We use myths to understand our own lives, as well as the lives of others. Myths are woven narratives that humans are constantly getting wrapped up in as we attempt to sound ourselves into our environment. In this wrapping, myths mirror the way that mycorrhizal hyphae—literally, the fungal weave of mushrooms’ digestive networks—entangle different root systems as they digest materialities across the planet. Like these mushrooms, so, too, do myths touch different areas of knowledge production and pleasure production, helping us digest the different belief systems of human existence.1
Echoing the mushrooms, the first weaving we learn as a haptic skill is in the maintenance of our own hair, before we turn to the broader hyphae of life. In this way, we can make fabrics of materials, but also of ourselves and other individuals. In conceptualizing myth as a sounding sort of fabric, different myths act as “dressings” of our belief system, affecting how we interact with one another, based on how we’re fashioned.
But how does one undress oneself from the myths with which one has been clothed?
Much of the classical archive of myth deals with narrative justifications for sexual violence, particularly coming from powerful gods abusing mortal women. Consider one modern poet’s articulation of one of these classic myths: W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” (1924). The Greek myth describes how Leda, a young woman, is raped by Zeus, the king of the gods, while he is disguised as a swan. Despite the violence of the act, Yeats uses beautiful language to cloak the brutality: “her thighs caressed / by those dark webs” and “laid in that white rush / But feel the strange heart beating where it lies.”
Now, compare Yeats’s poem to June Jordan’s “The Female and the Silence of a Man” (1989). Unlike Yeats, Jordan uses beautiful language not to hide the brutality taking place, but to highlight it. She does this by shifting the perspective to Leda directly, rather than to an impersonal third-person observer of her assault. Jordan’s language lays bare—or, rather, strips—the horrors that are enacting violence on her own Leda: “She falls into the violence of a woman’s ruin.”
Even Jordan’s opening line—“And now she knows: The big fist shattering her face”—is a direct remix of Yeats’s opener: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still.” Jordan’s opener also refuses the final question of Yeats’s poem, where he is preoccupied with wondering about Leda’s potential mythological gleanings amid her assault: “Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” Yeats questions whether Leda’s experience granted her godlike premonition; Jordan, meanwhile, establishes immediately that Leda possesses knowledge, which is centered in the betrayal of sexual violence.
Although Jordan seems to mirror her poem on Yeats’s, she diverges at the end. In his conclusion, Yeats talks about the consummation of the rape, musing on whether Leda learned the future concerning the fall of Troy and death of Agamemnon (the male-centric view of Leda’s daughters Helen and Clytemnestra). But Jordan gives a far different view of Leda’s daughters in the final three lines:
She reappears: A mad bitch dog that reason cannot seize;
A fever withering the river and the crops:
A lovely girl protected by her cruel/incandescent energies.
But who is the poet referring to? “Mad bitch dog”; “a fever”; a lovely girl with “cruel/incandescent energies”: there is not a clear distinction whether Jordan is referencing Clytemnestra, Helen, or both in her language.
That is, Jordan starts with myth but ends in reality. She starts with classics but ends without classical references. Jordan stripped these characters of known mythological associations and, consequently, is able to pull forth different textures out of the variations of their myths.
Why does such remixing of myth matter? And why do myths matter, at all, today? Because female figures in Greek and Roman myth are often stripped, tripped, and ripped out of the archives themselves. Such violence is mirrored in those women in antiquity and modernity who contest ancient myths, especially those who reject the myths—like Leda—that seem to ensnare and impair us today. Furthermore, it is often the stripping, tripping, and ripping of women and marginalized groups in myth that gets reproduced across media, ancient and contemporary.
Even the one image of a bound woman we have from ancient vases displays this bias: a black-figure woman bound and being tortured by black-figure satyrs. Her tongue is being pulled, her elongated breasts are on the cusp of being fondled, and a torch is held alarmingly close to her genitals. She’s been suggested to be many things: perhaps pregnant (given her accentuated belly and elongated breasts); perhaps a foreign woman (says Pausanius); perhaps the ancient monster Lamia, a creature who devours children and thus necessitates such treatment and torture (and may in fact enjoy it).
This vase is mostly known for bearing the name of the painter—the only surviving vase of the painter to do so. But Beldam’s vase (ca. 525–475 BCE) also offers up the consideration of how different styles of mythological iconography can resonate over time and space, particularly with sexualized violence toward women.
As Beldam’s vase demonstrates, mythological legacies grounded in sexual violence span time and space. In the midst of the transatlantic slave trade, Black women were often forced to wear different mythological dressings, so that white men could rationalize the sexual abuse in which they were enfolding them. Black Venuses, Jezebels, Didos, and Sapphires—centuries of mythological and sexual desire justifying themselves.
Until, at another end of the fabrication of history, one storyteller, Saidiya Hartman, began building a chorus of all the Venuses, Didos, and other fragmented Black women from the archive in her critical fabulation. “It is a story predicated upon impossibility—listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives—and intent on achieving an impossible goal: redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse, which is as close as we come to a biography of the captive and the enslaved.”2
In juxtaposition to Beldam’s bound black-figure woman, and in the spirit of Hartman, I research specific instances of Black artists who strip themselves out of mythologized dressings around race, sexuality, and gender in fascinating ways. Zora Neale Hurston, for example, lampooned the early 20th-century classicist with her character Professor Cicero Omega Butts (whom I’ve long read as a side-eye to du Bois).3 Toni Morrison, meanwhile, combined the myopic with the Cyclopic in her defense of Angela Davis.4 And, as Jordan’s rediscovery of Leda shows, Black queer and women writers especially are able to utilize different ancient myths to challenge the belief systems that oppress them.
Such an act of mythical repurposing is what I call myths/t/ripping. This term articulates the various ways in which this engagement manifests: on the diaphanous, adorning, ornamental, iridescent, incandescent, vibrating, varicolored, cosm(et)ic, coily, kinky, jaggedly jarring nappy negations and contestations in myth. Myths/t/ripping is anchored in three concepts—fragmentation, fabrication, and fabulation—each of which has its own craft—music, weaving, and storytelling—and its own composer: Sappho, Deleuze, and Hartman.
having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak / mixed with all manner of shades / robes necklaces / lingerie / cloth dripping / in my dripping / cosmetic bag
—Sappho 54, 152, 29c, 177, 119, 37, 1795
Fragmentation is a scattering, a shattering, a smattering, a spattering, a splattering, a sparagmos (that which is rent, torn, pulled to pieces). Fragmentation is the lack of a “whole” body, something a bit more spangling, sparkling, glittering.
If there is one glittery composer and mythic figure from antiquity who has been the most ripped apart in multiple senses, it is the poet and lyrist Sappho. An upper-class Lesbian who wrote about loving other women romantically, intimately, and platonically, as well as a devotee of Aphrodite across her music, Sappho had great passion for the ornaments, pleasures, and charms in life. She frequently sings of her hetairai—female companions, lovers, friends, confidants, and musical mentees—who would keep her company on Lesbos.
She also had a surprising observation about Leda: “They say Leda once found a hyacinth-colored egg hidden.”6 She found it? Hidden? Given Leda’s myth of giving birth to Helen from an egg, one would have to surmise that Sappho is describing Leda bent over with her head between her legs (for how else would she know the egg was hyacinth-colored?). This level of intimacy is apparent across Sappho’s lyrics, almost enhanced by their fragmentary capacity: they have so finite a space to say so much.
Sappho is also one of the earliest mythopoets who attends to the importance of hair in worshiping the gods, as she warns her companion Dika to pull her hair up into heady crowns or reflects on the changing fashions based on hair color, age, and location. Nearly a century and a half later, Euripides remixes this detail in his Medea as he has the chorus sing of the adornments of Aphrodite in her fragrant rose-braided cosmetic.7
Why does the link between hair and music matter? Well, Sappho played the lyre, the ancestor of all stringed instruments. While a good portion of her descending instruments are supposed to be played with a pic, plectrum, or finger, the stringed descendants that became popular in the symphony all require bows—made with hair—to create their resonating sounds. Guts and hair are the two body parts of the kingdom of Animalia that have proven the most resonance in musical instrument production (skin and bone closely following).
Guts/groin and head/brain tend to be polarized when it comes to discussing the “human.” And yet, in musical organization, everything tends to collide together for harmonious resonance. In that vein, we could reconsider the controversy surrounding Anne Carson’s reprint of the first word in Sappho 1. In If Not, Winter, Carson caused quite a stir when she printed her own interpretation of Sappho’s sometimes confusingly fragmented texts. Specifically, Carson printed poikilophron as opposed to the traditionally accepted poikilothron: varicolor-minded rather than spangle-seated, not seated on glittering multitudes, but with a mind of many conflicting colors.
Yet I ask, why can’t it be both? When you’re singing either sound out loud, phi and theta aren’t sonically that different. Perhaps Carson was right—and Sappho was making a pun? Many the colors shooting through Aphrodite’s mind, many the colors of her throne, or that on which she’s seated. If we’re to think about this synesthetically, could we imagine the immortal Aphrodite endlessly delighting in the varicolors of orgasm?
Heads (even a human being’s when it is not a face) unravel and coil into ribbons in a continuous process; mouths curl in spirals. Hair, clothes. … This streaming, spiraling, zigzagging, snaking, feverish line of variation liberates a power of life that human beings had rectified and organisms had confined, and which matter now expresses as the trait, flow, or impulse traversing it.
—Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus
Fabrication is the folds, cloth(e)s, dressings, fashionings, coverings of life. Everything is fabricated, so what precisely is the fabric of our reality? Not dissimilar to the ancient Greek kosmos—everything has a makeup, so what precisely is the makeup of our reality?
Gilles Deleuze and his collaborator Pierre-Félix Guattari theorize different types of space in terms of fabrication, particularly thinking through metaphors of smooth vs. striated space, theorizing through textiles and felts. In speaking of Sappho’s fragmentation, these theorists would call her lack of formal corpus a “Body without Organs” (corps sans organs–a structure of components without imposed organization). Indeed, they would call everything as such: Earth herself is a body without organs—despite our wanting to divide her into different bodies, of water or land, her matter is never particularly stable, she is always shifting and in an ever-present state of flow, margins and borders waxing and waning. As Sappho would say, “Varicolored be Earth’s many crowns.”8
Sappho often dresses herself as a goddess of desire (Aphrodite being her clear favorite from the fragments). And she adorns herself with different mythologies to complete her crown (both the crown atop her head and her anthology—literally “flower collection”—of poetry). Despite this, the historical archive has scattered these myths/t/rips—these remakings and repurposings of the myths that would have bound her, transformed, instead, into tools and adornments useful to her—into glinting fragments.
Mythological legacies grounded in sexual violence span time and space.
Deleuze might call her fragmentation another Body without Organs. But such fragmentation is far more indicative of the treatment that marginalized groups face in the historical and mythological archives. It’s often up to the fragmented to create new flows, disturb the set boundaries around how we conceive of bodies, and rip through the belief systems that are constantly cloaking us all.
Nearly a century and a half after Sappho, a different poet sang a different hymn. This new song details how the messenger god Hermes created the lyre and gave it to his brother Apollo, claiming that it would act as a hetairai—a beloved companion—in instructing him in the musical arts. By 5th-century Athens, hetairai were specifically noncitizen concubines for male citizens of the Athenian polis, associated in the spheres of symposium and sexual pleasure. Fragments of Sappho’s influence start filtering through the musical archive from antiquity, her desires and styles constantly redressed by the changing tastes of men.
There was one curious potential exception: the previously mentioned 5th-century playwright Euripides, who borrowed Sappho’s phrasing and meters for his female choruses, especially in trying to make them sound more Eastern. (The line between appropriation and homage is often difficult to trace in music—let alone music written over two millennia ago.) Largely famous for his divergent “new music”—heralding an era in Athens that rankled more conservative music tastes—Euripides appears to be the closest thing to Sappho’s “son” (in the ballroom/pop music sense of protégé) that we have from the ancient archive. One merely has to sound out his prolific lyrics toward female choruses to hear Sappho’s flow in his mythic remixes.
Myth is stripping, tripping, ripping. Stripping in four senses—first, the creative history of sex workers, particularly those in the strip club. This is partly in agreement with younger classical scholars of the opinion that the ancient symposium and the modern strip club serve similar functions in their respective societies. Symposia and strip clubs both possess a history of centering male exclusivity particularly as venues for business/pleasure transactions, as well as a history of being a stage for philosophical debate combining erotic exploration, musical innovation, performance art, and communal drinking. But the focus here is on those who produce the pleasure.
Entertainers in the ancient symposia were—by law—noncitizen women, hetairai, and foreign women: these were the women who would have entertained the 5th-century playwrights. Indeed, there is an ancient undercurrent of foreign female musicians and sex workers in the production of the tragic genre, traced back to Sappho through her supposed invention of the Mixolydian musical mode of tragedy. Echoed today, this stripping of myth is also inspired by the long relationship between Black female musical performers in America and the sex industry.9
The second sense of myth stripping came out of an African American female tradition: the patchwork quilting out of scraps; the thinking through of the different strips of cloth and how those strips became their own medium in broader fabricated stories. This tradition is also noted in the African American artistic style of collage, and a collage aesthetic is often noted in the creative styles of Black women writers and composers.10
The third is comic strips: one of the newer mediums in which myth expresses itself, which has been one of the more dominant forms of producing mythological multimedia on the planet today (particularly with the rise of cinematic universes). With this third application, it should be impressed that these forms of mythmaking are associated with being lower class (strip-club innovations, scrap-bag quilting, and comic books) yet are styles that tend to be co-opted by elite—particularly male—interests.
The fourth sense is to “strip” stripping itself, hence the slow shedding/reassembly of letters: stripping, tripping, and ripping. These verbs attached to each myth are both active and passive—myths have the capacity to strip and be stripped, to trip and be tripped, to rip and be ripped—to allow for both multiplicity and simultaneity. Tripping is inspired by both the wayward gait of myth as it moves (very similar to the dripping sense of sound in mycorrhizal hyphae) as well as the ways in which myth trips through our brains pharmacologically. (Mushrooms were most likely one of the earliest ways humans made this connection.) Ripping is similarly deployed in both a haptic and a sonic sense: from the forced separation of tactile and textile ripping to the ululations, cries, and sobs ripping out of a chest as one rips out one’s hair in mourning.
Myths/t/ripping, then, isn’t really a disorientation of myth; instead, it’s a disoccidentation: the decentering of the myth of Western civilization in receptions of Greek and Roman mythology from these myths/t/rippers.
If you listen closely, you can hear the whole world in a bent note, a throwaway lyric, a singular thread of the collective utterance. … All the stories ever told rush from her opened mouth. A tome of philosophy in a moan.
—Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
Fabulation is the creative potential to listen to the archive in order to produce narrative translations from it. Coined by Saidiya Hartman across her works, fabulation is both a response to archival fragmentation and one of the more fascinating manifestations of myths/t/ripping in academic research.
Hartman encourages the use of imagination in dealing with archival erasure and fragmentation. In her first deep exploration of fabulation, the exemplary article “Venus in Two Acts,” she returns to a dead enslaved Black girl named Venus, previously only mentioned in her book Lose Your Mother (2007). She grapples with how she can create a narrative for this girl, and the limits of her wishes to even do so.
Further in her endeavors, while researching the intimate histories of riotous black girls, troublesome women, and queer radicals, she also hones in on the ancient Greek chorus as a mode to express the complex multiplicities across these groups in the early 20th century. It is this dual understanding—on the one hand, the use of antiquity to justify and mythologize sexual violence against Black bodies over the past centuries; on the other, using antiquity to express and make plain the desires of the most marginalized within the Black community—of how antiquity operates as a belief system when it comes to justification in contemporary American society that positions Hartman as the perfect contemporary myths/t/ripper to pair with Sappho.
Sappho’s attentions toward Aphrodite with her hetairai alongside Hartman’s attentions toward Venus with her chorus act as two hypha-e sounding at each other across the angry/incandescent energies of the vibrant Earth.
How can we attune to these echolocations of desire and intimacy being expressed? Furthermore, do we have the tools, attention, and care to actually do so? Would we not have to first attend to how much antiquity can be utilized and wielded as a belief system to justify ongoing violent fragmentations?
These remain difficult questions without easy answers for the fields of classical studies. This is particularly evident in our inability to discuss what myth is, and how it operates across mediums.
Yet an answer might present itself from one of Leda’s offspring: in 2021, Wayne Shorter and esperanza spalding debuted their jazz opera …(Iphigenia). What Shorter and spalding reimagine here is Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis, which tells of the myth of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis on behalf of his brother, so they can sail off to Troy and retrieve Helen. It’s the incident that causes Clytemnestra to kill Agamemnon when he returns from the war, the event that Yeats laments in his aforementioned poem.
In Shorter and spalding’s …(Iphigenia), Leda’s granddaughter is a chorus of her own fragmented selves, as she keeps getting pulled in and out of the mythic fabrications of the Achaean soldiers. spalding herself plays the central Iphigenia, who attempts to find her own voice amid the ephemera of her other mythic selves. Throughout the opera, spalding’s libretto contends with Euripides’s different mythological dressings from his initial play.
In Euripides’s original Greek, his lusty female chorus is made up of young newlyweds who’ve come to Aulis to eye the soldiers preparing for war. In their third ode, lush with Sapphic imagery, they wonder about the future violence that the Trojan women will face, being ripped away from their weaving by the ends of their hair. They end the song questioning the validity and purpose of the myth of Leda: for the first time, the chorus members turn away from their desire for the army and wonder, instead, about the inherent sexual violence they represent toward women.
…(Iphigenia) is the first staging of the production that directly challenges the erotic purpose of the violence, and it does so by centering Iphigenia in a chorus of her selves as she is myths/t/ripped across three acts. In echoing Iphigenia—and fully dressing her different fragments—spalding is able to fabulate an ending for her version that feels more Sappho than Euripides. And maybe that’s the point.
The official libretto for it has yet to be published, so I will close with fragments from esperanza spalding that I personally recorded, stitched together in no particular order: “her sapphire seed of thought / a crown at the fruited meaning / all entwined through the root / sealed in the chrysalis of mythos / what is a woman but a cast off shell its unseen iridescence / her mouth harps not knowing itself.”11
This article was commissioned by Stephanie Wong and Sarah E. Bond.
- For more on this theory of sounding hypha-e, see my “Mycorrhizal Mythophony: Towards Black (&) Classical Myth Studies,” Corona Borealis, August 11, 2021. ↩
- Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” emphasis mine. Critical here is Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammarbook” (1987), particularly in thinking through markers of mythological prepossession and the necessity to “strip down through layers of attenuated meaning.” I thank the scholarship and performance art of Zalika Ibaorimi for reminding me of this. ↩
- See Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “The Conversion of Sam,” in Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick (Amistad, 2020). ↩
- See Toni Morrison, review of Who Is Angela Davis?, New York Times, October 29, 1972. ↩
- Seven of Sappho’s fragments (numbered respectively), in Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (Knopf Doubleday, 2002), recollaged by my own design. ↩
- Sappho 166, in Carson, If Not, Winter. ↩
- Sappho 81, 98A. See Anna Conser, “The Musical Design of Greek Tragedy” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2021), on the musical relationship between Sappho and Euripides. ↩
- Sappho 168C. I use “varicolored,” a word coined by Zora Neale Hurston, in lieu of the traditional “spangled” or “variegated.” ↩
- From Billie Holliday to Cardi B. Grounding this history, see especially Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Vintage Books, 1999). ↩
- For quilting practices, see especially Emma Amos, Faith Ringgold, and Bisa Butler. For collage aesthetic, particularly out of the Harlem Renaissance, see Rachel Farebrother, The Collage Aesthetic in the Harlem Renaissance (Routledge, 2009). ↩
- For a longer review of Shorter and spalding’s opus, see, “Iphigenia Extended: the revolutionary indigestion of Wayne Shorter & esperanza spalding’s ‘…(Iphigenia),’ ” Corona Borealis, December 12, 2021. ↩