Unlike the way in which Western medicine abandoned its tradition, the principles and practices associated with OT have been kept very much alive in how traditional Chinese medicine and associated disciplines are practiced today.

Because of the continuity Chinese medicine has with its historical roots there is an abundant amount of evidence that can usefully be drawn upon to help fill in, by analogy, the otherwise all too fragmentary picture that exists today of early Greek medicine.  The premise for doing so is that the known similarities reflect a common cultural ancestry of remote antiquity and that there are surely others that with more evidence could be detected.  Consider, for example, this line from OT: “To bring your anger to a halt there is nothing better than poetry” (OT p88).  One reason for the connection of poetry and anger management: oral recitation, especially with quantitative meters, is an intuitive form of breath control.  Not only is that principle implicit in S.120, but there is yet another fragment of Sappho’s on anger that also evinces an appreciation of the same principle (S.158).

The form of the verb Sappho uses for ‘anger’ in S.120 is unusual: ‘to get angry’ is found in the Iliad (no surprise) but it seems what Sappho says (literally, ‘to get angry again’) originates with her.  It is not attested thereafter until it and its cognates appear in a Hippocratic text where they are used metaphorically to refer to a festering wound.  This is a curious instance of a psychological concept being applied to an ostensibly physical phenomenon.  Given that not one word in any Hippocratic text can be attributed with confidence to the father of Western medicine and given the rarity of the Greek term for ‘fester’ it seems reasonable to attribute its use as a medical term to Sappho’s influence.  Furthermore, given that one type of festering wound–digestive tract ulcers (and the heartburn that often is their precursor)–can stubbornly defy Western medicine’s physical fixes and yet respond to Chinese acupuncture and associated modalities, it is fair to suppose Sappho may have been onto something of importance.

S.120’s survival is due to its quotation in a Byzantine era lexicon illustrating Sappho’s use of the adjective ‘unspoken.’  Many translate this as a positive term (‘quiet,’ ‘gentle,’ ‘calm’), but it is a negative formed with the alpha privative prefix on a root meaning ‘to speak.’  The ‘speaking’ it refers to was not ordinary speech but rather poetic, even oracular utterances with magical powers.  What Sappho seems to be indicating with her use of the unusual negative form is that she is deliberately letting something go unsaid in order to empty it of a power it might otherwise have.  An analogous principle seems to underlie her decision not to name the woman she thereby effectively condemns to being forgotten in S.55.

This happens to relate to a concept encountered in the poetry of OT that came to have profound importance in the reception of Buddhism in China, Korea and Japan: 忘 (wang).  Typically translated as ‘forget,’ the Chinese character is a compound (as many Chinese characters are) of two characters: the pictograph 心 and the ideograph 亡, which by itself, depending on the context, can mean ‘flee’ or ‘perish.’  Forgetting is prescribed in OT as a remedy for a problematic emotional condition not unlike anger (worry) and, as the appearance of the character 忘 itself may well manifest, was associated with a type breath meditation characterized as fasting or being empty (cf. the meditation technique of pausing after an exhale).

A Korean Buddhist monk (dharma name Kihwa, family name Yu (ca 1400 CE)) placed special emphasis on 忘 in his commentary on The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment.  To Kihwa, 忘 is at once curative (ending suffering) but also itself symptomatic–of enlightenment.  Forgetting in this sense is thus not a-mnesia (the inability to remember) but ana-mnesia: remembering that not just anger or worry but every emotion ultimately has no substance and as such can and should be released (emptied) at the appropriate time.  A forgetting that is a remembering: the poetess with a taste for the ‘bittersweet’ (S.130) would have appreciated that paradoxical notion.

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.  He has studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi, Yoga and related disciplines for over forty years.  Stuart has a blog on Sappho and the implications of her poetry for understanding the past, present and future:

Author: Stuart Dean

Independent researcher and writer

11 thoughts on “Sappho’s Prescription For A Healthy Heart & the Taoist/Buddhist Concept of Forget (忘)”

  1. Great post, very challenging, thanks, Dean. In her book called “Sappho’s Lyre,” Diane Rayor understands “heart” or “mind” (phrena) as “spirit” — and thus in her translation, Sappho says:

    “But I am not someone of spiteful
    temper — I have a gentle spirit.”

    That fits the Greek I think quite well, not literally, but as regards the deeper meaning of what Sappho is trying to share, that is, it shifts the focus — as you rightly indicate in your notes on anger management — from living on top of one’s emotions to rooting oneself in the spiritual life.

    Likewise there is a teaching in the ancient Chinese Tao Te Ching (Ch. 10) which asks the question:

    “Carrying the spiritual and bodily souls
    and embracing the one
    can you be without separation now?”


      1. Thank you for your comment. As for my name: I have been living with 2 last/first names for 60 years so I am used to that:)


  2. Really nice post.
    Since we know the Silk Road was established in Roman times (or maybe earlier), with trade routes come information exchange and I’m certain there was some medical-poetic-cultural exchange along the way. Thanks so much for this!


    1. Thank you very much. I think the earliest physical evidence of trade between the West and Far East is Chinese silk discovered in an Athenian tomb (ca 5th-4th century BCE). DNA testing on human remains may prove there to have been much more ‘wandering’ going on among our pre-literate nomadic ancestors than we realize.


  3. I find Sappho’s words and your meditations on them profound. I will be pondering them in my heart. Thank you!


  4. Thank you for this informative and moving post, Stuart. I remember taking a “Chinese Traditions” course in my undergraduate days and recall being drawn to the integration between “heart” and “mind” so many schools expressed. I agree with your thought that we live in a time/place that endures a “…cultural schizophrenia…with respect to a wide range of issues that pit mind against body and ultimately spirituality against science.” We here in the “West” seem intent on keeping spirituality and science apart. Sigh….


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