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Posted by: Dolphin (
Date: April 03, 2004 07:34AM

What does the term "red- fingered moon" mean? In the poem "To Atthis", Sappho writes "Now she sings among Lydian women as when the red-fingered moom rises and after sunset, erasing stars around her" Any ideas? Thanks

Re: Sappho
Posted by: Hugh Clary (12.73.175.---)
Date: April 03, 2004 03:40PM

Yes, Atthis, you may be sure
Even in Sardis
Anactoria will think often of us

of the life we shared here, when you seemed
the Goddess incarnate
to her and your singing pleased her best

Now among Lydian women she in her
turn stands first as the red-
fingered moon rising at sunset takes

precedence over stars around her;
her light spreads equally
on the salt sea and fields thick with bloom

Delicious dew purs down to freshen
roses, delicate thyme
and blossoming sweet clover; she wanders

aimlessly, thinking of gentle
Atthis, her heart hanging
heavy with longing in her little breast

She shouts aloud, Come! we know it;
thousand-eared night repeats that cry
across the sea shining between us

tr. Barnard

It sounds like the rising moon blots out the nearby stars, and the light emanating from the sun's reflection looks something like fingers, reaching down to the earth.

Re: Sappho
Posted by: -Les- (
Date: April 03, 2004 03:43PM

The color "red" probably refers to that color especially over ocean waters at sunset when the entire sky may be crimson.


Re: Sappho
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: April 05, 2004 01:30PM

I just read some Homer, and he refers to "the rosy-fingered dawn" over and over. I don't recall any reference to a red MOON-rise, but maybe that's just the Greek Way of talking about such things.

Wm. Harris of Middlebury College also thinks that "rosy fingered" (the Campbell translation of the phrase) refers to the color of the moonrise over the Mediterranean. Here's what else he says about that line:

"I thought of shy little ladies withdrawing themselves into wallflowery non-identity, fluttering their fans in embarrassment, while the great shining lady of the party stood in the middle, all eyes on her and nobody else seen. Am I reading too much into a simple text? What gives me the clue is the "back...back they hide..." which is of persons, a personal remark as if there was an act of will or volition. This is human not celestial, this delicacy of mind to retreat and hide.

"But the ring around the moon is there too, as the stars are hidden. Being hidden is different from "hiding themselves", which is why I take the whole figure to be of shy girls facing a bold beauty.

"This view is perhaps supported by another poem of Sappho, # 96 Campbell, with this:

  ...and she outshines the Ladies of Lydia,
  as the rose fingered moon at sunset ,
  surpassing all the stars...

"It is a different rose-red moon over Mediterranean waters at sunset, but the same outshining is here as one girl outshines all others. My point is that we have here infinite delicacy of the scene as the ladies withdraw in the gleam of the moon, and also another delicacy in that we have to reach for the other side of the figure to get what Sappho was probably really trying to say: One beauty among many nice girls!"


Re: Sappho
Posted by: IanB (
Date: April 10, 2004 09:52AM

Surely there’s no mystery about a reference to a red moon. The full moon when it first appears is coloured by whatever pollution is lying low on the horizon. It can have a rich orange colour like a glass of Chateau Yquem, or, when there’s smoke or desert dust about, a startlingly red colour. As it rises higher and becomes brighter and whiter, it outshines all the nearby stars, making them harder to see. As with Homer's dawn, the additional reference to fingers is surely no more than a conventional poetic descriptive to attribute animation to a colourful natural phenomenon.

An American poem referring to a red moon is Carl Sandburg’s ‘Jazz Fantasia’:

Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes, sob on the long cool winding saxophones. Go to it, O jazzmen.

Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go hushahusha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome tree-tops, moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop, bang-bang! you jazzmen, bang altogether drums, traps, banjoes, horns, tin cans—make two people fight on the top of a stairway and scratch each other’s eyes in a clinch tumbling down the stairs.

Can the rough stuff … now a Mississippi steamboat pushes up the night river with a hoo-hoo-hoo-oo … and the green lanterns calling to the high soft stars … a red moon rides on the humps of the low river hills … go to it, O jazzmen.

[I took this from the Internet and am unsure whether there should be more line breaks; but Sandburg often wrote poems in paragraphs rather than lines.]

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