“The Lost Haiku of Sappho,” by Mike Miller

Apr 27th, 2011 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

The Lost Haiku of Sappho

(Flemish Catalogue MS #2105)

Translated by Athena Philogynakia
Assistant Professor of Classical Gender Studies
Aristophanes University

Introduction and notes by Myrtle Chillington
Emeritus Professor of Classical Studies
Harvard University at Pittsfield


Table of Contents

                Introduction and Proposal for the Derivation of the Term Haiku

                I. Hymn to Aphrodite

                II. To a Lover

                III. To Paris

                IV. Oxyrhynchus Waste-Pile Scrap A

                V. Oxyrhynchus Waste-Pile Scrap B

                Translator’s Afterword



For countless generations, the romantic poetry of the Greek lyric poet Sappho (c. 630-c. 570 BCE[1]) has tickled the ears of man and woman alike.  Recent generations have misinterpreted her work as reflecting the demons of homosexuality; right-thinking scholarship, however, begs to differ.  It is my purpose in this introduction, therefore, to dispel any and all scandalous rumors regarding the poet, our beloved matriarch and muse. 

Though later exported to Japan by St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552 CE), the haiku poetic form dates back to ancient Greece.  St. Cacostomos of Lydia writes in his compendious second-century Lives of the Lesbians that the pagan people of Anatolia claim the haiku was given to them by their god Hedone, daughter of Eros and Psyche.  A common greeting amongst the heathens of this time, ‘ηδονη κυδος (hedone kudos—lit. “pleasure which is heard of,” perhaps used as a question, implying “Have you heard of pleasure?”), was often shortened to simply he~ku in speech.

The poems of the Lydian pagans had become so corrupted during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) that in 133 CE he sent his general Sextus Julius Severus to tramp out the sect before putting down the Bar Kochba rebellion in Judea.  It is these later poems, however, that St. Cacostomos condemns, not the earlier works of the classic lyricists such as Alcaeus and Sappho.  In their Golden Age of the He-Ku, their words were sweet and their intentions pure.  Compare the first example from the works of Alcaeus to a later anonymous piece of latrinalia discovered in the ruins of Halicarnassus:

Who stole my sandals?
Each girl accused the other.
Rosie fingered Dawn.
Dew from the stamen
courses down to the petals
lily-white and sweet.

Note the epic conventions applied in the first poem (the customary description of dawn): these are nowhere to be found in the later smut.  Additionally, this author finds the gross Freudian symbolism of the individually-named segments of floral anatomy to be inappropriate for Christian readers in the extreme.

In the Eleventh Century, St. Euthenasias of Constantinople constructs a Christian apology for the he-ku form, morphed into its modern spelling of haiku by the translation into Byzantine Greek.  He connects the derivation of the Greek κυδος to the Hebrew קדוש (kadosh—lit. “sacred”), and notes that any ecstasy experienced while reading the haiku is doubtlessly divinely inspired.  Thus the joys that descend from Heaven to Sappho, a Noble Pagan, originate from the throne of the Almighty. 

Thus it is with a noble mind that we should approach these heretofore unseen works by one of the greatest of the Nine Lyric Poets.  We are privileged to have saved these from the wastebin of history.  And I hope that my own critical comments (presented in footnote form) can assist with a correct understanding of this awe-inspiring majesty of poetry.

Myrtle Chillington
Harvard University at Pittsfield
Pittsfield, Massachusetts


The Lost Haiku of Sappho

I. Hymn to Aphrodite

O Aphrodite!
Honey my longing lips,[2] but
crush not my spirit.

I seek only your
omphalos,[3] juxtaposed to
golden dominions.[4]

Pour your love on me,
you on your high throne, peering
downwards from Heaven.[5]

Men preoccupy
themselves with wars and trifles—
thus I had called thee.[6]

Some call me bitter
as the hemlock[7] from the tree.
Who wronged thee, Sappho?

Now I come to you,
timid in your warm embrace,
even reluctant.[8]

But you hold me fast.
When I tell my family,
be thou my ally.


II. To a Lover

Lost Aegean nights
floating in conversation,
speaking so sweetly.

Do you now descend
from above to my pleasure?[9]
My tongue is useless.[10]

No, it was a dream.
We[11] lie alone in this bed
and all is blackness.[12]

After years with you,
I chance not to seek your grasp;
dead I seem almost.


III. To Paris[13]

Like a noble fleet
of Danaans armed and shining
is my beloved.

May he wander long[14]
or have his city burn down:[15]
he chose fair Helen.

Just like Cronus[16]
I would strike[17] at him, but he
dared Fate in exile.

Just like Medea
I would poison crown and robe
if she[18] were with you.

But instead I seek
the warm and loving embrace
of Lydia’s[19] army.


IV. Oxyrhynchus Waste-Pile Scrap A

Sensuous[20] dining
with my lover by the sea:
choose[21] I surf or turf?

Floodgates of passion
require that I keep my
finger in the dike.[22]

My love is a rose
walled in a secret garden[23]
from the eyes of men.

Towering woman
on the rampart of our dike
be my Cretan Bull.


Cleïs, sweet mother,
I’ll fetch you foreign headbands
when they go on sail.

Goddess Artemis
sought me out[24] in the bush of


V. Oxyrhynchus Waste-Pile Scrap B

Dearest Alcaeus:
you have not the tongue for love.
Stick to politics.[25]


Hellenes watch us two
in the Lesbos agora
buzzing like fruit flies.

My[26] neophyte love
claims she’s a virgin olive.
Is it virgin oil?

An abyss of doubt[27]
opens when I wonder if
we are both faking.

Go to your husband,
jackal,[28] lips stained violet
by Lesbian wine.[29]


Translator’s Afterword:

It is something of a miracle that we have these poems at all.  For centuries researchers have plumbed the depths of every mossy ruin and dusty mausoleum about the Mediterranean, searching for more of Sappho’s original works.  It saddens me to no end that most of what we have left of our dear sister-in-cause comes in the form of mere fragments. 

My sister Adonia found me working late in my office one night during the early spring of 1996, and after several hours of persuasion, I felt compelled to join her on her upcoming archaeological dig at Oxyrhynchus that May.  The trek south from Cairo to Al-Bahnasa was hotter than I could have imagined, but what greeted me at the journey’s end was nothing more than ecstatic bliss. 

In a previously-undisturbed pile of rubbish, one of our Egyptian sisters working on the dig-site discovered an eighteen-inch hollow ivory scroll tube, heavily ornamented (likely in honor of Priapus).  We left the vessel itself to be shipped with the rest of the trash to the British Museum (and then back to Egypt, as is the current reformed agreement); what we had come for had been waiting inside the whole time.  How could my sister and I have known to come here?  Perhaps it was God; perhaps it was Fate.  All I know is that we came.  And what we found was this work, which I have taken pains to render for you in the original meter of the he-ku form.

May I close with a he-ku in dedication to the one who made this all possible.

                Δικη, καρδιά,
                εραστής μου, αιώνια,

Athena Philogynakia
Aristophanes University
Thessaloniki, Greece


Mike Miller (Stockbridge, MA) is the editor of High Coup Journal, an e-journal for snarky haiku, and currently writes poems up in an attic, about 40 miles and 130 years from where Emily Dickinson did the same thing.

[1] Editor’s Note: This contributor has asked me to note that she vehemently disputes the use of the “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era” tags.  However, for the sake of academic professionalism, I have revised her original manuscript.  My apologies, Dr. Chillington—I as the editor take full responsibility for this change. 

[2] A variation on the standard invocation to a Muse, this piece instead invokes the Goddess.  The honey of the lips may refer to the glibness of Sappho’s tongue in this beautiful verse.

[3] Center point or navel.  The Omphalos was also a stone found at the Delphic Oracle: here, the poet may be seeking Aphrodite’s divine wisdom. 

[4] These likely refer to either Arcadia or Mount Olympus.

[5] Again, likely Mount Olympus.

[6] Compare to Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.

[7] St. Euthenasias writes of Sappho’s terminal fall from a cliff—this passage suggests another vector of suicide.

[8] Let us not harshly judge the poet here—was not even Christ tempted in the wilderness to abandon his faith?

[9] Do not assume this line to mean that this inspiration happens at the whim of the poet.  The act is often described as being brutally ravishing, though memories of it have faded into our distant memory.

[10] The Greek poet would rarely claim anything to his or her own faculties; all inspiration is a product of the divine.

[11] Who is this figure?  Perhaps Alcaeus?  This researcher assumes Phaon the ferryman, also blessed by Aphrodite, who was the alleged cause of Sappho’s suicide.

[12] See Christ’s temptation above.  Other scholars, such as my friend and former colleague at Harvard-Pittsfield Dr. Richard Bates, have also compared this emotion in other Sapphic works to St. John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul.”  Master’s notes the influence of Ibn Abbad of Ronda on St. John’s thinking, but I fear his interests in Orientalism may have clouded his judgment in this matter.

[13] It is unclear in this poem if Sappho connects her lover with the Danaans or the Trojans.  The Helen figure seems to be another woman, perhaps a woman who has stolen Sappho’s husband. 

[14] As Odysseus wanders for twenty years.

[15] Such is the fate not only of Priam and Paris but also Aeneas, who goes on to found Rome.

[16] Cronus, son of Gaea and Uranus and king of the Titans.  Cronus fathers the Olympian gods with his sister Rhea before he himself is usurped by his son Zeus.

[17] Cronus famously strikes down his father by cleaving into a vital region of the elder god’s body.

[18] The poet’s anger is thus likely directed at the husband’s lover, not the husband himself.  Medea used a poison robe to kill Glauce, Jason’s new bride.

[19] This is natural, considering Lesbos’s proximity in Ionia to the Anatolian mainland.

[20] Apart from her time in exile, it is certain that a poet as prolific as Sappho must have lived a life of comfort.

[21] Again, being able to choose between beef and fish for her dinners shows that her husband must have taken care of her well.

[22] This word has been translated from the Aeolian Greek elsewhere as battlement, or bulwark, but in order to maintain the proper meter, the translator has chosen a different phrasing.  I must defer to Dr. Philogynakia’s judgment here.

[23] Note a similar theme in medieval literature, such as in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.

[24] To be “sought out” by the Queen of the Beasts must have been a terrifying experience.  It is likely this fragment of verse comes from Sappho’s period in exile—one of few extant that does.

[25] The poems of Alcaeus contain many more allusions to political life in the city of Mytilene than do those of Sappho.

[26] Virginity was usually only required of women—perhaps this poem is from the point of view of Sappho’s husband?

[27] See above notes about Christ and St. John of the Cross.

[28] This woman is likely from the mainland and has come to steal Sappho’s husband away from her.

[29] Even by the Laws of Hospitality, a guest could overstay his or her welcome.

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