A Comparison of Themes in Sappho and Egyptian Love Lyric: A Preliminary Investigation


The purpose of this paper is to give a first attempt at exploring the connections of Sappho with Egyptian love poetry. The reasons for this are that there seems to be a similarity in form with the way in which desire is expressed in the feminine voice, and it may help to situate Sappho’s poetry within a wider Mediterranean and Near Eastern context. This will be primarily a typological study, with the causes of any connections left for a later project. I shall focus on one example of an Egyptian love poem, Deir el-Medineh ostracon 1266 + ostracon of the Cairo Museum 25218 (O. DM 1266 + O. CGC 25218) (henceforth DM), which, although largely fragmentary, can perhaps be seen to retain the original formula of the genre. In addition, DM has appeared in several Egyptological studies and translations, which has allowed it to become more familiar as an example of Egyptian love poetry. This piece has thirty-one fragments extant, and they have all been connected save one (Posener 1972:43). Three larger pieces were purchased at Luxor, and the other twenty-eight were found at the “Great Pit” of Deir el Medineh (Posener 1972:ibid.). The inscription records a duet, as it were, between a female and a male lover. The female speaks first, and is then answered (perhaps as a refrain), by the male. They are called, respectively, “sister” and “brother”, a term of affection which does not necessarily have incestuous connotations. I, however, shall be focussing primarily on the feminine voice, which I believe is the primary paradigm for the genre as it appears not only in the wider Near Eastern diaspora, but also in Sappho’s poetry. In order to do this, I shall provide an edition of DM, with a transliteration and a commentary of the text, in order to make it more familiar to the general reader, as well as discuss some of its known textual problems. [1] Then, I shall offer a translation of DM, which will help facilitate understanding of this complicated text. Lastly, I shall provide a discussion of how this text relates to Sappho, using two poems as examples, Page 468 and 199, and then situate it within a larger Mediterranean context. The intended aim of this discussion, however, is to raise questions of a more detailed research for this topic in the future, which could perhaps shed light on elements of love poetry which were inherent within several different cultural frames.

1. Transliteration

1)      A. […] mrw.t⸗k m hrw grḥ wnw.wt sḏr⸗kw rs⸗kw
          B. r ḥḏ-tꜣ1 […]
2)      A. tꜣy⸗k jm(ꜣ).t ḥr sꜥnḫ ḥꜣty.w ꜣb[w.t⸗k]2 […] sy ḫrw⸗k j.—
          B. dd3 r(w)d ḥꜥ.wt
|| […] [wrd?] ḫr ḏd⸗j r-tnw […] ||
3)      A. [nn wn] ḥr mḫꜣ(⸗w?/.t) n jb⸗f4 wpw-ḥr⸗j wꜥ⸗kw ##5
          B. tꜣy⸗k mrw.t ꜣb[ḫ⸗tj m ẖ.t⸗j]6
|| […] [mj] ꜥḏ(w) ḥr bj.t7 […] ||
4)      A. [sw mj pꜣq.t] r ḥꜥ.t n(.t) wr.w mj mnḫ.t r ḥꜥ.t (n.t) nṯr.w mj snṯr r
          B. fnd […] [ꜥq⸗f] […]
|| […] [sw mj ḫtm šry] r ḏbꜥ […] ||
5)      A. sw mj rrm.t8 m ḏr.t n(.t) s sw mj bnrj9 dmj⸗f n ḥnq.t sw
          B. mj ḥ[sꜣw]10 r t jw⸗n r […]
6)      A. […] snsn⸗n ḫpr/ꜣ11 hrw ḥtp⸗w12 n jꜣw jw⸗j r- ḥnꜥ⸗k rꜥ nb d[⸗j] […]
          B. […] m ḫft-ḥr nb⸗s s.t […] ##
7)      A. pꜣy⸗j nṯr pꜣy⸗j sšn […] p13 […]
          B. […] m mḥy.t […]⸗kw
8)      A. nḏm(⸗w) jw(.t) r pḥ […]⸗f ṯꜣw n […]
          B. prḫ […] jb⸗j r hꜣ.t
9)      A. r wꜥb⸗j m-bꜣḥ⸗k d⸗j [ptr/j]⸗k14 nfrw⸗j m mss(.t) n(.t) sšr-nsw
          B. tpy jw⸗s tḫb⸗tw m tj-šps […] [nb]d⸗w? n js.w15
10)    A. hꜣy⸗j r mw r-ḥn⸗k [wj16] pry⸗j n⸗k ẖr wḏ dšr17 jw⸗f mnḫ(⸗w) ḥr
          B. ḏbꜥ.w⸗j wꜣḥ⸗j sw m-bꜣḥ⸗k ḥr p[tr/j] […] sn
11)    A. mj ptr/j⸗k wj ##18 mrw.t n sn.t ḥr tf.ꜣ19 ḥr rj.ꜣ19 ##

2. Commentary

1) ḥḏ-tꜣ literally means ‘white(ned) earth’, hence ‘the dawn’.
2) According to Mathieu (1996, 103), ꜣb[w.t⸗ k] ‘your appearance’ is a secure reading since it often forms a semantic couple with jm(ꜣ).t ‘your charm’.
3) j.dd is an unusual form for two reasons. Firstly, it would seem to suggest that the word carries on from one line to the next, which the text does not often do; secondly, the prothetic j.is not common even in the Middle Egyptian period, and would suggest a New Kingdom remnant of a seldom attested form (see Gardiner 2010:405). According to Mathieu (1996:103), j.dd would be an imperfective active participle in a cleft sentence, which seems to be the best solution to this problem. The fact that it is extended from one line to the next may suggest that speakers of this time incorrectly analysed the prothetic j. as a separate word, giving it free reign to be separated from its word by a line division. This is likely given that the sign is written as miller-ca16-feathermiller-ca16-man, instead of justmiller-ca16-feather, which is expected. The former sign indicates that the prothetic j. was interpreted to be analogous to the semantically unrelated, but phonological synonymous j, an Egyptian parenthetic word which means ‘to say’, which would make no sense, either syntactically or semantically, here. This writing is strengthened by the fact that the word to which it belongs, dd, means say (cf. Louvre C10, 9–10, in Allen 2010:213). Why the antiquated form would be used, however, is not adequately explained, and can only be understood as an example of archaising.
4) ḥr mḫꜣ( w?/.t) n jbf is a confusing line. The sense is quite difficult to ascertain. Mathieu (1996:103) takes it to mean, “it is not bound to his heart”; J. Foster (2001:19) enigmatically translates it as, “And I (too well) perceive …” Whether or not the ⸗w is the correct phonological reading here, which is what Mathieu suggests, is also problematic. It is not at all represented in the writing, and it demands that mḫꜣ be read as a stative verb (rather than a noun or infinitive), which would be unnecessary with ḥr (which requires a noun or an infinitival ending, which for 3ae is .t, perhaps a better phonological reading here). What is conjectured before the mḫꜣ, namely, nn wn, is completely speculative, and the suggested reading could be doing more harm in rendering sense. mḫꜣ itself has a sense of ‘balance’ or a ‘scale’, and the sense may be more appropriate here. Supposing it to be an infinitive or a noun respectively, I render it this way, “There is no balancing of his heart,” or, “there is no one on the scale of his heart.” This goes well with the Egyptian sense of the heart being on a balance or a scale, usually with connections to death and justice (ma‘at) in the afterlife. There is still some ambiguity as to what exactly is meant here, however. Presumably the “he” of “his heart” is the male lover, but the female lover would seem to have made better sense (i.e. there is no balancing of my heart, I am in confusion). Nevertheless, with the male lover implied, the sense must be, “No one is on the scale of his heart (i.e. takes his fancy)”.
5) This marks the end of the first stanza, which is greatly different from the rest of the female lover’s speech. The first stanza was marked by a sense of desperation and loneliness, the following stanzas are a crescendo of comparisons of the male lover to various things until his appearance. Once he appears the female lover turns to a more seductive tone about her own body and beauty.
6) Mathieu (1996:103) restores this line based upon a parallel in another poem, H 1,6.
7) [mj] ꜥḏ(w) ḥr bj.t, literally, “… [He is] like the grease upon honey (a honey-baked treat).” I quite like Mathieu’s (1996:103) rendering of it as being an allusion to a sort of doughnut or beignet, (perhaps indicating, as Mathieu says, the šꜥy.t). The idea then is the male lover is like, “the glaze of a doughnut,” or more colloquially, “he is the jelly to my doughnut.”
8) rrm.t the theme of the mandrake in the hand was apparently quite common (cf. Mathieu 1996:103–104, for the list of examples).
9) Bnr/j, Mathieu (1996:104) thinks that the <r> is uncertain in the reading of this word as Coptic has it as: (Sahidic) bnne (Bohairic) beni. Yet the unusual form is most likely a historical writing of the word, originally bnr, with the current pronunciation of the word as well, bnj. Word final <r> often developed into a schwa, or something like it, which was represented graphically as a <ꜣ> and, as here, <j> (Allen 2013:40–41). Hence Egyptian nṯr, becomes Coptic (Sahidic) noute, with this change being extremely productive. See 11 for more.
10) ḥ[sꜣw]; Mathieu (1996:104) admits this form is conjectural, but it seems to make good sense here.
11) ḫpr/ꜣ, initially appears to be an unusual form. Mathieu (1996:104) does some syntactic gymnastics to explain the ꜣ as a marker of an energetic mood of sorts. The easier explanation is to assume that the first writing, <r>, is the more historically correct, while the second, <ꜣ>, represents the actual pronunciation, as in 9. Thus, the scribe has preserved both the etymologically correct writing as well as the current pronunciation. Coptic (Sahidic) has ϣ wpe for Middle Egyptian ḫpr.
12) ḥtp w, it seems best to read the <w> here (contra Mathieu ad. loc.), as a stative construction is both syntactically and graphically more faithful here.
13) The <p> is clearly present, but its function, whether phonetic or determinative, is not clear, and thus it is normally omitted in editions (like in Mathieu). I preserve it here in order to be as faithful as possible to the text.
14) ptr/j, whether this should be read with the <r> or <j> is unclear as both could be acceptable for period and the sign which represents this word throughout, miller-ca16-eye, is trilateral for either ptr or ptj. The issue is phonological, however, and has no bearing on the sense, which is clear.
15) [nb]d w? n js.w, if the supplement is correct, this means something like, ‘plaits/tresses of reeds’, and refers to the hair of the female lover.
16) wj is crossed out by the scribe in the text, which would otherwise make no grammatical sense.
17) wḏ dšr, apparently, as Mathieu (1996:104–105) thinks, a ‘red tilapia’, which must have had erotic connotations.
18) This marks the end of the female lover’s speech and the beginning of the male’s; intriguing that they share the same line.
19) Both these forms, tf. and rj. show the sign <> representing the loss of historical <t>. Thus, the original forms should have been tf.t and rj.t (Mathieu 1996:105).

2. Translation

Your love [is] the daytime, the night-time, and the hours [that make them up]; when I lie down, I lie awake till dawn.
Your charm causes my heart to come to life, your presence … it. It is your voice which gives strength to [my] limbs, … worn out, I must speak again and again …
There is no one on the scale of his heart, except for me, [but I am] alone.
It’s your love which fills my body … [he is] like the glaze upon a honey-cake …
He is like fine-linen for the flesh of the wealthy, like the fabric for the flesh of the gods, like incense for the nose … it/he enters … He is like a small ring for the finger …
He is like the mandrake in the hand of a man; he is like the date which is mixed with beer; he is like the dough for bread when we are about to …
… we are together; let the day of rest from old age occur together with you every day! … I place … at the front of her lord, it …
My god! My lotus! … p … in the north wind I am …
It is pleasant to go to meet … he/it … the wind of … blooming … my desire is to go down
so that I may bathe in your presence, I shall make you behold my beauty in a dress of the finest royal linen, while it is soaked with camphor … tresses of reeds
I shall descend into the water with you; I shall come out for you holding a red tilapia, which would be excellent placed on my fingers, and I shall place it before you who is watching … Brother
come and look at me!
The love of [my] sister is on that side over there, on the river bank.

3. Analysis

In light of DM, I shall begin with a short piece of Sappho, which some have considered spurious, but seems to be authentic and a full poem (Diskin 1970:2011). What is important to note in the following piece is the development of the voice through the expressions of time, which is then finally described as being solitary:

δέδυκε μὲν ἁ σελάνα
καὶ Πληϊάδες, μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ’ ἔρχετ’ ὤρα,
ἐγὼ δὲ μόνα καθέυδω.

The moon has sunk,
and the Pleiades as well, and it’s the middle
of the night, time passes by
but I sleep alone.

Sappho 468 (after Page 2008:251)

The voice of the speaker, which is feminine, does not appear until the last line of this short poem. Up until this point, the poem has progressed by references to temporal markers in space: the moon, the Pleiades (which although mentioned are no longer visible), and then to specific constructs of time: “mid”-night, “hour”. The two verbs before the last line of the poem, δέδυκε and ἔρχετ’, are important in setting the scene. The first is a perfect with practically a stative sense: “the moon has now/is in a state of being set”; the second, however, is a processual or durative present: “time continuously/keeps passes[-ing] by.” The effect of these two lines is then completed by a sudden shift to the speaker of the poem (who turns out to be the focus), described as “sleeping alone.” The two parts of the poem, lines 1–3, and 4, only fit together insomuch as the last line serves as the semantic base for the preceding three lines. One must then infer that the time has all along been connected to the loneliness and sleeping of the woman, whose time it turns out to be. The time, therefore, does not exist outside the frame of reference of the speaker, which is only clear at the appearance of the speaker at the final gasp of the poem, which appears at the same time as it connects.

Similarly, in the opening lines of DM: “Your love [is] the daytime, the night-time, and the hours [that make them up]; when I lie down, I lie awake till dawn.” As with Sappho 468, there is a clear reference to time, and to the isolation of the feminine voice (which, however, is inferred from the first word which has a masculine your). The development of the piece is more straightforward than Sappho 468. The time serves as not only a matter of temporal and situational location, but also as a comparison. This takes a turn with the final syntactic unit, which is clearly marked with the Egyptian stative, linking it to the preceding clause, “when I lie down, I lie awake till dawn.” Dawn, which is only inferred from the setting of the moon and the Pleiades in Sappho 468, is here specifically mentioned by the kenning “white(ned) earth,” and suggests the constant turmoil the speaker has suffered throughout the night. This is compounded with the final line of the first stanza, “There is no one on the scale of his heart, except for me, [but I am] alone,” which stresses that the speaker, like the one in Sappho 468, is without the beloved.
The similarities between the “soliloquy” in DM, and that of Sappho 468, seem to constitute a type which was featured in Egyptian love poetry as a whole, and, as seen above, in Sappho as well. The “time of love,” as Mathieu calls it, is the night-time, and the development of the voice within this time was an essential aspect of Egyptian love poetry (1996:159–160). Spending this time alone naturally assumes that the time of desire has passed, the lover has missed her essential opportunity, and thus languishes away. This suggests a type of which both DM and Sappho 468 share, the time of the occasion, and the lack of desire which should occur within that time. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between Egyptian love poetry and Sappho, the former is constructed like a duet, there is a female and a male lover, which constitute parts of a whole. The latter, however, features only the feminine voice, and develops the other players in the game of love through the view of this one voice alone. Owing to this, I would like to postulate that the duet, a feminine and masculine voice in dialogue, was the original format of the love song, which was then subsequently innovated (and perfected by Sappho), into featuring one voice, which then interwove the other players into it, probably through mimesis. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Egyptian love poetry was the originator of Greek love poetry, or of Sappho’s poetry for that matter, but that there was a type and format for love poetry which was shared by Mediterranean cultures whose original form can be seen in the Egyptian, and which we can see as innovated by the time of Sappho. That is, it is not necessarily Sappho who did the innovation, but rather that Sappho’s poetry shows a surface structure which demonstrates innovations from the deep structure (the Egyptian model). If the duet can be seen to be the original model, then the lack of one voice, or its reconstitution into other voices, plays upon the need for reciprocation inherent within love poetry. [2]
To begin this discussion, I shall offer an example from Akkadian love poetry, which consists of the female voice, to show the unusual nature of the female voice’s ability to refract other voices, which seems to be a common trait. The Akkadian lyric of Mesopotamia was noted for its high sensuality. In this type of love lyric, it was the woman who was the lover, and who addressed the man, her beloved. It is intriguing that, although this aspect of Akkadian lyric would seem to denote the “I” as always female, it did not necessarily mean that the “I” could not represent the point of view of the man. It is possible that the use of the feminine voice was cultural, but that the “I” in question was really androgynous, which would make the “you” have this quality as well. These poems were also probably sung to music, and this voice of the female may have been a performative aspect that did not restrict itself to specific gender lines.
In a largely complete poem from the Classical Akkadian period, a woman addresses her lover thus:

Your heartbeat is my reveille,
Up then, I want to make love with you,
In your smooth loins, as you come awake.
How sweet your caress,
How voluptuous your charms,
You, whose sleeping place wafts of aromatic and fennel.
O my loose locks, my ear lobes,
The contour of my shoulders and the opulence of my breast,
The spreading fingers of my hands,
The love-beads of my waist!
Bring your left hand close, touch my sweet spot,
Fondle my breasts!
[O come inside], I have opened my thighs!
(gap, fragmentary lines)

B. Foster 2005:169

The use of the “I” in the poem would seem to be a simple voice, merely the woman in question, but as B. Foster notes, “she refers to herself in the plural in lines 1–13, but changes to the singular in line 14. Since this usage is otherwise attested of the goddess Ishtar, one may speculate that a goddess is speaking,” (B. Foster 2005:169). [3] This ability of the lyric “I” to transform itself into the voice of the goddess of love, Ishtar, is unusual in that the voice of the person is now simultaneously the human lover, and the goddess of love. This placement of the “I” within both the realms of mortal and divine emphasises the plea of the persona as both desirous and fulfilling that desire. This connection of absence with desire is also seen as a way of making the plea more real, as intensifying the action, and, lastly, of making the time of the poem ambiguous (and so more universal).

To stress this point of the variability of the female voice, and in order to see an intermediary between DM and Sappho in terms of the development of the female voice, I shall discuss the Song of Songs. At first glance, the Song of Songs seems to represent the similar duet-like structure of Egyptian love poetry. Unlike the parallel nature of the Egyptian love poetry (Mathieu 1996:143–144), which allows for one voice to speak its turn followed by the other voice (either the female or the lover first), the Song of Songs shows an interruption of the feminine voice by the masculine. As Gregory Nagy (2015:12) has pointed out:

Back at Song 1:2 (1:1), before the woman can say anything more about her desire to be kissed, the man interrupts, continuing where she left off and intensifying the desire for mouth-to-mouth kissing by making this desire mutual. He too desires mouth-to-mouth kissing, but now there is something added to the desire of the woman: besides the desire that she expresses for her own reasons, the man expresses the desire for mouth-to-mouth kissing also for another reason—because [quia, ὅτι] he wants also the pleasure of seeing and touching the breasts of the woman. This pleasure of seeing and touching the breasts of the woman is then linked with the further pleasure of smelling the perfumed oil anointed on her breasts, which is further linked with the pleasure of tasting wine. [4]

What is intriguing about this interruption is its ability to restructure the voices of the duet. Where in Egyptian love poetry the voices existed to complement each other, speaking in turn, the voices of the Song of Songs, can speak out of turn, representing a violation of the traditional model, but also emphasizing one voice over the other. In so doing, it, perhaps, allowed for the further interruption of one voice into complete silence, so to speak, as the duet faded into a monologue.

An addition to this innovation, represented by the Song of Songs, is the chorus of young maidens, which constitute a third voice. What is fascinating about these young maidens, (or ‘virgins’, Bib Heb. עלמות), is the ability for the female voice to refract their own. As Nagy (2015:13) says:

We see at work here a mental process of self-identification, involving a psychology of projection. I start with the persona of the woman who is speaking. This woman projects her own feelings into the feelings of the amorous girls: she too desires to follow the perfectly scented man, who is evidently the king, into his royal bedchamber, but she is too shy to tug at him. So, as we see in the Vulgate version, she makes the gesture of asking him instead to tug at her. In the Masoretic version as well, the persona of the primary speaking woman in Song 1:4 is making the same gesture to the man, saying “Tug at me!” If the man now makes a move and tugs at the woman, thus responding to her gesture, she will follow him gladly. As for the Septuagint version, the desire to follow the king to his royal bedchamber is escalated, since the amorous girls have already been tugging at the king, flirtatiously hoping that he will let them follow along.

What is intriguing here is that both of these variations occur to the female voice; it is she who is interrupted and she who is refracted. Thus, she is essentially nothing or a multitude, having the capacity to be both absent and omni-present at once. The need for the one subsumed voice to have its reciprocation, in terms of desire, is then fulfilled by its relation to the female lover’s voice who speaks it (and eventually will gain her satisfaction). In terms of the variation we see later in Sappho, this adaptation and variability of the female voice seems to have had analogical models, which were then used by Sappho to achieve even more pronounced effects.

Consider Sappho 199, one of the most famous poems from her corpus:

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει
καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν,
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώναι-
σ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει,
ἀλλ’ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε† λέπτον
δ’ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,
†έκαδε μ’ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται† τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ’πιδεύης
φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔται·
ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον ἐπεὶ †καὶ πένητα†

He looks to me to be equal to the gods,
that man who sits across from you
and listens nearby to you speaking sweetly,
to you laughing charmingly; that, I vow,
makes the heart leap in my breast;
for when seeing you but a moment, speech fails me,
my tongue breaks, at once
a light fire runs beneath my skin,
my eyes are blinded, and my ears drumming,
the sweat pours down over me, and I shake
all over, sallower than grass:
I feel as if I’m not far off from dying;
but all is to be submitted and endured.

Sappho 199 (after Page 2008:104)

Sappho begins with the male, “he”, as does DM (“your masc. love”), but develops only the female voice. All other actors in the poem are subject to the gaze of the female beloved. Like the Song of Songs, the male and female are represented, along with a third, the competitor. Unlike the Song of Songs, however, the third actor, the other female, is the object of desire; it is she whom Sappho desires, and the male is merely a competing lover, insomuch as he is between the lover and the beloved. The voice is then refracted, as it were, to represent the other voices which are essentially voiceless in the poem. The female beloved and the male who is present with her, we can imagine from the earlier type, should have actually had speaking parts, but Sappho instead directs the listener to imagine the conversation between them. In fact, the male’s part has been completely deleted; at the moment of the female lover’s interference, it is only the female beloved who is reported to speak; the male is merely watching and listening. Like the Song of Songs, the voices which are acted out through the refraction of the female voice necessitate the reciprocation begged by desire, yet as there is only one voice in Sappho 199, that one voice is now entirely dependent upon this refraction in order to stress the reciprocation which it so desires. The use of ἴσος θέοισιν, which amongst the many other references it may have, may in fact be an old remnant of the “my lover is like …” formula which appears in both DM and the Song of Songs. If this is so, there is no doubt that this poem has a further layer, that of epic performance, where the phrase is also used, and which Sappho’s poetry could employ as a means of collapsing genres. Thus, if I am right to assume that DM represents the normal type for love poetry, a duet between female and male, seeing it as the deep structure of Sappho’s poetry reveals a unique insight into seeing the innovation within this genre which Sappho’s poetry displays, not just from a Greek perspective, but within a wider cultural frame.

Of course, what is unanswered is the looming question of how this type would have progressed from Egypt to Greece. Naturally, there is still a large part of the context that we can only guess at, but which was probably fundamental for our understanding of this genre. Egyptian poems, like DM, were probably sung to the accompaniment of music; just how many voices were involved in that display is completely unknown (Mathieu 1996:134–138). Likewise, the Song of Songs, was also likely to share a similar performative context. As for Sappho, it is a hotly contested topic of debate, but whether true monody or a matter of choral performance, Sappho’s poetry existed in the realm of song before it existed on the scroll. Seeing the highly performative nature of the genre, it is possible that it may have had a highly contagious cultural exchange, as song cultures were witnessed and shared across the Mediterranean. If the genre is seen to represent a continuum throughout the song cultures of the Mediterranean, it is highly likely that the Greeks would have encountered, and partaken of, models which were common throughout a large region. [5] Nevertheless, some larger questions still remain; for example, why is it the female voice which seems to be the most innovative cross-culturally? What are the Anatolian (Hittite, Luwian, Phrygian even) contexts for love poetry, whose cultures were more closely connected geographically, linguistically, and temporally with the Greeks, if there are any? [6] Would this have played any role in cultural transmission? Ultimately, I believe there are two factors which allow for a comparative analysis of love poetry throughout the Mediterranean: one, the fact that there is much evidence which suggests cultural exchanges in other cultural spheres; and two, the universality of love poetry as a whole. The second item suggests that common human experience of desire, and of the feelings associated with it, would have resonated well with other cultures despite inherited differences (like language or ritualistic tradition). This would have allowed for an easier transition from one culture to the other. Conversely, it may be said that the universality is inherent within these poems from a shared set of human emotions associated with desire, which surfaces with similarity of types within the genre. This does not necessarily negate my premise, only complicates it, as shared types could have enhanced, when in contact with other genres of a similar type, innovation. Either way, only a larger study will help to shed light on these options, and in fact, perhaps both could have been in play.
I leave this discussion for now where it started, the Egyptian love poem Deir el-Medineh ostracon 1266 + ostracon of the Cairo Museum 25218. J. Foster’s recent translation of the poem perhaps shows the ability of cultures to mix types and themes of love poetry together. J. Foster’s translation, seen below, is both innovative and, in some ways, Sapphic. It is not entirely faithful to the Egyptian, and could stand alone as an English poem in its own right. What has always fascinated me about this piece is its striking similarity to a poem of Sappho, as if J. Foster had in fact been translating DM, while looking at a poem of Sappho. He translates, in a very English colometric style:

I love you through the daytimes,
in the dark,
Through all the long divisions of the night,
those hours
I, spendthrift, waste away alone,
and lie, and turn, awake ‘til whitened dawn.

And with the shape of you I people night,
and thoughts of hot desire grow live within me.
What magic was it in that voice of yours
to bring such singing vigor to my flesh,
To limbs which now lie listless on my bed without you?
Thus I beseech the darkness:
Where gone, O loving man?
Why gone from her whose love
can pace you, step by step, to your desire?

No loving voice replies.
And I (too well) perceive
how much I am alone.

1266 + 25218 translated by J. Foster 2001:19

Intriguingly, J. Foster has removed all traces of the male beloved, and focused solely on the female. In addition, the long catalogue of comparison of the beloved to various objects which comes in the following stanzas, and practically for the remainder of the female lover’s part, is also deleted. What remains is what was seen, perhaps, by him to be the most poignant, and the most resonant. Is this the way in which the love poem traveled from one culture to the other? Is this how the female voice was able to be adapted so easily (to say nothing of the male-dominated societies in which it existed)? What caused him to innovate this poem to such an extent? The largely fragmentary nature of DM, as seen above, may have been a factor as well. In that case, is the need to understand, to piece together a coherent whole, (which could have been the case in a song culture which was multicultural and multilingual), allow one to draw from the depth of similar human experiences to achieve that semantic whole? I feel that the answer to this question goes part and parcel with the answer to the questions at large in this paper. It seems, then, that the (re)performance of poetry, as with J. Foster’s translation of DM, may prove to be a better example of how this phenomenon of cultural exchange works when there is so much that is irrecoverably fragmentary.

4. Lingering Questions

Assuming that the duet is the prime mode of love poetry, what happens when one voice is tapered off, or interwoven within the narrative frame? What happens when, as in the Song of Songs, other voices are added?
How does the feminine voice develop cross-culturally?
How is the feeling of desolation representative across cultures as a gap of desire?
What is it about those comparisons of the lover to various things?

Appendix 1: Hieroglyphic Transcription (Posener 1972)

Appendix 2: Sigla

[ ] Square brackets indicate a gap in the text, or a place in which the signs are not clearly visible.
… Ellipses indicate an unspecified number of signs between a gap.
|| Vertical slashes indicate the insertion of the supplement from the small ostracon 1266. Only occurs 3 times within the text, in between lines 2–3, 3–4, and 4–5 respectively, (as suggested by Mathieu [1996:95–111]).
( ) Parentheses indicate that a sign is lacking within the text, but should be present for grammatical or phonological reasons.
## Double pound signs indicate the scribal sign  which represents a stanza break.
? A question mark indicates a questionable reading.
x/y A single forward slash indicates a variant reading between two phonological values.
. A full stop indicates the separation of a word internal morphological boundary; i.e. gender or number in a noun, adjective, or verb.
⸗ An inverted equal sign indicates the separation of a word external morphological boundary; i.e. suffixes for tenses moods, object pronouns, and the like
– A hyphen indicates words that are compounded
— An em-dash indicates a word that continues from one line to the next.

Works Cited

Allen, James P. 2010. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of the Hieroglyphs. 2nd ed. Cambridge.
———. 2013. The Egyptian Language: An Historical Study. Cambridge.
Clay, Diskin. 1970. “Fragmentum Adespotum 976.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 101:119–129.
———. 2011. “Sappho, Selanna, and the poetry of the night.” Giornale Italiano di Filologia 2:3–11.
Foster, Benjamin R. 2005. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. 3rd ed. Bethesda.
Foster, John L. 2001. Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology. Austin.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 2006. Ancient Egyptian Literature: The New Kingdom. Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Mathieu, Bernard. 1996. La Poési Amoreuse de l’Égypte Ancienne: Recherches sur un genre littéraire au Nouvel Empire. Cairo.
Nagy, Gregory. 2006. The Epic Hero. 2nd ed. Washington DC.
———. 2015. “Making metonyms both naturally and artistically.” In Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now. Hellenic Studies Series 72. Washington DC.
Page, Denys L. 2008. Lyrica Graeca Selecta. Oxford.
Posener, Georges. 1972. Catalogue des Ostraca Hiératiques Littéraires de Deir el Médineh: Nos 1109–1266 II. Cairo.


[ back ] 1. For a hand-copy of the Hieratic Papyrus from Posener (1972), see Appendix 1; for the sigla of my edition, see Appendix 2.
[ back ] 2. This does not suggest that the Egyptians did not also innovate upon this model, for which see Mathieu 1996:145–158).
[ back ] 3. This is not shown in the translation. The use of plurals with gods is commonly known as the “plural of majesty” and is very common in Semitic languages. Most famous are the examples of this use within the Hebrew religious texts (the Tanakh especially), and the Arabic Qur’an.
[ back ] 4. This reading is following Nagy’s (2015) overall argument for the piece, reading against the Masoretic text via a comparison with the Septuagint and Vulgate.
[ back ] 5. For example, for a theoretical model of how this would work, cf. Nagy 2006.
[ back ] 6. Naturally, the Hittite sources would provide the most abundant corpus. The other Anatolian languages are only written for specific contexts, usually official or ritual, and not all are well understood. As for Phrygian, the language is both poorly attested and poorly understood.