‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ by Sappho is a classical Greek hymn in which the poet invokes and addresses Aphrodite, the Greek goddess who governs love. In this poem, Sappho expresses her desperation and heartbrokenness, begging Aphrodite to be the poet’s ally.
With universal themes such as love, religion, rejection, and mercy, Sappho’s ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ is one of the most famous and best-loved poems from ancient Greece.
Hymn To Aphrodite By Sappho, translated by T. W. HigginsonBeautiful-throned, immortal Aphrodite,Daughter of Zeus, beguiler, I implore thee,Weigh me not down with weariness and anguishO thou most holy!Come to me now, if ever thou in kindnessHearkenedst my words — and often hast thouhearkened —Heeding, and coming from the mansions goldenOf thy great Father,Yoking thy chariot, borne by the most lovelyConsecrated birds, with dusky-tinted pinions,Waving swift wings from utmost heights of heavenThrough the mid-ether;Swiftly they vanished, leaving thee, O goddess,Smiling, with face immortal in its beauty,Asking why I grieved, and why in utter longingI had dared call thee;Asking what I sought, thus hopeless in desiring,Wildered in brain, and spreading nets of passion —Alas, for whom? and said thou, “Who has harmed thee?O my poor Sappho!“Though now he flies, ere long he shall pursue thee;Fearing thy gifts, he too in turn shall bring them;Loveless to-day, to-morrow he shall woo thee,Though thou shouldst spurn him.”Thus seek me now, O holy Aphrodite!Save me from anguish; give me all I ask for,Gifts at thy hand; and thine shall be the glory,Sacred protector!
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'Hymn to Aphrodite' by Sappho is an ancient Greek poem in which the poet as speaker asks Aphrodite to help the her find a suitable romantic partner.
Sappho’s ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ opens with an invocation from the poet, who addresses Aphrodite. Sappho begs Aphrodite to listen to her prayer, reminding the goddess that they have worked well together in the past.
Sappho also reminds Aphrodite of a time when the goddess came swooping down from the heavens in her chariot, driven by doves, to speak with Sappho.
During this visit, Aphrodite smiled and asked Sappho what the matter was. The poet paraphrases the words that Aphrodite spoke to her as the goddess explained that love is fickle and changing.
In closing the poem, Sappho begs Aphrodite to come to her again and force the person who Sappho yearns for to love her back. In closing, Sappho commands Aphrodite to become her σῠ́μμᾰχος, or comrade in battle.
History and Context
While most of Sappho’s poems only survive in small fragments, the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ is the only complete poem we have left of Sappho’s work. Accordingly, it is a significant poem for the study of the Ancient greek language, early poetry, and gender.
Sappho’s ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ was originally written between the 7th and 6th centuries BCE in the East Aeolic dialect of Archaic Greek. In addition, it is one of the only known female-written Greek poems from before the Medieval era.
Structure and Form
The ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ by Sappho was initially composed in Sapphic stanzas, a poetic structure named after Sappho. In Sapphic stanzas, each stanza contains four lines. In Archaic and Classical Greek, poets created rhythm and meter using syllable length, where the vowel sound determined the length of the syllable.
Here’s an example from line one of the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’:
Meter: – ᴗ – × | – ᴗ ᴗ – | ᴗ – ×
Original Greek: ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθανάτ’ Ἀφρόδιτα,
Transliteration: Poikilothron athanat Aphrodita
My translation: Colorful-throned, undying Aphrodite,
As such, any translation from Sappho’s original words is challenging to fit into the Sapphic meter. Most English translations, instead, use blank verse since it is much easier to compose in for English speakers. However, when using any meter, some of the poem’s meaning can get lost in translation. Thus, you will find that every translation of this poem will read very differently.
Beyond the meter of Sappho’s ‘Hymn to Aphrodite,” this poem uses a specific form that would have been very familiar to ancient Greek and Roman people.
The form is of a kletic hymn, a poem or song that dramatizes and mimics the same formulaic language that an Ancient Greek or Roman would have used to pray to any god. So, basically, it’s a prayer.
Greek and Roman prayer began with an invocation, moved on to the argument, then arrived at the petition. The kletic hymn uses this same structure.
After the invocation, the speaker will remind the god they are praying to of all the favors they have done for the god. After the invocation and argument, the Greeks believed that the god would have heard their call and come to their aid.
Finally, following this prayer formula, the person praying would ask the god for a favor. In Sappho’s case, the poet asks Aphrodite for help in convincing another unnamed person to love her. Sappho promises that, in return, she will be Aphrodite’s ally, too.
Many literary devices within the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ have gotten lost in translation. However, a few of them still shine through, regardless of the language or meter:
- Apostrophe – All of ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ is an apostrophe as Sappho sings out to the goddess Aphrodite. An example of the apostrophe in this poem is: “O thou most holy!” from line four of stanza one.
- Irony – Although Sappho pleads with Aphrodite to ease her pain and bring her love, she has already done this same thing in the past, which wasn’t enough. The irony here is that Sappho seems insatiable, and keeps asking the gods for help, even if their help is never enough to make her happy.
Beautiful-throned, immortal Aphrodite,
Daughter of Zeus, beguiler, I implore thee,
Weigh me not down with weariness and anguish
O thou most holy!
In stanza one, the speaker, Sappho, invokes Venus, the immortal goddess with the many-colored throne.
Sappho’s more desperate and bitter tone develops in line two, as she addresses Aphrodite as a “beguiler,” or weaver of wiles. By calling Aphrodite these things, it is clear that Sappho sees love as a trick or a ruse.
These tricks cause the poet “weariness” and “anguish,” highlighting the contrast between Aphrodite’s divine, ethereal beauty and her role as a goddess who forces people to fall in love with each other – sometimes against their own will.
Compared to Aphrodite, Sappho is earthly, lowly, and weighed down from experiencing unrequited love. On the other hand, the goddess is lofty, energetic, and cunning, despite her role as the ‘manager’ of all mortal and divine love affairs. Aphrodite has power, while Sappho comes across as powerless.
Although Sappho’s bitterness against love is apparent, she still positively addresses Aphrodite, remembering that she is praying to a powerful goddess.
Come to me now, if ever thou in kindness
Hearkenedst my words — and often hast thou
Heeding, and coming from the mansions golden
Of thy great Father,
By stanza two of Sappho’s ‘Hymn to Aphrodite,’ the poet moves on to the argument potion of her prayer, using her poetics to convince Aphrodite to hear her.
Sappho addresses the goddess, stating that Aphrodite has come to her aid “often” in the past. This idea stresses that Sappho and Aphrodite have a close relationship, which is unusual in Ancient Greek poetry.
However, this close relationship means that Sappho has a lot of issues in the romance department. Otherwise, she wouldn’t need to ask Aphrodite for help so much. In this case, Sappho often suffers from heartbreak, unrequited love, and rejection.
While Sappho asks Aphrodite to hear her prayer, she is careful to glorify the goddess. She names Aphrodite in connection with the “golden” mansions of Olympos and Aphrodite’s father, Zeus. These titles emphasize Aphrodite’s honor, lineage, and power.
Yoking thy chariot, borne by the most lovely
Consecrated birds, with dusky-tinted pinions,
Waving swift wings from utmost heights of heaven
Through the mid-ether;
In stanza three, Sappho describes how Aphrodite has come to the poet in the past.
She describes how Aphrodite once yoked her chariot, which was “borne by the most lovely / consecrated birds.” These birds were likely white doves, often depicted as the chariot-driving animals of Aphrodite in Greek art and myth.
The “swift wings, with dusky-tinted pinions” of these birds, create quite a bit of symbolism. The rapid back-and-forth movements of the wings mimic the ideas of stanza six, where Aphrodite says:
Though now he flies, ere long he shall pursue thee;
Fearing thy gifts, he too in turn shall bring them;
Loveless to-day, to-morrow he shall woo thee,
Like wings that flutter back and forth, love is fickle and changes quickly.
Additionally, while the doves may be white, they have dark pinions or feathers on their wings. The contrast between the white and dark feathers mimics the poet’s black-and-white perception of love.
So, the image of the doves is a very animated illustration of Sappho’s experiences with both love and rejection.
Sappho also uses the image of Aphrodite’s chariot to elevate and honor the goddess. While Aphrodite flies swiftly from “the utmost heights of heaven,” Sappho is on earth, calling up. This puts Aphrodite, rightly, in a position of power as an onlooker and intervener.
Swiftly they vanished, leaving thee, O goddess,
Smiling, with face immortal in its beauty,
Asking why I grieved, and why in utter longing
I had dared call thee;
In stanza four, Aphrodite comes down to earth to meet and talk with Sappho privately. Even Aphrodite’s doves “swiftly… vanished” as the goddess addresses the poet, just as love has vanished from Sappho’s life.
Despite Sappho’s “weariness and anguish,” Aphrodite is “smiling.” So here, again, we have a stark contrast between Aphrodite and the poet.
Sappho paraphrases Aphrodite in lines three and four. Here, she explains how the goddess asked why the poet was sad enough to invoke a deity for help.
Asking what I sought, thus hopeless in desiring,
Wildered in brain, and spreading nets of passion —
Alas, for whom? and said thou, “Who has harmed thee?
O my poor Sappho!
In stanza five of ‘Hymn to Aphrodite,’, it seems that Aphrodite cares about Sappho and is concerned that the poet is “wildered in brain.” However, in Greek, this phrase has a lot more meaning than just a worried mind.
Sappho uses the word “μαινόλαι θύμωι,” or “mainolas thumos” in the poem, which translates to “panicked smoke” or “frenzied breath.” Still, “thumos” is also associated with thought and emotion because one’s breath pattern shows how they are feeling.
So, with just this phrase, Sappho describes her breath as frantic, her mind as confused, and her emotions as frenzied. The poet is practically hyperventilating and having a panic attack from the pain of her heartbreak.
This frantic breath also mimics the “swift wings” of the doves from stanza three.
In line three of stanza five, Sappho stops paraphrasing Aphrodite, as the goddess gets her own quotations. Aphrodite asks the poet who has hurt her.
In these lines, the goddess acts like a consoling mother figure to the poet, calling her “Ψάπφ’,” which is a diminutive form of Sappho’s name. This translates to something like “poor Sappho,” or “dear little Sappho.”
Aphrodite’s tone here is loving but also belittling and a bit annoyed.
In the original Greek version of this poem, Aphrodite repeats the phrase “once again this time” three times between stanzas four and six. This repetition gives Aphrodite a similar tone to a nagging, annoyed mother who asks their child, “What did you do now, little one?” or “What have you gotten into?”
“Though now he flies, ere long he shall pursue thee;
Fearing thy gifts, he too in turn shall bring them;
Loveless to-day, to-morrow he shall woo thee,
Though thou shouldst spurn him.”
In stanza six, we find a translation issue. Book transmission is a tricky business, and often, when working with handwritten copies of ancient texts, modern scholars must determine if specific words include ‘typos’ or if the ‘mistakes’ were deliberate.
However, the pronoun in stanza six, following all ancient greek copies of this poem, is not “he.” Instead, it is “she.” Early translators, such as T. W. Higginson believed that this was a mistake and ‘auto-corrected’ the “she” to “he.”
However, most modern translators are willing to admit that the object of Sappho’s love in this poem was a woman.
Despite gender dynamics in this poem, Aphrodite explains that love changes quickly. She explains that one day, the object of your affection may be running away from you, and the next, that same lover might be trying to win your heart, even if you push them away.
This stanza ties in all of the contrasting pairs in this poem and drives home the central message: love is polarizing, but it finds a way.
Just as smiling Aphrodite comes down from heaven to meet lowly, wretched Sappho, even a person who rejects your gifts and runs away from you can come to love you one day.
While the wings of Aphrodite’s doves beat back and forth, ever-changing, the birds find a way to hover mid-air. Likewise, love can find a middle ground.
With these black-and-white claims, Aphrodite hints that she is willing to help Sappho, and she tells the poet that before long, the person Sappho loves will return her affections.
Thus seek me now, O holy Aphrodite!
Save me from anguish; give me all I ask for,
Gifts at thy hand; and thine shall be the glory,
Finally, in stanza seven of ‘Hymn to Aphrodite,’ Sappho stops reflecting on her past meetings with Aphrodite and implores the Goddess to come to her, just as she did before. This final repetition of the phrase “once again this time” (which was omitted from earlier places in this poem so it could fit into nice English meter) makes even more implications.
In the flashback from stanza two to stanza six, it was clear that Aphrodite was willing to intervene and help Sappho find love. However, by stanza seven, the audience must remember that Sappho is now, once again, calling Aphrodite for help.
So, even though Sappho received help in the past, now, the poet is, once again, left all alone in heartbreak.
In the poem’s final line, Sappho asks Aphrodite to be her “sacred protector,” but that’s not what the Greek has to say about it.
In Greek, Sappho asks Aphrodite to be her “σῠ́μμᾰχος,” or “symmachos” which is a term used for the group of people that soldiers fought beside in battle. Your “symmachos” would be the man to your left or your right on the battlefield. Thus, Sappho, here, is asking Aphrodite to be her comrade, ally, and companion on the battlefield, which is love.
Love, then, is fleeting and ever-changing. Even with the help of the Goddess in the past, Sappho could not keep the affection of her lover, and she is left constantly having to fight for love with everything she has.
The audience is left wondering if Aphrodite will again come down from the heavens to help Sappho or ignore her prayer.
Sappho prays to Aphrodite as a mere mortal, but Sappho seems to pray to Aphrodite frequently. The poet asks Aphrodite to be her symmachos, which is the Greek term for a comrade in war. In her personal life, Sappho was an outspoken devotee of Aphrodite who often wrote the goddess into her poetry.
The themes in ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ by Sappho are love, devotion, desire, religion, heartbreak, and mercy. Sappho sees Aphrodite as a mothering figure and often enlists the goddess’ help in her love life. However, Sappho only needs Aphrodite’s help because she is heartbroken and often experiences, unrequited love.
The moral of the hymn to Aphrodite is that love is ever-changing, fickle, and chaotic. Even with multiple interventions from the goddess of love, Aphrodite, Sappho still ends up heartbroken time and time again. While the poem offers some hope of love, this love is always fleeting.
The tone of ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ is despairing, ironic, and hopeful. While Sappho seems devastated and exhausted from her failed love affairs, she still prays to Aphrodite every time she suffers from rejection. Still, it seems that, even after help from the gods, Sappho always ends up heartbroken in the end.
If you enjoyed Sappho’s ‘Hymn to Aphrodite,’ you might also like some of her other poetry:
- ‘He Is More Than A Hero’ – This poem was a favorite among Roman lyric poets all the way throughout the end of the Roman empire, and it’s still one of Sappho’s best-loved poems. It’s about jealousy and unrequited love, told from the perspective of a dinner guest at a married woman’s house.
- ‘Fragment XII’ – Another poem about Sappho and her relationship with Aphrodite. In this fragment, Sappho recounts a dream where Aphrodite comes to her, and the poet questions the meaning of love.
- ‘One Girl’ – A brief but incredible fragment about the role of women in Greek antiquity. It still rings true today.