Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sappho's Thiasos

Sappho's school
Sappho's Thiasos

Location: Skala Errisou, Lesbos, Greece

Founded and Closed: 6th century BC

Sappho, of course, was the "tenth muse," one of the great lyric poets of antiquity, renowned for her love poems addressed to women. In addition, Sappho headed her own thiasos at Lesbos, which is variously defined as a school or community of women. Scholarly accounts about Sappho's life and work are still open to radical re-interpretation, since so much of her poetry was destroyed by the early leaders of the Christian Church. But here is one of the more comprehensive accounts I have found describing Sappho's thiasos:

The thiasoi were communities of women, the existence of which is documented not only in Lesbos where, as well as Sappho's thiasos there were also the thiasoi of her rivals Gorgo and Andromeda, but also in other areas of Greece, especially in Sparta. What sort of communities were these? They were not simply 'finishing-schools for young ladies', as some definitions have suggested, where purely spiritual loves flourished between the girls. The thiasoi were something different and more complex. They were groups with their own divinities and ceremonies, where girls, before marriage, went through a global experience of life which - leaving aside the differences attributable to differences of gender - was in some way analogous to the experience of life that men had in corresponding masculine groups. And the girls received an education within this community life. With reference to Lesbos, in particular, the Suda names three mathe-triai, meaning three 'pupils' of Sappho, who was called didaskalos, or 'schoolmistress'.

What did Sappho teach her pupils? First of all music, singing and dancing: the instruments which transformed them from uncultivated little girls, which is what they were when they came to her, into women whose memory might live:

But when you die you will lie there, and afterwards there will never be any recollection of you or any longing for you since you have no share in the roses of Pieria; unseen in the house of Hades also, flown from our midst, you will go to and fro among the shadowy corpses.

Sappho writes this to a rival, who has not learned from her those things which would have allowed her to escape from ignorance, and thus from oblivion. But Sappho was not only a mistress of the intellect: her girls also learned from her the weapons of beauty, seduction and fascination:  they learned the grace (charis) which made them into desirable women.  From this point of view, the definition of Sappho's circle as 'a finishing-school for young ladies' is not mistaken. But the description is certainly inadequate: in these 'ladies' clubs' the girls of Lesbos (and of other cities, given that Sappho's pupils included Atthis of Miletus, Gongyla of Colophon, Eunica of Salamina) went through an experience which, in our eyes, was quite unsuitable for 'respectable young ladies' - they loved other women.

A few paragraphs later, we see the following clarification about the love that blossomed between women at the thiasos. Indeed, there is a tantalizing reference to a "marriage" between two women:

Greek culture in the seventh and sixth centuries BC (the period with which we are concerned) not only accepted as normal the existence of love relationships between women in the life of the thiasoi, but formalised these, through the celebration of an initiation-type ceremony, which brought two girls together in an exclusive paired bonding of a marital type.

To clarify the meaning of initiation marriages within the thiasoi, and to provide proof of their existence, we have the celebrated parthenion (a song for a chorus of virgins) by Alcman, the 'Louvre parthenion'. Composed in Sparta on commission, this celebrated the recognition by the thiasos of a love affair which had now become exclusive between two girls, Agido and Hagesichora; an official union, one might say, which was solemnised by the recitation of a choral song.

Significantly, given that not all directors of thiasoi were capable, like Sappho, of composing songs personally, this one was written on commission by Alcman. But what exactly did the song proclaim?

Agido and Hagesichora (who seems to be the leader of the choir) appear in the song unambiguously in the role of a couple whose bond, now an exclusive one, takes away all hope from the girls in the choir, who are aware of the fact that nothing, no present and no temptation, will ever be able to detach Agido from Hagesichora, and persuade her to love another:

For abundance of purple is not sufficient for protection, nor intricate snake of solid gold, no, nor Lydian headband, pride of dark-eyed girls, nor the hair of Nanno, nor again godlike Areta nor Thylacis and Cleesithera

they sing. And then, turning directly to Agido,

nor will you go to Aenesimbrota's and say, If only Astaphis were mine, if only Philylla were to look my way and Damareta and lovely Ianthemis; no, Hagesichora guards me.

Agido, therefore, will no longer confide her love affairs to Aenesimbrota (evidently the director of the thiasos), and will no longer seek her intervention to obtain the love of one among her many companions: she now loves only Hagesichora, for ever.

Photo: Sappho's school, Skala Errisou, Lesbos, Greece

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