Sappho was an ancient Greek female poet who wrote lyrical poetry famous for its intense passion and description of love. Being born on the Isle of Lesbos she is also referred to as the first Lesbian poet.
Little is known of her actual life, though she was born around 620BC, and died approximately 50 years later.
Unfortunately, much of her poetry has been lost, although some poems have been painstakingly pieced together through surviving fragments.
Details of her life are hard to piece together as there are few reliable sources. For example, historians are unsure about whether to take her poetry as reliable autobiographical evidence.
What we do know about Sappho
Her family appear to belong to an aristocratic family on Lesbos, a large Greek island. They probably lived in Mytilene, which then was a significant city on the island. One tradition states she married a man called Cercylas, who came from the island of Andros and they had one daughter, called Cleis. In stature Sappho was said to be short and dark; she was described by her friend and fellow poet, Alcaeus as ‘violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling’
It appears that Sappho was an influential figure in the local community. Her poetry refers to the intrigue of court life and attended events, such as festivals and military parades. She appears to have attracted a group of female students who were interested in the teachings and poetry of Sappho. Sometimes this has been viewed of as a girls finishing school, with training for young girls before they get married. The presiding deity of the school was Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love and sexual desire.
Evidence from the period suggests she and her family was temporarily exiled to Sicily because of political troubles on the island of Lesbos.
The sexuality of Sappho
Sappho is sometimes referred to as a lesbian. The word lesbian is actually derived from her place of birth – lesbos. However, there is no hard evidence of her sexuality. Her poems express great passion for a variety of people – both men and women; they may have been autobiographical or not. Also, in Greek culture, there was a greater acceptance of homoeroticism, with love of the same gender considered a normal practice. It is likely Sappho’s community of young women was similar to the intensely all-male societies of Athens and Sparta. Combined with her intense poetry, it has made Sappho appear to be an early figure of lesbian literature. For example
My flesh runs with soft fire,
My eyes lose sight,
My ears hear nothing but the roar of the wind.
All is black.
Sweat streams off me,
Trembling seizes me,
The colour drains from le like grass in autumn.
I almost die.
A philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote that the friendships of Sappho were similar to those of Socrates – suggesting Sappho had a circle of like-minded friends brought together by a love of art, poetry and culture. It has been suggested, with little authority, that Sappho may have been the head of some formal academy like a school. However, it is more likely to be a less formal circle of friends.
Poetry of Sappho
The poetry of Sappho often revolves around themes of love and passion, and has a clarity and simplicity of language; within her poems, there is great vividness and directness. The style is often conversational – giving an impression of immediacy and action. The poems were also sung to music, meaning they needed to be lyrical in form.
“Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.”
(from Please by Paul Roche)
Her poetry also involved retellings of famous Greek classics such as:
“Some an army of horsemen, some an army on foot
and some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest sight
on this dark earth; but I say it is what-
ever you desire:
and it it possible to make this perfectly clear
to all; for the woman who far surpassed all others
in her beauty, Helen, left her husband —
the best of all men —
behind and sailed far away to Troy; she did not spare
a single thought for her child nor for her dear parents
but [the goddess of love] led her astray
reminds me now of Anactoria
although far away,
–Translated by Josephine Balmer
Her poems were written in Aeolic Greek dialect; as this dialect was quite rare, it explains why her poems became increasingly lost as fewer people were able to translate them. The difficulties of the Aeolic Greek metre, also means there is considerable variance in English translations.
However, even in the classical period, her fame was well-known. Plato referred to her as the tenth muse. During the medieval period, her reputation for sensuality and homoeroticism meant her works became less well-known, but in the twentieth century there has been a resurgence of interest in her work. This resurgence was helped by the discovery in 1896 of many ancient texts in a rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus – an ancient site, that saw the rediscovery of many poems and fragments of the works of Sappho.
Death of Sappho
One legend about the death of Sappho is that she ended her life by throwing herself off the Leucadian Rock out of love for a young sailor, called Phaon.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Sappho”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net Published 3 Sep 2012. Last updated 15 February 2020.
- Sappho poems translated by Mary Barnard at Amazon
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