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Ancient Greece's most intriguing erotic poet - Diane J. Rayor

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Over 2,500 years ago, one of ancient Greece’s most celebrated popstars and erotic poets enraptured listeners. The singer-songwriter offered a uniquely intimate perspective on love, passion, and longing, and was the first on record to combine the words “bitter” and “sweet,” to describe the ups and downs of romance. So, who was this revered figure? Diane J. Rayor uncovers the writings of Sappho.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Diane J. Rayor
  • Director Amir Houshang Moein
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Music Cem Misirlioglu, Jesse Barnes, Mia Theodoratus
  • Sound Designer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Script Editor Soraya Field Fiorio
  • See more creators
Additional Resources for you to Explore
The fragmentary pieces that remain give us a woman’s voice from ancient Greece that we otherwise lack. Marguerite Johnson’s 2013 book Sappho provides a good historical overview. Johnson is one of the nineteen guests on the Sweetbitter podcast, a popular examination of Sappho and her modern legacy, which covers the myths, scholarship, scandals, and influence of her work and life. Each of the twelve episodes in Sweetbitter’s first season (2020-21) focuses on one of Sappho’s fragments, including the new finds in 2004 and 2014. The Talking History radio podcast (Dublin, Ireland 2016) on the Poetry and Sexuality of Sappho, also focuses on the 2014 discoveries.

One of the four experts on Talking History, Margaret Reynolds, discusses gender fluidity in the animated video Gender, love and sex: What can we learn from the ancient Greek poet Sappho? (2019). Without diminishing Sappho’s intensely homoerotic lyrics, everyone feels desire or passion, and the gender of a fragment’s speaker or beloved is not always specified. Sappho’s famous fragment 31 (Songs of Sappho, Painetai) in which the Greek makes clear in one word that the speaker is female is also read and discussed in the 2021 video interview The Life & Loves of Sappho | Gay History with Tom Ranzweiler.

For background on Sappho and translation, see Daniel Mendelsohn’s article How Gay Was Sappho? Since one cannot simply place tracing paper over the Greek and draw up an English copy, literary translation is both art and skill. Sappho translations should sound good when read aloud as well as maintain meaning and imagery, neither adding to nor subtracting from the original. For the most complete literary translation in English, see: Rayor, D. J. & Lardinois, A. Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, 2014. A revised paperback edition is in process. Fragment 96 about desire for Atthis can be viewed in the preview in Google Books. The accuracy of the translation depends upon using the most up-to-date Greek editions (C. Neri and F. Cinti, 2017 Greek/Italian edition and D.A. Campbell, 1990 Greek/English edition) and scholarship (The Cambridge Companion to Sappho, 2021). For information on the most recently discovered Sappho and an article on translating Sappho, see: “Reimagining the Fragments of Sappho through Translation,” in the Open Access The Newest Sappho (P. Obbink and P. GC Inv. 105, frs. 1-5), 2016.

The information on the ancient Egyptian garbage dump where much of the Sappho papyri were found is best explained on Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, Virtual Exhibition and Oxyrhynchus Online. Sappho is read aloud in Greek here http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/hearing-sappho. For the ancient music, a famous vase painting, as well as a Sappho activity sheet, watch Panoply Vase Animation Project/Sappho. Two samples of Sappho’s songs continuing to live on in song today are Lyre 'n' Rhapsody (fragment 2), Chagall - Sappho Song live performance with mimu gloves (fragment 31).

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Diane J. Rayor
  • Director Amir Houshang Moein
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Music Cem Misirlioglu, Jesse Barnes, Mia Theodoratus
  • Sound Designer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Script Editor Soraya Field Fiorio
  • See more creators

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