“For when I look at you for a moment, then it is no longer possible for me to speak; my tongue has snapped, at once a subtle fire had stolen beneath my flesh, I see nothing with my eyes, my ears hum, sweat pours from me, a trembling seizes me all over, I am greener than grass, and it seems to be that I am little short of dying.” Sappho 31
Love is complex and convoluted. In the English language, love is a scant four letters packed with nuances that still seem to fall short of portraying its true intricacies. On the other hand, Classical Greek has no shortage of words that relate to love and affection, all of which are distinct in their meanings and usage. Erôs is the Ancient Greek word that signifies passionate sexual attraction, while the love of parents for their children is denoted by the term storgê. Agapê represents fondness or likeness, and can sometimes be translated as brotherly love. Philia is most often translated as “friendship,” and is the most widely used word for general loving emotions. It seems foolish, by contrast, that the English language attempts to use one word to encompass such a wide scope of feelings. With such diversity of terms, , the Ancient Greeks seem to have a deeper understanding of what love is than we might today –– reflecting on their works can show us a perspective about love unburdened by the reductive rose-colored glasses our modern society sports.
Despite the litany of words used for it, the Ancient Greeks constantly regarded love, of any type, as an antagonist. However, it runs deeper than just portrayal as a villain; love was viewed as an affliction, a disease of the mind and body. Sappho, one of the most widely-celebrated lyrical poets of Ancient Greece, wrote one of her most famous poems about her experience falling in love with a woman. While fragments of the poem have been lost since 6th Century BCE, it continues to be highly regarded. She writes:
For when I look at you for a moment, then it is no longer possible for me to speak; my tongue has snapped, at once a subtle fire had stolen beneath my flesh, I see nothing with my eyes, my ears hum, sweat pours from me, a trembling seizes me all over, I am greener than grass, and it seems to be that I am little short of dying.
Out of context, it would seem obvious that this poem is about an illness. The poet is plagued by a myriad of physical symptoms –– chills, a green complexion, sudden blindness, and buzzing in the ears would all be cause for a frantic call to the doctor. And yet, for Sappho, who experiences these symptoms each time she sees the woman she loves, it’s simply recounted as a normal occurrence.
In the 3rd century BCE, Apollonius of Rhodes wrote an epic entitled “Argonautica”, which details a complex story of cunning wit, betrayal, and—of course—love. Medea, a princess, is made to fall in love with a man named Jason, with one well-aimed arrow from Eros, the Ancient Greek equivalent of the entity we now know of as Cupid ––“[Eros] strung his bow, as selected from his quiver a new arrow destined to bring much grief…Eros darted back out of the high-roofed palace with a mocking laugh, but his arrow burned deep in the girl’s heart like a flame”. It is eerily macabre that we have rebranded this image of Cupid in the contemporary lexicon, portraying him as an innocent and whimsical cherub, while in this story he is consciously making a woman fall in love with a man who will go on to treat her terribly. As a society, we plaster his likeness on cards, balloons, and chocolates; we celebrate his quiver of arrows that bind people together, willingly or not. While this early version of love was used as a weapon, we choose to celebrate and idolize it.
Sixteen centuries later, the ideas of the Ancient Greeks maintain their prevalence. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147, “My love is a fever longing still,” details his inner monologue as he contemplates his tangled emotions surrounding the newfound object of his affections. The fourteen lines are filled with pointed and intense word choices summoning a clear picture of illness, –– , “My reason, the physician to my love, Angry that his prescriptions are not kept, Hath left me”. The conflict between “love” and “reason” is severe. The personification of these two concepts, as physician versus disease, bring us right to the core of Shakespeare’s internal conflict. In this scenario, reason chooses to consciously leave the speaker, because his “prescriptions” are being ignored. Isn’t that how it goes? Our reason—our belabored voice of common sense—may tell us one thing, and yet we choose to be swept away by love all the same, thus making an enemy of the only entity that can save us from the ailments love brings.
In more contemporary works, love continues to be portrayed as a debilitating disease, albeit the vitriol of this characterization is diluted by our society’s idolization of romantic love. In the original “The Little Mermaid,” written in 1837, a young mermaid makes a series of radical decisions that indelibly alter the course of her life. After becoming enamored with a young prince, the girl becomes obsessed with the idea of living among humans, with two legs and an “immortal soul”. She makes a deal with a sea witch to get a pair of legs, despite the excruciating pain this transformation will cause, in exchange for everything she held dear –– her life under the sea, her family, her tongue, and her precious voice, her prized possession, are all surrendered in the name of devotion. The only stipulation is that the teenage prince must reciprocate her love, or she will perish, and unfortunately, he fails to return the sentiments. In an effort to save her life, the other mermaids make another deal with the conniving sea witch to forge a weapon, with which she can save her own life by killing the prince. When faced with a choice between returning to family, and facing her inevitable death, she chooses to walk into the sea. Reason fell to love’s sword.. In spite of the boy’s indifference, as she stood above him sleeping with his betrothed, she could not bring herself to enact harm against him. From an outsider’s perspective, free from the falsehoods of love, the young girl had ample reason to harbor a grudge against the prince ––s he sacrificed everything she loved for the possibility of love, only to be rebuffed as hiss “Dear little foundling.” And still, she chose to die rather than hurt him. Her behavior can only be described in the words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147 yet again:“Past cure I am, now reason is past care, And frantic-mad with evermore unrest; My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are, At random from the truth vainly expressed”.
This exploration of love poses the question: Why? Why do we continue to ache for love? Why do we step into the battlefield of reason and love, while knowing the odds are not in our favor? How is it that the effects of heartbreak and the messiness of love are well documented, and yet the cautionary tales fail to keep us from repeating the cycle? Far more sensible would be to shy away from love, to protect ourselves from this unrelenting ailment. Nevertheless, most seem to invite it into their lives. Could it be that love is actually worth it? That the aches, the pains, and the trembling pale in comparison to the elation that love brings? After ten lines detailing the physical symptoms that have arisen as a result of this newfound affection, the recovered portion of Sappho’s poem ends with “But all can be endured…” before the remaining stanzas are lost. Perhaps the answer will always be unclear. Love seems to be a force that we cannot explain, predict, or conquer, not in any substantial way. Above all else, perhaps we have simply chosen to accept that sometimes the love is short-lived, but sometimes it is not. It can be beautiful, ugly, horrific, and remarkable, all at once or in stages that bleed together. The cycles will continue; the joys of love will continue to intersect with its tribulations, just as they have for over two-thousand years. Based on the patterns of human behavior, it seems as though the ancient proverb rings true: It is better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all.
Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” Short Stories and Classic Literature. Accessed September 10, 2022. https://americanliterature.com/author/hans-christian-andersen/short-story/the-little-mermaid.
Konstan, David. The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.
Rodas, Apolonio de, and Richard Lawrence Hunter. Jason and the Golden Fleece: (the Argonautica). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Sanders, Ed, Chiara Thumiger, Christopher Carey, and N. J. Lowe. Erôs in Ancient Greece. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 147: My Love Is as a Fever, Longing Still…” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed September 14, 2022. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56227/sonnet-147-my-love-is-as-a-fever-longing-still.