Sappho of Lesbos (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE)

Singing Both Ways

Only three sources of information about Sappho’s life survive: what we find in her poetry, contemporary histories and testimonies written by readers of her work, hundreds of years after Sappho was writing.

If we read her own work biographically, we learn in the Brothers Poem (discovered as recently as 2014!) that Sappho had three brothers: Erigyius, Larichus, and Charaxus. Two fragments of Sappho’s poetry suggest that Sappho had a daughter named Cleis. A late Byzantine text, named the Suda, suggests that Sappho had a husband named Kerkylas from the island Andros. But this seems to be taken from comedy, since whilst Andros is a real island, it is also the Greek word for man, whilst Kerkylas name is derived from the Greek (kerkos), ahem, so best translates best to ‘Dick’.

What we can say more confidently is that Sappho was a lyric poet from Lesbos and was born into a wealthy family: she would not have been able to read and write otherwise!

Celebrated as the first well-known “Lesbian” in history, Sappho’s poetry reflects relationships of a female poetic voice with both men and women. But how can we really describe women in antiquity as lesbians? Does this liberate or limit receptions of Sappho?

The L word: Liberate

In the worst case, readers of Sappho have tried to deny that the homosexual encounters with women could possibly be based on experience. This attitude even affected translations of her work. For example Ambrose Philips’ 1711 translation of Sappho’s ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ described the lover in the poem as male, mistranslating the Greek to suit contemporary prejudices.

The sexuality portrayed in Sappho’s poetry, her songs of women “laid on soft beds” have survived. But readings of Sappho’s poetry and its reflection of her sexuality has changed throughout landmark moments in LGBT history.

“Sappho did not have to write pornography in order to be a lesbian poet.”

Most, 1991 p.19

Lardinois has deemed this “The Great Sappho Question”, but is this question accurately pitched? What does it add to our appreciation of Sappho as a poet?

The L word: Limitation?

Was Sappho a lesbian? The question forces us to define what lesbianism means today, apply that to an ancient context and confront whether we think Sappho’s poetry can be read as a biography or fantasy of the poet herself. We could also say the same for any heterosexual love poetry: but readers struggle to shake their conviction that Catullus is actually writing to his married girlfriend Clodia, codename Lesbia.

Most scholars such as Lardinois, duBois and Most object to the use of the term lesbian, rather than the biographical reading. Rather than censoring or rejecting homoerotic elements in Sappho’s poetry, readers began to rethink how we define lesbianism.

“Even if by modern standards Sappho were considered to be a Lesbian, her experience must have been very different.”

Most, 1991 p.30

Writing in 1991, Most’s expectations of the lesbian experience may well be different from your own, reading this in 2019. It is no longer Sappho’s sexual experience that we question, but the social experience of sexuality. Do we imagine Sappho coming out to her parents, or being excluded from religious practices? None of that survives in her poetry. Do we imagine Sappho coparenting her daughter, a child who is named in the poems, with a woman? That might not even have occurred to some readers in 1991!

If we read every poem as biographical, we might classify Sappho as bisexual, since she wrote erotic poetry about men, some of which name a daughter. What does survive is a sample of poetry, written by a woman celebrating sex with women. Exploring female sexuality beyond procreation. Biographical or not, it presents the only enduring facet in the changing experiences of gay and bisexual women: love for women.

This woodcut differentiates the world of Sappho’s poetry and her heterosexual love life. The caption reads: Title Page. Lesbia which never taught Sappho to love girls.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?

“Sappho celebrates not house-hold labour and fertility, not the role of a good wife, but rather memory and yearning, the amorous pleasures women share on soft beds.”

Dubois 1985 p.145

In the Loeb edition, fragments of Sappho name many different lovers: Anactoria fr.16, Gongyla fr.22, Megara fr.68a, Mica fr, Arignota fr.96, Atthis fr.131 Archeanassa fr 2.13 the unnamed girl (frr.1 &23)

By Μαρσύας – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?
curid=473236

In each fragment, a new lover is named and in artwork, we see her accompanied by an entourage of women. Even in the ancient world, these poems were read to some extent as biographical and Sappho is depicted with female attendants watching her compose lyrical poetry.

However we define her sexuality, she made same-sex sex the subject of her poetry, we should not exclude all of it as fiction. Sappho remains an icon for the LGBTQ canon and is one of few surviving female authors from the ancient world.

MLH
  • Devereux, George (1970). The Nature of Sappho’s Seizure in Fr. 31 LP as Evidence of Her InversionThe Classical Quarterly20.
  • duBois, Page (1995). Sappho Is Burning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lardinois, André (2014) [1989]. “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos”. In Bremmer, Jan (ed.). From Sappho to De Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality. London: Routledge.
  • Most, Glenn W. (1995). “Reflecting Sappho”. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies40.
  • Winkler, John J. (1990). The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge. 

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