One woman, who often stands heads and shoulders above most others in the ancient world was Sappho. Reliable records about her are generally incomplete, however we do have some rare clues about her life that have helped us piece together her story. Of course, historians and scholars have many differing views about her life, which include reports about her sexuality and her great love and affection for the female form. It is this contentious issue that saw her briefly disappear from schools in the early Christian era before we fell in love with her again during a more enlightened time known as the Renaissance.
Fortunately, what has never been in dispute about Sappho is her immense reputation as a Greek lyric poet. Both ancient and modern scholars all agree that she truly holds her own amongst the great poets of ancient Greece. One might even go to extremes to say that when we associate Greek poetry to two names, they would in all probability be Homer and Sappho. Such is her influence and fame that it is a shame that much of Sappho’s work has been lost through damage, neglect and a time when scholars stopped translating her work for future generations.
In piecing together a brief story on Sappho, it is assumed that she was born sometime between 640-610 BC on the Aegean Island of Lesbos. (It is believed Sappho lived mostly in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos.) Lesbos was an important Island during this period, which thrived as a popular centre for trade and Greek culture. It is believed that within this environment most women of Lesbos enjoyed a greater freedom than other women across the Greek world. Though wealth played a significant role in attaining these ‘freedoms’ for the women of Lesbos which included Sappho. Her social standing, being born into a wealthy family, allowed her to fraternise within a tight-knit group of women who shared a love of the arts. Sappho formed many close relationships within this group where they sang, danced and read poetry. Sappho affectionately played her lyre and wrote (and sang) many of her poems here, often as wedding songs for the women who eventually married and left the island of Lesbos.
As her fame grew throughout the Greek world, many prominent scholars and important figures marveled at her talents. One particular account recalls how upon hearing one of her songs, the Greek lawyer and poet Solon enquired if he could be taught the song to “learn it and die”. Such was the power of her poems that Plato dared to raise her standing as a great poet to one of the muses, a goddess of the arts and science.
Given her standing amongst the great poets of antiquity, it is almost criminal to think that much of her work has been lost. In ancient times, Scholars at the Library of Alexandria once catalogued nine papyrus scrolls of Sappho’s poems, but by the Middle Ages almost all of it had disappeared. Today, we have only four complete poems, the hymn to Aphrodite being the standout, and bits and pieces of others, put together from manuscripts and fragments found in Egypt. Some of these actually came from ancient rubbish heaps. Other poems attributed to Sappho were also found on papyrus that was used as stuffing in mummified Egyptian animals.
As scholars today continue to decipher Sappho’s works, we are pleasantly surprised to learn how she wrote her poems. Many of Sappho’s poems talk about her strong attraction towards both men and women. Often they are related to love, longing, loss and desire. (“You have forgotten me / or you love someone else more.”) At other times Sappho was also quite reflective, complaining for instance in her “Old Age Poem” about her graying hair and knees that buckle.
With much of her work and life shrouded in mystery, even her death is somewhat puzzling. It is believed she died around 570 BCE, distress and overwrought, jumping to her death over a cliff, presumably after a love affair with a man named Phaon went horribly wrong. Many scholars believe this to be untrue, a legend fabricated to deflect from her reputed affairs with other women.
Interestingly, one of the problems we have in understanding the historical Sappho is due to the fact that she most likely created a literary persona for herself when writing her poems. (There is some evidence that suggests that literary personas were often the norm for Greek poets during the Archaic Period – c. 800- 479 BCE.) Whether by design or not Sappho’s “persona” unwittingly created a storm of confusion especially around her sexuality for scholars over two millenniums. Many scholars today generally accept that Sappho’s poetry presents homoerotic feelings.
From surviving papyrus fragments we have also learnt that sometimes she wrote her poems in the first person, somewhat of an innovation during ancient times. It is from one of her ‘first person’ poems that we learn of a “daughter” that she once had. This is important because there has always been some confusion about whether or not she was married. Some accounts say she was married to a man named Cercylas, a rich merchant.
It’s probably fair to say and depending on how you interpret her life, Sappho is no ordinary women or poet. She possessed an extraordinary mind and a poet’s soul unmatched by most of her contemporaries. To many and including scores of scholars today, she is also a female heroine, a symbol of love and even a gay icon.
Note: This featured article was originally published in 2015. It has been updated and moved to the front pages to further highlight this site’s original content.
Photo credits: All images appear in the public domain. The header image is a painting by Francis Coates Jones, entitled “Sappho” (1895).
She is so shrouded in mystery and fascinating, if only we knew more…I could see a Hollywood remake, but who could play her? hmm