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Sappho of Lesbos

Updated: Jan 30



A painting of Sappho
Painting of Sappho by John William Godward (Public Domain)

For over 2,000 years, Sappho’s life and work have been the subject of great controversy. Although Sappho was a famous lyrical poet in her lifetime and beyond, very little of her work has survived, and the poems that do survive mostly exist in fragments. Many accounts of her personal life were written long after her death, and much of her life remains a mystery. This has left many scholars to speculate about the meaning of her work and her sexuality.



Sappho’s Life


A map with the island of Lesbos highlighted in red
The Island of Lesbos, the largest of those in red, off the coast of Turkey (Souce: Wikimedia Commons)

Sappho was born around 620 BCE on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is located in the Aegean Sea, near the coast of modern-day Turkey. The modern word "lesbian” is a reference to Sappho’s birthplace. While little is known about her personal life, it is believed that Sappho lived in a community of women on Lesbos, where she formed deep emotional bonds and wrote poems exploring love, desire, and the complexities of human relationships.


Sappho’s family and her lineage remain a mystery. In 2012, one of her poems, now called the “Brothers Poem,” was discovered on scraps of papyrus. The poem names three of her brothers, and she is thought to have had a daughter named Cleis, but translators disagree about her exact relation to Cleis.


The year and circumstances of Sappho’s death are unknown, but according to legend, she was so heartbroken by her love for a man that she leaped from a cliff. This legend is regarded by some scholars as an attempt to portray Sappho as a straight woman.


Poetry


An oil painting by Jules-Élie Delaunay of Sappho kissing her lyre atop ocean rocks
“Sappho Kissing her Lyre” (Source: Jules-Élie Delaunay)

Sappho is best known for her poems, often referred to as "lyrics" because they were written to be sung accompanied by a lyre. Her words are passionate, emotional, and filled with vivid descriptions of love and longing. Her work primarily focused on the relationships between women, depicting their beauty and allure. Sappho's poems were often written in the first person, which has led readers to speculate that some of her works might have been autobiographical.


Many scholars have debated the translations of Sappho’s works, in part because she wrote her poems in a specific dialect. Take this passage, for instance:


“Sweet mother, I cannot weave – slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a girl.”

Some scholars interpret this fragment as a confirmation that Sappho was writing about a relationship between two women, or perhaps her own feelings for a woman. Other interpretations insist that the original text uses a genderless word to refer to the narrator’s “beloved.”


Loss of Sappho’s Work


In the centuries after Sappho lived, she was regarded as one of the greatest writers of antiquity. She became the only woman to be enshrined as a lyric genius by the scholars at the ancient Library of Alexandria. Tragically, most of Sappho's poetry has been lost to time.


Due to various factors, including the passage of time and the suppression of LGBTQ+ themes and feminine eroticism in later eras, many of her poems have disappeared. What remains today are fragments, small snippets of her once-prolific output. Despite the fragments, Sappho's words remain potent and evocative, and her influence endures.


Want to read Sappho's works?


You can find collections of her writing online at the Poetry Foundation.


Sappho in Queer Culture


Sappho's legacy in queer culture is profound. Her work has been rediscovered and celebrated by LGBTQ+ individuals and scholars alike. Her name, which has come to symbolize love between women, is not only synonymous with lesbian identity but has become an emblem of love, acceptance, and self-discovery.


Painting of Sappho being embraced by another woman in the garden
Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (Source: Simeon Solomon, 1864)

Although it will never be clear whether Sappho’s sexual identity would fit under the modern umbrella of Sapphic attraction, her poems have served as a source of inspiration and empowerment for generations of queer individuals. They have helped foster a sense of belonging and self-acceptance, reminding those who identify as LGBTQ+ that love is universal and transcends time and societal norms.


 

References


The Digital sappho. The Digital Sappho. (n.d.). https://digitalsappho.org/fragments/fr102


Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Sappho. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sappho-Greek-poet


Mendelsohn, D. (2015, March 9). How gay was Sappho?. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/girl-interrupted


Poetry Foundation. (n.d.). Sappho. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sappho

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