A Neoplatonic, Christian Sappho: Reading Synesius’ Ninth Hymn

As Wilamowitz set out to write about the hymns of the late antique neoplatonic philosophers Proclus and Synesius of Cyrene, he began by remarking on why the texts may have been overlooked in scholarship, “High poetics especially, or even simple verbal artistry are not expected from babbling philosophers, and a further development of their philosophical doctrines are not expected from their verses.” [1] Despite the recent swell of interest in Synesius among modern readers, little has been written about his hymns as literature, much less high literature. This is understandable, since most research on Synesius in recent years has been interested mostly in his philosophy or in the history of the end of the fourth century. [2]
Synesius himself, however, certainly considered his hymns to be high literature in the Greek poetic tradition. His ninth hymn, for example, begins:

Ἄγε μοι, λίγεια φόρμιγξ,
μετὰ Τηΐαν ἀοιδάν,
μετὰ Λεσβίαν τε μολπάν,
γεραρωτέροις ἐφ’ ὕμνοις
κελάδει Δώριον ᾠδάν,
Come, clear-voiced lyre, following the Tean song, following the Lesbian song and dance, celebrate in majestic hymns a Doric song.

Since Wilamowitz’s removal of the tenth hymn is nearly universally accepted, these would be the opening lines for the last poem of Synesius’ collection. [3] It has even been proposed recently that the collection as we have it is in the wrong order, and that Hymn 9 was in fact originally the first hymn of the collection. [4] Either way, it is clear that Hymn 9 holds a position in the collection with programmatic significance. It is not surprising, therefore, that Synesius uses the beginning of this hymn to place it in a literary tradition, but it is surprising that he places it in the tradition of Anacreon (Τηΐαν ἀοιδάν) and Sappho (Λεσβίαν τε μολπάν). What do these early lyric poets have to do with neoplatonic Christianity? We cannot explain the choice simply by Anacreon and Sappho’s place in a literary canon, since the Greek lyric canon generally was not a common source of inspiration for philosophical hymns in the fourth and fifth centuries. For example, the hymns of Proclus draw primarily on Homer, Hesiod, and the Chaldaean Oracles, because, according to Van den Berg, these are the poets to whom he ascribes divine revelation. [5]

Our explanation must come from the evidence of Synesius’ hymn itself. There are two possibilities, depending on how you read μετὰ in lines 2 and 3. One reading, which we might call the oppositional reading, takes μετὰ to mean ‘after’ in the sense of ‘instead of’. The idea is that Synesius’ hymn will be new and different compared to the traditions that come before it. Instead of writing lyric about love, Synesius will write lyric about the nature of the trinity. The other reading, a complementary reading, says that μετὰ means here ‘according to’. In other words, Synesius’ Doric song will somehow engage with or be integrated into the traditions of Sappho and Anacreon. [6]
The question is about the degree to which Synesius engages with Sappho and Anacreon. I argue that Synesius’ engagement with these authors is far from superficial. Synesius’ Hymn 9 contains a rich and complex intertextuality with these traditions, and they are crucial for understanding the hymn. Scholarship up to this point has largely been satisfied with pointing out intertexts, without evaluating what significance they might have for our overall reading of the poem. [7] In this paper I will take Synesius’ advice literally, and attempt to read Hymn 9 side by side with a copy of Sappho. [8] In doing so, I will show that Sappho is crucial not only for understanding Hymn 9, but in fact for understanding Synesius’ larger poetic project.
The clearest direct allusions to Sappho, or at least the Sappho that we know about, occur in the beginning of the poem. In lines 6–9, Synesius says,

ἁπαλαῖς οὐκ ἐπὶ νύμφαις
ἀφροδίσιον γελώσαις,
θαλερῶν οὐδ’ ἐπὶ κούρων
πολυηράτοισιν ἥβαις·
[celebrate a Doric song], not about tender maidens, laughing seductively, nor about the much desired youth of blooming young men.

The maidens (νύμφα) here are compared to the bride of Sappho 31, who γελαίσας ἰμέροεν ‘laughed/smiled sweetly’ (5). Although ἰμέροεν and ἀφροδίσιον are roughly synonymous (both mean ‘causing sexual desire’), the change is a clever way to connect the phrase closer to the goddess Aphrodite, to whom Sappho’s song 1 is adressed. One wonders if we are supposed to imagine Synesius’ νύμφαι laughing, in fact, at a song of Sappho!

The allusion to Sappho 1 is strengthened at the end of this first section of the poem when Synesius declares the subject matter of his song,

μελιχρὰν δ’ ἄνωγεν ἄταν
χθονίων φυγεῖν ἐρώτων.
τί γὰρ ἀλκά, τί δὲ κάλλος,
τί δὲ χρυσός, τί δὲ φᾶμαι
βασιλήϊοί τε τιμαὶ
παρὰ τὰς θεοῦ μερίμνας;
[the birth pang (ὠδίς) of undefiled wisdom] urges me to flee the honey-sweet infatuation (ἄτη) of earthly loves. Since what is strength, and what is beauty? What is gold, and what is reputation, or even royal honors, compared to striving for God?

This is a reference to Sappho’s prayer to Aphrodite at the end of Sappho 1, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦϲον ἐκ μερίμναν (“free me from harsh anxieties,” 25–26, trans. Nagy). [9] θεοῦ μερίμνα is here the opposite of ἄτη χθονίων ἐρώτων ‘infatuation of earthly loves’, and so must be read as ‘striving or pursuit of God’ rather than ‘anxieties or worries of god’. This meaning of the word μερίμνα is, as Gruber and Strohm point out, found in Pindar. [10] In Sappho 1, however, the word does mean ‘anxieties’ and refers to the anxieties or cares of love (or unrequited love). A prayer for release from care is well suited to a philosopher, and the word μερίμνα appears again later in the hymn in the description (or rather epiphany, as we will see) of Wisdom, σοφία γελῶσα, πικραῖς / ἄβατον βίου μερίμναις, (“Laughing wisdom, untrod by the sharp cares of life,” 38–39). Here μερίμνα does mean care or anxiety, in a negative sense, as in Sappho. We should note as well that σοφία, like the νύμφαι from earlier, is also γελῶσα.

The largest direct Sappho allusion occurs in the priamel following line 20,

20      Ὁ μὲν ἵππον εὖ διώκοι,
          ὁ δὲ τόξον εὖ τιταίνοι,
          ὁ δὲ θημῶνα φυλάσσοι
          κτεάνων, χρύσεον ὄλβον·
          ἑτέρῳ δ’ ἄγαλμα χαίτη
25      καταειμένη τενόντων·
          πολύυμνος δέ τις εἴη
          παρὰ κούροις, παρὰ κούραις
          ἀμαρύγμασιν προσώπων·
          ἐμὲ δ’ ἀψόφητον εἴη
          βιοτὰν ἄσημον ἕλκειν,
Someone might ride a horse well, another might draw a bow well, and another might guard a heap of possessions, golden pleasure; for yet another hair covering his shoulders is his glory; and someone may be much-hymned by boys and by girls for the sparkles in his face; but may it be that I finish out in silence an unmarked life.

The beginning of the priamel is a clear allusion to the beginning of Sappho 16,

ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον οἰ δὲ πέσδων
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπ[ὶ] γᾶν μέλαι[ν]αν
ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται.
Some say that a company of cavalry, others of infantry, still others of ships is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth. But I say that it is whatever one loves.

This passage from Sappho 16 was popular as well in the Anacreontic tradition, as for example in Anacrontea 26, οὐχ ἵππος ὤλεσέν με, / οὐ πεζός, οὐχὶ νῆες, / στρατὸς δὲ καινὸς ἄλλος ‘cavalry did not destroy me, nor infantry, nor ships, but another new kind of army’ (3–6). Unlike Anacrontea 26, however, Synesius has introduced a clever innovation into the allusion. In the first line, the verb διώκοι alludes as well to Sappho 1, where Aphrodite promises Sappho that her beloved, καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει ‘if she is fleeing now, soon she will be pursuing.’ (21). The mixing of allusions from different Sappho poems draws attention to a connection to Sappho’s poetics itself. This focus on the poetics of Sappho 1 and 16, rather than the content of the individual allusions, is strengthened at the emotional climax of Synesius’ priamel, the young man who is hymned by choruses for his sparkling face. Here again we have a mixed allusion to Sappho 1 and 16. In Sappho 16, the final conclusion to Sappho’s priamel comes when Sappho declares that instead of seeing the armies of Lydia, she would rather see Helen and her κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον … προσώπω (“shining sparkle in her face,” 18). Helen, in Sappho 16, is the ultimate proof that the beauty of the beloved is the most desired thing on earth, but Synesius knows better. He doesn’t stop at someone with a sparkling face, and instead realizes that in fact an unmarked life is the most beautiful thing. In Sappho 1, Aphrodite at the moment of her epiphany is described as μειδιαίϲαιϲ’ ἀθανάτωι προϲώπωι (“smiling with your immortal looks,” 14). This second mixed allusion draws attention not only to the connection in Sappho between Helen and Aphrodite, but also to the way in which it is Sappho’s poetics itself that’s in the background of this section. The beautiful young man in Synesius’ hymn, who is compared to Helen and Aphrodite via Sappho, is πολύυμνος by choruses, suggesting that this is not just any beautiful young man, but in fact an impersonation of every beautiful young man and woman who is hymned by Sappho.

Although the clear, undeniable allusions to Sappho are concentrated in the beginning of the hymn, several important Sapphic themes carry over throughout the hymn. The most important of these is the prominence of Aphrodite as a background to Synesius’ conception of the divine. Birth and fertility imagery is prominent. For example, what drives Synesius to write a hymn in the first place is the σοφίας ἄχραντος ὠδὶς (“birth-pang of undefiled wisdom,” 11). The One is described as ἑνίσασα καὶ τεκοῦσα / ὑπερουσίοις λοχείαις (“made one and born by childbirth beyond-being,” 61–62). Synesius uses the conceit of creation to describe the nature of the divinity, and in this context Aphrodite, as a personification of the sexual act which causes creation, is appropriate. She appears again in the background of Synesius’ explanation of the soul which escapes the material world. The soul contains ἀναγώγιός τις ἀλκά ‘some uplifting force’ when someone flees from the waves of life, ὅτε κυμάτων φυγόντες βιοτησίων, to the halls of the father, πρὸς ἀνάκτορον τοκῆος (103–107). Gruber and Strohm note that the image of the earthly world as a sea is found also in Proclus. [11] The image of the soul ascending from the waves to the hall of the father cannot help but recall Aphrodite’s birth κατὰ κῦμα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης (“on the wave of the roaring sea,” Homeric Hymn 6.4). This connection is strengthened later in the same section when the word ἀναγώγιός appears again applied to ἐρώτες, in a reference to “loves (or Loves) which lead up” (119). This is the Eros of Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, where beauty causes the lover to always go up (ἐπανιέναι), as if using stairs (ἐπαναβασμοί) (211c). Proclus hymns Aphrodite as the mother of the ἐρώτες, and for this reason holds her as one of three divinities who assist with the soul’s ἀναγωγή. [12] It is for this reason that Synesius places so much intertextual emphasis on Sappho 1. He chooses Sappho 1 as his model for the way to write a hymn to Aphrodite in the context of her role in ἀναγωγή.
Another major way in which Synesius weaves Sapphic lyric into the text of his hymn is his focus on the performance context of hymns. We’ve already seen that Synesius’ image of Sappho’s beautiful young man is πολύυμνος by choruses of boys and girls (26–27), but the choral theme reoccurs twice more in the hymn. Later in the explanation of the composition of the universe, the father distributes Being to three groups, among these he distributes Being to ἀγγέλων χορείας, (“the choral dances of the angels,” 92). Finally, in the last two lines of the poem, when the divine part of Synesius’ soul has ascended from the material world, he tells his soul τάχα δ’ ἀμμιγεῖσα πατρὶ / θεὸς ἐν θεῷ χορεύσεις (“straight away in the presence of the father, you, a god, will sing and dance [χορεύσεις] in god,” 133–134). The hymn performs a narrative arc that follows the soul’s ἀναγωγή, from the earthly realm, to the intermediate beings, and finally to the One. Each of these sections of the hymn contain a different chorus, an earthly chorus of boys and girls, an intermediate chorus of angels, and a final chorus which constitutes the oneness of divinity. Just as Synesius creates the universe through the narrative of his hymn, within the narrative the universe is created by hymning choruses. In the end, the universe and the chorus turn out to be the same.
To return to the original question of what Synesius is doing with Sappho in Hymn 9, namely whether the opening lines mean that Synesius’ hymn should be read in opposition to Sappho or in complement to her poetry, a picture has been emerging from these intertexts that shows that Synesius’ poetic project is not a rejection of Sapphic lyric. Sappho, and especially Sappho 1 and 16, is deeply interwoven into the fabric of the hymn. Sappho, however, is not just a poetic inspiration for Synesius, but is also inseparable from the religiosity of the hymn. The key to understanding the relationship between Hymn 9 and Sappho lies in the imagined ritual context of the songs. [13] Synesius’ hymn imagines itself as part of an initiation rite in a mystery cult. Following the introduction (lines 1–51), the hymn launches into a description of the One (52–70). Suddenly, the narration is broken off, and the poet sings,

Μένε μοι, θρασεῖα φόρμιγξ,
μένε, μηδὲ φαῖνε δήμοις
τελετὰς ἀνοργιάστοις.
ἴθι, καὶ τὰ νέρθε φώνει·
τὰ δ’ ἄνω σιγὰ καλύπτοι.
Stop for me, audacious lyre, stop! Don’t reveal the mysteries to the uninitiated! Go, and tell these things below, but the hide the things above in silence!

After this interjection, the poet explains the composition and creation of the universe, and the nature of the Son (76–99), and then he explains the soul’s ἀναγωγή (100–127), culminating in the final ascent of the hymnist’s soul (128–134). Gruber and Strohm argue that this section divides the discussion of the ineffable One with the discussion of the nous. [14] This second half of the poem, however, enacts the very ascent of the soul through which it comes to inhabit and know the ineffable One in the end. In effect, the soul is initiated through the hymn into the ineffable mysteries.

As a cult hymn for a mystery cult, Synesius’ Hymn 9 is concerned with bringing about the epiphany of the divinity. Three epiphanies occur in the hymn, corresponding to the three sections of the hymn. The first epiphany, the epiphany of Wisdom (or Philosophy), occurs at the end of the hymn’s introduction (33–44). This epiphany is enacted with an invocation, σοφία δέ μοι παρείη, ‘may wisdom be with me’ (33), followed by an encomium of Wisdom. The second epiphany occurs at the end of the explanation of the universe, when the son of the father descends to the material world,

δνοφερὰν ἤρυσε λάθαν,
ἀλαωποῖσι μερίμναις
χθόνα θαυμάσας ἀτερπῆ,
θεὸς ἐς θνητὰ δεδορκώς.
He drank in dark oblivion, and he wondered at the earth unhappy with eye-blinding cares; he, a god, looked on mortals.

The final epiphany occurs at the very end, when the hymnist’s soul rises from the material world and becomes a θεὸς ἐν θεῷ (134). This last epiphany is particularly interesting, because it is unclear who is appearing to whom. On the one hand, the father is appearing to the soul, which produces a neat division between the epiphanies: the first is the epiphany of something earthly and human (philosophy), the second of something descended from the One (the son), and the third the One itself. On the other hand, the soul itself is god, and accomplishes a sort of auto-epiphany, as well as appearing, as god, before the father. This ambiguity is the point. At the end, the soul has been united with the One and there is no longer a division between them. In the end, the heavenly chorus is an eternal self-epiphany.

Self-epiphany, in fact, holds a larger importance in neoplatonic thought. There has been recent interest in the role of autoscopy in the soul’s ascent to the One in the philosophical system of Plotinus, an important earlier neoplatonic. An important focus of this interest is on the famous metaphor of the sculptor at the end of Plotinus’ treatise “On Beauty” (Enneads I 6). Plotinus compares the process of ascent to a sculptor working on a statue. As the sculptor continuously looks at his statue and takes away the stone that does not belong, so too the philosopher must continously look at his soul and take away whatever is not beautiful:

Go back into yourself [ἐπὶ σαυτὸν] and look; and if you do not yet see yourself beautiful, then, just as someone making a statue [ἀγάλμα] which has to be beautiful cuts away here and polishes there and makes one part smooth and clears another till he has given his statue a beautiful face, so you too must cut away excess and straighten the crooked and clear the dark and make it bright, and never stop “working on your statue” till the divine glory of virtue shines out on you. [15]
Plotinus Enneads I 6.9

Charles Stang has written about the centrality of this process of autoscopy to the soul’s return to the One, “This return itinerary, however, betrays the same structure or staging throughout, namely that the self must encounter itself in an autoscopy or ‘self-seeing’ and then overcome that staged duality of seer and seen so as to be elevated to the next stage.” [16] In the final stages of this return itinerary, however, the image which the philosopher would see is god, and to overcome the duality of seer and seen is to become god. In other words, the final return to the One involves an epiphany, but that very epiphany becomes a self-epiphany, as the division between seer and seen is erased.

This is why Sappho is so important to Synesius’ hymn. Epiphany, and especially self-epiphany is central to Sappho’s poetics. Sappho 31 begins with an epiphany, or something similar to one, when the bridegroom appears to Sappho like a god, φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν / ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ (“That man appears to me to be equal to the gods,” 1–2). The epiphany, however, becomes flipped, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ’πιδεύης / φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔτ[ᾳ (“I appear to myself to be a little short of death,” 15–16). Nagy has argued that this second epiphany constitutes an auto-epiphany that is “not only esthetic but also erotic,” and that is “also mortally dangerous.” [17] In this auto-epiphanic “fusion with divinity,” as Nagy terms it, the poem enacts through the switch to first person the erasure of seer and seen which had been set up by the third person in the first line. This is remarkably similar to Plotinus’ autoscopic philosopher-sculptor, and to Synesius’ union of θεὸς ἐν θεῷ.
Sappho 1 is also about an epiphany, the epiphany of Aphrodite. Once again, this epiphany verges on an auto-epiphany. In line 19 of Sappho’s song, a striking change occurs in the narrative frame. Without warning, and without signal, Aphrodite’s questions, which had been reported in indirect speech, suddenly become direct speech, τίc σ’, ὦ Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει; (“Who is doing you, Sappho, wrong?” 19–20). The ‘I’ has suddenly become ‘you’, and the voice of the poem, i.e. Sappho’s voice, is no longer the voice of Sappho, but of Aphrodite. Nagy describes the effect this way, “a fusion of identities takes place between the goddess and the prima donna who leads the choral performance.” [18] As we’ve seen, this same fusion of identities is exactly what happens in the final epiphany of Synesius’ hymn. Not only does the soul become god and appear in an epiphany with the One God; it appears in epiphany in God. The two identities, that of the soul and that of the One are fused and inseparable. This, of course, is the whole point of the hymn. The soul seeks an epiphany of the divinity, but in the end, it turns out that the soul is the divinity, and the chorus which brought about the epiphany becomes also fused with the divinity. In the last line, nothing is left but a single chorus of Being.
Another feature of Aphrodite’s epiphany that would make this song particularly attractive to Synesius as an intertext concerns how the epiphany is accomplished. In both Sappho and Synesius it is the act of hymning itself which brings about epiphany. Roger Travis considers the implications of αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα ‘if ever at any other time’ (Sappho 1.5) for the enactment of Aphrodite’s epiphany,

Πότα refers to an indefinable “once upon a time” event, which happens only once, κἀτέρωτα to a definite time when a previous epiphany happened. The interaction of the two temporal words forces the πότα to define itself, but since it must remain essentially indefinite the combination implies a timeless series. [19]

Travis argues that by inserting this infinite and continuous past epiphany into the present occasion, Sappho “causes Aphrodite literally to appear in the present.” Indeed, the very narration of Aphrodite’s past epiphanies enacts through narration the present epiphany. Past and present are merged into a timelessness so that the distinction between narrative of epiphany and epiphany itself disappears. This is well illustrated by Nagy’s translation of δηὖτε (15–18) as ‘once again this time’. [20] Aphrodite’s questions are both in the past and in the present. Even within the narrative frame of the song, it is the song which brings about the epiphany.

In Synesius’ hymn, the epiphanies are also enacted within the hymn by means of the act of hymning. If we accept—and I think we should accept—Gruber and Strohm’s transposition of lines 45–46 to between lines 129 and 130, [21] the final ascent of the soul reads this way,

          Ἄγε μοι, ψυχά, πιοῖσα
129    ἀγαθορρύτοιο παγᾶς
  45    κλύε καὶ τέττιγος ᾠδὰν
  46    δρόσον ὀρθρίαν πιόντος.
130    ἱκετεύσασα τοκῆα
          ἀνάβαινε, μηδὲ μέλλε,
          χθονὶ τὰ χθονὸς λιποῖσα·
          τάχα δ’ ἀμμιγεῖσα πατρὶ
          θεὸς ἐν θεῷ χορεύσεις.
Come on, soul, drink from the good-flowing spring, and hear also the song of the cicada as it drinks the morning dew. Obey your father’s commands and come up, don’t delay; leave the earth to the earth. Straight away in the presence of the father, you, a god, will sing and dance in god.

The ascent of the soul is caused by drinking from a fountain and listening to the song of the cicada. This is a reference to Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates and Phaedrus sit under a plane-tree next to a flowing river and listen to a chorus of cicadas (230b–c). In the Phaedrus, the singing of the cicadas is parallel and complementary to the discussion between Socrates and Phaedrus. Plato even seems to make this explicit when he describes the cicadas as ᾄδοντες καὶ ἀλλήλοις διαλεγόμενοι (“singing and talking to each other,” 259a). The chorus of cicadas is a divine presence which both imitates the dialectic of the philosophers and at the same time enables Socrates’ and Phaedrus’ dialectical approach to the divine. In Synesius’ hymn, it is the choral song which causes the soul to ascend to heaven and accomplish the final epiphany. The word Synesius chooses for the song of the cicada, ᾠδά, is the same word he uses to describe this hymn (5). [22] The song of the cicada chorus from the Phaedrus turns out to be the song which the hymnist is singing in the present. The song causes ἀναγωγή through the narration of ἀναγωγή. Just as in Sappho 1, the final epiphany within the hymn is accomplished by the hymn. The epiphany and the narrative of the epiphany are one and the same.

So far, I have been sketching out a model for reading the imagined ritual context of Sappho as a source of inspiration and comparison for the religiosity of Synesius’ hymn. My account, however, must address the question of how this fits into a larger Platonic context. The idea that the knowledge of Platonic love and its role in the soul’s ἀναγωγή is a secret knowledge known only to those initiated into a mystery cult is found already in the Symposium. Diotima describes this knowledge as τέλεα καὶ ἐποπτικά, and says that although Socrates might be initiated into the cult, she is unsure whether he will be able to reach the highest knowledge of the mysteries. Nevertheless, she says she will try to explain them, ἐρῶ μὲν οὖν (210a). This is a signal that not only is the knowledge of anagogic love a mystery, but we the readers are in fact being initiated into the mystery. The text of Diotima’s speech is the initiation ritual.
The twist in Synesius’ hymn is that the initiation is instantiated not through philosophical inquiry, as in Diotima’s speech, but rather through poetry, through a cult song informed by Sappho. This is perhaps surprising considering Socrates’ disagreements with poetry in the Republic. There he says, μόνον ὕμνους θεοῖς καὶ ἐγκώμια τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς ποιήσεως παραδεκτέον εἰς πόλιν (“hymns to the gods and encomia to good men are the only poetry admissible to the state,” 607a). Melic poetry and epic are specifically ruled out. How is it, then, that Synesius can express these mysteries in a μέλος (12, 51)? The key lies in a loophole that Socrates admits a little while later into his ban on poetry. Socrates recognizes the emotional power of poetry and says that if poetry were to present a good defense of itself it could be welcomed back into the just state (607d). Poetry can return from exile, according to Socrates, when she ἀπολογησαμένη ἐν μέλει ἤ τινι ἄλλῳ μέτρῳ (“has made a defense in melic or in any other meter,” 607d). This is Synesius’ poetic project in Hymn 9, to rehabilitate Sappho and make a defense for her and for Greek lyric.
Socrates, however, may have already beaten Synesius to it. In the Phaedo we learn that Socrates started writing poetry in prison before his death, putting Aesop into verse, and composing a hymn (προοίμιον) to Apollo (60d). What would Socrates’ hymn look like? We can perhaps get a clue from a passage in the Phaedrus, in which Socrates says that he has heard arguments from other writers better than a clever speech by Lysias. Pressed to name these writers, he says he forgot but δῆλον δὲ ὅτι τινῶν ἀκήκοα, ἤ που Σαπφοῦς τῆς καλῆς ἢ Ἀνακρέοντος τοῦ σοφοῦ ἢ καὶ συγγραφέων τινῶν (“clearly I heard it from someone, either from the beautiful Sappho, or from the wise Anacreon, or from some other writers,” 235c). If Synesius’ goal was to write the sort of hymn of which Socrates would approve, Sappho and Anacreon, it turns out, may be the perfect lyric models.
The role of Sappho in the Phaedrus is more important to Synesius’ hymn than just this passing comment suggests. Andrea Capra has recently argued that Plato’s Phaedrus is a response to Isocrates, and that because of this, Helen is in the background of the dialogue. [23] Sappho, then, and particularly Sappho 16 about Helen, is also woven into the dialogue. Capra considers certain striking similarities between Sappho 16 and Socrates’ “hymn to memory.” According to him, to Socrates, “the lover is someone who forgets everyday values … only to devote himself to what Plato refers to as ‘the possessor of beauty.’” In analyzing Sappho 16, Capra recognizes a similar argument, “Sappho’s Helen, referred to as the ‘hyper-possessor of beauty’ (6–7), undergoes a complete reversal of values and forgets relatives and riches.” The soul in Synesius’ hymn, as well, must leave behind everything in its pursuit of an epiphany of the κάλλεος ἀρχά (127). The soul emerges from the world (110) like Aphrodite, the goddess corresponding to Helen, and with the help of the Erotes (119). Love in Sappho 16 is an excellent model for anagogic Platonic love.
Did Synesius pick up on the relationship between the Phaedrus and Sappho 16 long before Andrea Capra? It’s impossible to know. Certainly, this common set of intertexts, Sappho 1, 16, 31, are also bound up in Plato with the concept of anagogic love. Synesius’ innovation is to extend the use of Sappho as a platonic model to her religiosity as well. His key insight is to recognize that the process of epiphany in Sappho 1, in which the singer and the goddess become merged through the singing of the hymn, is a perfect metaphor for the process of ἀναγωγή, in which the soul ascends through philosophy and becomes fused with the divinity of which it is a part. This insight, that Sappho can provide a ritualistic model for neoplatonic Christianity, is fundamental to Synesius’ main project in the hymns. Some years ago, I argued in an undergraduate thesis that Synesius uses the hymns, which purposefully avoid language or stylistic features derived from the Hebraic Christian tradition, to habilitate Christianity into Greek culture. [24] By creating a Christian poetics which derives solely from the Greek tradition, Synesius attempts to reconcile Christian and Hellenic identities, creating a Christianity which is as thoroughly Greek as any classical mystery cult. Turning to Sappho for religious inspiration is part of this project. It is a statement about the continuity of the classical Greek and late antique Christian worlds.

Works Cited

Allen, T. W. 1946. Homeri Opera. Oxford.
Armstrong, A. H. 1966. Plotinus. Loeb Classical Library 440. Cambridge MA.
Baldi, I. 2012. “Ordine o disordine negli Inni di Sinesio?” In Synesios von Kyrene: Politik-Literatur-Philosophie, ed. H. Seng & L. M. Hoffmann, 144–163. Turnhout.
Bregman, J. 1982. Synesius of Cyrene: Philosopher-Bishop. Berkeley.
Burnet, J. 1901. Platonis Opera. Oxford.
Cameron, A., and J. Long. 1993. Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius. Berkeley.
Campbell, D.A. 1967. Greek Lyric Poetry. London.
Capra, A., 2015. Plato’s Four Muses: the Phaedrus and the Poetics of Philosophy. Washington DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_CapraA.Platos_Four_Muses.2014.
Cochran, C. 2014. The Hymns of Synesius of Cyrene in the Christian and Classical Traditions. Undergraduate Thesis. Princeton University.
Duke, E. A., et al. 1995. Platonis Opera. Oxford
Gruber, J., and H. Strohm. 1991. Synesios von Kyrene: Hymnen. Heidelberg.
Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge MA.
———. 2015. Once again this time in Song 1 of Sappho. Classical Inquiries. http://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/once-again-this-time-in-song-1-of-sappho/.
Slings, S. R. 2003. Platonis Rempublicam. Oxford.
Stang, C. 2016. Our Divine Double. Cambridge MA.
Terzaghi, N. 1939. Synesii Cyrenensis Hymni. Rome.
Travis, R. 1990. The Descent of the Goddess: Ritual and Difference in Sappho’s Prayer to Aphrodite. Undergraduate Thesis. Harvard University. https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/6243#.
Van den Berg, R. 2001. Proclus’ Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary. Leiden.
Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. 1907. Die Hymnen des Proklos und Synesios. Sitzungsberichte der königlich preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 14:272–295.
Zotou, A. 2014. Carmina Anacreontea. Berlin.


[ back ] 1. “Besonders hohe Poesie oder auch nur sprachliche Kunst wird man von dem geschwätzigen Philosophen nicht erwarten und eine Erweiterung seiner philosophischen Lehren nicht von seinen Versen,” Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1907:272 (my translation).
[ back ] 2. The two major monographs on Synesius in English are both historical in nature: Bregman 1982 and Cameron & Long 1993.
[ back ] 3. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1907:295, but Baldi thinks the author of the hymn, a certain “George the Sinner,” is not a copyist but a Christian poet living soon after Synesius and that it was written specifically to be an introduction to the collection, Baldi 2012:151–156.
[ back ] 4. See Baldi 2012.
[ back ] 5. Van den Berg 2001:32–33.
[ back ] 6. In support of the second reading, Gruber and Strohm point out that “Δώριον” may refer to the musical mode, in contrast to the meter, which is Anacreontic, Gruber & Strohm 1991:232.
[ back ] 7. Terzaghi 1939, for example, contains an impressive list of allusions to Sappho, but very little interpretation. More recent commentators, i.e. Gruber & Strohm 1991, give fuller commentary, but still without a larger interpretive frame.
[ back ] 8. I focus on Sappho because this essay was prepared for a Harvard graduate seminar on Sappho, and also because although I found some tantalizing allusions to the poetry of Anacreon, and the so-called Anacreontea, they resisted interpretation so far. Because of the fragmentary state of the corpora of both Sappho and Anacreon, our ability to make compelling intertextual readings must, at some level, be a matter of random chance.
[ back ] 9. For quotations from Sappho, I follow the text in Campbell 1967 with my own translation, with the exception of all quotations from Sappho 1, where I follow the text and translation in Nagy 2015.
[ back ] 10. Gruber & Strohm 1991:233; see LSJ μερίμνα A3.
[ back ] 11. Proclus Hymn 4, 10; Gruber & Strohm 1991:242.
[ back ] 12. Ὑμνέομεν σειρὴν πολυώνυμον Ἀφρογενείης /… ἧς ἄπο πάντες / ἀθάνατοι πτερόεντες ἀναβλάστησαν Ἔρωτες, Proclus Hymn 2.1–3; see also Van den Berg 2001:61–62, 194–195.
[ back ] 13. I say “imagined ritual context” because I don’t want to wade into the debate over the historical performance context (or lack thereof) of Synesius’s hymns. Sappho’s performance context is equally tricky, so for the purposes of this paper I will content myself with the ritual context created within the poems themselves.
[ back ] 14. Gruber & Strohm 1991:239.
[ back ] 15. The translation is from Armstrong 1966.
[ back ] 16. Stang 2016:213.
[ back ] 17. Nagy 2013:5.38–48.
[ back ] 18. Nagy 2013:5.50; see also Nagy 2015.
[ back ] 19. Travis 1990, Ch. 4 “Epiphany”; The online version of Travis’s thesis doesn’t contain page numbers or other reference system, but the curious reader can find the location of this quote quickly with a google search.
[ back ] 20. Nagy 2015.
[ back ] 21. Gruber & Strohm 1991:235.
[ back ] 22. In contrast to Sappho’s μολπά, and Anacreon’s ἀοιδά.
[ back ] 23. Capra 2015, Ch. 2 “Erato”; note that this book also lacks a reference system
[ back ] 24. Cochran 2014.