Notes on Sappho

As with much of ancient literature, the life of Sappho is shrouded in mystery. She is said to have been a poet hailing from the islands of Lesbos and was revered in antiquity for her short songs of revelry -praising the stars, the gods, children, a woman’s love, carefree summer days, and cool evenings. We imagine her poetry taking place at dusk, with young girls dancing and picking flowers.

Sappho is also rumored to be what we moderns would term homosexual or possibly bisexual -a category absent in antiquity. The ancients knew many forms of sexual expression, including homosexuality and also more controversial practices to our modern sensibilities, such as pederasty. Nevertheless, we derive our word “lesbian” from Sappho’s home, meaning a denizen of the island of Lesbos.

Contrary to to popular mythology, Sappho was not a lone nymph reciting haikus from a remote part of the Aegean. At the time, the islands were a bustling hub of art and trade, and Sappho was most likely a leader in a school for the Muses, educating young girls. She is thought to have been a devotee of the cult of Aphrodite and in Hellenistic times, Sappho was frequently listed as among the nine essential lyric poets of ancient Greece, along with Pindar for his Odes. Approximations vary, but she is one of the earliest Greek poets, and possibly lived during the 7th century BC. Unfortunately, the course of modern history has left us with an inability to communicate artfully or esoterically, rather, we must engage in probabilities when speaking about the past.

Her work has been largely lost in antiquity, however, we are still in possession of a considerable number of fragments. Taken from the Mary Barnard translation, notable passages include:

“Although they are

only breath, words
which I command
are immortal”

“To an army wife in Sardis:

Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that swift oars
of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is”

“You may forget but
let me tell you
this: someone in some future time
will think of us”

“Experience shows us

Wealth unchaperoned
by Virtue is never
an innocuous neighbor”

Introduction to the Upanishads

The word “Upanishad” comes to us from the Sanskrit meaning ‘to sit at the foot of’ -presumably referring to a student or a disciple sitting at the foot of a master, eager to consider his esoteric wisdom. Other translations interpret the Sanskrit to mean “to sit below” or “to sit near.”

The Upanishads are the highest texts of the Vedic scripture, and also they are the most ancient texts of India, and modern scholars seem to search in vain for the origins and authors of these scriptures. As with the Homeric question or the question concerning Biblical authorship, in searching for one single mind from which the Upanishads sprang is a fabled mission, destined to end with modern scholars tilting at windmills.

Classical Hindu schools acknowledge the first 10-12 Upanishads as the Mukhya Upanishads, and they are considered central to the teaching. Each Upanishad is localized to one Brahmana, which then is matched to one of the four Veda. The Upanishads are considered the ‘end’ of each Veda, both as the conclusion and also the teleological purpose. Although impossible to pinpoint, the oldest Upanishads date back to somewhere between the 800-400 B.C. era.

Two concepts are elemental to the ancient Hindu mind: Brahman and Atman. Brahman comes from the Sanskrit word for “all” and appropriately it is the spirit from which all things emanate, the ultimate reality. In Aristotelian terms, Brahman is the material, efficient, formal, and final cause of all things in the cosmos. It is, in vulgar terms, the “highest reality.” Atman is commonly called the soul or self. We might say Brahman is outward truth, and Atman is inward truth. Perhaps as an early root of Greek thought, the Upanishads encourages self knowledge above all else. In addition, it has been said that the Upanishads presents a dualistic cosmos, between Brahman and Atman, however the text is vague on this point as elsewhere it is said that both spirits emanate from the same “oneness”.

The rediscovery of the Upanishads and the Vedas comes to the Western world through the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schelling, and the American Transcendentalist movement. This fascination with vague, contradictory eastern mysticism pervades Western thought up to the present day.

There exist approximately 112 Upanishads. If collected in whole, they would fill a book about the size of the Bible. However, they have always been scattered and never entirely compiled as a cohesive whole. The notion of one distinct and cohesive book that is complete is a fundamentally Western design. However, the Upanishads are part of the four Vedas: the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. The Upanishads constitute the Vedanta, or the concluding portions of the Vedas.