Ancient Texts That Use Languae as Magic
By Ara Welch
In the ancient text The Descent of Innana and the lyric poetry of Sappho, language is viewed as magic. Not only are the words themselves acting as magic, as in an invocation, but other things manifest themselves as magic throughout the works. The most common throughout the works of Sappho is that of love. Sappho also shows us the magic of everyday life in many of her poems. Finally, the writing down of the works performs a magic all of its own; the magic of continuation. Through the writing of their works the story of Innana and the poetry of Sappho will live on forever.
The most obvious use of language as magic is in The Descent of Innana. This text is actually all about language as magic. It originated as a ritual that was reenacted along with group participation as part of a religion. Innana is the earth goddess and in this ritual the story of the past is invoked to reproduce the happenings in it and guarantee the passing of one season to the next. The words also held the power to unite people in the cause. At certain times, the priestess would say a line such as “my lady abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, to the nether world she descended. Innana abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, to the nether world she descended. Abandoned lordship, abandoned ladyship, to the nether world she descended (Descent 790)”, the audience would have chimed in on the repetitive parts of the lines. It is also possible that, due to the repetitive nature of the ritual, people memorized the ritual and would recite along with the priestess. This shows how the ancient people bound themselves together through language, they had a common ritual, which they took part in and knew the language of, to really connect them.
Language is also treated as ritualistic magic in Sappho’s lyric poetry. In the poem “You know the place: then”, Sappho invokes the Goddess Aphrodite. She does this by calling out to the goddess and naming the place she wishes for Aphrodite to appear. “Leave Crete and come to us / waiting where the grove is / pleasantest, by precincts / sacred to you; incense / smokes on the altar…”( lines 2-6). This shows how words were believed to hold the power to persuade a god or goddess. The hope was that, if the offering of poetry was beautiful enough, then the god would grant the request of the poet. This is not the only form of magic that words held for the ancient Greeks.
In another poem that Sappho wrote, “ A Prayer to Aphrodite”, Sappho describes anguished love. Sappho desires nothing more then to have this unrequited love returned to her arms. In this poem the magic of language calls Aphrodite forth and inspires her to do Sappho a favor. It inspires the goddess to give Sappho the power to bring this person back to the “glittering net” of her arms (19). This shows Sappho’s true desire to harness the power of love through the magic of language. If she can only write this poem beautiful enough then Aphrodite will take pity on her and give her what she most wants.
“What’s the secret wish of your crazy, wild heart? / Whom must Love compel with Her wily ruses / back into the glittering net of your arms? / Sappho, who hurts you?” (17-20). This is what Sappho wishes to hear from Aphrodite. The power and beauty of language would have compelled Aphrodite to grant Sappho her every desire. This is one way that the ancient Greeks showed their belief in the magic in words.
Love manifests itself as magical in the poetry of Sappho. In Sappho’s time the belief was that love had two sides. One side was Eros, the god of wild, passionate love. The other side was Aphrodite, the goddess of spiritual love. Love was seen in its entirety without a separation between lust and love. Love was considered the magic of Aphrodite and Eros. In the poem “I have not had one word from her” Sappho describes the love that she and another once shared and the magic that it cast on their surroundings:
“ If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared
“all the violet tiaras
braided rosebuds, dill and crocus twined around your young neck
“Myrrh poured on you head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them
“while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song…”(10-20)
In this passage it is clear that the power of love was thought to be able to transform the area around people who revel in love. Sappho seems to say that, without their love there would have been no beauty around them.
The power of love could also torment people. In the poem “He is more than a hero” we see a description of the torment this magic could inflict on a person. Sappho describes the pain of seeing someone you love, who doesn’t return that love, speaking with someone else. “…Hearing only my own ears / drumming, I drip with sweat; / trembling shakes my body / and I turn paler than / dry grass. At such times / death isn’t far from me” (14-19). This passage shows the power that love has over people. The ancient Greeks believed that these afflictions were the power of the gods Aphrodite and Eros. This shows that ancient Greeks believed that these ailments were manifestations of the gods’ power.
Another form of magic that the ancient Greeks portrayed through language was the magic of life. Sappho allows us to see the magic of everyday life through several of her poems. In her poem “Standing by my bed” dawn is personified into a person in golden sandals. Sappho is describing the magical and palpable feeling of the dawn. In “Do you remember” she very simply gives us a beautiful picture of life, simple as the life of a golden broom is, flourishing and she revels in the magic of it. This is Sappho’s way of getting people to look at life as thought it were magical and full of wonder. Her work celebrates this magic.
The final form of magic that manifests itself in ancient Greek writing is that of continuation. The Greek gods were idolized and worshipped partly because they had eternal life. Through the magic of language, especially written language, Greeks could also have eternal life. This is another way that these works are sacred magic. The Descent of Innana is one of the first written pieces of literature we have. Sappho is one of the earliest lyric poets that we have a record of. These works are an example of the idea of the magic of writing itself coming to life. The idea that something can be written down and outlast the writer is truly something the Greeks would have held as magical.
As you can see, the writing of ancient Greeks shows sacred magic in many ways. There is magic in it’s most literal form in the ritual of The Descent of Innana. Magic also manifests itself within these texts. There is magic in love, everyday life, and in the writing of these texts, which brings about eternal life. Seen in this way, it is easy to see why people would agree that these texts hold sacred magic.
© Ara Welch