Psappho of Lesvos

I’ve just finished reading Arthur Weigall’s Sappho of Lesbos again. I’m a poor sifter through second hand book stalls, and I picked it up over ten years ago and enjoyed it immensely. It’s dangerous to reread a book you’ve once enjoyed, because often you can’t recapture that first impression, but this time I did. Though I saw shortcomings in the book I hadn’t seen earlier, I still think it the best book on the subject I’ve come across. Surprising, because it’s also the earliest. Sappho of Lesbos: Her Life and Times was first published by Thornton and Butterworth in London in 1932. Second hand copies are still available.

I’m more aware now that Sappho (that’s “p-sap-hó” – takes a bit of practice; she spoke a northern dialect of Greek) is a kind of blank template upon which readers imprint their obsessions, rather than just a poet of distinction. She’s a way of recapturing the feeling of longing for a loved one that fills people’s lives, but mostly so long ago. For feminists she’s the world’s first surviving female author, barely surviving at all because of men’s oppression of women and so to be triumphantly celebrated. For homosexuals she’s the champion of sexual love between women, once practised on Lesbos but later turned into a thing to be ashamed of, until recent times. For Weigall himself she is a tragic case of late blooming love, and he spends an inordinate amount of time on her alleged romance with Phaon. Ancient critics referred to her as a priestess, a homosexual (“Lesbian”), a prostitute, and as a suicide for rejected heterosexual love. All evidence that by the first century BC not much information on Psappho had survived the years.

I have a question for both homosexuals and feminists. Why has Sappho’s contemporary and friend Alkaios not been treated the same way as she? He was as good a poet; his work survives in similar fragmentary form; he was equally prominent in Greece at that time; he was equally as innovative; he was a lover of boys. Yet he is comparatively ignored. Could this be an example of sexism?

The enigma
Actually we know nothing about Sappho. Her poetry hasn’t survived either, except for two large fragments which look to be almost complete poems, and a collection of individual words quoted by later grammarians. She’s mainly a figment of our imaginations. What we do know is that all ancient writers that refer to Sappho admire her poetry immensely. She is often called the greatest of Greek poets, even compared to Homer in skill, which is as high a praise it was possible to give a writer in the ancient world. However, this lack of information is not surprising. It is usual for ancient artists. We know nothing of any writer, composer, sculptor, painter, dramatist or musician from the ancient world earlier than the fourth century BC, and then what we do have is fanciful romance rather than biography. Their lives and all but fragments of their work have vanished, no matter how celebrated they once were. Sappho is a great stimulus for our imagination. What could she have been like?

Weigall’s book is both scholarly and readable. He quotes all surviving fragments of Sappho, and all surviving references to her, and a look at these sources of information is illuminating.
• The Greek or Palatine Anthology dates from the 10th century AD
• Maximus of Tyre was a second century AD philosopher
• Strabo the Greek historian lived about 64 BC to 24 AD
• Diogenes Laertius was a third century AD writer of lives of the philosophers
• Suidas is a tenth century AD Byzantine encyclopedia
• Cicero lived 106 BC to 43 BC, a Roman statesman and orator
• Herodotus the Greek inventor of history lived in the fifth century BC
• Stobaeus is an anthologist of the fifth century AD
• Eusebius was an historian who lived 263 AD to 339 AD
• Aelian was a Roman author who lived 175 AD to 235 AD
• Athenaeus was an anthologist who lived in the third century AD
• Seneca 54 BC to 39 AD was a Roman writer
• Plutarch was a Greek historian who lived 46 AD to 120 AD
• Ovid was a Roman poet who lived 43 BC to 17 AD
• Catullus was a Roman poet who translated Sappho and lived 84 BC to 54 BC.

Sappho is thought to have lived between 612 BC and 558 BC. Our only sources of information for her life, work and reputation all lived between 500 years and 1500 years after her time, with the exception of Herodotus, who lived 200 years after her time. We don’t even know anything about the lives of these ‘sources’, nor how reliable they might be. In addition we can guess about the loss of other information from the works of authors who haven’t survived the years, which might have been illuminating. For instance, one of the sources of information often used by Alexandrian and Byzantine historians of ancient literature was a vast collection of fourth century Athenian and Sicilian so called New Comedy, plays which haven’t survived to our times. Ancient biographers took lines from these which were meant to be funny, from what we today call ‘skits’, and repeated them as straightforward biographical remarks.

Weigall, and his sources, therefore repeats information which in most cases is very likely fanciful, or just plain wrong. It’s all we have. All we can know, in fact, we have to derive from a reading of the two poems we have. Even there, though, we have problems.

The poems
We know very little about how the poems were performed. There are indications they were sung by a performer, apparently at festivals, to accompaniment on the lyre, a strummed, stringed instrument halfway between a harp and a guitar, and so called lyric, in distinction to the other main forms of poetry of the day, the choral ode, sung to musical accompaniment by a chorus (and from which the drama is surmised to have developed) and the epic, declaimed by a bard in honour of noble houses of that time. We don’t know for sure if poets composed the music of their songs, but think they did. It hasn’t survived. Sappho was probably a composer as well as a poet. We don’t know for sure if Sappho’s poems were dramatic or personal, though we want to believe them personal, because we have a whole genre of poetic ‘lyric’ influencing our judgment. However, performance was most likely public, and it seems extraordinary for a poet to get up at a religious festival or a nuptial and declaim to the crowd her passionate love for another woman. True, in Sappho’s society there was nothing wrong with feelings like that, and her contemporary Alkaios did the same, expressing his love for a boy (though probably at drunken, male only, dinner parties).

We really have no idea whether Sappho’s poems were expressing her personal feelings, were declamations given a dramatic form to celebrate the effect of Aphrodite’s power on human beings, or monologues recited by others, a husband at a marriage feast for example. We don’t know, but we want to know, so we imagine, and make pronouncements about Sappho’s poetry that are more revealing about the pronouncer.

There’s a reason for this. Every fragment we possess of Sappho’s poetry, every word, seems to tantalisingly bear out the praise of ancient writers. Sappho may indeed be the greatest poet of antiquity.

On the other hand, though we can apparently know nothing definite of Sappho’s life, have no certainty about her feelings, no knowledge of her music, her playing of the lyre, her performances, nor of the festivals where she may have performed: we do know that many writers who wrote about her and sung her praises had before them her collected poetry, one of the most popular collections of poetry in the ancient world for almost a thousand years. By early Christian times this popularity was waning, which meant that manuscripts were not copied as often as they once were, and became fewer and fewer. A lot of Christian bigots denounced Sappho’s work, but it was more likely indifference that led to their loss. All literary work had to be copied by hand, and Sappho’s Greek was obsolete and archaic. The age of epic led to the age of lyric, then the age of drama, of history, of philosophy, of scholarship, and finally to that of theology. Gibbon says there was one single copy of Sappho in the Emperor’s library at Byzantium, and it was burnt when the Venetians sacked the city in 1203.

Weigall deals with this lack of knowledge by giving space to the ‘times’ as well as the ‘life’ of Sappho. And he begins in a way which impresses me greatly, by describing the land in which Sappho lived. This is beautiful, evocative writing that reminds me of Colette’s writing about her childhood, and deserves to be quoted. He is speaking of Eresos, Sappho’s birthplace on the mid west coast of Lesbos.

“To the south-west on a clear day, across the blue expanse of the Aegean, the dim mountains of Greece could be seen; and to the north-west those of the volcanic isle of Lemnos, the reputed home and workshop of Hephaestos, the Vulcan of the Romans, were clearly visible sixty miles away; while Mount Athos, rising up on its harbourless and dreaded peninsula, a hundred miles distant, could sometimes be discerned. To the north-east, fifty miles away, was Mount Ida, from the heights of which the gods were said to have watched the battles in the plain of Troy below, and eastward there was the amazing view across Lesbos itself to the mainland of Asia Minor, where range behind range of mountains, delicately purple and blue, could be seen, even as far as Dindymus in distant Phrygia and the Bithynian Olympos”. (p20)

“Two little rivers, turbulent except towards the end of summer, ran down from the mountains to the sea; and the soft tamarisks which lined their banks were the home of many birds, and provided shade both for the herds of goats and for the unseen but clearly apprehended Naiades, or river-nymphs, who loved the sound of running water and the singing of birds, and indeed, themselves sang sweetly, too. Red-flowering oleanders here grew wild; and in spring the violets, hyacinths, and anemones carpeted the ground. These rivers passed at length into the sea across the sandy beaches not far from the city; and in the moonlight the Nereides, the beautiful nymphs of the sea whom Doris, daughter of Ocean, bore to her brother Nereus, could sometimes be heard calling to the river nymphs their haunting salutations”. (p21)

Sappho came from a northern region of Greece called Aeolia. We have to imagine her with a distinctive dialect, and a distinctive accent, perhaps something like an Irish or Scots girl in Britain. Like the Celts in Britain, the Aeolians fought many battles: they were a turbulent people. In Sappho’s youth there was a great war with Athens over the control of the trading city of Sigeum near old Troy. When that was settled there was civil war between factions representing the aristocracy of the island and the popular front. In fact this kind of battle or class warfare was happening in many cities in Greece, and was responsible for the growth of what we call democracy. In one battle it is possible that Sappho’s father, fighting on the aristocratic side, was killed: she is said to have been adopted at an early age by a relative, and her family moved to the safety of the big city on the east coast, Mitylene. Sappho was said (no-one knows on what authority) to have been a small, dark girl, with frizzy hair forming tight ringlets that would have sprung outwards and fallen over her shoulders. Perhaps she had some Phrygian blood. We can imagine her iris as black, and radiating intense energy. Ancient authors say she was ugly, by the standards of the day (blondes were ‘in’ then too) but they say also she was extremely attractive and a magnetic personality. Go use your imagination.

All through Sappho’s youth the war over Sigeum had been going on. The city was on a war footing, the men were at the front, there was rationing, and morale needed building. In these circumstances the women of the aristocracy, Weigall thinks, would have taken an active role, distributed rations from their surplus, organised prayers to the gods, made sacrifice, sung hymns. In this context he sees the origin of stories of Sappho as leader of groups of young girls, as she was depicted by gossips in later centuries.

The poets
When Sappho began to write poetry, which Weigall imagines would have been in her late teens, she would have been familiar with a vast number of poets, lyric or elegiac, whose work she would have heard recited on every possible festival day. These are but names to us, or represented by fragments:
• Erinna of Telos, authoress of a famous long poem called The Distaff
• Alkaios, from Mitylene, who wrote lyrics about drinking and about love
• Arion, another Lesbian poet, one of the founders of tragedy
• Terpander of Antissa in Lesbos, recently deceased in Sappho’s youth
• Alkman of Sardis
• Polymnastos of Kolophon, also a brilliant musical composer
• Mimnermos of Smyrna, a writer of sad elegies
• Stesichoros of Sicily who wrote lyric narratives
• Eumelos of Corinth
• Olympos of Phrygia, a composer for the flute
• Archilochos of Paros, the satirist, one of ancient Greece’s most celebrated poets
• Simonides of Samos, another satirist
• and, of course, two poets whose works have survived, Hesiod and Homer.

These would have inspired Sappho, shown her what was possible. It was a time of rapid development in poetry. Poetry had a period like the Elizabethan drama of Shakespeare’s day, when expansion in trade and by conquest led to cross fertilisation from many cultures, and form and content were equally fluid. Weigall imagines Sappho as reading these poets’ work, but although books, or papyrus scrolls as they were then, were known from Egyptian examples, it is not known if they had led to the formation of private libraries in Sappho’s day. It was probably still largely an oral culture. For this reason the poems of Sappho should be read aloud. If you don’t read ancient Greek, as I don’t, then romanised Greek will suffice (though accent replaces measure and it’s not the same). Just remember that Sappho’s poems were an aural experience, and she made her impact by being heard. Think of her if you must as a singer/songwriter.

The class warfare endemic in Sappho’s day in many Greek cities, was led and in some cases resolved by men the Greeks called ‘Tyrants’. This has a bad meaning now: then it was neutral; it meant ‘unconstitutional leader’. The Tyrants in many cases created new, more equitable constitutions, curbed oppression by the landed aristocracy, fostered trade, and created an ancient New Deal. They were problem solvers. Later writers on this period evolved a list of the Seven Wise Men, and most of these were Tyrants. Weigall gives quite a bit of space to a survey of these Tyrants, in order to sketch the political background of Sappho’s world: Periander of Corinth served as arbiter between Lesbos and Athens; Solon of Athens amended his city’s constitution (and his poems were celebrated as well); and Pittakos, Tyrant of Lesbos against whom both Sappho’s family and her friend Alkaios fought.

Exile and star
During the class warfare on Lesbos and following the ascendency of Pittakos, Sappho and her family were exiled, and were sent to Syracuse to cool off. There Sappho is thought to have married a rich merchant. Weigall imagines her as a millionaire trendsetter of the day in Syracusan society, whose poetry gave her a kind of cachet, like the ancient world’s Joni Mitchell. After five years Sappho was allowed to return to Lesbos. She was now a widow.

Weigall gives some space to the role of women in Greek society, and notes that according to the little evidence we have, Lesbos seems to have accorded considerable legal and social freedom to women. It was possibly the only place in the Greece of that time where women could form the groups, associations and friendships they pleased. Sappho had wealth and fame to protect her though, and may have had a status that protected her, even though she wrote poetry, which conservative men elsewhere may have thought best left to the men. Then again, as she wrote poems for the festival of Aphrodite, and was clearly inspired by that goddess, she might have had the status of a priestess. Though helped by her riches and fame, Sappho was intelligent, and could probably be forceful, and devious enough, to outwit those who would have restrained her. Go use your imagination again.

Sappho and sex
Weigall looks at Sappho’s supposed role as leader of a group of young women on Lesbos very much attached to one another. While I think 19th century accounts that portray Sappho as running a kind of ancient girls’ finishing school are anachronistic, Weigall wants to believe in the group, and in their homosexual attachment. He points out though that the original reputation Sappho appears to have had was as someone who had casual sex with men, not with women. Step across to the mainland in Sappho’s day, and go to Ephesos, and you find another group of young women, led by a priestess, dedicated for a time to rites for Aphrodite which included sexual acts. No poetry from Ephesos has survived saying how fond the priestess there was of her acolytes, yet the girls would have been virgin when they arrived, and needed some guidance in their role, from which strong attachments might well have arisen. The story is in Herodotus. Similar rites are said to have been practised at Corinth, where Sappho supposedly ended her days. These rites became scandalous as the cult of the Olympians became established. Was this the origin of Sappho’s reputation as a homosexual? The fragments of her poetry suggest she was ardent in her feelings, but there is nothing overtly sexual in any surviving line. Yet she seems in the verse clearly to be a priestess of Aphrodite.

Weigall has considerable material on the lifestyle of Sappho’s day, and I found it fascinating. Clothing, cosmetics, architecture and housing, sanitation, food, hospitality, games…it all brings ancient Lesbos very close, as there are clear similarities in all areas with life today. What was different was the attitude to religion, which then permeated all aspects of everyday life, attitudes to nakedness, sex and death, which were much more matter of fact and overt than our attitudes, and hospitality, a formally observed ritual.

The story of Sappho in ancient times closed with two love stories, in content and attitude very much like the popular novels of the Graeco-Roman world of the first century. The first was the story of Rhodopis the courtesan who was loved by Sappho’s brother Charaxos. The second was the love of Sappho herself for Phaeon, a hopeless passion for which she killed herself. Both these tales are pure Mills and Boon. If you like them, well then, use your imagination again. Weigall certainly does.

Weigall’s book is a good book, a valuable repository of every scrap of story, every word or line of Sappho’s poetry. He knows her island of Lesbos well. His tale brings Sappho’s world to life. Read it, then read the poetry. The life is fantasy. The poetry is as real as it gets.

The poetry of Sappho: only two partial poems. In one, the speaker is called Sappho, and she prays to Aphrodite to persuade a girl friend to love her, as she has helped many times before. The emotion portrayed is that of longing for a perhaps indifferent loved one. The substance is a hymn of praise to the power of the goddess Aphrodite. There is no indication that the feeling described is sexual in nature (it may be, there is just no indication). The second poem portrays the feelings of an unnamed person watching a young girl flirt with a young man, and being overcome with desire while watching. In a third tiny fragment a person, Sappho, farewells a companion she loves who is leaving her unwillingly, and she reminds that friend of the good times they have shared. The rest is too brief to be decipherable, saving some lovely metaphors:
“like a hyacinth in the mountains
  that shepherds crush underfoot” (Julia Dubnov trans.)

“like a sweet apple
  turning red, high on the tip
  of the topmost branches.
  Forgotten by pickers
  Not forgotten – out of reach” (Julia Dubnov trans.)

The poetry of Sappho, recordings of it, and various translations are here:

Sappho’s works were said to have been in nine volumes. Each volume, or papyrus roll, might have held between 50 to 100 poems. There might have been commentary by later scholars, glosses on obscure words. Say 400-800 poems. Not much is left. The rest is literary gossip of unknown provenance passed on 1,000 years after Sappho’s death.

Sappho’s reputation
Sappho appears from references in her surviving poetry to have been a leader in a cult of the goddess Aphrodite, the god of procreation and love and sex. There was in ancient times even a cult of Aphrodité Porné (sexual intercourse). Women especially prayed for good sex, and success in conceiving and bearing a child. It was both unsophisticated and pragmatic. Perhaps women especially felt part of a mysterious natural rhythm that belonged to the gods themselves. Throughout ancient times, especially in Asia Minor, the nearest land to Lesbos, sacred prostitution was practised at temples to the goddess whom in Greece was known as Aphrodite. This is known about by Herodotus. By actually practising sexual intercourse in the temple, Greek women then hoped the goddess would enter them and bless the sex they would later have with their husbands. Very different from our attitude to sex today. We know there was such a cult at Corinth in Sappho’s day. Her poems might be evidence of a similar cult on Lesbos.

This could also be born out by Sappho’s later reputation. By the time her poetry came to be collected in the fourth century, and known and loved throughout the Greek world, not much was known about Sappho’s life. There was an impression, however, that she had been a prostitute, and had had sex with many men. Because this was not the life thought appropriate for Greece’s greatest lyric poet, a second Sappho of Lesbos was invented, a famous prostitute of the time. By the fourth century BC there would have been no understanding of sexual rites or sacred prostitution in the adoration of Aphrodite, which would have seemed ‘foreign’ to the Greeks of Plato’s day.

All those who read the complete poems though agreed on one thing. Sappho was the poet who best described passion and longing for a loved one. No one then thought of her as a ‘lesbian’. That reputation only seems to have come about because in modern times just two poems survived, and one of these refers to a person called Sappho who feels longing for another woman. That longing may have been sexual in nature. Who knows?

Lesbianism. Was Sappho homosexual? Only a woman can answer the question. When you say you miss an absent girlfriend, does that mean she’s your lover? When you pray that a girlfriend love you as much as you love her, does that mean you want to take her to bed? I’m a heterosexual male and I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. Especially where only 0.25% of the evidence has survived.

It seems more likely to me that Sappho talks, with exquisite delicacy and tenderness and exceptional insight into human emotions, about the power of divine Aphrodite over human beings. That her poems celebrate religious rites long forgotten. She may have had a superb, exceptional ability to find words to exactly describe these hidden feelings, words based on a very cogent enjoyment of the natural world around her. Her natural world has long been wasted. Her language has long been misunderstood and forgotten. But if ancient critics accurately judged her, how precious every surviving word is.

The most essential thing to remember about Sappho was that she was a singer. Remember her on the stage, small, dark, intense, magnetic, playing the lyre like a virtuoso, singing in a beautiful contralto words that made you gulp, snuffle, wipe a tear from your eye, words you remembered the next day, the next week, that made you shyly say to friends, “I heard the lovely Sappho sing – on golden Lesbos – long ago”.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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