Sappho - Hymn to Aphrodite
An English translation by Pierfrancesco La Mura
One of the most characteristic aspects of Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite is the use of simple, universal language, with images and concepts fluidly merging and resonating (the "flowery style"). Sappho's relationship with the goddess is also simple and universal. The imagery and the epithets were those familiar to any Greek woman who ever saw the smiling image of the throned goddess in her festive cart, leaving the temple in procession on the day of her festival and for a moment coming close to each and every supplicant in the street, with her sorrows and her prayers (and in that role she was Aphrodite Pandemos, "of all people"). Yet, there is nothing naive in the poetess' relationship with the goddess. She is ironically aware that love is deceitful, that her carnal desires are inane, and that the answer given by the goddess does not at all imply that she will surely obtain what she wants: the beloved will surely fall in love, but not necessarily for Sappho! The text appears intentionally ambiguous on the gender of the beloved in Aphrodite's answer to Sappho, and in its conclusion, "willingly, or loath", which may equivalently refer to the lover, or the beloved, or the goddess: no one, in other words, can do anything to stop people from falling in love and breaking each others' hearts.
The entire poem can be read as the invocation of a woman to a goddess (the goddess of love, or a universal goddess of life), but also as the invocation of the goddess to a woman (a common woman, or an initiate), or as that of a woman (Sappho) to another woman. Sappho adopts the multifaceted oracular style of the sybill. The text is constructed on a delicate balance of ambiguity, and refers to the fundamental events both in the life of the woman (any woman, but also Sappho herself), and in those of the goddess. There is a moment in which Sappho's voice becomes one with that of the goddess, when they both ask who "am I again being persuaded you shall win over to your love", where "being persuaded" may equivalently refer to Sappho or the goddess, and similarly "your love" may be interpreted equally well as Sappho's passion, or as the sacred domain of the goddess.
As in the case of Isis-Hator, with whom she was identified, Aphrodite played a double role: goddess of love (the "common" Aphrodite Pandemos, born from Zeus and Dione), and universal goddess of life (Aphrodite Urania, born from the sea fertilized by the testicles of Uranus, precipitated from the sky after being cut off by Chronus). The reference to the Ouranos, in the original text, suggests that the cosmic goddess addressed by Sappho is also Aphrodite Urania, and not simply the mundane goddess of love. The request Sappho ends up making to the goddess is also completely universal: freedom from anguish, freedom from desire, the constant presence of the divine in the struggle of life.