Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite

Translation, notes and metrical explanation copyright 1997 Elizabeth Vandiver; all rights reserved.

Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless
Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you,
Don't--I beg you, Lady--with pains and torments
Crush down my spirit,

But before if ever you've heard my pleadings
Then return, as once when you left your father's
Golden house; you yoked to your shining car your
Wing-whirring sparrows;

Skimming down the paths of the sky's bright ether
On they brought you over the earth's black bosom,
Swiftly--then you stood with a sudden brilliance,
Goddess, before me;

Deathless face alight with your smile, you asked me
What I suffered, who was my cause of anguish,
What would ease the pain of my frantic mind, and
Why had I called you

To my side: "And whom should Persuasion summon
Here, to soothe the sting of your passion this time?
Who is now abusing you, Sappho? Who is
Treating you cruelly?

Now she runs away, but she'll soon pursue you;
Gifts she now rejects--soon enough she'll give them;
Now she doesn't love you, but soon her heart will
Burn, though unwilling."

Come to me once more, and abate my torment;
Take the bitter care from my mind, and give me
All I long for; Lady, in all my battles
Fight as my comrade.

Notes on the translation

"Iridescent-throned". There is disagreement in the manuscripts about whether the first word of Sappho's poem is poikiloTHron' or poikiloPHron'. This difference of one Greek letter is quite significant; poikiloTHron means "on a many-colored, or elaborately-worked, throne", while poikiloPHron means "with a many-colored mind". The choice of reading is, ultimately, a matter of the translator's or editor's own taste.
"Golden": In the original, the adjective "golden" is grammatically ambiguous, and could refer either to the house or to the chariot that Sappho asks Aphrodite to yoke. I have tried to preserve this ambiguity by giving the adjective "shining" to the car.
"Persuasion". The text is corrupt at this point, and editors differ over whether the word *peitho* should be taken as a verb, so that Aphrodite is saying "Whom should I persuade..." or as a noun. If one takes it as a noun, as I have done here, the next question is whether it refers to the personified goddess Peitho, Persuasion, or simply to the abstract concept. I have chosen to personify the noun by capitalizing it. Again, as with *poikilothron/-phron" in line 1, the final guide is each reader's (or translator's) taste.
"She". In the Greek, the sex of Sappho's beloved is indicated by only one word, the feminine participle "etheloisa", "wishing/wanting/willing". Unfortunately, the text may be corrupt at this point and the reading is not absolutely certain, although it is generally accepted.
See also Diotima's bibliography for Sappho (with additional links there).

Explanation of Meter
The "Hymn to Aphrodite" is written in the meter Sappho most commonly used, which is called "Sapphics" or "the Sapphic stanza" after her. Greek meter is quantitative; that is, it consists of alternating long and short syllables in a regular pattern. The Sapphic stanza consists of 3 identical lines and a fourth, shorter line, in the following pattern. (- indicates a long syllable, u a short syllable, and x a "syllable anceps," one that can be either long or short.)

- u - X - u u - u - -
- u - X - u u - u - -
- u - X - u u - u - -
- u u - -

In my translation, I have attempted to represent this quantitative meter by stressed and unstressed syllables. That is, the stressed syllables in my translation correspond to the long syllables in Sappho's original; the unstressed syllables correspond to the short syllables of the original. For further discussion of the use of "accentual templates" to represent quantitative meters, see Steven Willett's introduction to Horace's meters.

Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use, provided that both Elizabeth Vandiver and Diotima are identified in any such use. Other uses not authorized in writing by the translator or in accord with fair use policy are expressly prohibited.

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  • The ancients called upon the gods to help them in their struggles. None of us feels completely in control of our own passions, desires, fears, dreams or appetites. These things come upon us and cast us into battles either with ourselves or with others, with circumstances or with the gods themselves. In this poem, Aphrodite promises Sappho that her lover will return, in spite of herself: "soon her heart will burn, though unwillingly."

    In our modern way of thinking there is often a strong implication that one should be in control. We are told that we are responsible for ourselves and we should take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings as well as our actions. The ancients recognised this as being unrealistic. Other forces stronger than oneself are at work. The polytheistic type of religion made it possible to negotiate such difficulties without having to feel totally responsible for things over which one had little control. The gods were various and none perfect themselves. This enabled people to have a sense of the relative divinity of the passions that afflict us, sympathy for the pathos of life and a sense that help was at hand even though malevolent forces might sometimes threaten.

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