Monday, 3 April 2006

Songs from Lesvos

When you wander in spring over the island, when you admire the lovely slopes around Lisvori, or the colourful meadows under the olive trees at Tsonia, when you love the bright green colours of the mountains above Plomari, the heaven blue lupins, the lilly white daisies, the bright yellow mustard flowers, the blood red anemones, then you think you are in paradise. And being in this timeless landscape it is easy to imagine that some 26 centuries ago there once lived a poetess who will be remembered forever.

Most people know Sappho of Lesvos. A lot of her work did not survive history. Wars and warlords destroyed many cultural treasures and the words of Sappho, who in antiquity was praised by so many writers as a great poetess.

Only 4 entire poems of Sappho are now preserved and many fragments. They all show incredible beauty. Still in our time the work of this Lesvian lady is a popular source for researchers and there are still translators who try to get her words, written in the Aeolian script, into a modern language.

So Sappho's poems keep on being accessible for present day readers and keep researchers busy who are trying to find out how Sappho lived. Again and again pieces of texts from Sappho are being found on archeological sites, like recently on a piece of papyrus in Egypt.

There are many things from Sappho's life upon which researchers do not agree. Like was she married, did she have a daughter (Kleïs), was she Lesbian or did she jump from a rock because her love for a man was not answered? These questions will always remain a mystery. Nearly everybody agrees that Sappho was running a kind of school or institute for girls where they were not only taught poetry but also to sing and to dance.

Last week we visited the Hot Springs of Lisvori. While I enjoyed lying in the warm water, I thought of Sappho. The misty sunrays touching the water made the 500-year old bath house look like something timeless. Did Sappho also spend time in the baths, did she also hear the singing of the birds outside and did she also enjoy such a peace?

Outside some youngsters got their instruments and started to play them. There was no Sappho to give words to the music, although for some time the Hot Springs of Lisvori felt like a concert hall. In the time of Sappho, the island of Lesvos was a centre of art and culture. Just like the capital Sardes of the empire of Lydia. Sappho at least once travelled to this city. The excavations of Sardes, not that far from the old city of Smyrna (Izmir), show an enormous bathhouse with elegant sculptured columns and beautiful mosaic floors.

Nowadays the simple bath houses of Lesvos are not that richly decorated. Just like there seems no bathing tradition anymore. But feeling the peace and benefaction go through your body, it does give you a feeling of eternity.

Quietness was far away last week when I panicked a little when we were driving to Tsonia. I felt strange, kept on putting my sunglasses on and off, but outside it kept on being a little dark. Around 13.30 some transparent clouds shifted in front of the sun but that could not be the cause of the darkness. I was thinking, is this how you feel going blind... Then suddenly I remembered that they predicted an eclipse of the sun, which was best to be seen in the south of Turkey. We completely forgot this eclipse! On the other side of the sea Turkey lay in complete darkness and the light on the island was best described as spooky. If you did not know that there was an eclipse going on, thoughts about the end of the world would have been justified.

Five years after Sappho's death, in 585 BC, when King Alyattes II of Lydia was already for years at war with the Medes, there was the battle of Halys (nowadays Kizilirmak in Turkey), which came to an abrupt end when an eclipse darkened the area. They believed it was a sign by the Gods to stop the fighting. Peace was signed and the river Halys became the frontier between the empires of Medes and Lydia.

Sappho must have heard about this war, although she was not alive anymore when the eclipse was there. In her poems she just mentions brave soldiers who came and went. There is nothing new under the sun. Even in her time wars were fought and soldiers were sent to far away countries. As opposed to the writers and poets from those times, who were mostly men writing about the Gods and their heroic exploits, honouring battles and praising wars, Sappho did not mix her work into politics but was one of the first to write about the stirrings of the heart. Longing, sadness, love, jealousy, those were her subjects.

'Songs of Lesvos' (Liederen van Lesvos, published by Meulenhoff/Manteau) is the name of the book by Paul Claes with the latest Dutch translation of poems of Sappho. He based his translations on the work of David A. Campbell. They are no songs over the island, but the lines have such a magical effect, like the nature here can enchant you. They call for Aphrodite, the goddess of love, they honour brides and grooms, they long for beloved pupils or beautiful men. And even though her poems are not complete, Sappho's words are made for eternity.

"A beautiful child is mine,
Formed like a golden flower,
Cleis the loved one.
And above her I value
Not all the Lydian land,
Nor lovely Hellas."

From: Sappho: one hundred lyrics, by Bliss Carman (internet)

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

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