One woman who often stands head and shoulders above most others in the ancient world was Sappho. Reliable records of 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 different perspectives on her life, including accounts of her sexuality and her great love and attachment to the female form. It was because of this contentious issue that she briefly disappeared from schools in the early Christian era before we fell in love with her again in a more enlightened time known as the Renaissance.
Luckily, Sappho has never been disputed about her huge reputation as a Greek lyric poet. Both ancient and modern scholars agree that she indeed occupies her place among the great poets of ancient Greece. One might even go to the extreme, stating that if we associate Greek poetry with two names, then in all probability it is Homer and Sappho. Such is her influence and fame that it is unfortunate that much of Sappho’s work has been lost due to damage, neglect, and the time scholars stopped translating her work for future generations.
When compiling a brief account of Sappho, it is assumed that she was born sometime between 640-610 BC. BC. on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. (Sappho is believed to have lived primarily in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos.) During this period, Lesbos was an important island that flourished as a popular center for trade and Greek culture. In this environment, most of the women of Lesbos are believed to have enjoyed more freedom than other women in the Greek world. Although wealth played a significant role in achieving these “freedoms” for the women of Lesvos, including Sappho. Her social position, as she was born into a wealthy family, allowed her to be friends with a tight-knit group of women who shared a love of art. Sappho developed many close relationships in this group, where they sang, danced and recited poetry. Sappho played her lyre fondly 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 eminent scholars and important figures admired her talents. In one particular case, after hearing one of her songs, the Greek jurist and poet Solon is remembered as asking if he could be taught the song in order to “learn it and die”. Such was the power of her poetry that Plato dared to elevate her status as a great poet to one of the Muses, the goddess of the arts and sciences.
Considering her position among 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 cataloged nine papyrus scrolls containing Sappho’s poems, but by the Middle Ages almost all of them had disappeared. Today we have only four complete poems, among which the hymn to Aphrodite stands out, as well as fragments of others compiled from manuscripts and fragments found in Egypt. Some of them actually came from ancient dumps. Other verses attributed to Sappho have also been found on papyrus used as stuffing for mummified Egyptian animals.
As scholars continue to decipher Sappho’s works today, we are pleasantly surprised to learn how she wrote her poetry. Many of Sappho’s poems speak of her strong attraction to both men and women. Often they are associated with love, longing, loss and desire. (“You forgot me/or you love someone else more.”) On other occasions, Sappho was also quite wistful, complaining, for example, in her Poem of Old Age, about her graying hair and buckling knees.
Since much of her work and life is shrouded in mystery, even her death is somewhat puzzling. She is believed to have died around 570 BC, in despair and overwork, by jumping to her death from a cliff, presumably after a love affair with a man named Phaon went awry. Many scholars believe that this is not true, a legend fabricated to divert attention from her known affairs with other women.
Interestingly, one of the problems we face in understanding the historical Sappho is that she most likely created a literary image for herself when she wrote her poetry. (There is some evidence that literary characters were often the norm for Greek poets during the archaic period, c. 800-479 B.C.). Intentionally or not, Sappho’s “character” unwittingly caused a storm of confusion, especially regarding her sexuality. scientists for two millennia. Today, many scholars generally agree that Sappho’s poetry evokes homoerotic feelings.
We also learn from surviving papyrus fragments that she sometimes wrote her poems in the first person, which was something of an innovation in ancient times. It is from one of her poems “in the first person” that we learn about the “daughter” that she once had. This is important because there has always been some confusion about whether she is married or not. Some sources say that she was married to a man named Sersil, a wealthy merchant.
It’s probably fair to say, and depending on how you interpret her life, Sappho is no ordinary woman or poet. She possessed the extraordinary mind and soul of the poet, unsurpassed by most of her contemporaries. For many, including dozens of modern scientists, she is also a female heroine, a symbol of love, and even a gay icon.
Note: This selected article was originally published in 2015. It has been updated and moved to the front pages to further highlight the original content of this site.
Photo credits: All images appear in the public domain. The header image is a painting by Francis Coates Jones titled “Sappho” (1895).