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“As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.
The greatest problem for Sappho studies is that there’s so little Sappho to study.
It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.
Book 1, for instance, gathered all the poems that had been composed in the sapphic stanza—the verse form Obbink recognized in the “Brothers Poem.” This book alone reportedly contained thirteen hundred and twenty lines of verse; the contents of all nine volumes may have amounted to some ten thousand lines. as long as ships sail from the Nile.”By the Middle Ages, nearly everything had disappeared.
So much of Sappho was circulating in antiquity that one Greek author, writing three centuries after her death, confidently predicted that “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure / and will endure, speaking out loud . As with much of classical literature, texts of her work existed in relatively few copies, all painstakingly transcribed by hand.
Densely covered with lines of black Greek characters, they had been extracted from a piece of desiccated cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like plaster that the Egyptians and Greeks used for everything from mummy cases to bookbindings.
After acquiring the cartonnage at a Christie’s auction, the collector soaked it in a warm water solution to free up the precious bits of papyrus.
The text is now known as the “Brothers Poem.”Remarkably enough, this was the second major Sappho find in a decade: another nearly complete poem, about the deprivations of old age, came to light in 2004.
The new additions to the extant corpus of antiquity’s greatest female artist were reported in papers around the world, leaving scholars gratified and a bit dazzled.
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The collector’s identity has never been revealed, but the scholar was Dirk Obbink, a Mac Arthur-winning classicist whose specialty is the study of texts written on papyrus—the material, made of plant fibres, that was the paper of the ancient world.