Actium: See Ambracia.
Aetna: An active volcano in Sicily. Its rumblings and fire were supposed to come from Typhoeus, a monster who was buried beneath the mountain.
age of first downiness: The time when a young man first begins to grow a beard.
Alcaeus: A Greek poet from Lesbos, a contemporary and acquaintance of Sappho. Both Alcaeus and Sappho were among the nine lyric poets who formed a kind of canon of great lyric poetry in antiquity.
Ambracia: A city in northwestern Greece, near the Gulf of Actium (sometimes also called the Ambracian Gulf), which opens out of the Ionian Sea.
Anactorie: A young woman of Lesbos, presumed by Ovid to have been one of Sappho's lovers.
Apollo: Roman (and Greek) god of poetry, prophecy, and the healing arts, among other things; he was also associated with the sun, although he was not the only sun-god. He was also called Phoebus, or Phoebus Apollo. He was associated especially with measured and well-crafted poetry and song--hence the lyre that the narrator mentions. He was also an archer, and was famous for slaying the giant Python with his arrows--hence the quiver. He lusted unsuccessfully after the nymph Daphne.
Atthis: A young woman of Lesbos, presumed by Ovid to have been one of Sappho's lovers.
Aurora: The goddess of the dawn (Eos in Greek). She fell in love with the human Cephalus and kidnapped him.
Bacchus: Roman god of wine, song, and fertility (Greek Dionysos). He was associated with wild festivities (celebrations in his honor were called "orgies"), and he was sometimes depicted as having the horns of a goat. The music and poetry with which he was associated were generally more free-ranging and less orderly than the songs of Apollo. He fell in love with, and married, a human girl from Crete named Ariadne--the Gnosian maiden mentioned in line 25.
brother: Charaxus, whose behavior Sappho reproved in one of her poems.
Cephalus: The ruler of Phocis, in Greece, who was married to Procris. The goddess of the dawn, Aurora, fell in love with him and kidnapped him, making him her lover. Cephalus continued to be in love with his wife, however, and Aurora eventually let him go.
Cepheus' Andromeda: Cepheus was king of Ethiopia. He was the husband of Cassiopeia and the father of Andromeda. Andromeda was chained to a rock by the sea, where she was to be sacrificed to the sea monster, Cetus, in order to lift a curse from the land. The Greek hero Perseus saw Andromeda and was immediately entranced by her beauty. He killed Cetus and claimed Andromeda as his bride (although he first had to kill Andromeda's fiancÚ and his followers).
Charaxus: Sappho's estranged brother. She criticized him in one of her poems for his behavior with regard to the courtesan Rhodopsis. She also implies that he has turned to piracy to recoup his squandered wealth.
continue his sleep: The endless sleep of Endymion, whom the goddess Diana loved. See the note on Phoebe (Diana) for a brief account of this myth.
Cupid: The son of Venus and a god of love. He is often depicted as carrying a bow and arrows, with which he can induce love or indifference. In some accounts, Mars is his father.
Cydro: A young woman of Lesbos, presumed by Ovid to have been one of Sappho's lovers.
Daphne: A nymph, daughter of the river-god Peneus in Thessaly according to the version given in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The god Apollo fell wildly in love with her (after being shot by one of Cupid's arrows, according to Ovid), but she wanted nothing to do with him. He chased her across the countryside, but never quite caught her. She prayed to have her ill-fated beauty taken away, and she was transformed into a laurel tree. Apollo then made the laurel his sacred tree.
daughter: Tradition says that Sappho had a daughter named Cleis. She refers to a "Cleis" in two of the surviving fragments of her poetry.
daughters of Pegasus: The Muses, the nine goddesses of poetry and the arts. They were not literally the daughters of Pegasus, the winged horse, although they were closely associated with him because they helped raise him, and a blow from his hoof created their sacred Hippocrene well on Mount Helicon.
Daulian bird: The reference here is to the myth of Philomela, Tereus and Procne. Tereus, a king in Thrace, was married to Procne, but he lusted after her sister, Philomela. He brought Philomela from her home in Athens, supposedly so that she could visit her sister. When they arrived, he locked Philomela in a cabin in the woods and raped her. He then cut out her tongue so that she could not tell anyone of the rape, and left her in the cabin. Philomela then wove a tapestry that told the story of the rape. Procne saw the tapestry and vowed revenge on her husband. She killed their son, Itys, then cooked his flesh and served it to Tereus for dinner. When Tereus discovered what had happened, he chased both Procne and Philomela, trying to kill them. During the chase, all three of them were turned into birds. In Ovid's version of the story in Metamorphoses VI, Tereus is turned into a hoopoe, Procne into a swallow, and Philomela into a nightingale. The "Daulian bird" in this passage is Procne, the "most sorrowful mother," who sings of her son, Itys.
Deucalion and Pyrrha: Deucalion and Pyrrha were king and queen of a region of Thessaly, in Greece. As an old married couple, they were the only two humans to survive the great flood that Jove sent to destroy the human race. Ovid tells this story in Book I of his Metamorphoses. In Heroides XV, however, Deucalion appears to be an example of someone suffering from the agony of unrequited love, who throws himself from the Leucadian cliffs in order to relieve his suffering. I have not been able to trace a source earlier than Ovid for this story about Deucalion and Pyrrha.
elegy: In Ovid's time (although not necessarily in Sappho's) the elegy was commonly regarded as a lament of some sort, a poem of mourning or grief.
Enyo: A Greek war goddess and companion of Mars (Ares). She was sometimes described as Mars' sister and often accompanied him into battle. She was also associated with Eris, the goddess of discord and strife.
gifts of Arabia: Arabia was famous for its perfumes and incense.
Gnosian maiden: Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, whose capital was the city of Cnosos (or Gnosos). Ariadne fell in love with the Greek hero Theseus and helped him escape from the Cretan Labyrinth. In return, he promised to take her away with him when he fled from Crete. He abandoned her on an island (Naxos, in Ovid's version), where the god Bacchus found her, fell in love with her, and married her. For Ovid's account of Ariadne's abandonment by Theseus, see Heroides X, along with its Introduction.
her native land: Andromeda was from Ethiopia, in eastern Africa.
I warned him: Sappho chastised her brother in one of her poems for his behavior regarding an Egyptian courtesan named Rhodopis.
Ismarian: Ismaros was a mountain in southern Thrace ( a region of Greece); "Ismarian" was sometimes used as a synonym for "Thracian."
Itys: The murdered son of Procne and Tereus. See the note on the Daulian bird for details of the story.
Lesbos: An island in the northeastern Aegean Sea, just off the coast of Turkey. It was Sappho's birthplace and her home for most of her life (although she lived in exile in Sicily for some time).
Leucadian: Referring to Leucas, an island in the Ionian Sea off the west coast of Greece, near the Gulf of Actium. The cliffs of Leucas, or the Leucadian cliffs, were 200 feet high.
lyric mode: Greek lyric poetry was poetry which was meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, most commonly a lyre (hence "lyric") or cithera. It was also often characterized by a close attention to the harmony of sound in the verses themselves, a quality that Sappho herself was often praised for. Greek lyric poetry was not necessarily short or non-narrative.
Mars: The god of war (Greek Ares). A number of mythological accounts make him the lover of Venus, and Cupid is often said to be their son. Sappho suggests that Venus would be worried that Mars might be attracted to Phaon.
Methymna: A town on the island of Lesbos (usually spelled "Mythymna" in Greek). Its modern name is Molyvos.
Mygdonian: Mygdonia was a region of ancient Thrace, in Greece.
Naiad: A water-nymph.
nine goddesses: The Muses, who presided over the arts of poetry, music, dance, etc.
Nisean: Women from a Greek settlement in Sicily.
Pelasgian: The Pelasgians were a people who were said to pre-date the Greeks in the Mediterranean, but here it seems to function simply as a general identifier of the region from which Sappho comes.
Perseus: A Greek hero, son of Jove and Danae (a human woman from Argos). Perseus killed the Gorgon Medusa, whose appearance could turn people to stone, vy cutting off her head. As he was returning home by way of Ethiopia, he saw the beautiful maiden Andromeda, chained to a rock and about to be devoured by a sea monster. He killed the monster and claimed Andromeda as his bride. Andromeda's former fiancÚ, Phineus, objected and a fight ensued, which Perseus ended by displaying Medusa's head and turning all his enemies to stone.
Phaon: The supposed lover of Sappho. He is described as having deserted her, whereupon she committed suicide by throwing herself from the Leucadian cliffs. The letter is being written as she is deciding whether to commit suicide. For more background, see the Introduction to Heroides XV.
Phoebe: The goddess Diana (Greek Artemis); she was the sister of Apollo (Phoebus). She was the goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and was also associated with the moon. As the moon-goddess, she fell in love with the human youth Endymion. He was put into a deep, never-ending sleep in which he remained eternally youthful, and she admired his beauty as he slept. (This story was originally associated with an older moon-goddess, Selene, who was one of the Titans; Ovid, along with a number of later writers, attaches the story to Diana.)
Phoebus: Another name for Apollo, god of poetry, prophecy, and the sun.
plectrum: Implement for plucking the strings of a lyre or other musical instrument.
Pyrrha (Lesbian town): A town on the island of Lesbos.
Pyrrha (wife or lover of Deucalion): See Deucalion and Pyrrha.
Sappho: Sappho is the narrative voice of this epistle (i.e., the writer of the letter). She was born on the island of Lesbos sometime in the latter part of the seventh century B.C., and was considered one of the greatest of the Greek lyric poets. For more background on Sappho, see the Introduction to Heroides XV.
seeks through evil: Apparently, Sappho is suggesting that her brother has turned to piracy in order to acquire wealth.
Sicanian mountains: A mountain range in central southern Sicily.
Sisters: The three fates, who spin the thread of human life.
Thalia: One of the nine Muses, the goddesses who were presided over the arts. Thalia was the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry.
Titan: The sun-god, Helios. The generation of deities who preceded Jove, Neptune, Pluto and the other "Olympian" gods were called the "Titans;" Helios belongs to this earlier generation.
Typhoean: Typhoeus, or Typhon, was a hundred-headed monster who battled against the gods. He was eventually defeated, and Jove buried him under Mount Aetna, in Sicily.
Venus: The Roman goddess of love and sexual attraction (Greek Aphrodite). In one version of the myth, Venus was born from the sea-foam and rose from the waves. Sappho claims Venus as a patroness, since she writes love poetry and is complaining of her misfortune in love.
Venus Erycina: The goddess Venus, as associated with a famous temple containing her image on Mt. Eryx in Sicily. The image was moved to Rome, and two temples to Venus Erycina were established in the city.
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Last updated 06/23/2013