Sappho (c. 612–c. 557 BCE)
Sappho (c. 612–c. 557 bce)
One of the greatest poets of Lyric Age Greece, who revolutionized Greek literature by writing about her personal thoughts and feelings and by describing her physical surroundings. Name variations: Sapho; Psappho; Psappha. Born around 612 bce in Eresos, on the island of Lesbos, Greece; died under unknown circumstances around 557 bce; daughter of Scamandronymus or Scamandrus (probably a noble wine merchant) and Cleïs (probably a noblewoman of Lesbos); had three brothers, Charaxus, Larichus, and Eurygyius; possibly married Cercylas from Andros; children: one daughter, Cleïs.
Moved at approximately six years of age from Eresos to Mytilene, the largest city on Lesbos (c. 606 bce); founded a school or sorority for young women for the study of music and poetry; banished from Lesbos, possibly for political reasons (c. 598–c. 581 bce); famous in her own day, honored in busts, statues and coins, and painted on Greek vases with quotes from her verses; after her death, became extremely popular among the Athenians of the 5th century bce.
Nine volumes of her poetry were said to have been published during her lifetime or shortly afterward, none of which now exist. Her work is known to modern scholars only in fragments.
To modern scholars, Sappho is a particularly fascinating yet elusive character. She is known to us only through the few fragments of her poetry which have survived the ravages of time and the condemnation of the Medieval Church. Using the pieces of work which have been attributed to her, the sketchy knowledge we have of Greece during the Lyric Age, and the often wildly exaggerated caricatures of Sappho which were written in the later Greek era and during the Roman Empire, scholars have pieced together a shadowy and frustratingly dim approximation of the poet. Over the course of the last 2,000 years, controversy has raged over Sappho's reputed sexual orientation and activities, and that controversy burned ever hotter in the late 20th century in the context of the burgeoning field of gay and lesbian studies. Although we will probably never be able to determine with any accuracy the most intimate details of Sappho's private life, scholars know enough about her to agree that she was one of the world's greatest poetic geniuses.
Sappho was born around 612 bce in the city of Eresos, on Lesbos, one of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. During the Lyric Age of Greece, Lesbos was known for its beautiful women and its sweet wine. Social customs on Lesbos permitted women much more freedom than was allowed in other parts of the known world. Women (at least those who came from the aristocratic class) mixed freely with men in public, were well educated, and often formed literary clubs to cultivate poetry and music. At the time of Sappho's birth, Lesbos was a particularly wealthy island whose citizens had a reputation for luxury. Sappho was born into the aristocracy of that island, and this advantage allowed her to pursue a life of leisure and high culture otherwise uncommon for that day. Historical sources disagree on the name of her father, but the most accurate ones available identify him as Scamandronymus, a noble wine merchant of Eresos. Sappho's mother Cleïs was also a member of the aristocratic class. After Sappho's birth, Cleïs would give birth to three sons: Charaxus, Larichus, and Eurygyius.
Sappho was very young when her father died; in one of her poems, she mentions mourning a parent at the untimely age of six. Scamandronymus was possibly a casualty of a ten-year war which broke out in 606 bce between the cities of Lesbos and Athens over a trading base named Sigeum which had been founded by the Lesbians on the Hellespont. For whatever reason, early in Sappho's life she and her family moved from Eresos to the city of Mytilene, which was the largest on the island. It is possible that Cleïs fled there to live under the protection of members of her extended family; even after the death of Scamandronymus, Cleïs maintained wealth and position in her society which she was able to pass on to her children. In Mytilene, Sappho was well educated. Her poems show that she was very familiar with the works of Homer and Hesiod, and with Greek myths and legends.
No contemporary descriptions of Sappho exist, and later descriptions vary widely. In some, she is depicted as small in stature, with violet-black hair and dark skin. Representations of her on vases and in statuary, however, show her as being of average height and slender form, with the highly stylized facial features which reflect the Greek personifications of female beauty. Some of her ancient detractors referred to her as "ugly," while many of her greatest admirers waxed eloquent upon her beauty. Whether or not she was physically beautiful, it is doubtless that she possessed an irresistible charisma, as witnessed by her great popularity even in her own lifetime.
Sappho began composing poetry perhaps while still in her teens, and she quickly began to attract the admiration of her contemporaries. By the time she was in her 20s, her writings were being circulated, not only on Lesbos, but in other parts of the Greek world and beyond. Her work was revolutionary in several ways. She was one of the first Lyric poets to write from the perspective of individual subjectivity, and thus her work was dramatically different from the heroic epics of Hesiod and Homer. Hesiod had referred to himself as a "conduit of divine inspiration," and had given little information about his personal reaction to the stories which he put into writing. Sappho's work, in contrast to the epics which glorified battles and other public deeds, concentrated upon revealing her private, interior life, her personal reactions to the world around her and to the people she knew. Her poetry is written in a decidedly female voice, another departure from past Greek tradition. For example, her depiction of the legendary Helen differed from Homer's: in Homer's epic, Helen is dragged off to Troy against her will; in Sappho's poem, Helen journeys to Troy "resisting not," leaving behind her noble husband "all for love." In creating her richly imaginative work, Sappho seemed to be conscious that she was opening the door that led to a new means of expression; in several surviving fragments, she expresses confidence that her work will some day bring her immortality.
While still a young woman, Sappho founded a school or sorority for women who were interested in the study of music and poetry. As an aristocratic woman of means, she was able to provide her charges with sumptuous surroundings, good food, and personal slaves to care for their every physical need. Her reputation as a writer brought young women from far-away cities and from the most august of families, presumably to be educated and prepared for their transition into the adult world and marriage.
But Lesbos had been thrown into political upheaval with the ouster of the Penthilidai family, who claimed lineage from Homer's King Agamemnon. In the ensuing struggle for political dominance, a succession of autocrats from the aristocratic families of Lesbos came to power, some of whom allied themselves with the lower classes by promising reforms which would reduce the power of the aristocracy. This upheaval brought about new democratic impulses which prompted frequent rebellions. Possibly within the context of one of these rebellions, a group of young aristocrats, including Sappho, was banished sometime around 598 bce. She left Lesbos and settled for a time on the island of Sicily, where she continued to write poetry and became something of a celebrity. According to legend, during her sojourn there she married, possibly to a wealthy merchant named Cercylas, and gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Cleïs, after her mother. If indeed Sappho were married, she seems to have been widowed at an early age. There is no mention of her having a husband when she reappeared in her native land sometime around 581 bce.
Upon her return, Sappho seems to have continued to take young women into her home. As depicted in the remnants of her poetry, she appears to have developed a strong romantic, if not sexual, relationship with some of these women. Many of her poems describe a distant, unattainable object of desire, usually a woman. In the only definitively complete poem of Sappho's which has survived, she prays for help to Aphrodite, the goddess of love:
Richly-throned immortal Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I pray to you: break not my spirit, Lady, with heartache or anguish;
But hither come, if ever in the past you heard my cry from afar, and marked it, and came, leaving your father's house,
Your golden chariot yoked: sparrows beautiful and swift conveyed you, with rapid wings aflutter, above the dark earth from heaven through the mid-air;
And soon they were come, and you, Fortunate, with a smile on your immortal face, asked what ails me now, and why I am calling now,
And what in my heart's madness I most desire to have: Whom now must I persuade to join your friendship's ranks? Who wrongs you, Sappho?
For if she flees, she shall soon pursue; and if she receives not gifts, yet shall she give; and if she loves not, she shall soon love even against her will.
Come to me now also, and deliver me from cruel anxieties; fulfil all that my heart desires to fulfil, and be yourself my comrade-in-arms.
In other poems, Sappho seems to mourn the loss of one of her students who was particularly beloved:
Honestly I wish I were dead. Weeping she left me With many tears, and said 'Oh what unhappiness is ours; Sappho, I now, against my will I leave you.'
And this answer I made to her: 'Go, and fare well, and remember me; you know how we cared for you.
If not, yet I would remind you … of our past happiness.
Many wreaths of violets and roses and … you put around you at my side,
And many woven garlands, fashioned of flowers, … round your soft neck,
And … with perfume of flowers, fit for a queen, you anointed …
And on soft beds … you would satisfy your longing.'
While it is impossible to determine from the content of the poetry alone whether or not Sappho's relationships with these women were sexual, she was living during a time when lines between heterosexual and homosexual love were not so clearly drawn as they are now. While descriptions of sexual relationships between women during this period are rare, descriptions of sexual relationships between young Greek men and boys are quite common. Sappho's work differs from homoerotic writings by men. Many of the poems describing male homosexual (as well as heterosexual) love tend to focus on the idea of conquest of the love object. Sappho's descriptions of romance, however, are exclusively focused on romantic intimacy and sharing between equals.
Sappho's descriptions of romantic longing are deeply personal and lushly descriptive, but her descriptions of nature and her physical surroundings portray the same seductiveness. In another example, she described the night sky: "Oh, evening star, you bring all that the blithe dawn has scattered wide; you bring the sheep; you bring the goats; you bring home the child to its mother." Another favorite of hers was gold, which she described as "a child of Zeus; no moth nor worm devours it; and it overcomes the strongest of mortal hearts." Sappho was especially fond of describing the birds and flowers which could be found in such profusion on Lesbos. She enthusiastically depicts for us "the yearning-voiced messenger of spring, the nightingale," and "the wild-hyacinth which on the mountain-side the shepherd treads underfoot, yet it still blooms purple on the ground." She also writes of her own beloved daughter:
I have a maid, a bonny maid,
As dainty as the golden flowers,
My darling Cleïs. Were I paid
All Lydia, and the lovely bowers
Of Cyprus, 'twould not buy my maid.
Due to her respected position in the Mytilene community, Sappho was given numerous commissions to write hymns for religious festivals. She often referred to herself as the servant of Aphrodite, but in one fragment she describes her frustration at trying to compose a hymn to Adonis while her mind is distracted by desire: "Be still, my heart!—for me you cannot throw out in rapid hymn-spurting inspiration an Adonis-song which in beauty of style shall please the goddesses; for dishonoring Desire and heart-conquering Aphrodite made you speechless, and brain destroying Peitho from her flagon of gold has poured her sweet nectar upon your wits."
Sappho also wrote a large number of wedding songs. Traditional Greek wedding ceremonies typically lasted several days, with ritual presentation of the couple to each side of the family, music and feasting. In these works, Sappho clearly pays homage to Hera, the goddess of marriage. Many of these are lighthearted teases and optimistic good wishes composed for a choir of maids to sing to the couple on their wedding night. In one example, she writes: "And we maidens spend all the night at this door, singing of the love between you, richly blessed bridegroom, and your bride of the violet-scented breast. And when the dawn is come and you arise and depart, may the great god Hermes direct your feet whither you shall find no more ill-luck than we tonight shall find sleep."
We know that Sappho lived at least well into middle age, for in a few of her fragments she makes reference to her encroaching age: "Ah girls, that I may escape wrinkles!" she writes, and admits in another poem in which she seems to be turning down an offer of marriage that she had no wish to marry a second time since she is past the age of childbearing and cannot bear to live with a younger man: "If my breasts were still capable of giving suck, and my womb were able to bear children, then to another marriage-bed not with trembling feet would I come, but now on my skin age is already causing innumerable lines to go about, and Love hastens not to fly to me with his gift of pain." She advises her suitor: "but if you love me, choose a more youthful companion for your bed, for I cannot endure to be married to a young man. I am too old."
About the death of Sappho nothing is known for certain. An old myth alleged that she threw herself off a cliff after being rejected by a young fisherman named Phaon. Modern scholars have disputed that myth, however, as a later fabrication by Athenian playwrights. After she died, it is believed, her body was cremated, and she was given a hero's burial on Lesbos. At the time, she was considered one of the preeminent poets in all of Greece. Solon, the esteemed leader of Athens, was said to have requested on his deathbed that he be taught Sappho's latest song. Her poetry was copied not only in Greece, but in Egypt (where some of the most important fragments have been discovered), and later in Rome. Nine volumes of her poetry were said to have been collected during her lifetime.
Greek and Roman scholars ranked Sappho's works among the greatest ever created. The Romans were said to have compiled two editions of her poetry, one arranged by subject and the other arranged by meter. She was credited with creating the Mixolydian mode in music, which Plutarch claimed could arouse the passions more than any other. Plato referred to her as the "tenth muse," and Plutarch asserted that her work was "mixed with fire." Aristotle quoted her verses in his Rhetoric. Comedians of the Greek Classical Period referred to her work extensively and composed many parodies of her life. Later Greek and Roman poets often adapted, or even copied outright, Sappho's works. Her style was imitated by the Roman poet Horace in his odes.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Sappho's writings were read and preserved by Byzantine scholars, but they quickly fell out of favor in Western Europe. Medieval clerics perceived her as a dangerous harlot and on several occasions ordered her books to be burned. None of her works survived through the Middle Ages in Europe. The few lines that now exist have been dug out of the sands of Egypt, or, in some cases, were found only as a snippet of a sentence or phrase preserved inside a Greek textbook to illustrate a particular grammatical construction.
When Sappho's works were revived during the Renaissance, many scholars tended to portray her as a woman of bad character, and that legacy has haunted the historical figure of Sappho from that time up to the present. It was only with the arrival of the Romance Movement in the 19th century that efforts were made to rehabilitate her as the great hero of Romanticism. Much of that "rehabilitation" involved explaining away the more seductive and obviously erotic nature of her works by divorcing them from the physical realm. Only in the 20th century have scholars begun to consider what precious little is left of her works at face value. During the last few decades, Sappho has become a hero to feminists and to gay and lesbian scholars. All attempts to reconstruct the poet's sexual life, however, have foundered in the face of the lack of historical evidence.
One factor that has remained constant through the ages is her great popularity. Sappho's writings have been admired in literary circles of every age. Many modern groups, from the strait-laced Victorians to 20th-century feminist scholars, have tried to "own" her, and her biography has often been written to suit a particular agenda. Her poetry is personal, and therefore immediately accessible. She presents a much clearer and more intimate portrait of the ancient Greeks than we can see through any other remnant that remains of that civilization. The passion and feeling exhibited by her work transcend mere sexual expression, and by focusing on the senses, opens our minds to a new appreciation of the world around us.
Sappho's legacy lies in ruined fragments, but as David Robinson noted, "In them we recognize the creator's genius as clearly as in a fragmentary torso of Phidias we see the sculptor's art in every chiselled line." Her works are once again hailed as one of the greatest contributions of Greek culture, and they provide a refreshing alternative to the dominant vision of the ancient world as a logical, masculine, unemotional culture. In Sappho's work we catch a fleeting glimpse of a feminine, emotional and personal world peopled with human beings who, like us, struggle to understand life's beauty, anxiety, excitement and uncertainty.
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Kimberly Estep Spangler , Assistant Professor of History, Chair, Division of Religion and Humanities, Friends University, Wichita, Kansas