Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions suicide and paintings of nudity.
“Come to me now – release me from these
troubles, everything my heart longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally.”(Sappho fr. 1 “Ode to Aphrodite”, D. Rayor & A. Lardinois trans.)
WHO WAS SAPPHO?
Sappho. A woman who needs no introduction, yet whose influence and history eludes modern generations. She has been given innumerable titles and accolades – the ‘other-half’ of Homer, the “poetess”, and even “The Tenth Muse”. These titles describe a figure whose existence remains unknown considering both her poetry and biography have been predominately lost in the two and a half thousand years since her death. Throughout the centuries of modern scholarship, there have been ample hypotheses attempting to portray a cohesive portrait of Sappho but every pursuit has remained unsuccessful in forming a realistic and accurate representation of the famed Lesbian. In this article I hope that by referencing her poetry and other works of literature, records, and art, some aspects of Sappho’s identity will become clearer – and demonstrate her importance both during her lifetime and afterwards despite this lack of clarity.
BIOGRAPHY: “THE MUSE OF MYTILENE”
Sappho flourished sometime in the seventh century BCE, on the island of Lesbos in what is now modern-day Greece. From her works, she describes a daughter named Kleïs (Fragments 98a and 98b) along with two brothers: Larichos and Charaxos (The Brothers poem) but beyond that, there remain many questions about who Sappho actually was. It was traditionally thought that Sappho was born into a wealthy and powerful family from Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. Sappho’s father is never mentioned in any of her poems, and although is mentioned in other sources temporally close to her period there is no certain evidence of his name or identity. Her mother is mentioned in her poetry but never given a name or characteristic to identify her with. The identity of her husband – if she had one – is uncertain as well. Some archaic sources reference a man named Cercylas, who was thought to be a wealthy merchant from Andros. However, this name translates to “Prick of (the isle of) Man” (Kivilo, 2010) so this name was likely generated for a character in one of the dramatic comedies written about her subsequent to her death.
Poets who lived in archaic Greece during Sappho’s lifetime performed their art remarkably distinct from the format and style that poetry is presented today. With Sappho, performances are assumed to have happened in several different ways; with the poet, an actor, or even a chorus of girls to deliver the performance. This would be accompanied by instruments such as a lyre or plectrum– an instrument said to have been invented by “The Poetess” herself (Rayor and Lardinois, 2015).
There has been no evidence that Sappho recorded her poems physically so, therefore “…it is important to remember… that we have no autograph of Sappho’s songs. They are all copies written many centuries after her death with various degrees of accuracy”(Rayor and Lardinois, 2015). One instance of this is the confusion between Sappho and another well-known poet from Mytilene named Alcaeus. Considering that they both performed in the uncommon Aeolic dialect during the same time period along with discussing more stereotypical ‘feminine’ topics (peace, love, and nature to name a few) determining which fragments were authored by which poet becomes difficult.
Female poets like Sappho often performed and existed in one of three ‘private’ spaces: “first, composed in the person of a woman” that was limited because the woman writing had to exist outside societal expectations, perhaps a priestess or a courtesan who exhibited freedoms most women were barred from in ancient Greece. The second were performances that were “shared only with women”– in a private space available only when shielded from the imperious gaze of men, likely to occur when men were off on conquests or during female-only religious occasions. And the final possibility was “on informal occasions, what we would simply call poetry readings” gatherings that focused on a love of poetry. (Winkler, 1996.)
As you can see, she is an elusive character, and her fragments are just as elusive. In the next section, we will discuss her poetry itself and the differences that make Sappho so unique and memorable.
THE POETRY: WHY IS SHE REMEMBERED?
Sappho’s most well-known fragments are also her larger poem remnants. Fragment two is one of these cases as well as an exceptional showcase of her abilities as a storyteller and a lyricist. Fragment two has been assumed by many scholars to be a ritual or religious song, and was perhaps performed within a small cult or even at larger ceremonies accompanied by a chorus.
Come to me from Krete to this holy temple,
here to you sweet apple grove,
altars smoking with
Cold water ripples through apple branches,
the whole place shadowed in roses,
from the murmuring leaves
deep sleep descends.
Where horses graze, the meadow blooms
spring flowers, the winds
Here Aphrodite, after gathering…
pour into golden cups nectar
with joys.(Sappho, Raynor and Lardinois, 2015.)
In this text, the language used integrates language of divinity (such as “holy”, “altars” “golden cups” of “nectar”) and nature (“apple grove”, “horses graze”, “winds breathe softly”) into a cohesive experience. An inspection into Fragment two by Thomas McEvilley elaborates “[a]s so often in early Greek poetry (and in particular in Sappho) we find that ritual, paradisal, and festal imageries overlap.” (McEvilley, 1972.) The imagery within Sappho’s poems has the capacity to be sculpted into a different experience for each reader. Sappho simply and effectively activates all five senses: you are able to taste a “sweet apple grove”, smell the “altars smoking with frankincense”, hear “the murmuring leaves”, feel the “Cold water ripples” and see the “place shadowed in roses”. Simply put, she creates an intimate setting that invites you to join herself and Aphrodite in a “gathering” of divine nature. References to Aphrodite such as this illuminate a personal relationship between the poet and the goddess that persists throughout most of the poet’s remaining works. Sappho’s typical musings discuss the emotions associated with erotic and romantic love and conjure former memories of said love. This is one of many reasons why people regard “The Poetess” so highly– her innate ability to evoke emotions from language and meter despite the language, empires, and millennia that differentiate her from modern-day readers. Her poetic meter (dubbed the “Sapphic hendecasyllable”) in which each line consisting of eleven syllables, and within each stanza decreasing (McEvilley, 1972). Although most of her songs likely had a melody, there are no surviving sources speculating or confirming what this may have looked like.
To illustrate the distinctive and unique style of her poetry, I will compare and contrast her writing to the writing of men of her field during this era. Most authors who wrote in this period wrote about materials and conditions specifically concerning men, simply because the authorship and audience were males. One of the more common styles was elegiac poetry– a style of poetry referring to, reminiscent of, or including an elegy and a persistent tone of mourning and sorrow. One poet that illustrates this style was the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus. His poetry consisted mostly of war songs and rallying propaganda for the wars he participated in; the Suda (an ancient Byzantine encyclopedia) suggests he flourished between 640-637 BCE. The poems Trytaeus penned were focused on the concept of andreia: the ancient Greek ideal of masculinity and expectations associated with male gender roles during this time period. For instance, one fragment discussing these expectations associated with andreia, he merges his message with epics and mythology, to such an extreme where its meaning is almost entirely lost amongst lists of names and references.
…Swift though thy foot, as erst Achilles’, fly,
Though Hercules his match at wrestling find;
With Cyclops though in size and strength thou vie,
And in the run outstrip the Thracian wind:
Nor though Tithonus’ stature yield in grace,
Or Midas, Cinyras, thou in gold excel;
Or thou than Pelops have more regal space,
Or have Adrastus’ tongue…(Tyrtaeus and Bailey, 1862)
In trying to convey the ideals of strength and “manliness” required of soldiers, Tyrtaeus borrows from other stories and myths so much so that the poem itself lacks a story to tell. In contrast, Sappho is able to incorporate the stories of her culture and religion without losing sight of the poem’s message. In contrast, one of her most well known and well-preserved fragments (part of which I used at the top of this webpage) is posthumously titled “Ode to Aphrodite” where she “addresses the goddess in a startlingly intimate voice, asking the deity to be her ally, her summachos, more literally, her comrade in arms.” (Decker, 2019.) Using this comparison, she makes a connection between traditional values of the time– particularly a masculine-centered ideal of martial prowess– and sculpts it into her own pattern, shattering expectations of what art and female figures could be and represent without relying on folklore and mythology to tell her story. She is able to transcend time because she retains a core message that everyone can relate to; the feelings of love and lost love,
On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, weaving wiles: I beg you,
do not break my spirit…
Come to me now – release me from these
troubles, everything my heart longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally.(Sappho, Rayor and Lardinois, 2015)
INTERPRETATIONS: POSTHUMOUS UNDERSTANDINGS
One of the earliest surviving portraits of Sappho is on a hydria (a type of water container commonly used in ancient Greece) dating from the mid-fifth century BCE, which suggests it was done posthumously and likely is not accurate to her appearance. On the vase, she is wearing a chiton with an outer sash and holding a plectrum.
After her death, “Sappho held a twofold reputation in antiquity: on the one hand she was regarded as the best and the most brilliant female poet, equal to the Muses, but on the other hand she was mocked and reproached as the model of a frivolous married woman who had many, both male and female, lovers.” (Viliko, 2010.) Sappho is woven into many myths and incorporated into local folklore in many different capacities. Where the truth about her has been lost, others have hypothesized and attempted to achieve an accurate depiction of her. One example is the “Leucadian Sappho”, however more commonly referred to as “Phaon’s Sappho”. The earliest source of this hypothesis comes from Menander’s fourth-century BCE greek drama Leucadia. This narrative encourages a heterosexualized storyline where Sappho falls in love with a young boatman named Phaon and because her love was unfulfilled proceeded to commit suicide by leaping off a cliff into the rocky water below (Viliko, 2010). In mythology the character Phaon is often assimilated with the figure Adonis, the ill-fated lover of the goddess Aphrodite. It is possible that this is because similarities between Sappho and Aphrodite (as well as their close relationship in Sappho’s poetry) had intertwined their identities as prominent female figures and as a result their lore. Both the Poetess and the Goddess of love had a sway over mortal romance: one was able to conjure love with divine power, the other arousing the memories of love and reliving erotic emotions through song. Although an interesting perspective on her life, it seems implausible. The “story of Sappho’s death must have been formed according to an excellently suitable story-pattern of a poet(ess)’ rather romantic death provided by the legends of Aphrodite, Adonis and Phaon” (Viliko, 2010). It could have also excused Sappho’s homoerotic songs of loving other women, implying a heteronormative perspective on the poet. This is just one example of many different interpretations and narratives about Sappho’s life, with varying degrees of legitimacy but all trying to fill in the gaps that these few fragments leave us.
EXPLORATIONS: AN INTERNATIONAL TREASSURE
As recently as 2014 there had been discoveries and revelations within the study of Sappho, exhibiting the retained interest in Sappho despite the time since her flourishing. It is also rare to see news sources flock to topics of importance on authors such as Sappho. But when news broke that new fragments had been found, people were enamored with the new insights to be gleaned from this elusive and mysterious historical figure. The scale of the discovery made the headline all the more appealing: Two substantial poems are included with one (referred to as “The Brothers Poem”) spanning a massive twenty lines. This, combined with the new possibilities of information expanding what we know about Sappho has made this announcement even more alluring and simultaneously confusing. Alluring because all of the fragments were written by the same scribe, and on the same papyrus roll. They are inferred to be from the first scribed selection from the library at Alexandria, some five to six hundred years after her death (Sampson and Ulhig, 2020). But also curious– some inconsistencies and questionable behavior have argued to discredit these discoveries. Artifacts from antiquity sell for a ‘pretty penny’ on underground and illegal markets. And due to the limited information, vetting, and ethical practices involved in the research of these fragments; “… there is good reason to suspect that this detail of Obbink’s account is a convenient smokescreen for allaying concerns about a papyrus whose origins were either unsavory or could not otherwise be adequately documented.” (Sampson and Ulhig, 2020.) To complicate matters further, the fragments were discovered by an anonymous party and then sold to an anonymous collector. Because of this, other perspectives and interpretations have limited to no access to the fragments which could make that translations and perspectives of these artifacts biased or even incorrect.
CONCLUSIONS: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Over the past few decades, progressive change for the rights of LGBTQ+ people has inspired many to learn the history and influences behind the LGBTQ+ cause. One of the overlooked pieces of information is the etymology of many terms to describe Lesbian women. One is the term “lesbian” itself, which originally was a term used for citizens from the island of Lesbos, but was applied to describe women with a sexual attraction to the same gender (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The term Sapphic similarly described women attracted to other women, a more so direct reference to Sappho and her homoerotic poems. For many, Sappho is a figure of Lesbian rights and women’s rights. She has also influenced many other artists: her lyrics have permeated into Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and Diana Ross’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” (Rayor and Lardinois, 2015). Similarly, there is no lack of artwork depicting “The Muse of Mytilene”– one notable example is a three-piece series that illustrates the suicide of “Phaon’s Sappho” by French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau (seen above and to the right).
Sappho has silently and subversively enacted an everlasting influence on society. Through her unique and moving poetry, she was able to establish a name for herself as a writer and remained favorable despite the fact that she was a woman. Her influence and impact endure to audiences perhaps because she was not concerned with other people’s views of her, having an uncompromising sense of worth and confidence. Or perhaps she was concerned about people’s views of her but made a choice of courage to do what she loved despite those worries. No matter the motives or reasoning that led her to pick up a pen and plectrum, she nonetheless influenced writing, poetry, song, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights as we see them today.
BIBLIOGRAPHY & FURTHER READING
If you would like to gain a better understanding on Sappho and her impacts, I would highly recommend this article by the New Yorker entitled “GIRL, INTERRUPTED: Who was Sappho?” by Daniel Mendelsohn. This article discusses the newer discoveries as well as the impacts Sappho has had in modern times.
I also suggest for further research this interesting podcast by BBC with Edith Hall, Dirk Obbink and Margaret Reynolds which talks about the newer discoveries of Sappho as well.
Bierl, A., & Lardinois, A. P. (2016). Ten Poems of Sappho: Provenance, Authenticity and Text of the New Sappho Papyri. In The newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1-4 (pp. 34-54). Leiden: Brill.
Decker, J. E. (2019). The Most Beautiful Thing on the Black Earth: Sappho’s Alliance with Aphrodite. In 1005852639 775104222 H. L. Reid & 1005853765 775104222 T. Leyh (Eds.), Looking at Beauty to Lalon in Western Greece (pp. 39-50). Place of publication not identified: PARNASSOS Press.
Kivilo, M. (2010). Early Greek poets’ lives: The shaping of the tradition. Leiden: Brill. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctv4cbgkd
Mcevilley, T. (1972). Sappho, Fragment Two. Phoenix, 26(4), 323. doi:10.2307/1087592
Sampson and Anna Uhlig, C. M., & Uhlig, A. (2020, January 31). The Murky Provenance of the Newest Sappho. Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://eidolon.pub/the-murky-provenance-of-the-newest-sappho-aca671a6d52a
Sappho, Rayor, D. J., & Lardinois, A. P. (2015). Sappho: A new translation of the complete works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uma/detail.action?docID=1658743.
Shey, H. J. (1976). Tyrtaeus and the Art of Propaganda. Arethusa, 9(1), 5-28. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26307533?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Tyrtaeus, & Bailey, J. W. (1862). Martial fragments of Tyrtaeus. London, England: Harrison. Retrieved 2020, from https://archive.org/details/martialfragments00tyrt/mode/2up
Winkler, J. (1996). Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho’s Lyrics. In 1005839000 775096162 E. Greene (Author), Reading Sappho: Contemporary approaches (pp. 89-111). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Retrieved 1996, from https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft3199n81q;chunk.id=d0e5981;doc.view=print
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