(612 - 565 BC) Greece - Lesbos
Greek poet, born in either Eressos or Mytilini on the Aegean Island of Lesbos. She is reputed to have had relationships with both men and women, but her romantic preference was for women. She had a daughter called Cleis.
One of the great Greek lyrists and few known female poets of the ancient world, and the first person in the Western world known to depict romantic love was the poet Sappho. Her beautiful poetry won praise both from her contemporaries and from later generations.
Sappho was born some time between 630 and 612 BC, on the Aegean island of Lesbos off the coast of Asia Minor, actual Turkey. She is said to have been an aristocrat who married to a certain wealthy merchant named Cercolas; to have had a daughter named Cleis. But scholars became suspicious when they translated the name of her "husband" as something like "prick-boy". Her wealth afforded her with the opportunity to live her life as she chose, and she chose to spend it studying the arts on the isle of Lesbos, where she was born. She was also supposed to have hurled herself off a cliff into the sea (playing her poet's lyre all the while) out of unrequited love for some guy, but that's folklore.
In the seventh century BC, Lesbos was a cultural center and it is thought that women of the aristocracy gathered in informal societies to compose and recite poetry. Sappho spent most her time on the island, where in 580s B.C.E. she run a girls' school that taught poetry and writing. She drew lovers from both sexes, and had a child, but from her own time onward, Sappho was especially remembered for romances with her students. Today, two words synonymous with love between women - sapphism and lesbian - are derived from her name and that of her island. Her exquisite love poems to students are the earliest known lesbian writings.
She also traveled widely throughout Greece. She was exiled for a time because of political activities in her family,for supposedly plotting against the tyrant Pittacus, and she spent this time in Sicily. By this time she was known as a poet, and the residents of Syracuse were so honored by her visit that they erected a statue to her.
She started several casual societies dedicated to composing and reciting of poetry, with the female aristocracy. The one that she headed up drew many followers and attracted admirers, some of whom journeyed from abroad to hear her and her style of simple lyrics, which mainly focused on her relationships with other women.
She wrote in the Aeolian dialect, in many meters -- one of which, the Sapphic, is named for her. Sappho was called a lyrist because, as was the custom of the time, she wrote her poems to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre. Sappho composed her own music and refined the prevailing lyric meter to a point that it is now known as sapphic meter. She innovated lyric poetry both in technique and style, becoming part of a new wave of Greek lyrists who moved from writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual. She was one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally. Primarily concerned with her relations with other women, enmities as well as attractions, Sappho's lyrics are passionate and simple, vernacular rather than literary. Anactoria, Gongyla, Mnasadica: the names of some of the women she loved survive. No complete poem of hers exists today -- only fragments, the longest a mere twenty-eight lines.
Her style was sensual and melodic; primarily songs of love, yearning, and reflection. Most commonly the target of her affections was female, often one of the many women sent to her for education in the arts. She nurtured these women, wrote poems of love and adoration to them, and when they eventually left the island to be married, she composed their wedding songs. That Sappho's poetry was not condemned in her time for its homoerotic content (though it was disparaged by scholars in later centuries) suggests that perhaps love between women was not persecuted then as it has been in more recent times. Especially in the last century, Sappho has become so synonymous with woman-love that two of the most popular words to describe female homosexuality -- lesbian and sapphic have derived from her.
She was generally regarded by the ancients, though, as the greatest of the early Greek lyric poets. While she still lived, coins of Lesbos were minted with her image. Plato called her the "Tenth Muse". Upon hearing one of her songs, Solon, an Athenian ruler, lawyer, and a poet himself, asked that he be taught the song "Because I want to learn it and die." Her work greatly influenced, among others, the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid wgo greatly admired her work. Ancient writers who had access to a substantial body of her work described her in terms we would construe as lesbian, though nothing in her work that survives gives strong evidence one way or the other. How Sappho's work was published or circulated during her lifetime is unknown. What we do know is that by the third or second century B.C.--three to four hundred years after her death--what remained of her work was collected into ten books: nine of lyrical verse and one of elegiac verse.
Copies of this edition survived until the Middle Ages, but then in 1073 all known copies of Sappho's lesbian love poems are burned by ecclesiastical authorities in Costantinople and Rome. As a consequence, today we have only one twentienth of Sappho's total output, and even that exists only because of an 1897 archeological discovery. By the ninth century A.D., the only traces of Sappho's work were to be found in quotations by other writers Sappho's name -- and what she stood for -- did not so easily disappear, however. To homophobes, she was anathema. As the poem fragments clearly show, Sappho felt more than mere friendship towards other women. (The original Greek makes it clear that the object of this poem is a woman.) Ancient writers over the centuries, who had more of her work to judge from, concluded that Sappho was a lesbian. In fact, Maximus of Tyre compared her relationships with young girls to Socrates' relationships with young boys. Only a generation after her death, the Greek poet Anacreon was already imputing an origin on the island of Lesbos to women whose sexual inclinations he wished to disparage. Later scholars tried to pass off her love poems as wedding hymns containing traditional flattery of the bride ("more moist than grass"? I don't think so). Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of modern Turkey, from which we get the word lesbian. In the 18th century, we find Marie Antoinette accused of being "at the Head of a Set of Monsters call'd by each other Sapphists, who boast her example."
On the other hand, the ideal of a band of women-loving women, poetic and passionate, managed to survive as well. One of the most famous literary hoaxes of the nineteenth century was Les Chansons de Bilitis, a collection of erotic lesbian love poems by Pierre Louys which purported to be translations from the ancient Greek of one of Sappho's disciples. "This little book of ancient love," Louys wrote, "is respectfully dedicated to the young women of the future society." The work -- even after it was discovered to be a hoax -- was taken to heart by a generation of women who were just beginning to think of themselves as lesbians. Writing in 1902, Natalie Barney sang the praises of Sappho in her Cinqs Petits Dialogues grecs, and she and her lover Romaine Brooks made a pilgrimage to Lesbos in the hopes of founding a school of poetry based on sapphic models. In the 1950's American lesbians casting about for a name for their nascent organization decided to call themselves the Daughters of Bilitis in homage to Sappho's fictitious disciple. In 1972, a pioneering and immensely popular book of lesbian liberation by Sydney Abbott and Bernice Love was titled Sappho Was a Right-On Woman. Judy Grahn traces a lyric-erotic tradition directly from Sappho through such lesbian poets as Amy Lowell, H.D., Adrienne RICH and Olga Broumas. Sappho thus stands at the very dawn of an immensely long lineage, a mysterious, haunting, still resonant presence among us 2,400 years later, all but silenced and yet eloquent still. With her the history of lesbian existence made be said to begin.
Given the fame that her work has enjoyed, it is somewhat surprising to learn that only one of Sappho's poems is available in its entirety -- all of the rest exist as fragments of her original work. At one time, there were perhaps nine complete volumes of her poetry, but over the centuries, from neglect, natural disasters, and possibly some censorship by close-minded scholars, her work was lost. Late in the 19th century, however, manuscripts dating back to the eighth century AD were discovered in the Nile Valley, and some of these manuscripts proved to contained Sappho's work. Excavations that followed in ancient Egyptian refuse heaps unearthed a quantity of papyruses from the first century BC to the 10th century AD. Here, strips of papyrus -- some containing her poetry--were found in number. These strips had been used to wrap mummies, stuff sacred animals, and wrap coffins. The work to piece these together and identify them has continued into the twentieth century.
Many translations of these fragments are available today, with each of these translations offering a different approach to her work. Translating Sappho's poetry is challenging, partly because of the fragmented nature of the material. In reconstructing a poem, the translator must either trail off into oblivion periodically, or speculate on the missing pieces and take the risk (for the sake of lyric flow) of introducing elements that Sappho did not intend. Breaks in the poem can affect the intact lines, as well, robbing them of critical context. Even with the complication of fragments aside, a translator still has to decide how to translate the ancient Greek text, where to insert line breaks, how to stress each word, and any number of technical details that affect the meaning and the lyricism of the resulting poem. It makes sense, then, for those who are interested in Sappho's work (and not fluent in ancient Greek) to read multiple translations to obtain several viewpoints.
From ancient times to today, Sappho has remained an important literary and cultural figure. Her works continued to be studied and translated, new poets are inspired by her constantly, and speculation on her life remains popular in the form of fictionalized tales and ardent research. For a woman who has been dead for over two thousand years, this is quite an achievement.
If you want to read some of Sappho's poetry, please go at her page in our book Famous Homoerotic Poems.