|I remember--- lovers remember all things. |
...[W]ith the passage of time, her work has come to represent, even her name alone -- the very existence of her work being generally ignored -- the pernicious, and for some fascinating, mystery of forbidden love. But she, the woman, the poet, where is she? Who is she? With her works torn to shreds, scattered and buried deep in the sands, in the night of Egyptian tombs, she was deprived of her poems, divested of all historical reality -- modern authors have treated her as an imaginary poet born of legend. But a journey or 2,500 years through works and arts, through customs and ideas, reveals that her glory was dazzling and she was the first modern poet.(Edith Mora.)
It is believed that Sappho is the first feminist poet because in a culture dominated by men and masculinity, which meant war themes were common, Sappho wrote of love and emotions.
For some - it is horsemen; for others - it is infantry;
For some others - it is ships which are, on this black earth,
Visibly constant in their beauty. But for me,
It is that which you desire.
To all, it is easy to make this completely understood
For Helen - she who greatly surpassed other mortals in beauty -
Left her most noble man and sailed forth to Troy
Forgetting her beloved parents and her daughter
Because [ the goddess ] led her away ....
Which makes me to see again Anactoria now far distant:
For I would rather behold her pleasing, graceful movement
And the radiant splendour of her face
Than your Lydian chariots and foot-soldiers in full armour ....
(Fragment No. 147 tr. by W. Myatt)
Sappho, a marvelous woman. --Strabo, Geographical Sketches, 13.2.3.
Sappho has influenced and inspired many who followed her.
Herodotus (484-424 BC) mentions her [History, 2.135.6].
Plato (428-347 BC) invokes her name in several dialogues; in one he has Socrates refer to the "lovely Sappho" [Phaedrus, 235c].
Aristotle (384-322 BC) quotes Sappho [Rhetoric, 1367a].
Strabo (c. 20 BC) tells of the cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea from which Sappho was said to have jumped to her death [Geography, 10.2.9].
The Roman odist Horace (65-8 BC) refers to Sappho's "sweet lyric moan" [Odes, 2.13.24]
The Roman love poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) has Sappho write a letter to her unresponsive lover Phaon [Heroides, XV.].
The English writer Mary Darby Robinson (1758-1800) wrote a sonnet sequence about the ill-fated love Sappho had for her young lover [Sappho & Phaon]. It was the young and handsome Phaon and his rejection of the poet that legend suggests caused Sappho to leap from the promontory described by Strabo.
In the 2nd Century BC, the Alexandrian librarians Aristophones of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace collected her work into nine volumes. Later, the editors of the Palatine Anthology elevated Sappho's status and inscribed her as the tenth muse. Today only about 650 lines of her poetry in fragmentary form are available. The first modern collection of what remains of her work was published in English in 1925.
By the 16th Century Sappho's name had been turned into an adjective. "Sapphic" refers to both a poetic form and a type of sexual preference. The "sapphic" verse form is a four line strophe made up of trochaic and dactylic feet. "Sapphic" also became descriptive of women who intimately love other women.
There is the mythical Sappho too. The one seen in the portrait painted by the Pre-Raphaelite Charles Auguste Mengin in 1877. In that somber image Sappho is standing near a rock atop a cliff overlooking the sea into which she would moments later leap.
The myth blends with the truth because over time so little of the facts have survived. Like her known poetry, only fragments of Sappho's life are discernible.
She was born sometime around 613 BC on the island of Lesbos which sits in the northeastern part of the Aegean Sea. Her father, Skamandronymous, a prosperous wine merchant, was part of the social and political aristocracy. She was orphaned at the age of six. Most of her life, except for the time she was exiled, was spent living in the culturally sophisticated city of Mytilene. She had at least two brothers, Charaxos and Larichos, the latter being the official wine pourer of the city. Despite the fact that the standard feminine ideal at the time was blonde and tall Sappho was apparently short and dark. Mary Derby Robinson amplifies on Sappho's physical appearance when shw writes that "the Lesbian Muse is said to have been sparingly gifted with beauty." Sappho married a wealthy businessman Cercylas of Andros and together they had a daughter, Cleis. But Sappho was a widow by the time she was 35.
According to J. B. Bury a Cambridge historian, Mytilene, in Sappho's time, was a prosperous commercial city of culture ruled by an aristocratic class called the Penthilids who "were wealthy and luxurious and oppressed the people." (Bury, A History of Greece. Modern Library.) The tyrant Pittacus, who history records as a wise lawgiver and a force for democracy (he is also one of ancient Greece's Seven Wise Men) rose to rule Mytilene and help rid it of its conservative noble class of which Sappho, apparently, was a member. She was exiled for several years during Pittacus's reign. She lived in Sicily where a statue of her was erected. However, it is not clear if Sappho was politically active or whether she was simply guilty of being born into a wealthy conservative family in a time of democratic reform. The Mytilenians, however, recognized her poetic talents and minted coins with an impression of her head.
Sappho was a teacher of young woman and the record suggests that her approach to human relationships was based on mutuality. This was indeed a countercultural approach in a culture built on the patriarchal system of domination and submission. The question of Sappho's sexual orientation when framed in the language of our historically homophobic western culture explains why so little of Sappho's reality survives, except in the voices of other poets who recognize a most kindred spirit.
Detail from "Sappho and the Muses"
(Acrylic on Canvas)
Karen Cora. 1999.
Over and over again we hear the point made that it is problematic to view and judge other cultures, present and past, against the backdrop of our own time and place. In our time the spiritual anchor provided by an abiding faith in God or some other religious mechanism is mostly absent from intellectual discourse. Isn't this why cultural and moral relativism makes sense? But this relativism is problematic because we wish to affirm our dislike for the ancient Greek institution of slavery, for example, and yet affirm our support for its approach to sexual freedom and experimentation.
The Passion of Sappho
The Abbé Barthelemi, who wrote about ancient Greece from the perspective of the late 18th century, observed that:Sappho undertook to inspire the Lesbian women with a taste for literature; many of them received instructions from her, and foreign women increased the number of her disciples. She loved them to excess, because it was impossible for her to love otherwise; and she expressed her tenderness in all the violence of passion...(Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece, 1788.)
The legend that Sappho threw herself off the cliff at Leucata because of her one-way heterosexual passion for Phaon notwithstanding, we now link Sappho and her poetry with the concept of intimate female homosexuality. In an essay outlining the "social constructionist" theory of sexuality in Ancient Greece, Brian Arkins writes,
[T]he sexual system of Lesbian society, both male and female, was similar to that obtaining in fifth century Athens. Members of aristocratic bands of male hetairoi will have contracted arranged marriages and engaged in homosexual relationships with adolescent boys. Similarly, Sappho will have entered an arranged marriage--she had a daughter named Kleis--and engaged in lesbian relationships with adolescent girls. So the answer to the age-old question Was Sappho a lesbian? is yes and no; she was, if you like, bisexual (though that term does not adequately describe an arranged marriage and lesbian relationships not with women of her own age, but with adolescent girls).
If in sexual terms Sappho simply replicates the male system from a women's angle, in cultural terms she offers something radically different. The male hetairoi will have been devoted to war and to dining in the Great Hall (as in Homer), but Sappho and her friends will have been devoted to the worship of the goddess of love, Aphrodite and to the cultural pursuits of dance and song. In that limited sense, Sappho must be viewed as providing a woman's view and as counter-cultural. ("Sexuality in Fifth-Century Athens" 1994; University College. Dublin, Ireland.)
The intellectual Camille Paglia asserts that "Sappho and Emily Dickinson are the only women geniuses in poetic history." (Sex, Art, and American Culture). That's high praise, even if it isn't true. What can be said of Sappho is that she is a love poet. Pure and simple. The specific design or arrangement of that love is not the relevant point of her work. Romantic passion itself has become fragmentary in our age of serial monogamy. Ultimately, what is relevant, is that Sappho's poetic fragments speak of the desire to make love last.
|Sappho at the Cosmic Baseball Association|
Sappho Related Links
- Sappho Biography @ Tufts University Hellenic Society
- Sappho Project Home Page
- Sappho's Poetry @ UC Berkeley Gopher
- Sappho Mailing List Home Page
- Sappho and Lesbian Poetry
- Poetry of Sappho by Alexandria North
- "The Sadness of Things for Sappho's Sickness" by Robert Herrick
- Sappho: The First Modern Poet
- "Sappho" painting by Charles Auguste Mengin
- "Sappho & Phaon" by Mary Darby Robinson
- Mary Darby Robinson
- "Sappho's Legacy" 1996 essay by Jennifer Snook
- Sappho and Latin Literature
- Female Intellect in Antiquity
- Women and Gender in the Ancient World
- Sappho- Warrior of Poetry (Warriors of Euphoria Role Playing Game)