Lesbos is the third-largest Greek island in the Aegean Sea. It is a mountainous, green, volcanic island with a temperate Mediterranean climate. Devoted in the early twenty-first century to tourism, the cultivation of olives, fishing, and the manufacture of the Greek national drink, Ouzo, the island is visited regularly by Greek island cruise ships and is often the destination of lesbian tourists from around the world. It is the birthplace and was the home of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who wrote verse that was occasionally addressed to women. The contemporary word lesbian, meaning female homosexual, comes from the name of the island—the imagined site of an ancient women's artistic and romantic culture.
Its location in the Aegean Sea has meant that Lesbos has often changed hands politically, gaining, for example, its Greek language and culture when Greeks from Thessaly migrated to the island in the late Bronze Age. The island was conquered by the Persians, was retaken by the Greeks, was a part of the Athenian confederacy, and was ruled by Macedonia, then the Romans. It was a part of the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Rome, was turned over to the Italians as that empire fell apart, and was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century. It finally returned to Greece in 1913.
These political upheavals affected the island's artistic culture. When Sappho flourished sometime between 610 and 580 bce, Lesbos was already a thriving cultural center. Its main city, Mytilene, where Sappho resided, was the site of literary creativity. According to myth, the head and lyre of the singer Orpheus are interred on Lesbos. Sappho, born to an aristocratic family in the Lesbian city of Eressos, resided primarily in Mytilene. Her wealthy background is reflected in the kinds of celebrations, court occasions, parades, and society described in her poetry as well as in her complex and elaborate language. During Sappho's youth, the government of the island was toppled, and aristocrats such as Sappho went into exile in Sicily. Some of Sappho's poetry laments this exile. In 581 bce Sappho returned to Lesbos and continued to develop her lyrical verse.
The survival of Sappho's work and stories of her community on Lesbos have occasioned conflicting critical interpretations and speculation, especially about the extent to which her community practiced what is understood in the early twenty-first century to be lesbian relations.
Sappho's verse served as a model for lyrical poetry for quite a long time. Her work was studied by the Romans, but was dropped by the Byzantines, and it ceased to be copied by them. Some believed that her work, focused as it is on both paganism and erotic love, was deliberately suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church. During the Renaissance her work was revived, and the Victorians understood her poetry and culture as something like a girls' finishing school with Sappho as the headmistress, one not above a few dalliances with her female students. In the 1950s Mary Barnard retranslated Sappho's work in a way that better conveyed Sappho's clean, clear language.
Although there are no references to an academy in Sappho's work, the idea of a female artistic community charged with erotic energy has made Lesbos the mythical center of lesbian tradition. Lesbos provides a geographical site for a history and practice that, in the same way that Greek culture affords a classical model for gay men, endows lesbian sexuality with an ancient and cultured derivation.
Some of Sappho's love poems are addressed to women, and many of the poems describe the poet's romantic interest in and even infatuation with other women. The poems in general do not describe specific sexual acts or physical relations between women, but present instead emotional longing. Whether or not Sappho's poetry complies with contemporary notions of lesbian ardor depends on how one understands emotional and romantic ties among women. Her poetry is considered to be more personal and emotional than that of her contemporary, the poet Alcaeus, who wrote about more civic themes.
Every year in the middle of August lesbians from around the world gather at Eressos, Sappho's birthplace on Lesbos. During this time there are lesbian celebrations, events, and parties. Lesbians also visit at other times, seeing Lesbos as their site of spiritual origin. Those who travel to Lesbos report varying experiences. Some are impressed with the tolerance of year-round residents. Others have experienced some negative reception on the part of residents, but because tourism is a large part of the local economy, clashes between demonstrative lesbian tourists and Lesbos natives seem to have calmed recently.
In contemporary Internet culture, the term Lesbos often refers to pornographic web sites featuring images of women having sex. It is also often used in lesbian romance novels or as a sign indicating some lesbian activity in a movie or a novel or on a web site.
Davies, Paul Harcourt. 2005. Greek Islands. New York: New Holland.
DuQuesne, Terence, ed. and trans. 1989. Sappho of Lesbos: The Poems. New York: Darengo.
Poole, Kate, ed. 2003. Greek Islands. New York: DK Adult.
Sappho. 1999. Sappho: A New Translation, trans. Mary Barnard. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Orig. pub. 1958.)