The Dark Earth: Hittite Influences on Sapphic poetry 

Sappho of Lesbos was a renowned poet and songstress who lived at the beginning of the sixth century BCE and has been immortalized across centuries and continents as each new generation of scholars strive to find meaning in her work. It is arguable that she is the most well-known and well-studied female author of all time, and while her contributions to literature and history are undoubtedly great, the historical complexities of the language of these contributions are murky at best. 

While much attention has been directed toward the effect that Sappho had on the Western world, I would like to take some time to focus on how the Eastern world had a strong effect on Sappho. There is no doubt that the proximity of the island of Lesbos to Anatolia had an overwhelming influence over the archaeological record. This is seen primarily in the adoption of Near Eastern architectural styles, pottery decoration, and burial practices on the Hellenic Island, which date back to centuries before Sappho was born. A long history of shared language, song, and storytelling on Lesbos meant that, by the time of Sappho, ancient Hittite poetry and prayer was considered a part of the Greek tradition, as much as Anatolian. Therefore, Lesbos inhabited a unique position within the heart of the Mediterranean world – culturally Anatolian, but politically loyal to the Greek world. At the centre of this phenomenon is the songstress Sappho, whose incorporation of Hittite prayer motifs – whether she knew of the connection or not – retained the ancient prayer pattern for centuries to come, even though the original prayers did not survive intact, nor are they as meticulously studied.  

Several of Sappho’s literary constructions can be traced directly to Hittite prayer-forms. Some of the more obvious examples include her adoption of the tripartite structure of praying which include the arkuwarmugawar, and walliyatar – or, in Latin, argumentum, invocation, and preces. This convention (to self-justify sins before invocation and exhalation) that seem to originate in the reign of Mursili II, ruler of the Hittites c. 1321–1295 BCE are present in Sappho’s invocations of Aphrodite, almost copied word for word. Another of these adopted parallels is the process of losing and subsequently recalling a god. This construction typically involved the Hittite storm-god within Anatolian prayer, and again was directed toward Aphrodite in Sappho’s incantations. Finally, Sappho’s use of the Greek ‘ἐν δὲ’ (therein, within) was coined first in the Homeric epics, but is a direct appropriation of the earlier Hittite ‘an da’ (therein, within). Both phrases were used, in their own respective languages, to describe divine subjects of a sacred space. In the case of Sappho Fragment 2, they served to illustrate the wonders within Aphrodite’s grove, and in the case of the Hittites, ‘an da’ was employed in order to discuss the divine symbols that reside within Telipinu’s sacred hunting bag.  

The most crucial parallel between Sapphic poetry and Hittite prayers is the frequent and distinct use of the words ‘dark earth’ (danku tekan or γᾶς μελαινάς). These fateful words appeared first in the Hittite prayer sequence and hold a plethora of potential meanings. Sappho interpreted the phrase in the most obvious of the several possibilities, which suggests that her usage of ‘dark earth’ was a residual convention of cultural significance that she did not fully understand – even though the phrase was completely integrated into her vocabulary. The roots of the ‘dark earth’ are obscure, complex, and highly intriguing, even if Sappho did not know the origins of her verbiage.  

The dark earth is first mentioned in the Hittite words during the process of recalling a lost god to his worshippers, exemplified in CTH 386.1-3:  

“Come, O Storm-god of Nerik, from the east and west! From Heaven … or if you are on the dark earth with Ereshkigal, your mother.”  

In this circumstance, the use of the phrase seems to refer to a physical location in some relatively distant area – unreachable by the worshippers, though still a tangible, real place. Sappho echoed this usage of the phrase in Fragment 1, appealing to Aphrodite to return to her:  

‘Leaving your father’s golden house, yoking your chariot, and beautiful swift sparrows brought you, beating quick wings over the dark earth down from the sky …’ 

and again, in Fragment 16:  

‘Some say a host of cavalry, others [a host] of infantry, and others [a host of] ships is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth, but I say it is what/whoever a person loves.’ 

Sappho adapted this locative usage of ‘dark earth’ to refer to an adjacent, nearby place, rather than an unknown location, as did the Hittite prayer convention. 

The second usage of ‘dark earth’ within Hittite texts is in conjunction with the underworld, though the full extent of this association is not obvious. In CTH 382, for example: ‘may the deities of the netherworld (Annunaki) look for them on the dark earth.’ And again, in the song of Ullikummi:  

‘My mind within me has become sad, for with my eyes I have seen the dead in the dark earth, and they are standing like dusty … ones.’ 

This particular use is not adopted into any of the surviving Sapphic texts, which contributes to the theory that she did not understand the full weight of the words she employed. No surviving evidence exists to suggest that the Greek language ever used a variation of ‘dark earth’ to refer to the underworld. Expanding on the underworld theory, the Hittite Telipinu Myth notably ties the phrase to a implicitly detailed location:  

‘Down in the dark earth stand bronze vats. Their lids are of lead. Their latches are of iron. What goes into them doesn’t come up again; it perishes therein.’ 

At the forefront of these repetitive lines is the different types of metal containers, with various kinds of metal attachments. Interestingly, the Hittite word for silver is ‘Hattu(s)’, the same name of their capital city Hattusa, which is translated literally as the city of silver. The Hittites were known for their exportation of fine silver products in the Late Bronze Age, and rulers as far away as Egypt would boast of their exploits in the ‘silver mountains’ – the mountain range running alongside and through the Hittite Empire. Not only was silver one of the primary commodities produced during this time, but it served a purificatory function within Hittite ritual culture, in tandem with the prayer texts presented here. A connection, then, between metallurgy and the underworld or afterlife must have been present within Hittite society as a result of the physical association of death and precious metals and resources. Perhaps the importance placed upon silver as part of a purification rite was connected to the presence of death within the same vicinity; whether to purify the apparent evils or uncleanliness of death, or in relation to the reverence held for those who had died, and a feeling of closeness and continued honor for loved ones who had passed on. It is evident that these very specific and often obscure cultural values, notions, and traditions did not survive in the language transfer of ‘dark earth’ from Hittite to Aeolic Greek. While Sappho used the words, showing a solid link between the poetess and the long literary history of this phrase, the way in which she chose to employ the words suggests a surface-level understanding, rather like a Google Translate level of comprehension, which traces the last vestiges of this long-standing tradition surrounding the dark earth.  

Written by Etta Coleman


Bachvarova, M. R. (2013) “An Anatolian (Hattic) myth of Illuyanka,” “Hurro-Hittite narrative song: Kumarbi Cycle,” “The Hurro-Hittite Song of Release (Destruction of the City of Ebla),” “Telipinu: An Anatolian myth about a departed god,” in Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation, ed. C. López-Ruiz. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.135-9, 139-63, 290-9, 451-8.  

Bachvarova, M. R. (2016) From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge.  

Campbell, D. A. Greek Lyric Volume I: Sappho and Alcaeus. Vol. I. Loeb Classical Library 142. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.  

Collins, B. J., M. R. Bachvarova, I. Rutherford, and I. Singer. (2008) “Purple-Dyers in Lazpa.” In Anatolian Interfaces: Hittites, Greeks, and Their Neighbours: Proceedings of an International Conference on Cross-Cultural Interaction, September 17-19, 2004, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, 21–44. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books.  

Coleman, A. Bergetta. (2021) Literary Continuity, Disruption, and Adaptation Between East and West: Anatolian Influences on Sapphic Poetry. Salem, Oregon: Willamette University Press. 

Hoffner, H. A. (1990) Hittite Myths. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.  

Singer, I. (2002) Hittite Prayers. Leiden: Brill.  

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