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). Continue reading “The Sphere: A Symbol of Ancient Greek Female Spirituality by Stuart Dean”