Errant Brothers

Drawing: Stormy Sea

A guest post by Sarah Scott

I was reading Gregory Nagy’s translation of the Sappho ‘Brothers’ poem, and it made me think of Works and Days, and then I got to wondering about brothers—or sisters for that matter. I do not mean those who form a pair, as in the ‘twin’ myths discussed with us by Douglas Frame for example, where the two are complementary. Rather, I mean those siblings who are errant, disconnected, or not up to the mark in some way.

Here is the poem:

. . . |5 But you are always saying, in a chattering way [thruleîn], that Kharaxos will come |6 in a ship full of goods. These things I think Zeus |7 knows, and so also do all the gods. But you shouldn’t have |8 these things on your mind. |9 Instead, send [pempein] me off and instruct [kelesthai] me |10 to implore [lissesthai] Queen Hera over and over again [polla] |11 that he should come back here [tuide] bringing back [agein] safely |12 his ship, I mean Kharaxos, |13 and that he should find us unharmed. As for everything else, |14 let us leave it to the superhuman powers [daimones], |15 since bright skies after great storms |16 can happen quickly. |17 Those mortals, whoever they are, |18 whom the king of Olympus wishes |18 to rescue from their pains [ponoi] by sending as a long-awaited helper a superhuman force [daimōn] |19 to steer them away from such pains—those mortals are blessed [makares] |20 and have great bliss [olbos]. |21 We too, if he ever gets to lift his head up high, |22 I mean, Larikhos, and finally mans up, |23 will get past the many cares that weigh heavily on our heart, |24 breaking free from them just as quickly.

Sappho Brothers Song, translated by Gregory Nagy[1]

Here are some passages from Works and Days:

But let us suppose that the desire for stormy navigation seizes you,
when the Pleiades, fleeing the strong and violent Orion,
plunge into the misty pontos,
and the blasts of winds of all kind rage.
At this time you must not have ships sailing the wine-colored sea [pontos]. …

And you yourself should wait until the time for seasonal navigation has come.
Then you can haul your ship back to the sea, and put cargo
safely into it, so that you may bring home with you some profit,
just as my father and yours, you inept Perses,
used to sail around in ships, lacking a genuine livelihood.

Hesiod Works and Days 618–622, 630–634, Sourcebook[2]

There seems to be exasperation in both cases! The main difference is that Sappho is not addressing her brothers directly, while the construction of the Works and Days has the narrator speaking to his brother.

Richard P. Martin  in his paper ‘Hesiod and the didactic double’, refers to the advice of Hesiod to Perses as being part of the ancient Greek didactic or wisdom tradition:

…didactic becomes compelling precisely through its affiliation with an underlying contemporary narrative. If the narrative becomes part of the directive message of the poem, as happens with the Works and Days, then it has the same status as myth within its poem. ….

…. Though often noticed, the unusual nature of this story remains unexplained. It is uniquely Hesiodic: when compared with other wisdom texts from traditional cultures the Works and Days frame narrative stands out because it does not represent the message of the poetry in the form of instructions by a father to a son, king to prince, or tutor to pupil.

‘Hesiod and the didactic double’ page 35[3]

However, he gives examples from Homeric epic where one speaker berates another:

Achilles replies to Odysseus (9.316) “So, there is no gratitude for fighting always;” Achilles in a troubled reply to the “great fool” Patroclus (mega nêpios 16.46 and meg’okhthêsas 16.48) bitterly recalls Agamemnon’s theft but concedes “so, it’s not possible to be angry forever (16.60);” Glaucus berates Hector (17.141 khalepôi ênipape muthôi) “so, you fall far short of battle-power” (17.142)

‘Hesiod and the didactic double’ page 37

Another place where I remembered one brother scolding another was the case of Hector and Paris:

…as Hector saw him [Alexandros] he rebuked him with words of scorn. “Sir,” said he, “you do ill to nurse this rancor; the people perish fighting round this our town; you would yourself chide one
[330] whom you saw shirking his part in the combat. Up then, or before long the city will be in a blaze.” And godlike Alexandros answered, “Hector, your rebuke is just; listen therefore, and believe me when I tell you that
[335] I am not here so much through rancor or ill-will [nemesis] towards the Trojans, as from a desire to indulge my grief.”

Iliad 6.325–337, Sourcebook

but all these Homeric examples are related to the situation of battle. I wondered if there were other places where a brother is not carrying out his duty in other situations.

In his article, Richard P. Martin also discusses the relationship between Hesiod and Perses as a form of strife (eris) or (neikos). We have discussed the different forms of the Core Vocab term eris in the forum already, where the ‘good’ strife can lead someone wanting to better themselves, and Hesiod wants his brother to knuckle down to work.

Is this also going on in the Sappho poem? There seems to be a similar sentiment.

It is not clear which sibling is the younger in these cases, although one might be tempted to assume that the target of the complaint would be the younger. Olga Levaniouk explores the role of younger brothers in Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19, chapter 4. She says,

First of all, what is entailed in being a younger brother? In the Odyssey, the question of siblings is, predictably enough, bound up with the question of inheritance. For example, one of the Ithacan elders, Aigyptios, is said to have four sons. Two of them apparently inherit his land (πατρώϊα ἔργα), while of the other two one goes to Troy with Odysseus and one woos Penelope

Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19[4]

She gives examples of siblings from the Odyssey, and demonstrates instances where Odysseus behaves or presents himself in that role. She also refers to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes[5], so I re-read it to see how it might relate to my question. To sum up part of the story: Hermes, being too young to have been part of the division of spoils on Olympus, tries to establish a role for himself—by stealing cattle from Apollo and then praising the gods on the lyre, giving this instrument as a gift to Apollo. In the poem there is a confrontation and reconciliation, and Apollo teaches Hermes how to work with the teachers of divination—but unlike in the Sappho song and the Hesiod passages, there is a successful outcome; neither does Apollo berate Hermes for idleness (Hermes has been very active, albeit in a precocious and unconventional way!). So does the relationship between Apollo and Hermes represent a tradition of ‘worthy’ versus ‘unworthy’ behavior between siblings?

Gregory Nagy relates the Sappho ‘Brothers’ poem to Sappho 5:

|1 O Queen Nereids, unharmed [ablabēs] |2 may my brother, please grant it, arrive to me here [tuide], |3 and whatever thing he wants in his heart [thūmos] to happen, |4 let that thing be fulfilled [telesthēn]. |5 And however many mistakes he made in the past, undo them all. |6 Let him become a joy [kharā] to those who are near-and-dear [philoi] to him, |7 and let him be a pain [oniā] to those who are enemies [ekhthroi]. As for us, |8 may we have no enemies, not a single one. |9 But may he wish to make his sister [kasignētā] |10 worthy of more honor [tīmā]. |11 The catastrophic [lugrā] pain [oniā] … in the past, he was feeling sorrow [akheuōn]… .

Sappho Song 5.1–11, translated by Gregory Nagy[6]

This poem refers again to her brother, and it certainly seems to suggest that he has made mistakes.

Going back to Hesiod, Professor Nagy says:

we might have expected the Works and Days to be a localized composition, grounded in the customary laws of Hesiod’s own homeland in Boeotia. But there is no such localization. The perspective of the Works and Days is pan-Hellenic in scope, like the perspective of the Theogony. And Hesiod’s quarrel with his brother Perses is not some kind of local dispute based on localized legal concerns: it is a universalized conflict based on an absolutized distinction between what is {309|310} morally right and what is morally wrong for any Greek-speaking community: even the name of Perses conveys the negative side of this universalized conflict: it is derived from the verb perthein ‘destroy’, which is conventionally applied in moralizing poetic instructions warning about the destruction of communities that choose what is morally wrong over what is morally right.

Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical Traditions[7]

So maybe it was not just a case of human interaction: Hesiod is concerned with dikē, ‘justice’, so perhaps it is not as personal as it might seem.

In an article on ‘A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho‘, §14, Professor Nagy provides a connection between the ‘Brothers’ Poem of Sappho, and a passage in Herodotus in which her brother Kharaxos is mentioned.[8]

Here is the passage:

[2.134.3] …many years later than these kings who left the pyramids came Rhodopis, who was Thracian by birth, and a slave of Iadmon son of Hephaestopolis the Samian, and a fellow-slave of Aesop the story-writer. ….. [135.2.1] Rhodopis came to Egypt to work, brought by Xanthes of Samos, but upon her arrival was freed for a lot of money by Kharaxus of Mytilene, son of Scamandronymus and brother of Sappho the poetess. [135.2.2] Thus Rhodopis lived as a free woman in Egypt, where, as she was very alluring, she acquired a lot of money—sufficient for such a Rhodopis, so to speak, but not for such a pyramid. [135.2.3] Seeing that to this day anyone who likes can calculate what one tenth of her worth was, she cannot be credited with great wealth. For Rhodopis desired to leave a memorial of herself in Greece, by having something made which no one else had thought of or dedicated in a temple and presenting this at Delphi to preserve her memory; [135.2.4] so she spent one tenth of her substance on the manufacture of a great number of iron beef spits, as many as the tenth would pay for, and sent them to Delphi; these lie in a heap to this day, behind the altar set up by the Chians and in front of the shrine itself. [135.2.5] The courtesans of Naucratis seem to be peculiarly alluring, for the woman of whom this story is told became so famous that every Greek knew the name of Rhodopis, and later on a certain Archidice was the theme of song throughout Greece, although less celebrated than the other. [135.2.6] Kharaxus, after giving Rhodopis her freedom, returned to Mytilene. He is bitterly attacked by Sappho in one of her poems. This is enough about Rhodopis.

Herodotus, Histories, translated by A.D. Godley[9]

Professor Nagy, in the same article, translates part of this last section as ‘Sappho scolded [kata-kertomeîn] him [or her] in many ways by way of her singing [melos]’ and introduces the possibility that Sappho was addressing her criticism to Rhodopis the courtesan, rather than her brother Kharaxos. Either way, this evidence might suggest that Sappho was genuinely concerned about her brother and that it was a personal issue. However, he also refers to her behavior as a priestess of Hera (‘Diachronic Sappho: Some Prolegomena’[10]), so maybe if she was praying to Hera—and to the ‘Queen Nereids’—she too could have a more sacred role rather than a personal one.

Having read the details about Rhodopis, I thought again about the context of the passage above with Hector and his brother. Previously Alexandros, having nervously faced Menelaos in single combat, had been whisked away to safety by Aphrodite, and he had proceeded to make love to his wife (again at Aphrodite’s behest.) So perhaps there is something  more in common between these examples: it is not simply a question of Alexandros avoiding the battle, but more generally avoiding his duty by dallying with his wife. I also thought it was interesting, although perhaps an embellishment by Herodotus, that there are some similarities in the descriptions of Rhodopis with how Helen is depicted. Helen is the most beautiful woman in the world, one who brought wealth with her (as discussed here in the forum) and who had a connection with Egypt in the mythology (Odyssey 4, and Euripides Helen).

So after just thinking about these passages briefly, I am not sure whether Sappho and Hesiod are representatives of a particular type of narrative, a sibling quarrel, or a wise versus foolish sibling—or whether these examples are simply a sub-category of other genres of narrative. I am left with many questions, such as:

  • Where else are there references to one brother being inept? Or what about one person berating another (peer-to-peer rather than paternal advice)?
  • Are there examples of sisters on the receiving end of the advice or complaint?
  • Are these passages more related to the idea of trade and commerce than to situations where there is warfare?
  • Are there examples of pairs where there the two are at odds or in opposition, rather than where they form a twin-like duality and/or are complementary to one another?
  • Are the cases of Sappho and Hesiod not actually peer-to-peer or sibling-sibling, but instead are they acting as divine representatives in some way—Sappho as priestess of Hera, and Hesiod as the voice of the Muses and representative of dikē?

I hope members of this community will help by joining me the forum to discuss this, and to share other passages, so we can compare the situations or wording and see how this subject is addressed in the Greek song culture!


[1] Gregory Nagy: ‘The “Newest Sappho”: a set of working translations, with minimal comments’, Classical Inquiries. [^]

[2] Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor.

[3] Richard P. Martin: Hesiod and the Didactic Double, on, page 37.

[4] Olga Levaniouk: Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19, chapter 4, on CHS.

[5] Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, on Perseus.

[6] Gregory Nagy: ‘The “Newest Sappho”: a set of working translations, with minimal comments’, Classical Inquiries.

[7] Gregory Nagy: Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical Traditions,  pages 109–110, on CHS.

[8] Gregory Nagy: ‘A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho‘, on CHS.

[9] Herodotus: Histories 2.134.3–2.135.6, translated by A.D. Godley, on Perseus.

[10] Gregory Nagy: ‘Diachronic Sappho: Some Prolegomena‘ §3, E., Classical Inquiries.

Image credit

Eduard Hildebrandt Stormy Sea, Metropolitan Museum of Art, OASC

Sarah Scott is an editor and technical author living in Scotland. She has taken part in all five iterations of HeroesX, and has a lifelong love of language, literature, and learning.