The purpose for creating this website was to examine how we look at sexuality in antiquity, particularly homosexuality; even more specifically, lesbianism. The way in which Western scholars (Freud, Foucault) understands homosexuality -or sexuality at all- is a modern construction that would have not existed conceptually the same way in 7th c BCE, Lesbos, or at any other time or location. Therefore, when thinking about sexuality in the past or queering figures (applying a construction of sexuality onto a subject of the past) it is important to understand the perspective or ‘lens’ that is being used.
Sappho is a subject that is often queered, or discussed about as if her woman to woman relationships are the same or could be the same as the romantic relationships between women in the 21st Century. Very minimal information is actually known about Sappho, except for her geographical location in time, potentially her daughter’s name and thus mothers name based on one of her poems, and that she had a brother. Sexuality can become a complex topic and is a very individual experience. How could a subject with so little known about her be said to have a sexuality that there is more to than my or your understanding of?
“The greatest problem for Sappho studies is that there’s so little Sappho to study. It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.”
Sexuality in the West
In the North American systematic construction of sexuality, desire is essential. That is, desire is the driving and sole factor of sexuality. Homosexuality then, is essentially a ‘deviant’ from heterosexuality. It is meant to have the same ideologies of romantic love or romantic intimacy as a heterosexual relationship but between the same sexes. Furthermore, lesbianism is a deviant of male homosexuality. Homosexuality was seen as ‘inverted’ – a male ego inside of a woman’s body or a woman’s ego inside a male’s. Therefore, the lesbian identity comes with connotations of man-hating, defiance, aggression (as opposed to the heterosexual female’s passiveness) and promiscuity (as opposed to the heterosexual female’s chastity.) This is a rather medical and limited construction of lesbianism, and definitely does not line up with real experiences of real lesbians. Of course, each individual has their own experience of sexuality and putting on strict boundaries for such an experience ends in having several contradictions.
Sexuality and the constructions of homosexuality can change depending on where one is in the time, political system and location. Also depending on the class, status, race and age of a person, the ways in which sexuality and gender is expected to be expressed/performed can also change.
That being said . . .
Because these constructions are not static, it must be known that applying this medical understanding of lesbianism onto the relations –which were not explicitly sexual – that Sappho had with other women is objectively incorrect, as her relations do not necessarily have the sexual desire for a woman that lesbianism suggests.
Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864
Another Understanding of Lesbianism
If we look at lesbianism as a continuum, or rather a happening of relations between women identified peoples that are intimate but not necessarily romantic or platonic, this could be accurately applied to Sappho or her work based on what is currently known about either.
Though not explicitly desire-motivated, Sappho did appreciate women and the relationships she held with them, as well as the female space of which she existed in. I believe that for this reason, feminists identify with Sappho and her ‘progressive’ views on women relationships (defying the concept that women are constantly in reproductive competition). But do we know if she was the only woman in this space and time that saw these relationships as intimate? Or was this just the way in which women had relationships?
But look at her poems!
Often, Sappho becomes the point of reference when discussing sexuality in antiquity, and has become famous because she confused everyone that wanted to understand her sexual orientation. She becomes a figure that is not appreciated for her work, but for her ‘mysteriousness’.
Her decidedly genius works proposed content including nature, old age, love, and relationships. This gives insight to how Sappho as an individual, therefore potentially how other women around her lived and saw their surroundings (though not necessarily). For this reason, continuing to search for, interpret and translate her fragments is important, but not with the motivating factor to pin down her sexuality.
Ober, Josiah. (2003) Conditions for Athenian Democracy. The Making and Unmaking of Democracy, Lessons from History and World Politics.
Paur, Jaspir K. I would rather be a cyborg than a Goddess: Becoming Intersectional in Assemblage Theory. Project Muse.
Kantsa, Venetia. (2002) Certain Places Have Different Energy: Spatial Transformation in Ereos, Lesvos. A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.
De Lauretis, Teresa (1991). Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities An Introduction. A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.
Black, Joel. (1998) Taking the Sex out of Sexuality: Foucault’s Failed Hirtory. Larmour, David H.J. Miller, Paul Allen. Platters, Charles. Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and Classical Antiquity. (42-60) New Jersey. Princeton University Press.
Rich, Adrienne. (1996) Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Feminism and Sexuality.
Viziel, Alain. Incipit Philosophia. Larmour, David H.J. Miller, Paul Allen. Platters, Charles. Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and Classical Antiquity. (61-84) New Jersey. Princeton University Press.