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Who is Sappho?

Sappho, an ancient Greek poetess, hailed from the island of Lesbos, and her lyrical mastery has echoed through millennia. Her passionate verses on love and desire, though fragmentary, have profoundly influenced Western literature. Her work invites us to explore the depths of human emotion. How might her timeless words resonate with you? Join us to uncover her legacy.
Wanda Albano
Wanda Albano

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.

Sappho's poetry drew praise from Plato.
Sappho's poetry drew praise from Plato.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Sappho and why is she significant in history?

Sappho was an ancient Greek poetess from the island of Lesbos, who lived around 630-570 BCE. She is significant for her lyrical poetry, which celebrated love and passion, particularly between women. Her work contributed to the understanding of the emotional and personal aspects of human relationships in literature. Although much of her poetry has been lost, her surviving fragments have influenced writers and poets for centuries, and she is often considered one of the first known female writers.

What are some of the themes found in Sappho's poetry?

Sappho's poetry predominantly explores themes of love, desire, beauty, and the experiences of women. Her work often reflects on the intensity of romantic and emotional attachments, the beauty of young women, and the pain of unrequited or lost love. She also delves into themes of marriage, femininity, and the daily lives of women, providing a rare glimpse into the private world of ancient Greek women.

How much of Sappho's work has survived, and how do we know about her poetry?

Only a small portion of Sappho's poetry has survived to the present day, primarily in the form of fragments. Her work was originally passed down through oral tradition and later transcribed. The discovery of papyri, quotations by ancient authors, and references in other texts have allowed scholars to piece together some of her poems. According to the Suda, an ancient Byzantine encyclopedia, Sappho's work was once compiled into nine volumes, but most of this has been lost over time.

Why is Sappho often associated with female homosexuality?

Sappho is associated with female homosexuality due to the content of her poetry, which often speaks of love and admiration for other women. The term "lesbian" itself is derived from the island of Lesbos, where Sappho lived. Her portrayal of the depth of female relationships has led to the interpretation of her work as expressing homoerotic sentiments, although interpretations vary based on the cultural context of her time.

How has Sappho's legacy influenced modern literature and culture?

Sappho's legacy has had a profound impact on modern literature and culture. Her lyrical style and exploration of personal emotions paved the way for genres such as the love sonnet and confessional poetry. She has become an icon for female creativity and same-sex desire, influencing feminist and LGBTQ+ literature and thought. Additionally, her life and work have inspired countless works of art, music, and theater, cementing her status as a timeless figure in the cultural imagination.

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    • Sappho's poetry drew praise from Plato.
      By: anastasios71
      Sappho's poetry drew praise from Plato.