Sappho was a renowned poet of ancient Greece. Only fragments of her original nine books of lyric poetry have survived the ages, along with some details of her life. Sappho is most famous today as a Lesbian icon due to her poems describing her passion for other women. Since at least the early 1700s, women with same-sex orientation have been called lesbians (citizens of Lesbos) after Sappho’s home, the Greek island of Lesbos. The term Sapphic, which refers to a type of metered verse, also refers to same-sex love between women.
Few details about Sappho have survived in the historical record. Born about 612 BCE in Eresus on the west coast of the Greek island of Lesbos, She was reportedly orphaned at about age six, and went to Sicily eight years later. She returned to Mytilene on the east coast of Lesbos, where she became a teacher at a school for girls. Sappho had a daughter, Cleis (also the name of Sappho’s mother), who is mentioned in her poetry. Sappho’s poems also indicate an intense relationship with a woman named Atthis.
Although Sappho supposedly married a man named Cercylas from Andros, “Cercylas” may be a pun that can mean “penis” or “prick” and is likely derived from the Greek comic tradition. When “Cercylas” is combined “Andros,” the phrase becomes “Prick from Man Island” as Andros is connected etymologically with the Greek noun aner (man). Ancient historians claimed that Sappho married Phaon, an old and ugly ferryman who transported the goddess Aphrodite and refused payment from her. Aphrodite (disguised as an old woman) then gave him with an ointment that made him young and beautiful.
Sappho died in old age in Mytilene, but the exact date of her death is unknown. Some ancient writers reported that she threw herself off a cliff for love of Phaon and drowned.
The Tenth Muse
Plato, who shared the admiration of many in the ancient world for Sappho’s poetry, categorized her as the “Tenth Muse” (the Nine Muses were goddesses who inspired aesthetic and intellectual creativity). Sappho’s contemporaries were lavish in their praise of her talent as a poet. The Athenian lawgiver Solon supposedly asked his nephew to teach him a song by Sappho that the nephew had just sung at a drinking party. When Solon was asked why he was so keen to learn the song, he replied, “So that having learned it, I may die.”
Sappho’s works remained popular for many centuries after her death, but she fell out of favor with the rise of Christianity. In the sixteenth century, scholars in Italy and France re-discovered Sappho and praised her poetry, although they had some trouble with her love verses for women. Because of Sappho’s connection with the island of her birth, women who love women were obliquely labeled “lesbians” (citizens of Lesbos) not unlike the way that men who loved men were labeled “sodomites” (citizens of the city of Sodom) after the Biblical story of Sodom in Genesis.
Same Sex Love in Sappho’s Poetry
The history of Sappho is filled with efforts by biographers to find a romantic link between her and some man that would serve as proof that the poet was not romantically involved with women. Sappho’s poems, however, make this difficult. Fragment 23 contains these lines:
Some believe a team of cavalry, others infantry,
and still others a fleet of ships, to be the most beautiful
thing on dark earth, but I believe it is
whatever a person loves.
It is very easy to make this
clear to everyone: the one who by far
outshone all mankind in beauty,
Helen, abandoned her high-born husband
And sailed away to Troy with no thought whatever
for her child or beloved parents,
but led astray by [not legible]
now of Anactoria, who is
no longer here
I would prefer to gaze upon her
lovely walk and the glowing sparkle of her
face than all the chariots of the Lydians and their
Sappho the Heterosexual
The Roman poet Ovid of the first century CE became the first to try to heteronormalize Sappho’s reputation. He did so by having her renege on her love for women. Ovid put the following words in the mouth of Sappho when he wrote the Heroides:
Anactoria is of little worth to me, of little worth is shining Cydro,
not pleasing to my eyes, as before, is Atthis,
and the hundred other girls whom I loved without reproach;
worthless man [Phaon], you alone have what once
belonged to many girls.
In 1681, Anne Le Fevre Dacier claimed that tales of Sappho’s love for women were spread by men envious of her talents. In 1684, Baron Longepierre, who like Dacier, supported the idea that Sappho loved Phaon, nevertheless noted that Sappho’s poetry had a stain that could not be cleansed, giving some credence to her reputation as a woman who loved women. Other scholars denounced Sappho’s sexuality or downplayed it with obsessive and excessive attention to the Phaon story. Giovanni Boccaccio, the fourteenth century Italian writer, paid tribute to Sappho in De Claris Mulieribus [On Glorious Women] but remained completely silent about her attraction to women.
The heterosexualization of Sappho is one reason why portraits of her from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries show her with a male, suffering because of a man, or show her killing herself over Phaon.
Sappho, Lesbians, Lesbos, and Atthis
In the twentieth century, Sappho was symbolic of Lesbian rights, women’s emancipation, and women’s liberation. She became known more for her celebration of woman-to-woman passion than her poetic skills. Since same-sex loving women accepted the term “lesbian” for themselves, and as LGBTQ tourism grew into a lucrative industry in the decades after Stonewall, the island of Lesbos has become a tourist destination for Lesbians (as in Gay women) as well as the home of Lesviots (alternative: Lesvonians, people born and raised on the island of Lesbos).
In 1972, openly Lesbian musician Maxine Feldman released “Angry Atthis,” the first known recorded song of what would become women’s music (made by women, for women). The title is a play on words, since “Atthis” could refer to the woman mentioned by Sappho in her love poetry (“Angry Atthis” symbolizing an angry Lesbian), and could also be read as “at this,” thus be a subtle message of rage against the oppression of Lesbians (“Angry At This”).
Because of her renown as a poet, Sappho’s name is given to an Aolic verse form made of four lines (or three if reckoned in its classical rendering). The Sapphic stanza is made up of trochees and dactyls. The trochee has one stressed syllable and then an unstressed syllable. The dactyl has a stressed syllable and two unstressed syllables. The first three lines of Sapphic stanza have two trochees, a dactyl, and then two more trochees. The shorter fourth line (the Adonic) has one dactyl and a trochee.
Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Knopf, 2002.
Johnson, Marguerite. Sappho. London: Bristol Classical, 2007.
Page, Denys. Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry. London: Clarendon, 1955.