THE LITERARY WORK
Lyric love poems, set mostly on the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece, around the seventh century bce; written during the seventh century bce, translated into English around the sixteenth century,
A woman reflects upon the nature of love and passion, most notably in her relationships with other women and young girls.
Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos, Greece, around 630 bce, but little else about the poet’s life is certain. Centuries after her death, writers generated biographies about her life, but these were based more on legend and speculation than on fact. The biographies claim that Sappho had several brothers, and also that she was married. However, only a brother and possibly a daughter, named Kleis, figure in her poems. Scholars place Sappho’s death around 570 bce. In her 60-year lifespan, she produced some remarkable lyric poetry, mostly for solo performance. It is unclear when Sappho began to compose her poems, most of which dealt with her love for other women. She also wrote a number of wedding songs, hymns to deities, and poems expressing personal concerns about, for ex-ample, the safety of her brother. At one time there apparently existed nine books (scrolls) of Sappho’s poetry in Alexandria, Egypt, but these have been lost. Until the 1890s Sappho’s extant work consisted of one complete poem (cited in full by the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus), one long fragment, and perhaps a hundred shorter fragments. Since then, archaeologists have recovered more fragments of varying length on scraps of papyrus and potsherds. Though few of her lyrics survive in complete form today, their candor, passion, and artistry inspired Plato to identify Sappho with the nine muses (goddesses of literature, music, dance, and the intellectual pursuits). The fragments that remain have given rise to endless speculation about her life, her art, and the extent to which the two intertwine.
Sappho—fact and legend
The incompleteness of Sappho’s work and the scarcity of indisputable facts about her life have presented scholars with a never-ending array of challenges. Holt N. Parker writes that “Every age creates its own Sappho…. She is recreated in each age to serve the interests of all who appropriate her, whether friend or enemy” (Parker in Greene, Re-Reading Sappho, pp. 149-150). Legends about Sappho date from antiquity. Even then she inspired works of art and literature that presented her as an almost mythical or legendary figure. Not all the portrayals were flattering; at least one of the six classical comedies titled Sappho introduced the idea that she was a prostitute. Apparently most of these plays dealt with Sappho as a sensual wanton, in constant pursuit of love and sexual gratification.
Throughout the ages, Sappho was associated with numerous male lovers, regardless of whether such relationships can be considered credible. The elegiac poet Hermesianax invented a romance between Sappho and the poet Anacreon (c. 570-485 bce), whose lifespan was actually later than hers. Another Greek writer, Diphilus, linked Sappho with the poets Archilochus and Hipponax. Arguably, one of the most famous stories concerning Sappho’s love life circulated around the fourth century bce. She was said to have fallen in love with the hand-some Phaon and thrown herself from a cliff on the island of Leucas when he did not return her affections. This tale inspired the Roman poet Ovid, who included in his Heroides (Heroines)—a series of fictional letters written by legendary women to their lovers—an epistle from Sappho to Phaon. Modern historians tend to discount this story, along with most of the accounts of Sappho’s love affairs with men. However, Sappho was described as a lover of women only in post-classical times; it may be that assumptions about a real-life marriage and the many stories that circulated about her affairs with men hindered her early readers from perceiving the homoerotic subtext in her poems.
A more persuasive, though not conclusive, representation of Sappho has depicted her as a mentor to young, unmarried girls (parthenoi, or “virgins”) from noble families on Lesbos. Proponents of this scenario argue that Sappho’s group of students and companions might have received some ritualized instruction in music, poetry, and erotic love, intended to prepare these girls for their roles as adult, married women. Philostratus, the Greek orator, and Maximus of Tyre both believed that Sappho formed the center of a literary circle. Noting the eroticism in her poetry, Maximus compared her relationships with young girls to Socrates’ relationships with young boys, in that sexual desire and intellectual influence be-came inextricably intertwined: “What Alcibiades and Charmides were to [Socrates], Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to [Sappho]” (Maximus in Reynolds, p. 73).
Although Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, a German scholar of the early twentieth century, tried to argue that Sappho only displayed interest in girls because she ran a school, later scholars and critics dismissed that theory. Holt N. Parker argues that there is no evidence to suggest that Sappho ever served as a “schoolmistress” or even as a mentor to the maidens of Lesbos; he also points out that there is no proof even in Sappho’s poems to indicate that she was older than the women of whom she wrote. Rather, Parker writes,
Sappho’s society was a group of women tied by family, class, politics, and erotic love. Like any other association, it cooperated in ritual activities, cult practice, and informal social events. Her subjects, like those of the other lyric poets, were praising her group’s friends, attacking its enemies, celebrating its loves, and offering songs for its banquets.
(Parker in Greene, Re-Reading Sappho, p. 183)
In other words, Sappho did not need to be a teacher, mentor, or even a leader to influence the women in her community: she had only to be a gifted poet.
Sappho’s work belongs to a tradition of Greek lyric poetry—so called because it was set to the music of the lyre, a harp-like stringed instrument—that flourished between 750-450 bce. Lyric poetry was short, sung rather than re-cited, personal and introspective in nature, com-posed in a variety of meters, and focused on pre-sent rather than past concerns. Examples of lyric poems included epithalamia (wedding songs), paeans (brief hymns of praise or triumph), dirges (laments for the dead), and choral song and dance.
While the Greeks may not have made this distinction, modern scholars tend to consider choral and monodic (solo) works as separate divisions of lyric poetry. Choral poetry was performed—sung and danced—by a choir, most often for public occasions, like religious festivities and rituals. Typical subjects of choral poems included marriage, death, praise of the gods, and victory in war. Choral lyrics also tended to have more elaborate metrical schemes, unique to each poem. By contrast, monodic lyrics employed simpler metrical patterns, which were repeated from song to song. In addition, the dialect tended to be based on the poet’s vernacular—or everyday—speech. Monodic lyric poetry dealt with such varied subjects as love, politics, war, wine, and even abuse of one’s enemies, often distilling the poet’s personal experiences through the medium of myth; the audience for such performances may have been correspondingly smaller and more intimate.
The brevity and intensely personal nature of Sappho’s poems suggests that she composed mostly monodic lyrics. However, a few fragments seem to indicate that she composed choral lyrics as well, including a lament for the mythical youth Adonis (Fragment 140) and a longer song about the marriage between Troy’s prince Hector and Andromache (Fragment 44). Sappho also invented for lyric poetry a new stanzaic form, consisting of 3 lines of 11 syllables followed by a fourth and final line of 5 syllables. Fittingly, this form became known as the Sapphic stanza.
Within the classical world, same-sex relationships—especially between men—were generally deemed acceptable. Significantly, the ancient Greeks did not categorize sexual behavior solely on the basis of the participants’ gender; instead, “they evaluated sexual acts according to the degree to which such acts either violated or conformed to norms of con-duct deemed appropriate to individual sexual actors by reason of their gender, age, and social status” (Hornblower and Spawforth, p. 347). It was, for example, considered normal for a socially superior male to be the active partner and the socially inferior male to be the passive partner in the sexual act. On the other hand, the opposite scenario was potentially shaming for the male of greater social rank.
Sexual relationships between Greek men, as observed in classical Athens, tended to involve an adult male and a youth who had just emerged from boyhood. The former enacted the role of lover, the source of desire; the latter, the role of beloved, the object of desire. Again, the beloved remained the passive recipient of his lover’s attentions. It was important not to seem too wel-coming during the sexual act, lest the beloved be identified as unmanly.
While examples of male homosexuality were widely documented, evidence for sexual relations between women remains sparse in antique sources. Around the first century ce, the Roman historian Plutarch claimed that in Sparta older women and young, unmarried girls shared friendships that were both sexual and educational, paralleling those
THE WORSHIP OF APHRODITE
Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, figures heavily in Sappho’s poetry. She was born, according to one legend, from the severed genitals of Uranus; in another version, she was the daughter of the king god Zeus and Dione (a minor goddess). Emerging fully formed from the sea, Aphrodite was wafted to Cyprus, which became her island home. The ancient Greeks associated her with erotic passion, seductive charm, fertility, and deception. While there were cults dedicated to Aphrodite throughout Greece, she was primarily worshipped by women, as a woman’s goddess. It has been suggested that Aphrodite became a strong presence on Lesbos, Sappho’s homeland. Many of Sappho’s songs mention the goddess, often calling on her to aid the poet in matters of the heart. In Sappho’s only complete lyric, she exhorts Aphrodite to help her win the affections of an unresponsive girl; in a shorter fragment, Sappho laments, “Sweet mother, [can no longer work the loom. / Slender Aphrodite has made me fall in Love with a boy” (Sappho, Poems and Fragments, Fragment 36).
observed between men and boys. However, most men appear to have been uncomfortable with the very idea of sexual relations between women, as if they deemed it unnatural. A passage in Artemidorus’ On the Interpretation of Dreams (c. second century ce) reflects this squeamishness, predicting dire results from the sexual act between women, even if it occurs only in dreams. If in a dream, the work predicts, a woman is the passive sexual partner of another woman, “she will be divorced from her husband or become a widow” (Artemidorus in Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 176).
In any case, scholars maintain that Sappho’s poems provide evidence of homoerotic desire among women. Some fragments even suggest that the sexual dynamic between females might not be vastly different from that existing between males. In one poem, Sappho seems to depict herself as the older, more dominant lover of a much younger girl: “I loved you once, Atthis, long ago. / You seemed like a child to me, little and graceless” (Poems, Fragment 49). In another, she recalls a tearful parting between herself and one of her favored companions: “Truly I wish I were dead./She was weeping when she left
THE ISLAND OF LESBOS
Located near Asia Minor, Lesbos was the third largest Aegean island. Throughout antiquity, Lesbos was usually divided into five competing poleis (states): Mytilene, Methymna, Pyrrha, Antissa, and Eresus. Sappho herself is said to have come from Mytilene. Historian J. J. Winkler writes that little is known about the society and culture of classical Lesbos beyond a few general facts and rumors: “a culture of some luxury, at least for the wealthy; aristocratic families fighting each other for power; the typical sixth-century emergence of tyrannies (Myrsilos) and mediating law givers (Pittakos)” (Winkler in McClure, pp. 40-41). During Sappho’s lifetime, Lesbos appears to have been a vulnerable territory, continually threatened by the superior military capabilities of the province of Lydia (now part of mainland Turkey), Lesbos’ reputation as a place known for sensuality and varied sexual practices appears to date from at least the fifth century bce the Greek verb “lesbi[a]zein”—to act like one from Lesbos—denoted fellatio (oral sex) performed upon men by women (Hallett in Greene, Reading Sappfto, p, 129). Moreover, the Roman poets Catullus (c 84-54 bce) and Martial (c. 36-101 ce) wrote of women called “Lesbia,” who were highly skilled in the sensual arts.
me, / and said many things to me, and said this: / ‘How much we have suffered, Sappho. / Truly, I don’t want to leave you’” (Poems, Fragment 11).
Sappho’s poetry perhaps reflects a wider phenomenon. The society of Lesbos, her birthplace, may have encouraged sexual freedom among its inhabitants, male and female. Historians have noted that, “in Greek literature generally, references to the women of Lesbos connoted unusually intense eroticism, both homosexual and heterosexual. Anacreon, writing in the generation after Sappho, complained that the girl from Lesbos whom he desired “gapes after some other woman” (Pomeroy, p. 54). Thus, it was from the island of Lesbos that “lesbianism,” the nineteenth-century term for female homosexuality, was derived.
Sappho’s lyrics include epithalamia (marriage songs), religious hymns, and even a few choral compositions. Like her contemporaries, Sappho draws heavily upon Greek myths and legends. Her hymns are addressed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Hera, the goddess of heaven; her choral fragments refer to the death of Aphrodite’s mortal lover, Adonis, and the marriage of Hector, the Trojan hero most familiar to audiences from Homer’s Iliad (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). However, Sappho writes mainly about erotic love, especially between women. She herself is a prominent figure in her poems, expressing longing and desire for her female companions, whom she addresses by such names as Atthis and Anactoria. (The Lumbardo translation imposes a new order on the fragments; the original fragment number, if different, follows in parentheses.)
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles,
I beg you,
do not crush my spirit with anguish, Lady,
but come to me now, if ever before
you heard my voice in the distance
and leaving your father’s golden house
drove your chariot pulled by sparrows
swift and beautiful
over the black earth, their wings a blur
as they streaked down from heaven
across the bright sky—
and then you were with me, a smile
playing about your immortal lips
as you asked,
what is it this time?
why are you calling again?
and asked what my heart in its lovesick
most wanted to happen:
should I persuade to love you?
Who is wronging you Sappho?
She may run now, but she’ll be chasing soon.
She may spurn gifts, but soon she’ll be giving.
She may not love now, but soon she will,
willing or not.”
Come to me again now, release me
from my agony, fulfill all
that my heart desires, and fight for me,
fight at my side,
In the preceding poem, believed to be her only complete lyric, Sappho appeals to Aphrodite to grant her heart’s desire. The goddess replies to the poet’s passionate supplication with an amused query that may suggest familiarity with Sappho’s affairs: “Whom now / should 1 persuade to love you?” It is subsequently revealed that Sappho loves a woman who does not return her affections, but Aphrodite assures her that the object of her desire “may run now, but she’ll be chasing soon…. / She may not love now, but soon she will, / willing or not.” The goddess’s supreme confidence in her power to make even the most reluctant fall in love contrasts sharply with Sappho’s longing and uncertainty as she again exhorts Aphrodite to “fight at my side, Goddess.”
Fragment 20 (originally numbered 31)
Look at him, just like a god,
the man sitting across from you,
whoever he is,
listening to your
close, sweet voice,
your irresistible laughter
And O yes,
it sets my heart racing—
one glance at you
and I can’t get the words out,
my voice cracks
a thin flame runs under my skin,
my eyes go blind
my ears ring
a cold sweat pours down my body,
I tremble all over,
turn paler than grass
Look at me
just a shade from dead
But I must bear it, since a poor
The poem trails off here, remaining an incomplete fragment. The Greek critic Longinus quoted it at length in the first century ce as an example of “love’s madness” (Longinus in Reynolds, p. 21). Right away the poem presents a tableau of thwarted erotic desire. Yearning after an unattainable woman and envying the man who claims the woman’s attention instead, Sappho experiences the pains of unrequited love: “a thin flame runs under my skin, / my eyes go blind / my ears ring / a cold sweat pours down my body / I tremble all over” (Poems, Fragment 20). Intriguingly, her contradictory symptoms—simultaneously freezing and burning, for example—seem to anticipate the extravagance of Petrarchan love poetry that would become all the rage more than a thousand years later.
Fragment 31 (originally numbered 16)
Some say an army on horseback,
some say on foot, and some say ships
are the most beautiful things
On this black earth,
but I say
It is whatever you love.
It’s easy to show this. Just look
at Helen, beautiful herself
beyond everything human,
and she left
her perfect husband and went
sailing off to Troy
Without a thought for her child
Or her dear parents, led astray
reminding me of Anactoria
who is gone
and whose lovely walk
I would rather see
than all the chariots
and armed men in Lydia
but it cannot be
pray to share
More meditative in tone than the other two lyrics, the preceding fragment offers insight on how love confers beauty upon the beloved. Citing the myth of Helen of Troy, the woman to whom classical legend attributes the cause of the Trojan War, as an example of the importance of pursuing one’s desires, Sappho reveals how this divinely beautiful queen abandoned husband, child, and family. She did so, says Sappho, “without a thought,” for love of Paris, a Trojan prince. Turning from the mythic to the personal realm, Sappho wistfully recalls a lost companion—”Anactoria / who is gone” and whom she would rather see “than all the chariots / and armed men in Lydia.” The fragment ends inconclusively, but Sappho apparently holds out little hope of being reunited with her beloved.
Women and relationships
Whether as goddesses, companions, mothers, and even children, women are the dominating presence in Sappho’s work. By contrast, men are often absent or only implied to exist in her poems. There are no rapturous hymns in praise of a male lover’s beauty, nor prayers in which Sappho urges
POETS ON SAPPHO
The numerous references to Sappho in the works of later poets attest to the enduring quality of her literary legacy. In the following passages, three poets, born generations and countries apart, pay tribute to her art, Nossis of Locri, writing around the fourth century BCE, boldly claims her place alongside Sappho as “one dear to the Muses” The nineteenth-century British poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) acknowledges Sappho’s gifts even as he mischievously includes her among classical authors considered immoral by modern readers. And the American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925) reflects upon Sappho’s place within the relatively small community of women poets.
If, stranger, you sail to Mytilene of the lovely dances
to find inspiration in the flower of Sappho’s graces
tell them there that Locri has borne one dear to the Muses and to her;
and know that my name is Nossis, and then go.
(Nossis in Reynolds, p, 70)
Ovid’s a rake, as half his verses show him,
Anacreon’s morals are a still worse sample,
Catullus scarcely had a decent poem,
I don’t think Sappho’s Ode a good example,
Although Longinus tells us there is no hymn
Where the sublime soars forth on wings more ample.
(Byron in Reynolds, p, 230)
Taking us by and large, we’re a queer lot
We women who write poetry. And when you think
How few of us there’ve been, its queerer still…
There’s Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho,
I know a single slender thing about her:
That, loving, she was like a burning birch-tree
All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote
Like the same fire caught up to Heaven. and held there,
A frozen blaze before it broke and fell…
And she is Sapho —Sapho —not Miss or Mrs,
A leaping fire we call so for convenience…
(Lowell in Reynolds, p. 313)
Aphrodite to help her win a man’s heart. Indeed, in the famous Fragment 20 (or, originally, 31), quoted above, the speaker describes the man as her romantic rival for a girl’s affection; he is not enviable in himself but because he enjoys the beloved’s company. Men are presented more favorably in Sappho’s epithalamia (marriage-songs)—“To what shall I compare you, dear bridegroom? / I shall compare you to a slender sapling” (Poems, Fragment 44). In Fragment 57, Sappho prays for her brother’s safe return.
Nonetheless, the interest and enthusiasm in Sappho’s poems are directed mainly toward women. Besides invocations to Aphrodite (worshipped mainly as a women’s goddess), Sappho also reveals love for her daughter, Kleis, and a wide range of emotions concerning her female companions. Toward the absent Anactoria, mentioned in Fragment 31 (or, originally, 16), she expresses wistful longing; toward At this, who has abandoned her for another, she expresses reproach: “Atthis / you have come to hate the very thought of me, / And you run off to Andromeda” (Poems, Fragment 59). In another lyric, she reveals her delight in feminine beauty: “for when I look at you face to face / not even Hermione can compare, / and it is no slight to liken you / to golden Helen” (Poems, Fragment 33).
Unsurprisingly, Sappho’s emphasis on women has fueled much of the debate over her sexuality. Even if the poems are not read bio-graphically, though, one can argue that in antiquity relationships between women, whether romantic or platonic, could have deep emotional significance. Within classical society, the sexes were often separated, the men involved in public life, the women confined to the domestic sphere. Women who occupied the same household or lived in close proximity could develop solid friendships. Moreover, religious rituals and ceremonies in which only women were allowed to participate could also strengthen the bonds.
Additional evidence of female friendship and love can be found in the few examples of women’s writing to survive antiquity. Besides Sappho’s poetry, there was that of Erinna of Telos (c. 353 bce), whose poem, The Distaff, laments the loss of her girlhood friend, Baucis, first to marriage, then to death: “Unhappy Baucis, these are my laments as I cry for you deeply, / these are your footprints resting in my heart, dear girl, / still warm, but what we once loved is now al-ready ashes” (Erinna in Plant, p. 50). A stone tablet placed upon the grave of Biote, an Athenian woman who died in the late fifth century bce, records a similar message of love and grief: “Because of your true and sweet friendship, your companion Euthylla placed this tablet on your grave, Biote, for she keeps your memory with her tears, and weeps for your lost youth” (Euthylla in Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 170).
Sources and literary context
Sappho’s primary sources of inspiration appear to have been Greek mythology and her own life. Besides allusions to familiar legends such as the death of Adonis and the Trojan War, the poet refers several times to members of her own family. In Fragment 57, she prays for her brother’s safe return, as previously noted, while in Fragment 30 she mentions her “beautiful child, graceful / as golden flowers, my precious Kleis.” Sappho’s chosen medium—monodic lyric poetry—is generally intimate and subjective. She draws on personal relationships, so many of the poet’s readers study her works within the context of her firsthand experiences.
Sappho’s poems evoke frequent comparison with those of her contemporaries Alcman (630 bce) and Alcaeus (c. 620 bce), who were also lyric poets. Alcaeus was from Lesbos as well; he and Sappho employed many of the same themes—love, passion, nature, and myth—and composed their works in the same Aeolic dialect. Sappho’s lyrics are held to be distinctive because of their frankness, sensuality, and emotionalism, which exerted a powerful influence on later generations of poets who chose to write about love. Women writers of the Hellenistic Age (c. 336 bce-14 ce) who may have been inspired by Sappho’s work included Erinna, Moero, Anyte, and Nossis.
Perhaps the earliest surviving commentary on Sappho’s poetry is the following epigram attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-348 bce): “Some say there are nine Muses … but how careless, look again, … Sappho of Lesbos is the tenth” (Plato in Reynolds, p. 70). Another Greek writer, Meleager, writing around 100 bce, described the body of Sappho’s work as “little but all roses” (Meleager in Reynolds, p. 70). Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Longinus—whose critical writings helped preserve Fragments 1 and 31, respectively—rendered favorable judgments as well. In On Literary Com-position (c. 30 bce), Dionysius praised Sappho’s language, comparing her sentences to “the on-flow of a never-resting stream” (Dionysius in Powell, p. 42). Longinus expressed similar admiration for the poet’s insight into emotional states in his treatise On the Sublime:
Are you not amazed how at one and the same moment she seeks out soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, complexion as though they had all left her and were external, and how in contradiction she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is afraid and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not one single emotion but a concourse of emotions? All this of course happens to people in love….
(Longinus in Reynolds, p. 21)
More than 500 years after her death, Sappho’s songs were still being performed, and women of the time were expected to be able to sing them. Later admirers of her work included the Roman poets Catullus, Horace, and Ovid.
Around the ninth century ce, Sappho’s poetry virtually disappeared from the scene, leading some historians to speculate that zealous early Christians may have burned the papyrus scrolls containing her works. Fragments of her poems began to resurface—again, most often quoted in the works of later authors—during the European Renaissance, especially after the recently invented printing press published editions of Dionysius’ On Literary Composition and Longinus’ On the Sublime. Over the centuries that followed, Sappho and her work attracted new generations of admirers, many as fascinated with the poet herself as with her songs. At various times Sappho has been represented as a learned lady, a seductive wanton, a literary role model, and even a prototype of the New Woman. Nor has the incompleteness of her work hindered admiration; rather, it has fostered a lasting fascination. Summing up the enduring appeal of Sappho and her poetry, Margaret Reynolds writes in The Sappho Companion that
what we have of the work and what others have made up about her life suggests different qualities, much admired since the time of the Romantics: enthusiasm, passion, commitment. … As far as we can tell from the Fragments, Sappho was a dedicated poet; a wordsmith who could craft emotion and experience. She seduces still, and is used to seduce still, in fictions both heterosexual and homosexual.
(Reynolds, p. 7)
—Pamela S. Loy
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