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Parts of two previously unknown poems by the Greek lyric poet Sappho have been discovered on an ancient papyrus. An anonymous collector happened to show the papyrus to the Oxford University classicist Dirk Obbink, who realized its significance.
Most of Sappho's work has been lost, and only one of her poems has survived in its entirety. The first of the two new poems mentions "Charaxos" and "Larichos," the names given to Sappho's brothers in the ancient tradition, though never mentioned in any of the poet's surviving work. The second, more fragmentary poem, seems to be a love poem.
In a preliminary version of a paper to be published in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Obbink writes that the "metre, language and dialect" as well as the subject matter "point indubitably to a poem by Sappho."
In an email to NPR, Margaret Williamson, a classics expert at Dartmouth College and the author of Sappho's Immortal Daughters, agreed: "I don't see much room for doubt that these are fragments of Sappho poems. They certainly sound very like her: they're in the right meter and the right dialect, and they are prayer-hymns of a kind she often wrote, addressed to Hera and Aphrodite, goddesses worshipped on Lesbos whom she appeals to in other poems."
Williamson added that the first poem, which mentions Sappho's brothers, is especially remarkable. "It's very exciting to have a new Sappho poem that isn't about erotic love or beauty," she writes. "Here, for a change, is a poem that seems to refer to other relationships. ... We've had far fewer poems of this type up till now, and as a result it's been too easy to interpret her poems as the lone cry of a woman in love, rather than looking at the cultural context these quite sophisticated poems grew out of."