There are fragments that survive, around six-hundred-and-fifty lines of a possible ten-thousand. No more can be written of Sappho without assuming a certain reality that may or may not have existed, and really this is the nature of her mythology. That every element of her music is music-less is part of the Sapphic music. That Sappho’s lyre will never produce a tone again, stimulates the continuity of her music, the listening for what can’t be heard. That all but two songs of Sappho have been reduced to broken lines, as if by the cruel and authoritarian record producer of history, only leaves the listener more closely attuned to the silence.
Between the third-century BC and the seventh-century AD, not far from the Middle-Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, an ancient trash heap was established. In it, scraps of papyrus bearing a gamut of human expression from tax-returns and dinner invitations, to census-registers and Gospelic fragments, were deposited over a period of time long enough in measure to make decades seem fairly brief. Then, around one-hundred-and-twenty-five of them later, in 1896, two Englishmen by the names of Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, dug them out. This took a number of additional decades, and being papyrologists, gave Grenfell, Hunt, and their archeological team no small amount of excitement. They were unearthing a source.
This is not such a source. This is not an essay explaining that Sappho’s birthplace was the blue-green North Aegean island of Lesbos (sometime in the sixth-century, BC) and that her mournful and joyous, sometimes erotic, lyrical works altered and generated the meaning of the words lesbian, and sapphic.
This is not an essay that will wonder why Sappho remains so unusually popular in certain circles, so enduring in the expanse of years, given that the majority of her work no longer exists in any complete or meaningful form. Sappho the sex-positive icon. Sappho the feminist.
This is not an essay that will compare Sappho as a person, to Sappho as a poet, to Sappho as a myth. This is not an essay at all.
That Plato credited her as the tenth muse and that Aristotle, too, praised her music, is a credit to her reputation and to the prestige of her ancient fanbase. That there are two types of fragments that survive her work, the original and the citation, is a credit to the work of the scribe.
This is a testament to another fact. No piece is too major to be referenced, no work too old to be worked into an essay, quoted and in that way preserved.
Hum a tune, the tune survives. Recite a poem, the poem endures. That Sappho was the most praised musician and poet of her day, is a credit to the desolation of time. No one, no matter how major, is insured against the steady process that must consume and destroy any and all information.
All the music heard and unheard, the lost tapes and forgotten choruses, cannot be entirely separated from the work of Sappho, in the way that all things new must take the past as their comparison. That Sappho was of the first musicians to have partially vanished, leaving a legacy as much of harmonic prowess as of her vanishment, means she set a precedent for unheard melodies, as much as heard ones. Her music lives. Its own ability to endure is proven by its flirting with oblivion.
Tithonus, in the antique myth, is immortal. This would hardly be unusual, if he hadn’t been born a mortal Trojan prince. After stealing Tithonus for a lover, Eos, Goddess of the Dawn, implored Zeus to bless him with eternal life. She neglected to request eternal youth. Eternally aging, rotting, but never dying, Tithonus shambled away his existence, praying for death until at last and surely to some relief, he metamorphosed into a cicada. The clicking music of the night insects is the sound of a being that cannot die.
Sappho, fittingly, had composed a piece on Tithonus. In the poem, she bewails the coming of old age, the decay of beauty and the fading of youth in all. She seems to compare herself to the title character, ageing and ageless, withering but immortal.
It was this fragment that Hunt and Grenfell uncovered amongst the papyri near Oxyrhynchus, sometime between the start of their exploration in 1896, and the first publication of the Sapphic fragment, in 1922.
Unsurprisingly, it was damaged, worn by centuries of burial, of neglect, of decay, and would remain incomplete even after its counterpart, the oldest known Sapphic fragment, was discovered in 2004, on funerary cartonnage archived in Cologne. But it was in part intact, in part living.
Strangely, four lines of the two fragments differed. It became hard to tell at exactly which point the poem ends. Their endings then, were not the same. The music, though long silent, could not reach a conclusion. It had decayed, it had been pieced back together. Translated and retranslated from Grecian fragments. But it could still, in part, be heard.