The world Sappho envisions in her poetry is one with many lessons for us in the 21st century about how to live. While ancient Greek society, especially in later eras, was deeply misogynistic and women had few rights, Sappho’s words evoke a perspective in which goddesses, especially Aphrodite, are revered and the connection of worshippers to goddesses is intimate, art created by women is celebrated, women’s relationships are central to one’s well being, and love and sensuality are enjoyed.
But words only tell part of the story. Sappho’s poetry was meant to be sung, and while we can’t hear the songs she wrote, I think it is interesting to note that Anne Carson, in her 2003 translation “If Not, Winter” says that Sappho is credited with inventing the Locrian musical mode. A mode is a scale in which the progression of notes follows a set pattern of whole and half notes. We are all familiar with the major mode that makes music sound happy (Happy Birthday song) and the natural minor mode that we use for sad music (House of the Rising Sun). But there are many other modes, and the Locrian mode is one of them. (just a note: the Locrian mode is the same as the Greek Mixolydian mode and completely different from the modern Mixolydian mode, just to be confusing.)
Just to see what happens, let’s make the leaps that allow us to think that we can get a deeper sense of Sappho’s worldview from listening to the mode she invented. So, I am going to propose that if Sappho invented what was in her time a new mode, she thought it complemented her poetry and added a dimension words alone could not express. While her own music is lost to us, I wonder if we listen to music in that mode and experience what it invokes in us, we perhaps can get a fuller sense of her perspective, even across the millennia. To hear the difference between the major mode and the Locrian mode, here is the folk song The Water Is Wide in its usual major scale:
Here is it in the Locrian mode:
While the Locrian mode is considered to be a minor (“sad”) scale, it delights me with its complexity, its sense of mixing both happy and sad and its air of Mystery. It does not present a shallow binary view of the world as “good” or “evil,” “paradise” or “hell,” but rather acknowledges that both the world and the people living on Her and their lives are both. It is a truthful worldview that expresses how one woman has experienced life in its fullness. To me, that is a very healing perspective, however comforting it would be to experience only joy in this world. It is a perspective that helps Sappho’s audience consider their situations with clear eyes. (“My heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me, that once upon a time were fleet for the dance as fawns. This state I bemoan, but what can we do? Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way,” wrote Sappho.)
The Locrian mode, with its haunting air, also connects us to Mystery, to other realms beyond our day to day life. I see this reflected in Sappho’s easy dialogue with the goddesses, especially Aphrodite. Aphrodite is present in Sappho’s everyday life and she discusses her sorrows and happiness with Her. (“Come to me now: loose me from hard care and all my heart longs to accomplish, accomplish. You be my ally.”)
The Locrian mode, with its otherworldly, exotic flavor, expresses joy in beauty, sensuality and love. These are what we should seek. (“…I would rather see her lovely step and the motion of light on her face than chariots of Lydians or ranks of footsoldiers in arms.”)
Finally, the Locrian mode, seems to me to be an expression of Sappho’s understanding of the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Music in the Locrian mode sounds unfinished to me. We usually have a sense of finality when the last note is the first note of the scale and the musical piece. I don’t hear that in the Locrian mode. She tells us that you cannot have life without death and by connecting us to Mystery, she leads us to rebirth rather than finality. She wrote, possibly when she was facing her own death, “for it is not right in a house of Muses that there should be lament.”
What are Sappho’s everyday life lessons, emphasized in her Locrian mode? Be present in your everyday life, for daily life is part of Mystery. The Divine, however you define Her, is near you to be called on and brought into your daily life. Accept that life will have both happy and sad, positive and negative, with vibrant and fallow times and that it is not a failure to not be content constantly, nor can you make anyone else’s life perfect. Learn to live without fear of death, which is a natural part of life’s cycle. Center beauty, creativity, and love in your life.
Sappho once wrote “Yes! Radiant lyre speak to me, become a voice.” When I read Sappho’s poetry and listen to music in the Locrian mode, I think that may be we are not so far away from her and her time. She still has lessons to teach us about beauty, love, and persistence in the face of challenge. She also wrote, “someone will remember us, I say, even in another time.” And miracle of miracles, we are doing just that and are wiser for it.
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a writer, drummer, and herb and native plant gardener. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in a variety of print magazines, internet sites, and book anthologies. She explores goddess-centered spirituality in everyday life and how we can all better live in local and global community. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com,where you can find her writings and music and some of her free e-books to download.
All translations by Anne Carter from If Not, Winter except for the excerpt beginning “My heart’s grown heavy,” also translated by Anne Carter, which was first published in the New York Review of Books, October 20, 2005.
Photo of bust of Sappho: Capitoline Museums, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Woman playing lyre on Greek vase: Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons