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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #72 Skinner 2002 “Aphrodite Garlanded: Eros and Poetic Creativity in Sappho and Nossis”

Full citation: 

Skinner, Marilyn B. “Aphrodite Garlanded: Eros and Poetic Creativity in Sappho and Nossis” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Skinner, Marilyn B. “Aphrodite Garlanded: Eros and Poetic Creativity in Sappho and Nossis”

When considering both homosocial and homoerotic communities in ancient Greece, the conversation will inevitably revolve around the poet Sappho and several papers in this collection begin from aspects of her work.

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Skinner examines the relationship between female poetic inspiration and the homoerotic implications of a female poet with a female muse. Although the article opens with a consideration of modern discussions of the concept of poetic muse and the implications of gendering this imagined relationship, the heart of her paper concerns the Greek poets Sappho and Nossis and the ways they portray their relationship to inspiration in the form of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and secondarily to the nine Muses. Ancient Greek writers portrayed inspiration not as the self-conscious metaphor that the “muse” later became, but as actual gifts of ability or even more extremely, a form of possession akin to the gift of divine prophecy. The later metaphor tended to be more overtly sexual in structure, with a (male) poet begetting compositions by intellectual intercourse with a (female) muse. The ancient Greek imagery frames the poet as recipient (of skills, of a directly-transmitted work) rather than “active” (and thus male-framed) begetter.

Sappho and Nossis acknowledge the Muses as patrons of their craft in a formal manner, but depict the critical relationship with Aphrodite as being personal and sensual. Both the implications of this framing, and the context of poetic production, differed for male and female poets. Men would more typically perform in the context of the symposium and with competitive overtones. Women would be performing in a less formal context to a homosocial community/audience and their works were often celebratory of the relationships within that community.

Sappho both invites and invokes the Muses and Graces in the openings to several poems, acknowledging their gifts in somewhat formal language. Aphrodite, in contrast, is invited to be a participant in the performance community, pouring out drinks for the company and exhorting the poets to celebrate their desire and longing for female companions both present an absent. In Sappho’s only complete ode, she summons and directly addresses Aphrodite for assistance in pursuing her erotic desire (for a woman). The two are presented as engaging in the teasing banter of companions and friends, not a distant hierarchical relationship.

The poet Nossis (3rd c. BCE) overtly follows Sappho as her literary model, and like her, addresses Aphrodite in the context of poetic inspiration. Though desire (eros) is regularly given as the motive for her poems commemorating gifts dedicated to the goddess, it is desire for (and inspired by) Aphrodite herself, rather than between the community of women involved. (Nossis is creating the poems on behalf of other named dedicants.) However in the donors’ eros for Aphrodite, and in the pleasure and admiration experienced by the women (and the poet) for the female-centered gifts being dedicated, a clear context of female homoerotic sensuality is created.

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