Who was Sappho? His life, his legacy and more

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Who was Sappho? Although very little is known about the lyrical poetess of ancient Greece, some of our most common language about gay women comes directly from her, and we generally remain fascinated by her 26 centuries after she lived and died on the Greek island of Lesbos. If you’ve ever used the word lesbian — or the word sapphic — or enjoyed a song or poem, Sappho and her deep influences have touched you. Read on to find out a bit more about who Sappho was.

Poetry in ancient Greece was, like most forms of storytelling in the pre-modern world, generally enjoyed in a different way, which would probably seem unfamiliar today and could indeed be considered more of a performance. Lyric poetry, like the poems written by Sappho, was intended to be sung with lyre accompaniment. Like the best hip-hop, writing lyrics (poems) that matched both rhyme and meter — or, more accurately, syllable pattern — was a skill that likely required a healthy mix of talent and practice.

If, dear reader, you now imagine ancient Greece as something between a poetic slam and a rap battle, you are welcome and my job here is done. (But read on to learn more about Sappho.)

Lesbian: a Latinized version of Lesbios, Greek for or relating to the island of Lesbos. In English, lesbian became a term for women who love women in the late 19th century, probably some time after 1869, when the profession of “sexology”, the pseudo-scientific study of sex that initially labeled homosexuality of “inversion”, was invented. (Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia by Bonnie Zimmerman). However, the French used sapphism and lesbian as early as 1838 and 1867, respectively, to mean the same thing. It is only more recently that lesbians have been used to refer to women who love women exclusively.

The island of Lesvos lies in the northern Aegean Sea, a few kilometers from the coast of modern Turkey. The third largest island in the Aegean, Lesvos is around 665 square miles and was also the home of contemporary Alkaios of Sappho, another poet.

Sappho was born around the 7th century BCE, most likely in the town of Eresos (now Skala Eressou) on the southwest coast of Lesbos. She was renowned in ancient Greece, most likely beginning in her lifetime and certainly extending to mentions a century and more later by Plato, who called her “the tenth muse” and Aristotle, who said, “All the world honors sages…the Mytilineans honored Sappho even though she was a woman.(Is it too late to undo Aristotle?)

Sappho’s poetry was lost in the early Christian period, and for several centuries all we had of it were the words of these men plus a fictional Sappho in Ovid. Metamorphoses, along with two of his poems and a few fragments that had made their way to Renaissance Europe via other (male) works. In 16th and 17th century France and England, efforts were made to preserve and translate these works.

In 1896 Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, who studied the new discipline of archeology at Oxford, came to the Egyptian city of el-Behmesa, once known as Oxyrhynchus, in search of ancient papyri . The city had been decaying since its settlement and the fall of the Roman Empire, and locals hired to help dig had low expectations. But the first document found contained words attributed to Jesus Christ, which is widely seen as a big deal. They also found a huge amount of paperwork documenting daily life, from receipts and tax records to personal letters – so many that they had to store them in cookie jars for transport. And they found a poem that was undoubtedly written by Sappho. They marveled at their luck and assumed it was a single find, but they went on to find many more fragments.

Sappho’s mother was named Cleis, and in ancient Greek tradition it is likely that Sappho was named after her grandmother; Sappho named her own daughter Cleis. His father’s name is not known, although there is much scholarly speculation about it. Ovid claimed he died as a child, possibly citing his poetry which he had access to but which has since been lost.

Women’s education largely revolved around household management skills, with the Greek word for home being oikes and the word for managing the home oikonomia, which is the root word for modern economics. Sappho is said to have acquired many skills, including spinning and weaving, but unlike many girls of the time, she also learned about literature. Her (male) biographers believe she could have attended her brothers’ classes, which is certainly possible. However, Lesvos was notable for its upper-class women enjoying more social freedoms than mainland Greek women, so perhaps she was allowed to go to school on her own.

Anyway, she became a famous poet as well as a wife.

Lyric poetry was not, like most oral traditions, necessarily written in his time, but much later. The oldest surviving fragments we have of Sappho’s poetry are on a papyrus and sherd from the 3rd century BCE, a few hundred years after she lived. In the 1st century BCE, Roman poets discovered and were influenced by his work. During the first three centuries of our era, it appeared on the coins used in Lesbos. Also around this time, most of Oxyrhynchus’ surviving fragments of his poetry—those found by Grenfell and Hunt—were written. In the 7th century, his poetry was written on parchment in Egypt. Then some 1,000 years passed before writers and scholars began to attempt to find his words (however, it is certainly possible that some effort was made at this time and is simply no longer known).

In 1894, the French writer Pierre Louys published The songs of Bilitis, erotic poetry which he claims was translated from ancient Greek found in Cyprus written on the walls of a tomb. Bilitis was his own invention, and the poems – written by Louys – were in the style of Sappho.

Natalie Barney was an American writer who, at the age of 5, met Oscar Wilde, who encouraged her mother Alice to pursue her interest in art. Barney was a lesbian, and while living in Paris as a young woman, she held literary salons. She once presented herself to the famous dancer and courtesan Liane de Pougy as a page of love sent by Sappho, and later became the subject of Pougy’s roman-a-clef. Sapphic idyll. Barney herself wrote Five short Greek dialogues under the name of Tryphé, which contains long passages on Sappho. And Barney dated Renee Vivien (Pauline Tarn), a poet who was one of the first modern translators of Sappho’s poetry.

In her diary, Virginia Woolf speculated that reviews of her book A room of one’s own would call her a sapphist for her descriptions of female friendship. Woolf’s novel Orlando features a fluid character based on her lover Vita Sackville-West.

Sappho continued to be referenced, directly and indirectly, in 20th century literature. In the 1970s, Sidney Abbot and Barbara Love wrote Sappho was right about the woman, in which they discussed the connections between feminism and lesbianism. In the second half of the century and at the beginning of the 21st century, Sappho’s work has been translated into English by writers and scholars including Mary Barnard, who focused on language rather than meter in Sapho: a new translation; Anne Carson, the Canadian poet and professor of ancient Greek, who I believe introduced the use of parentheses to denote lost fragments in Otherwise, winter; and more recently Aaron Poochigian, who translated from Greek meter into English rhyming verse, giving readers what might be the closest experience of ancient Greek lyric poetry to modern English, in Prick of love.

We still know very little about Sappho, but we can learn a lot from her poetry. From her poems we know that she was married and had a daughter, and had black hair that turned white. We also know that she was banished to Sicily for a time around 600 BCE, and although the reason is not known, it is likely that it was political. It is believed that she later returned to Lesbos, where she eventually died, probably not by suicide despite early misreadings of a poem which were later reinforced by Ovid in his fiction of her life (which was notably heterosexual) .

It’s interesting – and by that I mean it’s deeply sexist – that we know so much about the lives of men and boys in ancient Greece, but essentially can only make guesses ranging from savage to educated when it comes to women and girls (and, while non-binary people have of course always existed, even if we had records, we would most likely still have to guess because the language we use to describe gender has evolved and changed so quickly and so recently – which is a huge step forward but adds to the complexity of accurately describing the past).

One of the books I read while researching Sappho was In search of Sappho by Philippe Freeman. It’s an interesting book that lost me a bit when the author tried to piece together what a girl’s life might have been like in 7th century Greece, partly by studying the poetry of Anyte, who lived 300 years later, also on Lesbos, and whose words survived in less fragmented form. It feels a bit like using my now-defunct blog (2002-2016) to learn about what a woman’s life was like during the Revolutionary War, but maybe I’m being unfair.

On the other hand, Freeman also claimed that there was no way of knowing whether Sappho, who lived at a time when we are absolutely certain that the vast majority of women and girls made textiles, ever used a loom, because – according to him – none of his poetry mentions weaving.

Sweet mother, I don’t know how to weave –
slender Aphrodite defeated me
longing for a girl.

I guess there’s no way to tell if she liked girls.

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