For by my side you put on
many wreaths of roses
and garlands of flowers
around your soft neck
and with precious and royal perfume
you anointed yourself.
On soft beds you satisfied your passion.
And there was no dance
no holy place
from which we were absent.
–Sappho (trans. Julia Dubnoff)
Sappho, the poet from Lesbos (630-570 BCE), was considered one of the greatest poets of her time—one of her epithets was “the tenth Muse.” I discovered the poems of Sappho in my thirties and was utterly captivated. I had newly embarked on a relationship with a woman and Sappho’s love poetry (though by no means exclusively lesbian) supported the expression of eros between women. Yet even more than that, Sappho’s poems supported an erotic relationship between self and world—a relationship that included ritual as a form of intimacy. I’m not a Greek scholar—I experience Sappho’s poems in translation. Yet the translations I read back then were a revelation: a world in which women lived in circle with one another.
As a co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, I have been, and remain, involved in the creation and performance of ritual as a way of bringing meaning to our lives—particularly the lives of women. At Kohenet, we mine Jewish sources, from the Bible to Talmud to women’s magic to feminist poetry to kabbalah to folk customs, as resources for creating meaningful ritual. But ritual can’t just be a pastiche of elements—it has to have an ethos, an aesthetic. Of course, much of the aesthetic and ethos of my rituals comes from Jewish sources, contemporary and ancient. And, looking back, I can also see the way Sappho’s poems helped me think about the power of ritual in a female-oriented space.
Consider the above poem, in which Sappho speaks to a garlanded lover, mentioning perfumes and soft beds. Clearly this is the realm of eros, but Sappho also reminisces: “there was no dance/no holy place/from which we were absent.” Sappho and her lover are constantly engaged in ritual—wherever there is a shrine, wherever there is a sacred dance, they show up. This is a part of their joy with one another, a facet of who they are. This resonates for me—I could say similar things of my contemporary ritual life in New York City. I have seen how ceremony can be a part of nurturing and growing relationships. Ritual brings consciousness, and community, to our days.
In another poem, Sappho describes her circle of women as they mourn for Timas, a girl who died young:
We put the urn aboard ship
with this inscription:
This is the dust of little
Timas who unmarried was led
into Persephone’s dark bedroom
And she being far from home, girls
her age took new-edged blades
to cut, in mourning for her,
these curls of their soft hair.
–Sappho (trans. Mary Barnard)
For Sappho, even death is not free of eros. Timas “is led into Persephone’s dark bedroom” as if, now that she is a shade in the underworld, she becomes Persephone’s lover. Sappho tenderly notes that the ashes of young Timas do not journey alone—the other girls of the circle, aware that Timas has no local family to grieve her, cut locks of hair to accompany her. This ritual of hair-cutting is a sign of the girls’ mourning for their companion—a concrete expression of their love for her. The curls of hair are evocative—we can almost see them and feel their softness, thousands of years later. In this poem too, ritual is a form of intimacy, a way of embodying love in a lasting form.
Ritual can be a container for love and grief. When, in Kohenet community, we’ve made candles for the dead (an old Ashkenazi custom), the finished products are expressions of love in a form that we can hold in our hands. Washing one another with salt water for healing (a Sephardic women’s tradition), or making amulets, or placing our hands in blessing, are also sensory experiences of our care for one another. Witnessing one another in celebration or in grief is a way of showing our love for one another.
The rituals Sappho evokes in her writing do not only have human participants. She addresses Goddess with great intimacy. In her poetry, Sappho often addresses Aphrodite directly and personally, as when she says:
You know the place: then
leave Crete and come to us
waiting where the grove is
pleasantest, by precincts
sacred to you; incense
smokes on the altar, cold streams
murmur through the
Fill our gold cups with love
stirred into clear nectar.
–Sappho (trans. Mary Barnard)
Sappho summons Aphrodite to a sacred apple orchard, to attend a ritual dedicated to the goddess of love. The beauty of the natural world evokes the beauty of the goddess. Indeed, the goddess has been to this place before: it is familiar and known to her. The incense has been lit; the ritual cups have been filled. Sappho’s request of Aphrodite is simple: that she should infuse the women’s goblets with her love.
Sappho’s encounter with Aphrodite reminds me of the moment on Friday night when Jews turn toward the door to welcome the Sabbath bride and queen, Shekhinah. One often has the sense that Someone/Something has entered the room. This is my hope when I do ritual—that I will feel the presence of divinity very close, in direct relationship to my body and spirit. So when my co-founder Taya Shere expresses gratitude for Shekhinah’s presence at the beginning of a ritual, I am grateful for the intimacy that infuses her words. When the poets of our community share their poems and spontaneous invocations, I know that spirit is being summoned in that very moment. That’s what I crave in all ritual, and particularly in the Kohenet community where I make my home.
All of the rituals in Sappho’s poems quoted above are group rituals. No ritual leader appears in Sappho’s accounts of sacred dance, or fills the cups of nectar, or performs the mourning rites. This sense of group leadership heightens both communal togetherness and individual engagement. This too, I think, is a learning for me: a ritual leader should set the frame but not occupy too much space: the group itself is the most important ritual participant.
Looking back at decades of participation in women’s ritual, I feel I’ve witnessed verses from Sappho’s poems: women feeding one another grapes under the full moon, walking into the sea with eyes closed as part of a spirit journey, dancing in circles around blazing candles, descending down a ladder into a cave, immersing together in a pond on Friday afternoon before the sun sets. The embodied nature of these rituals feels both ancient and of the moment. Though my ritual context is different from Sappho’s, she’s been a good mentor, reminding me to pay attention to the sensuous details of ritual, to nurture circles of community, to invite deity directly and personally, and most of all, to infuse all ritual action with love. Sappho’s poems, like the erotic and elemental verses of the Song of Songs, give us a ritual ethos that is tender, graceful, at home in the natural world, and full of presence.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).