Whoosh! Issue 72 - September 2002

By Edward Mazzeri
Content © 2002 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 2002 held by Whoosh!
9851 words

Introduction (01-07)
Sappho (08-10)
The Reputation (11-13)
The Poetry (14-22)
Being a Poet (23-33)
Being Greek (34-38)
Being the Audience (39-61)
Being the Writer (62-76)
The Myth (77-90)
Conclusion (91-99)


On peut être anthropophage et brave homme, répondit Conseil, comme on peut être gourmand et honnête. L'un n'exclut pas l'autre.[Note 01]

You can be a cannibal and courageous, said Conseil, just like you can be hungry and honest. The one does not preclude the other.


[01] Xena: Warrior Princess is so last millennium.

[02] In the history of story-telling, the genre of action-adventure films and television arose from the economic imperative of getting extra return from a huge investment by re-using props, sets, and characters. First, there were westerns (mostly) and wilderness stories (a few), then, as the decades progressed, detective and police shows, then shows about spies and surgeons and superheroes. Tarzan crossed with James Bond produced a lineage from which in the mid-1990s sprang fully-formed a "camp melodrama"[Note 02], Xena: Warrior Princess, both in front of and behind the camera.

[03] In the story-making world, the world of technical mastery, where "most super-heroes are either born or made"[Note 03], Xena was the latter sort: she obtained her strength through knowledge. She "learned special skills in combat, healing and esoteric knowledge"[Note 04] rather than being born with them.

[04] In the story-creating world, the world of Muse-inspired imagination, Xena has an equally impressive and multi-layered heritage. The outer shell, her appearance and characteristics, recalls traits of several predecessor heroes and illustrates how the subconscious participates in the process of creation. The outer shell is the comic-book hero, traditionally solo. These superheroes, in turn, can be thought of as variations, extensions or updates of folklore heroes like Robin Hood, William Tell, King Arthur, Merlin, Sir Galahad, Julius Caesar, Ulysses, etc. Comic-book writers were fan-fiction writers before there was television.

[05] In connection with Xena, consider:

The Mighty Thor, with his wrist guard gloves, bare arms, tunic, cloak, and returning throwing weapon -- swift to anger, lightning fast, and strong. Xena's first appearance, on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, was cloaked but without a winged helmet (that would come later, in the Norse trilogy). Later, the cloak was dropped, but the other accoutrements remained, especially the boomeranging throwing weapon.

Captain America, with his round throwing thing -- a strategic thinker, agile, and acrobatic, although vulnerable when caught off-guard.

The Submariner, Prince Namor of Atlantis, linked to legendary times and able to communicate with animals -- he is of the nobility, a good swimmer, and likes fish, just like Xena is a princess, can swim to Hades, is fond of fishing, and can communicate with Argo.

Iron Man, with his hard-to-penetrate turtle-like outer shell -- has a heavy weight to bear, but can endure hardship.

[06] The inner center, Xena's behavior ("that which is") and motivation ("that which moves") recalls more interesting, and subtle, traits associated with a bard on an island in the sea from a time long ago. The bard was called Sappho, and the island was called Lesbos.

Purple, Xena's signature merchandising color outside the show and Aphrodite's theme color inside the show, is Sappho. She refers to the "violet-haired Muses".

The stomach-churning anxiety of being in love[Note 05] is Sappho. She was the first to describe the symptoms of love.

The leaping off of cliffs[Note 06] is Sappho. She made the Lover's Leap famous and survived, according to some accounts.

The Princess part of things might be Sappho. She was a well-born woman of Mytilene, or at least her brother was a high-status wine-bearer.

Xena's many skills parallels Sappho's many poetic skills and Gabrielle's story skills parallels Sappho's compositional skills. She was a brilliant bard.

The multi-faceted interpretations applied to Xena the show and Xena and Gabrielle the characters correspond to the many interpretations applied to Sappho's poetry and to Sappho.

[07] The inner core of Xena is sapphic-centred (in the original sense). The sign on the inn-door would say "Solo hero going on adventures. Sidekick required". It just happened that the sidekick was female (sapphic in the modern sense). Combining these outer and inner components together produces the dynamic that drives the show. The entire series could be summed up as: Xena has changed from a warrior who would not give a toss to one who would. It must have been something in the water.[Note 07]

Cradle of Hope


[08] Who was Sappho? There is not much known for certain about her. Yet she has inspired books, decor, furniture, clothes and even hairstyles.[Note 08] Look up her name in the biographical dictionaries and she seems to have been an apparently well-to-do city woman who donated her services to the local temple, like a society lady doing charitable works, fund-raisers and the like, such as starting a school for poetry. She was a guardian angel, a fairy godsmother.

Tinkerbell...Warrior style!
Three graces I
healthy body 
wealthy spirit
wise mind
(If the shoe fits...)

[09] Somehow she became associated with jumping off a cliff (a traditional, and permanent, local cure for being hopelessly in love) and became famous for having survived. Tourists in later ages could not believe that last part and so the tradition grew that she must not have survived, that she had literally been "throwing herself away"[Note 09]. What reason could there ever be for throwing yourself off a cliff?

Xena never learned to look before leaping.
There was a lady of Leucadia
who leapt from a rock ludicrous
She somersaulted once
And somersaulted again
And ended up q[uite ..ious.]
(Many Happy Returns)

[10] Sappho is a little bit famous for being a poet, and a fragmentary poet at that. It has been "the fantasy of the ages to recover the precious Nine Books of Sappho".[Note 10] Only partial quotations in stylistic or linguistic essays remain, or a partial verse or two scratched onto a piece of terracotta (and now stored in a velvet case in a library in Florence).[Note 11] She was (pardon the pun) well-versed, able to compose anything from wedding elegies to funeral epigrams, from nature lyrics to love ballads. She was adept at the lyre, as well.

The new Swiss Miss logo.
a girl
whose hair is yellower than
torchlight should wear no
headdress but fresh flowers
(translated by Mary Barnard)
(The Play's The Thing)

The Reputation

[11] Sappho is most famous for being a woman.

[12] Six hundred years after Sappho, Seneca made a joke about the earnestness with which some people were trying to research un-researchable things like Sappho's sexuality. A thousand years after Seneca, his remark was taken as evidence of the truth of the rumours.[Note 12]

[13] The song she sang about Aphrodite's lover, sung in the first person, and what happened to him, came to be thought of as about her personally. She acquired a reputation.[Note 13] The purple or violet wildflowers of her island became a symbol, an emblem of her. Violet became her color.[Note 14]

Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.
Fragment 105
Like sweet-apple reddening
at bough's end
beyond reach
unnoticed, swaying, ungathered
(Hudson Leick)

The Poetry

[14] Because the remains of her work are so fragmentary, the silences and gaps in Sappho's poetry begin to speak, sometimes "much more than they mean".[Note 15] The gaps make what remains all the more poignant.

[15] Enough remains to reach the conclusion: "One may see by what is left of them, that she followed nature in all her thoughts, ... Her soul seems to have been made up of love and poetry".[Note 16] Most of what we have of her soul is caught in reference papyri thrown out on to the rubbish heap. The manuscripts were literally in fragments by the time the recycled papyrus industry got to them and started scrubbing off the useless ink scribblings. Of what use is poetry to anyone?[Note 17]

Beware Greeks giving...oh just give me the present!!!
A hand on my lap
silences me    a glance
opens the gift of your love.
(Many Happy Returns)

[16] Scattered through this article are some sapphic fragments. The ones with numbers are Sappho's or attributed to her. The ones without numbers are Xenite versions in the same spirit. Just like scattered rose petals, these verse fragments can only hint at the rose they came from, unrecoverable except in imagination.

[17] Fragments of Sappho's verse are quoted by ancient authors as examples of pronunciation and syntax, rhythm and cadence, dialect and local usage. They are also cited in support of or against particular meanings or words, or versions of various legendary and mythical matters.

[18] Sappho's poetic imagery is memorable. Her subject is Love, in all its aspects:


Fragment 47
Love shivers my being
like a mountain wind an oaken door


[19] Sappho also has the talent of immortalizing domestic moments with crystalline clarity:


Fragment 102
Mommy dear, don't be mean     the quiet loom
is an Aphrodite-yearning dream of a lad in the room


[20] Sappho is good at the technical aspects of the bardic craft. The mechanics of poetry, like  alliteration, are well within her skills:

Fragment 146
mite moi meli mite melissa
neither for-me bee nor honey

make mine neither hive nor honey 


[21] A travelling bard's scroll about an encounter with a cyclopes could easily have been versified by a smiling Sappho into:

... ... ... ..[fin]ger on my lips
silences me in a murmur
of "You know how I hate chatty food."


[22] Xena as a series throws off many poetic moments, visual, musical, thematic.

No matter where you are...I will find you!
...our hearts embrace..
(The Bitter Suite)

Being a Poet

[23] There was more to poetry in the old days than just a pretty jingle or a striking image (though those things helped). A bard was a "seer", one who spoke or sang "true words", who was the repository of knowledge and wisdom for her people, who practiced the craft of word-weaving. There was word-counting and syllable counting, rhyme and rhythm, inherited formulas ("the swift-winged eagle") and traditional stories about dragons. There was verbal dexterity and delight.

[24] There was more. For example, sound anagrams encoded into the syllable clusters bracketing each verse of a song. The first verse (strophe) of Sappho's hymn to Aphrodite contains a good example. This strophe is the dream poem that is inked in the original Greek by Willow onto Tara's back in the Buffy episode RESTLESS (422/078). Let us listen to the sounds of the original. The red letters are the shared sounds that spell out the anagram:

poikilothron'athanat' Aphrodita,
pai dios, doloploke, lissomai se,
my m' asaisi myd' oniaisi damna,
   potnia, thymon,

    pothon: to desire/yearn[Note 18]

[25] There are "vertical" links. When sung, these would mark time and units of expression:

poikilothron' athanat' Aphrodita,
pai dios, doloploke, lissomai se,
my m' asaisi myd' oniaisi damna,
   potnia, thymon,

[26] There are "horizontal" or inter-phrasal links which link adjacent phrases by using shared sounds. On the first line there is na-na, ta-ta, a-a-a-a. On the second line there is lo-lo-li. The first and second lines are linked with di-di-do. The second and third lines are linked with maise-m-aisi-m-aisi. The first and third lines are linked with -a, which also carries over into the last line. And lastly, the first and last lines are linked, as Watkins pointed out, with po-th-on. These links function like punctuation, marking off segments of thought. Simultaneously, the links join the phrases together like stitching on a sampler.

poikilothron' athanat' Aphrodita,
pai dios, doloploke, lissomai se,
my m' asaisi myd' oniaisi damna,
   potnia, thymon,

[27] At the level of meaning, the first word is made up of poikilo "richly-wrought" and either throna "flowers embroidered on cloth" or thronos "seat, chair, throne", like an emperor's cloak. 

poikilo-thron: This word has been rendered many ways, implying subtle, intricate, cunning work, like embroidery, jewellery, or poetry. Some translations are: on richly-worked throne, many-sceptred, star-throned, richly-throned, dapple-throned, rainbow-crowned, broidered-throne, throned above, golden-throned, splendour-throned, beautiful-throned, glittering-throned. 

[28] The second word is a-thanatos "without-death, immortal". A word that has lots of a's in it and hints at immortality ("ambrosia") would link in with Aphrodite's name. Greek has the advantage that the vocative of Aphrodite ends in -a, Aphrodita.

O, richly-cloaked ambrosia-'d Aphrodite

[29] Aphrodite's name, besides containing a hint of the rose (rhodon, ros-) linking back to the flower image in the first word, sounds like it derives from a-phro(n)  "without-thinking, senseless, witless", like a traditionally ditzy blonde, or a parent going gaga over an infant. The last part of her name sounds like "kin-giver" (e.g., phratry-didomai), or "before of or in front of Zeus, the apple of his eye" (pro-Dis) or "conniving, traitress" (prodotis).


[30] So calling Aphrodite pai Dios "child of Zeus", and a spell-caster (dolos "trick, craft, guile" + ploke "a twining, anything woven, web, a lock of hair; braid, curl") are just other ways of calling her by her own name.

doting Zeus' favourite kid, Curlylocks, ...

Lissomai "entreat, pray (for)" is close enough to lissos "smooth linen sheet" and other related words to suggest in combination with the images of embroidery, infancy and parenthood in previous phrases the idea of a baby in a bassinet or cradle, and the joy a child raises in their mother.

Damna "overpower, tame, subdue" contains the idea of quelling troubled waters.

Potnia is the poetic title for addressing goddesses, "Queen"

.... .... .... I beg you
all the hurts and blames subdue,
O Queen, of my heart

[31] Combining the meanings of the words above with a phonetic "knitting" (or embroidery) style that links the words together, here is a possible rendering of the first stanza. Because I do not have the skill to encode sound anagrams into the verses, imagine the backing singers singing "desire" at the end of each line.

Royal-clad ambrosia'd Aphrodite
Zeus' favored, Foxilocks, loosen in me
all the chains all the flames taming
my Empress, the heart's

And so on to the next verse.

[32] A version with anagrams might go like this. It almost, but not quite, succeeds in putting "desire" into the first and last verses: 

decipherer mighty Aphrodite
divine child, charm maker, make me,
neither unjoined nor joy-untangled,
O Delighted, inside her (heart)

[33] Sappho did it much better. The other verses of the hymn continue in a similar fashion.

Being Greek

[35] The Classical Greeks, more specifically, Athenian citizens (that is, adult males), defined themselves by comparison with others. A drinking cup showing, say, "an Amazon on horseback"[Note 19] would have instantly identified its bearer just as a pair of pointy Vulcan-ears would do in later millennia. Amazons came from the fringes of the known world[Note 20], but more than that, they helped to define what it meant to be Greek.

[36] "Who are we?" the Greeks asked. "Amazon warriors are women who fight by riding horses unprotected and shooting arrows. Our warriors are heavily-armoured men who fight on foot with spears." "We decide what to do by allowing all eligible males to speak and vote at the tribal assembly. The Scythians obey their tribal chieftain and no-one else can speak." "Our city-states are autonomous entities with quick-response capability; the cities of the Persian empire are leagued together and slow to act." "Athens is a land-lubber city with a navy; the islanders are navy-less sea-farers." "We use musical tones when we speak our words; everyone else sounds like they are making sheep (bar-bar) noises". "The Ionians worship Artemis under the name of Diana and offer her mint and lamb instead of thyme and olives." And so on. The conclusion was: "We survived here because of these differences." 

[37] As the Greeks stepped away from the centre-stage of world events, their philosophy of a spectrum of customs honoring the gods was turned into a philosophy of binaries, of right and wrong. The Greek idea was maintained in a slightly modified form by those who replaced them: "We're here because we're better," they told themselves. "The Amazons are not around anymore. They were women. Therefore women are inferior. The Scythians have vanished. Therefore tribes are inferior. The Persian Empire collapsed. Therefore, Easterners are inferior. Everyone that the Greeks called 'barbarians' are inferior (except us)." And so on. This conclusion was never challenged. 

[38] The technique of defining by binary-opposition and making the "other" invisible and not part of the mainstream continues to this day. Even in television.[Note 21] So when a show comes along and goes outside the square, goes outside "the default setting"[Note 22], some people are surprised.[Note 23] How can such a thing even be possible?

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