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Who is Sappho?

By Wanda Albano
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sappho is an ancient poet from the Greek island of Lesbos. She was born between 612 BC and 630 BC, and died around 570 BC. Her poetry has been heralded by even the great masters, drawing praise from the likes of Plato and Horace. She is one of the first female writers who we know of, and although her work only now exists in fragments, with only one truly complete poem surviving, her reputation continues.

Sappho was a lyric poet and wrote in the arcane Aeolic dialect, which is thought to be one of the reasons why study of her work was dropped in the Byzantine era — her language had become obsolete in Roman times. This disappearance of her work from the academic canon of the day resulted in less and less of her poems being produced by the scribes, which explains, at least in part, why so much of her work has been lost to antiquity. At present, we can only read snatches of her work and have to fill in the blanks with allusions to her work by other sources.

Apart from what ancient documents survive, not much is known about Sappho. Reading her life into her work by treating her poetry as a kind of autobiography is now discouraged as the context of her writing is unknown. The Victorian era cast her as a kind of mistress of an academy for girls, but this was really more an effort of her admirers to make her more palatable to the genteel classes than actual fact. After all, consensus among scholars have pegged Sappho as likely to have been bisexual, which is obviously not in keeping with the Victorian period's conservative standard.

Actually, her perceived — and unproven — homosexual tendencies are one of the few things for which Sappho is now well-known. She seemed to be drawn to beauty in all its forms, and wrote love poems to people of both sexes. In fact, she originated the modern definition of the word lesbian; Sappho was often referred to as the Lesbian, or the woman from Lesbos. The word Sapphic, which also has homosexual connotations, is drawn from her as well.

We may not know much about Sappho, but we do know a few things. We know that Sappho came from an aristocratic family, as her observations about certain environments, as well as her travels, give evidence of that. We also know that she was forced to leave her home in Lesbos during a rebellion led by Pittacus, and was exiled in Syracuse, in Sicily, where the local people built a statue in her honor as welcome.

There is also a rather romantic story about her death which tells us that Sappho jumped off the Leucadian cliffs for the love of a ferryman named Phaon. This tale dates as far back as Menander, who lived from 342-291 BC, but is unverifiable.

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