The Legacy of Carol P. Christ: Sappho Chose Love Not War, What Will You Choose?

This was originally posted on November 12, 2012

We have been taught to speak of war and the heroes of war in hushed tones. We have been told that evil Helen’s choice was the cause of the Trojan war.  2600 years ago Sappho, known as the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece, spoke truth to power and unmasked the lies told at the beginning of western tradition.

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In a poem addressed to Anactoria, Sappho writes:

            Some say a cavalry corps
            some say infantry, some, again,
            will maintain that the swift oars
            of our fleet are the finest
            sight on dark earth …

Here, Sappho invokes the heroic tradition celebrated in the epic poems of Homer that shaped the values of ancient Greek culture and all the cultures that followed it, including our own.  This tradition tells us that to serve in a war and to be remembered as a hero is the highest goal to which a man can aspire.  Sappho does not agree:

             …but I say
             that whatever one loves, is.

Sappho challenges the traditions that celebrate war in starkly simple terms.  Could it be, she asks us, that we should choose to make love not war?  Sappho knows that she is challenging deeply engrained values. In The Iliad Achilles’ “honor” is compromised when Agamemnon takes the captive (raped) woman he had claimed.  Achilles “metaphysical dilemma” is whether to return home and live a long but unremarkable life or to die on the battlefield and be remembered forever. He chooses to die as a hero. 

Knowing the power of the heroic tradition, Sappho offers “proof” of her radical claim in the form of an alternate reading of “Helen’s choice.”

           This is easily proved, did
           not Helen – she who had scanned
           the flower of the world’s manhood –
           choose as first among men one
           who laid Troy’s honor in ruin?

Contesting the epic tradition, Sappho portrays Helen as having made the right decison. Helen chose “as first among men” a man who was beautiful–a man not dressed in armor or holding a spear.  Sappho is quite aware that Homeric tradition portrayed Paris, and those who like Paris did not choose war, as “effeminate.”  She quite deliberately challenges this:  beauty not soldierly strength is what Helen chose. Moreover, it mattered not to Helen that others would say Paris dishonored his father’s family by “taking” another man’s wife.  The choice was hers. 

Or was it? Sappho continues:

      warped to his will, forgetting
      love due her own blood, her own
      child, she wandered far with him.

Having stated that Helen “chose,” Sappho invokes love as a powerful force that once chosen, captures Helen’s will.  Helen chooses to follow her love, and the rest is history.  She leaves her child and wanders with Paris. Sappho offers the listener the opportunity to judge Helen for leaving her child. But she carefully does not allude to the alleged “cause” of the Trojan war – which is that in leaving her husband, Helen “besmirched” the male honor of her husband Menelaos.  If love is to be faulted in Sappho’s poem, it is not for harming male honor.

Sappho’s boldness in these simple lines should not be underestimated. She is criticizing Homer, the greatest of epic poets, and the whole tradition he created. This in itself is incredibly daring. But Sappho’s act must be seen as even more daring if we understand that in her day as in ours, to question the military is to court charges of lack of patriotism and even treason.

Having challenged the literary and political conventions that celebrate war and denigrate love, Sappho raises the stakes in a second example intended to prove her point that love is more beautiful than war to Anactoria.

           So Anactoria, although you
           being far away forget us,
           the dear sound of your footstep
           and the light glancing in your eyes
           would move me more than glitter
           of Lydian horse or armored tread
           of mainland infantry.

Having dealt with history and tradition, Sappho returns to the present.  She reminds Anactoria, the “you” to whom the poem is addressed, of times spent in the company of “us,” a reference to the community of women that surround Sappho.  She invokes Anactoria’s physical presence in images of the “sound” of her footstep and the “light” in her eyes. 

Sappho concludes her poem where she began, insisting that she would be more “moved” to see and hear Anactoria than by all the glamor and clatter of armies.  If the identification of Anactoria as an army wife in Sardis is correct, Sappho might be trying to convince an army wife to leave her husband. The parallelism between Helen who left her military husband and Anactoria suggests that this may be exactly what Sappho has in mind.

The military and the military industrial complex rule our world today as in Sappho’s time.  I dream of the day when Sappho will be taught alongside Homer and a question posed:  At the beginning of our culture, we were given the choice between love and war. Our forebears chose war. What will you choose?

Join CODEPINK Women for Peace in celebrating tens years of creative resistance to war and injustice.

Poem #41 “To an army wife in Sardis,” translated by Mary Barnard, Sappho (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012 [1958]).  Barnard’s reconstruction of the lines concerning Helen differs from that of other translators.

Photograph of Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete altar to Sappho and Aphrodite in Kato Symi by Catherine Colfax.

BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.

“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.”  — Carol P. Christ 



Categories: Activism, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, General, War and Peace

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3 replies

  1. As always, brava! From the first time I read both of Homer’s poems in high school, I’ve wished the Trojans had won that stupid war and thought Circe or someone should, so to speak, eat Odysseus alive. Awful men!

    Carol, you’re right: we should not be celebrating the military and so-called heroes, but braver men who do useful things, like governing honestly and creating inventions and beauty. Wherever you are, rest well. Bright blessings!

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  2. This response to this article may be long winded, but I believe it is really important to point out how these ancient patriarchal ideas are still running the false narratives that we are dealing with today. While visiting a local park I saw a plaque dedicated to “…men and women who have gone before us in battle. On and off the battlefield, these heroes are mankind’s greatest achievement.” I thought to myself, that is so not true. I can think of many events in a person’s life that are the highest achievements and war is not the highest achievement. High numbers of veterans that suffer from PTSD commit suicide. If you believe this false narrative, while at the same time suffering in your soul from the atrocities of war, this distorted view of reality constitutes is an abusive form of patriarchal reversals and gaslighting. Life is the greatest achievement in this world, not military death cults that are concerned with the attainment of power and wealth.
    In my dissertation I discuss the image of Helen of Troy used in the Sola Busca Tarot deck of the Renaissance. “Helen of Troy is vilified for supposedly causing the Trojan War, but she is trapped in a no-win situation. She is given as a prize by Aphrodite to Paris, but Helen as the metaphor for the throne of Sparta represents the power that her husband Menelaus and her brother-in-law Agamemnon want returned. Helen is forced to leave behind two of her daughters, Iphigenia and Hermione, and maybe even three sons as she is shuffled as the prize between kingdoms; in a patriarchal culture, children from other fathers were seen as a threat to the new husband.”
    “Rigoglioso argues that the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, one of which is the prize awarded in the beauty contest, are symbolic of the power of parthenogenetic birth that the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera already possessed (Virgin 4). Fruits such as apples, pomegranates, and figs are symbolic of this power of goddesses who could create from themselves ex nihilo before the power was appropriated and subsumed by patriarchal mythologies. Rigoglioso asserts that the apple suggests the loss of parthenogenesis, which means that Paris is therefore controlling female sexuality and that Eris the goddess of discord is promoting female competitiveness; in this way, both Aphrodite and Helen are also made into the scapegoats for the Trojan War (Virgin 88–89). “
    “Adams indicates that the rope-like vine behind Elena associates this card with the dendritic Helen, who is hung from a tree by her friend Queen Polyxo in revenge for the death of Polyxo’s husband in the Trojan War (Game 80). In The Mycenean Origins of Mythology, philologist and mythographer Martin P. Nilsson conjectures that Helen of Troy is thought to originate in the pre-Greek Minoan culture as a much older tree goddess (909). Kruger points to the various goddesses who hang from trees—including Artemis, Helen, and Ariadne—and suggests that trees and pillars represent goddesses as the world tree (Weaving 73).”
    The demise of Roe vs Wade demonstrates how we are still are experiencing the control of female sexuality, justified by these ancient patriarchal mythologies. Western culture needs young bodies to sacrifice in wars, to sexually traffic, and to make wage slaves. These Patriarchal Propagandas are really about death dealing, so that powerful obscenely rich billionaires can shoot their phallic rockets into space and pollute the earth without consequences.
    I also suggest in my dissertation, that there is a shift from matriarchal to patriarchal consciousness. “In poetic tragedy, uses of iynges, entheagens, and magical incantations are transformed into negative propaganda against the older powerful goddesses and priestesses whose use of magic generated fear in the male psyche. Magical power is usurped and placed in the hands of powerful men, and female herbalists are later burned as witches. The magic of life and fertility once experienced through the entheagen and guided by a female priestess or shaman devolves in classic poetry into a sort of coercive magical date-rape drug, with heroines such as Helen of Troy forced to act against their will and even their best interest.”
    “In his Fourth Pythian Ode (lines 210–215), Pindar proposes that Aphrodite is the inventor of the iynx wheel and that she instructs Jason in the spells needed to compel Medea, a priestess of Hekate, to fall in love with him. Medea helps Jason by betraying her family and murdering her own brother and by drugging the serpent that guards the Golden Fleece. Later, a disgruntled and betrayed Medea uses her herbal knowledge to poison her rival for Jason’s affection and then kills herself and her own children. Although there is no evidence that Paris uses similar magic to compel Helen of Troy to fall in love with him, the use of magic might be assumed because Helen later regrets her actions and curses Aphrodite for interfering in her life.”
    Helen of Troy, and other women of power are made into scapegoats that has lasted into present times, “Helen grants sovereignty to Menelaus, but after leaving her homeland, she loses power and is maligned as whore and death bringer; she is blamed by both sides for causing the Trojan War.” “In the Theogony, Hesiod calls Helen Kalon Kakon, or “dangerous beauty,” which implies that women will be the downfall of any male who does not learn to control the females in his life (line 585). Helen is scapegoated as the evil in the world, just as Pandora, Lilith, and Eve are.”
    “To the Athenians, Helen of Troy is a bad wife and should be denied the free will to oversee her own fate or even her own body; however, as a Spartan woman, Helen would have been less docile than the women of Athens. According to classics professor Sarah B. Pomeroy in Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, the Spartans still had a matrilineal and matrilocal social structure, and a bride would be free to choose her suitor or even to abandon her husband, just as Helen and Clytemnestra both do, and the new husband of her choosing would be considered a new legitimate marriage (20). In a matrilocal system, the body of Helen is equated with the land and the throne of Sparta; therefore, to leave her own kingdom meant a loss of power and agency for Helen and especially for Menelaus, her husband. Although it is hotly debated whether Helen is abducted or goes willingly with Paris, why would she abandon the land that she represents in a matrilineal line of succession, in which she has a modicum of power, for a place where she has none? According to Spretnak, pre-Hellenic goddesses who revered procreative life and fertility were assimilated by the Greeks into their pantheon but were severely transformed by revisionist poetry.”
    “The great Hera was made into a disagreeable, jealous wife; Athena was made into a cold, masculine daughter; Aphrodite was made into a frivolous sexual creature; Artemis was made into the quite forgettable sister of Apollo; and Pandora was made into the troublesome, treacherous source of human woes. These prototypes later evolved into the wicked witch, the cruel stepmother, and the passive princess, etc., of our fairy tales. (Lost 18)”
    “Helen, who represents the throne of Sparta, would be unlikely to leave her throne, kingdom, and family in a matrilineal line of succession—unless she was possessed or coerced.”
    We also need to remember that Achilles’s mother tells him if he goes to Troy he will die, yet he will have fame, yet he chooses war rather than to live a soul fulfilling life, creating a family and living in peace. I think we know that fame has become more important in Western culture, than a peaceful life raising a family. I believe this tells us everything we need to know about what I call Fool/Heroes.

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