Taking a Sapphic Stanza: Papyri, Digital Humanities, and Reclaiming the Work of Ancient Women

This semester, I am teaching our department’s Archaic to Classical Greek Survey. I specialize in late antique Roman history and GIS, and thus this has been a departure from my normal research interests–and just one reason we are searching for a Homerist with DH skills right now. However, reading and teaching Greek does not mean that digital humanities cannot still be intertwined into everyday pedagogy. Teaching languages can still benefit greatly from digital contact with original papyri, ostraca, and manuscripts from antiquity and the middle ages. Case and point? The poet Sappho.

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Miniature of Sappho and her companions, from a Dutch translation of Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cité des Dames, Bruges, 1475. Image via the British Library, Add MS 20698, f. 73r.

When I was hired at the University of Iowa, my teaching demonstration for Classics was to teach a portion of Homer’s Iliad to undergraduate Greek students. I took a non-traditional route to this assignment by using a fantastic digital project called the Homer Multitext Project  (edited by Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott) in order to challenge students not only to translate Homer, but to become familiar with the material culture that transmits a large amount of his work: manuscripts and papyri.

Iliad. Book 18. 393-617 (with extensive lacunae), Karanis, Egypt, second/third century C.E., Papyrus, 30 x 100 cm. P. Mich. Inv. 316. Image via the University of Michigan Libraries.

Homeric papyri fragments in particular range in date from the third century BCE to the seventh century CE. That new Homer inscription found at Olympia? That is from around the 3rd century CE. I had students translate the transcribed Greek in their textbooks aloud first, and then we took the same passages and read them on papyrus, on stone, and then from manuscripts. Students were generally enchanted by seeing the handwriting of ancient and medieval students and scribes and challenged to develop some paleographic skills. Further proof that it is never too early to start epigraphic training.

Ostracon with Lines from Homer’s Iliad in Coptic (600 CE, Thebes, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, CC0). 

Today’s class is about the poet Sappho, who lived on the island of Lesbos from about 630 – 570 BCE. We will be translating the largely complete “Hymn to Aphrodite” (Sappho 1), which is transmitted in Dionysus of Halicarnassus, but which also exists in papyri fragments now at the Sackler Library in Oxford. A helpful tool for finding such literary papyri and locating images of them is Trismegistos, which has citations for 5,950 ancient authors. Searching for Sappho turns up 31 fragments in Greek and Coptic on papyrus, pottery, and parchment. All of these fragments are from Egypt.

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Result in Trismegistos’ search engine for “Sappho.” 
P.Oxy. XXI, 2289, Sappho, Book 1, ed. E. Lobel (Image via the Sackler Library at Oxford University).

Sappho may not have written these papyri herself, but there is still something moving about seeing these works and wondering in what ways her poetry moved the writer or whether it was simply a schoolmaster that compelled him or her to duplicate them. The mere existence of Sappho’s poetry attests to her import through the ages, but one can see it in other pieces of art as well. I often reflect on a moving mosaic for a deceased 3rd century CE boy of just 9 years old. It depicts the boy with a scroll sitting nearby a bust of Sappho and his own epitaph. Man or woman, boy or girl: Sappho moved people. Thanks to a number of digital humanities projects, we can now read her words directly from the digitized surfaces of antique cultures and sing a hymn to Aphrodite that has been sung by thousands.

Aurelius Aurelianus, 3rd Century CE, Split Archaeological Museum (Image by Carole Raddato).

Abbreviated Bibliography: 

Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott, “Digital Criticism: Editorial Standards for the Homer Multitext.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.1 (2009).

, “Guide to the classics: Sappho, a poet in fragments,” The Conversation (February 12, 2018). 

Sententiae Antiquae, “An Impressive List of Female Authors from Antiquity,SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE: ΕΥΔΟΞΑ ΑΓΝΩΣΤΑ ΚΑΤΑΓΕΛΑΣΤΑ. 

Thea S. Thorsen, ed. Roman Receptions of Sappho (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2019).

Translating Homer: Papyri of the Odyssey,University of Michigan Libraries: Online Exhibit. 

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