Greek Women Poets in Antiquity
Calliope, Muse of Poetry
Women Poets in Antiquity
Most of the women poets in antiquity came from Greece. It was accepted for women in the upper classes to become a writer or poet. Since writing and reciting poetry was a male dominated career it was difficult for women who were not of social prominence to be accepted in the field, therefore many women would use a male pen name.
Poetry is the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language.— Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1722 - 1834)
And how right Coleridge was. Since the dawn of creative expression poetry has been a blossoming of passion and emotions. Let's look at a few of the women poets in antiquity who left us with a legacy of enduring works of poetry. They are listed in order of birth date.
Enheduanna (2285 BC)
Enheduanna, a Sumerian priestess, is one of the earliest women known by name through archaeology. She is also considered to be the first poet and named author of either gender according to literary and historical scholars.
Enheduanna was appointed to the position of High Priestess of the moon god Nanna by her father, King Sargon of Akkad. Nanna was a Sumerian deity in the Mesopotamian mythology of Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia. Enheduanna was the first to have the title of High Priestess and held this role of great political importance during the third millennium BC in the Sumerian city-state of Ur.
A Divine Marriage ceremony was conducted to make Enheduanna the wife of Nanna. She was then seen as the physical manifestation of the goddess on earth.
Enheduanna had highly honored and respected roles of a royal princess, Divine Priestess, goddess on earth, and poet. She was able to bring these together into a balanced wholeness as one remarkable woman. By appointing his daughter as High Priestess and placing her in Ur, Sargon was able to extend his political boundaries and Enheduanna extended the borders of artistic expression through her writing.
Enheduanna was greatly admired for her works in poetry. She is credited with a collection of written texts of her personal devotions to Inanna, Sumerian goddess of love, fertility and warfare. Included in the texts was <i>The Sumerian Temple Hymns</i>, one of the first works of a systematic theology. It is composed of forty-two hymns for the temples of Sumer, Akkad, Eridu, Sippar and Exnunna. Upon completion of her works, Enheduanna includes an inscription to her father, King Sargon.
My king, something has been created that no one has created before.— Enheduanna
As the wife of Nanna, earth goddess, she had the role of performing rituals to the Full Moon. The rituals are attested to with archaeological evidence. In the shrine of the Moon god within the Ziggurat at Ur (massive structure having the form of a terraced step pyramid) large silver vessels and a copper water vessel were found. This is where Enheduanna performed her rituals.
On the seventh day when the crescent moon has reached its monthly fullness.
You bathed, poured fresh water ritually over your holy countenance,
Covered your body with the long woolen garments of queen ship
Fastened battle and combat to your side, tied them into a girdle,
Seated yourself high on the lofty dais, make known there your broad authority.— Enheduanna
High Value Literary Texts
Votive inscriptions and literary texts also support these purification rites. An excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur produced two seals bearing the name Enheduanna and an image of her performing a ritual with a priest.
Enheduanna's works were considered of high value. Copies made even hundreds of years after her death were kep in Nippur and Ur along with some Royal inscriptions.
The Great Ziggurat Where Enheduanna Performed Rituals
Enheduanna, High Priestess
Sappho (620 BC)
Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean Sea sometime between 630 and 612 BC.
Not much is known about Sappho's early life and any information on her family is sketchy. Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, mentioned Sappho as a contemporary of Alcaeus of Mytilene, who was born c. 620 BC, and Pittacus (c. 645 - 560 BC). She was listed by the Alexandrians as one of nine lyric poets. Sappho's poetry was renown and greatly admired during much of antiquity.
Although most of her work has been lost, her monumental and enduring reputation survived from fragments. One fragment has the entire ode of the Hymn to Aphrodite.
Glittering-throne, undying Aphrodite,
Wile-weaving daughter of high Zeus, I pray thee,
Tame not my soul with heavy woe, dread mistress,
Nay, nor with anguish !— Sappho
Beauty to Sappho was love, which she expressed eloquently through her poetry. She was very familiar with the poetry of Homer. In two fragments she used Homer's epics from the Iliad as models to retell about Helen of Troy in her own lyrical style. The two great poets used their poetry to memorialize current events for posterity, Homer through the beauty of militarism and Sappho through the beauty of love.
Sappho sang her poems while playing her cithara, a harp-like stringed instrument. For hundreds of years she was seen as one of the greatest lyric poets and the works of other famous poets was compared to Sappho's style.
Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there's Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.— Ascribed to Plato in the Anthologia Palatina
Example of Good Grammar, Vocabulary, or Meter
Horace (65 BC - 8 BC), the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus,wrote of Sappho's lyrics as being "worthy of sacred admiration".
Other ancient writers often used Sappho's work as examples of good grammar, vocabulary, or meter. Much of her style was passed down through the centuries due to her work being held up by ancient instructors as teaching tools. Her style, the Sapphic stanza, named after Sappho, was used by many other poets, including her contemporary, Alcaeus of Mytilene - it is still well known and influences modern poets.
Hephaestion (c. 356 BC – 324 BC), Macedonian nobleman and a general in the army of Alexander the Great, used one of Sappho's poems as an example of meter.
My sweet mother! Fair Aphrodite's spell
Has from me sense and reason all bereft,
And, yearning for that dear beloved youth,
No longer can I see the warp or weft.— Sappho
Sappho With her Lyre
Erinna (c. 350 BC or 600 BC)
Erinna was possibly the second most famous female Greek poet, Sappho being the first. Some historians and scholars have said Erinna was a contemporary of Sappho and they were friends. It is not clear about her place and date of birth. There are discrepancies by historians and scholars.
Eusebius (260/265 – 339/340), a Roman historian, claimed she was living around 353 BC. The island of Tenos (also called Tinos or Telos) claims that Erinna was born there around 350 BC. Yet, it was noted by Charles Anthon, an American classical scholar, in 1853, that "Erinna friend & contemporary of Sappho (about 612 BC) died at 19, left behind her poems which were thought worthy to rank with those of Homer. Her poems were of the epic class; the chief of them was entitled The Distaff."
Obviously, Erinna could not have been a "friend" of Sappho if Telos and Eusebius were right on the claim of 353 BC as her birth date. If Telos is right then it could be that Erinna was thought of as an "equal" of Sappho and not a "friend". It is most likely correct that Erinna was born on Tenos and she did mention the island in one of her epigrams.
My gravestone, my Sirens, and mourning urn,
Who holds Hades’ meager ashes,
Say to those who pass by my tomb ‘farewell’,
Both those from my town, and those from other states.
Also, that this grave holds me, a bride. Say also this,
That my father called me Baucis, and that my family
Was from Tenos, so that they may know, and that my friend
Erinna engraved this epitaph on my tomb.— Erinna
Papyrus fragments of Erinna's poetry were found in 1928. They contain 54 lines of poetry, including the remainder of The Distaff which had been missing up till then. The Distaff, translated by Daniel Haberman (1933–1991), an American poet and translator, is a poem of mournful lament expressing Erinna's sorrow and memories of her dear friend Baucis. It contains 300 lines written in dactylic hexameter in Aeolian and Doric Greek.
The Distaff gives us a peek into the early life of Erinna. The poem was written using a weaving theme. Weaving is an allegoric method in poetry, using metaphors. In the first eight lines of The Distaff, Erinna recalls memories of when she and Baucis were children and played the game of Tortoise. A very detailed and well-written piece on Erinna's poem and the game of Tortoise can be found at the link provided at the end of this article.
Deep into the wave you raced,
Leaping from white horses,
Whirling the night on running feet.
But loudly I shouted, "Dearest,
You're mine!" Then you, the Tortoise,
Skipping, ran to the rutted garth
Of the great court. These things I
Lament and sorrow, sad Baucis.— Erinna
Sappho and Erinna
Are you familiar with these poets from antiquity?
- The temple hymns: translation
The majority of Enheduanna's work can be found at the Electronic Text Corpur of Sumerian Literature.
- Sappho - Sappho Poems - Poem Hunter
Note From Author
Thank you for reading my article. Your opinions are important to me and let me know your interests. This helps me to offer more of your favorite subjects to read about. Your time and interest are very much appreciated. I hope to hear from you in the comments section below.
Blessings and may you always walk in Peace and Harmony, softly upon Mother Earth.
© 2015 Phyllis Doyle Burns