Who is Sappho?
Sappho was a female ancient Greek poet who wrote lyrical poetry famous for its storytelling about passion and love. Her poetry is often seen as one of the only primary insights into a women’s life in the ancient world. Little is known of her actual life, however it is known that she was born on the Island of Lesbos around the years 630-570 BCE. We do know though that Sappho was a member of the elite, living at a time (c. 600 BCE) when the details of social life are almost entirely undocumented.
The importance of Sappho lies in the fact that there are primary sources, written on both papyrus and ceramic, that contains her work in quotations passed down through time. This makes it evident that she was an important female voice of the time. Sappho was a highly celebrated poet of her times and may have been held in the same esteem as writers such as Homer.
It is believed that Sappho had brothers and may have been married with children, but due to the lack of resources this has never been confirmed. She has been the subject of many heated debates – about her work, her family life and above all, her sexuality. The surviving verses of her work, like her infamous Hymn to Aphrodite¸ showcase same-sex desire. From there, she developed a reputation of being homosexual. Her hometown, Lesbos, coined the beginning uses of the word “lesbian”.
Click here to read an interesting article in the New Yorker about how we are still uncovering information on Sappho to this day.
Although historical biases and assumptions tend to make us assume that the Greek world favoured men because most of the works that are provided for us were written by men for a male audience. She produced nine volumes of work that was said to be placed in the Library of Alexandria over a hundred years after her death. She is credited for creating the “Sapphic Stanza Style” which are poems consisting of three long lines and a brief fourth line.
In Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite, which is her only poem that still exist in its entirety from antiquity, suggest that it “would have been written for public performance for this female audience, within the context of the cult for Aphrodite, goddess of love.” Many women took part in cults to honour goddesses in hopes that something good would happen in return. “The cultic hymns suggest that Sappho was a respected member of her community.”This is largely to do with the fact that not many people were granted permission to write songs or poems for gods or goddesses, the fact that Sappho did and had a following while doing so suggest that she was highly regarded female-figure at the time. In ancient Greece, it was expected of women to publicly worship female goddesses in attempt to find suitable comparison between themselves and notable goddesses.
Sappho vs. Hesiod
Sappho’s poetry contains qualities such as emotion and highly descriptive use of language. When comparing Sappho’s work to a male poet such as Hesiod, it is evident that her poems have a certain aspect of femininity that would not be usually found in what is often written by men. When comparing the subject of women being depicted in writing, her work in comparison to Hesiod’s, who was a writer around 700 BCE, are drastically different.
Hesiod described women as “the deadly female race and tribe of wives/ Who live with mortal men and bring them harm.” To Hesiod, women by nature were portrayed as deadly creatures and their only purpose was to keep mankind, as a species, alive. Through Hesiod’s lens, he does not permit love, any personal relationship or emotion to show through in his work unless portrayed through what is typically known as being masculine, like warfare. In some of Sappho’s work, it is almost apparent that she recognizes this issue. She writes, “Those who say an array of horsemen, an array of marching men, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth. But I say it is whatever one loves. It is very easy to show this to all.” It is almost as if it is a rebuttal to male writers around that time frame, preaching on the fact that things they often write about, like war, armies and ships, are all a depiction of what they desire and what they see as important aspects of society of the time. It is apparent that Sappho’s songs reveal she is concerned with an individual’s desires and emotions, an idea that male writers did not touch upon. It makes us question what male writers, like Hesiod, would of thought after reading one of Sappho’s works at the time. Her use of imagery was able to create vivid pictures for her audience that were unique to the time period and was something that male writers were not overly manifested with at the time.
She has been quoted and described by so many people throughout time (for centuries!!) and that is why it is inevitable that she is an important ancient Greek figure. Although so little is known about Sappho and her poetry, her fragments of work allow us to dive in and seek answers and potential hypotheses of what life was like for women in antiquity.
Blundell, S. (1995). Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
Groden, S.Q. (1966). The Poems of Sappho. Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc.
Hall, J.M. (2007). A History of the Archaic Greek World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Lardinois, A. & Rayor, D.J. (2014). Sappho: New Translations of the Complete Works. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Nevett, L.C. (2001). House and Society in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge, England: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.
Reynolds, M. (2001). The Sappho Companion. New York, NY: Palgrave.
Winkler, J.J. (1990). The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greek. New York, NY: Chapman and Hall Inc.