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This is the first in a series of biographies I will be writing about women from all walks of life and time periods. I'm open to suggestions of women I should write about.
Birth: c. 610 BCE, Island of Lesbos, Greece
Death: c. 570 BCE
Cause of death: ???
Not only was Sappho one of the first female western authors we know of, she was super good at what she did — write lyric poetry and run a girls’ school.
The only info we have on her outside of what remains of her poetry comes from men who weren’t her biggest fans. Big surprise there… so it’s best to take what they say with a grain of salt (we know how fragile some men are when talking about strong women—more about that later).
Plato—yes, THAT Plato—called her the “10th muse,” which would be flattering if he actually did more than sit around and be ~inspirational~. It would have been a bigger compliment to call her the next Homer.
Most of what we know about her comes from second-hand sources and unreliable legends.
The best description found says she was short and dark skinned. One of her poems mentions she had black hair. That’s it. That’s all we know about her appearance, not that looks are everything anyway.
People think her mom’s name was Cleis, but no one can be sure. Tradition back then was to name your kids after your parents, and Sappho might have had a daughter named Cleis. BUT (there’s always a but), the word used to describe Cleis II could also mean slave, and the translation isn’t clear. So Sappho’s mother and daughter (or slave) were both named Cleis. Maybe.
As for Sappho’s father, in a weird turn of events, there are 8-10 possible names for him floating around. She never directly named him in her poems, but the most commonly given name sounds like a background character from Harry Potter—Scamandronymus.
Two of her brothers’ names are known and a third is hinted at in her poems. They are Erigyius, Larichus, and Charaxus.
She might have married, though the information we have about this doesn’t come from her, but from later male sources, and the name given for her husband is a dirty joke. He was recorded as Kerkylas, from the island of Andros. Greek slang for penis is “kerkos” and “Andros” is close to the word for “man.” Basically, the oldest dick joke I’ve ever heard was created by men as an attempt to oversexualize Sappho by marrying her to “Dick of Man.” Charming.
Sappho was either exiled or ran away to Sicily twice, possibly because of her political views. Her writings were not overtly political, and she tended (so far as we can tell based on her few surviving works) to focus on love and domestic life. Despite her absences from Lesbos for whatever reason, she lived most of her life in its capital city of Mytilene.
In Mytilene she ran a kind of religious club for young women called a thiasos. There were other rival thiasoi in town. They were kind of like poetry-based girl gangs.
Aphrodite was Sappho’s deity of choice. She played the role of intercessor between the women and the goddess. Much of the imagery in Sappho’s poems show things used in rituals to worship Aphrodite—flowers, garlands, and incense, for example. Apparently, Aphrodite was boho chic.
The thiasos focused on getting the young women ready for marriage. What was mainly taught in the thiasos was singing, dancing, and poetry with the aim of catching the eye of a potential suitor. I know, I know—how uncool, right? But the Thiasos was not just a finishing school, it was also focused on building relationships between the women as well as the worship of Aphrodite. Within it, homoeroticism was practiced as an initiation rite and could be considered marital in its own right.
In Sappho’s poetry, passion was the key to love. Marriage songs were an important part of her body of work. It is still being debated if her poems were generalizations of the society she lived in and of the ideal girl, or if they should be read as autobiographical. Realistically, it’s probably a bit of both. Most artists put something of themselves in their work even if it’s subconsciously.
It is worth noting that some people think Sappho’s protégée, Damophila, was the one who ran a thiasos (in Pamphylia) and that the two women are being confused for each other. Wouldn’t be the first time men treated women as being interchangeable…
It is not known exactly when Sappho died or how. Legend says she threw herself off a cliff because a sailor did not return her feelings for him. She ran a poetry girl gang and was fairly independent for her time, so I highly doubt she threw herself off a cliff because some dude who smelled like fish turned her down.
A poem called “Old Age” was discovered in 2004 and talks, in part, about what aging does to her body, so it can be assumed she lived past middle age. Or maybe her hair turned prematurely white when she had a premonition about the dumb things men would write about her after she died. Who knows?
What format her poems were published in during her time and the few centuries afterward is unknown. In the third and second centuries BCE, her poems were collected into nine books. But by the eighth or ninth century CE, her works were only found in quotations by other authors. Ouch.
Only one poem is completely intact: "Ode to Aphrodite." In it, she begs the goddess to make her female love interest return the sentiment. "Ode to Aphrodite" is a big mood. I know I’ve certainly seen a pretty girl and hoped she wasn’t straight.
The loss of most of Sappho’s work is because the elements were not kind to the papyrus they were written on (a kind of plant-based paper). It is possible, though there has been no reliable proof, that the moral uptightness of later societies had something to do with it as well. The Church, especially, was known to censor or destroy works they found distasteful or “harmful.”
Papyrus fragments of her poems started turn up in the 1800s and continue to the present day.
Because so little of her writing exists, it is difficult to say who Sappho was attracted to. Her surviving poems show her expressing love for both men and women. Again, the question of just how autobiographical her poems are comes up. Plus, it’s hard to apply modern day terms like “lesbian” and “bisexual” to a society that viewed sexuality differently than we do.
Here’s the super weird thing concerning the word “lesbian”: traditionally, the word was used to describe someone acting like the people of Lesbos (with the connotation of being particularly good at giving fellatio). The whole island had that reputation, for some reason. From the Classical Period onwards, she was portrayed as an oversexed lover of men. In plays and other works, authors showed her as ready to drop to her knees to perform something other than her poetry.
This also seems to go along with the dick joke name of her potential husband already mentioned.
It seems like this is yet another case of men seeking to belittle a woman because she dared to be better than them at something, even though she was long dead by then. And they say women are the emotionally unstable ones…
It was during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s that the word “lesbian” came to describe women who love women. Interestingly, before the modern day usage of lesbian came to be, the word “Sapphic” was used in its place and was particularly popular in the early 20th century.
It seems no matter who Sappho was attracted to, she was always destined to represent women who love women in some capacity.
Side Note: I will draw a portrait of every woman I write about rather than use images to avoid copyright issues.
Belge, Kathy. ”What is the origin of the word lesbian?” LiveAbout, 14 July, 2017, https://www.liveabout.com/what-is-the-origin-of-the-word-lesbian-2171260. Access Date 23 July, 2018. Web.
Mark, Joshua J. “Sappho of Lesbos.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2 Aug. 2014, https://www.ancient.eu/Sappho_of_Lesbos/. Access Date 23 July, 2018. Web.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Girl, Interrupted.” The New Yorker, 16 Mar. 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/girl-interrupted. Date Accessed 23 July, 2018. Web.
“Sappho.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 8 Feb. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sappho-Greek-poet. Access Date 23 July 2018. Web.
“Sappho.” Poemhunter.com, https://www.poemhunter.com/sappho/biography/. Access Date 23 July, 2018. Web.
“Sappho Biography.” Biography.com, 27 Feb. 2018, https://www.biography.com/people/sappho-9471666. Access Date 23 July 2018. Web.
“Sappho's Thiasos.” Lost Womyn's Space, 7 April, 2011, http://lostwomynsspace.blogspot.com/2011/04/sapphos-thiasos.html. Access Date 23 July, 2018. Web.