Thirteenth Reflection: Sappho, “Peace reigned in heaven”

Peace reigned in heaven
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Peace reigned in heaven

Ambrosia stood
already mixed
in the wine bowl

It was Hermes
who took up the
wine jug and poured
wine for the gods


First reading: Once there was no strife among the gods. Wine was not simply like food for them, it was food. The message they sent themselves was that of celebration. No scarcity and no loss of control meant easily enjoying peace.

Second reading: Strife among the gods is complicated, to say the least. Heaven (Ouranos) and Time (Kronos!) could not accept the concept of change. Hence, the stories of eating their children or trying to shut them up in the Earth. But those are the gods prior to the Olympians. With Zeus, strife among the gods concerns justice and beauty, i.e. the Trojan War. Those of godly lineage upon the Earth have the potential for fame, ruling in this life and awing through resplendent memorials after they pass.

That peace reigns in heaven because of wine mixed with ambrosia, then, brings the gods not just to human things but to the everyday. This the first reading got right, but it can’t be emphasized enough, because there are times we use wine instead of food – that’s 99% of parties, really. “Ambrosia” isn’t food of any sort: it means something like “no bread,” referring to the idea that the gods do not eat bread, unlike us bread-eaters/mortals.

We have peace the moment we’ve decided to enjoy peace. Those moments are extremely rare. Most of the time what we have is not so much peace, but the absence of any pressing strife or combat. We live our lives as if we’re at war, competing with each other for everything. Hermes starts the party and the decline already begins. Hermes is not only a messenger, but a thief. I read Lampert’s commentary on Benardete’s commentary on the Odyssey (h/t Nathaniel Cochran), and this was pointed out most emphatically while talking about the moly, the root whose nature, pointed out to Odysseus, protects him from Circe, giving him godlike power. Hermes is stealing the peace at the very moment he delivers its fruits.

I should say something about the past month at this point. While not blogging, I still perused an awful lot of the Internet. I must have run into every narcotics addict on tumblr and twitter and facebook, each one asking “why can’t life be better” every other day. It’s certainly a sentiment I share. However, there is something to knowing all things change, even in heaven, that can make one appreciative. Peace is not entirely gone when the party starts, but we want to avert our eyes from what is truly beautiful.