Myths about Sappho

Quite a bit has been written about Sappho, a seventh century BC Greek poet whose works haven’t survived.

There are at least 12 translations in print (Carson, Barnstone (Complete Poems of Sappho), Carman, Barnard, Poochigian, Rayor, Freeman, Duban, Russell, Marks, Powell, Lombardo…) and several novels imagining her life. There are dozens of websites devoted to her and her work.

1 Small and dark girlWe don’t know what Sappho looked like. Most portraits and descriptions of her are dated hundreds of years after her lifetime. One tradition was that she was small, and dark. She may have been of Anatolian, or Lydian, descent.

The basis of all this industry is minute: three poems thought to be complete, and extensive parts of three others. Discovered over the years are fragments of papyrus with some parts of other poems (often half lines), and many single words quoted by grammarians to elucidate Sappho’s Aeolian dialect of Greek (imagine her as a kind of Robbie Burns).

This tattered survival is found in many other early Greek poets’ work. As though inevitably, it seems we have gradually invented Sappho to suit ourselves. I suppose we do that with every favourite author, but rarely a writer who hasn’t survived the ages.

Two words explain all the activity. One is ‘Lesbian’. The other is ‘Lyric’. We consistently use these two words anachronistically, give them meanings different to those they had in the seventh century BC.

Sappho was a Lesbian

‘Lesbian’ has two meanings. One signifies a person born on the island of Lesbos (or Lesvos as the tourist board likes to call it). This usage reminds us that in Sappho’s time and more recently, Greece has not been a nation. The ancient Greeks didn’t invent nationalism; instead they thought of themselves united by a common language, divided by a competitive striving for power. They were Hellenes, with a common ancestor, but followed leaders devoted to amassing personal power and control of city states called poleis. Political groups also attempted to use foreign powers in their struggles for dominance. In Sappho’s time that power was Lydia. Later it was Persia, and finally in modern times Turkey. When Greeks called themselves Lesbian, or Cretan, they were making a claim for personal and political liberty, from foreigners and Greeks alike.

2 LesbosAt times dominated by Lydia, Persia, Turkey and the Orthodox church: but Lesbos in Sappho’s day and earlier was the cultural centre of the Aegean and Mytilene a powerful trading centre joining East and West

This political context brings up two other words we use anachronistically. “Democrat’, and ‘Tyrant’. In Sappho’s time and later, a democrat was one who campaigned for support among the demos, the common people, as distinct from aristos, wealthy land owners who competed for power among themselves. These democrats were led at first by tyrants, or popular leaders, elected unconstitutionally by popular acclaim and generally reformers.

One of the factoids preserved by first century scholars at Alexandria was that Sappho’s family were aristocrats, fought against Athens to retain control of the wealthy Black Sea and Lydian markets, then fought against a tyrant named Pittakos. Sappho’s father was killed, and she and her family moved to the Asian side of Lesbos, to the capital city Mytilene. Sappho’s contemporary Alkaios came from the same social strata, fought against Pittacos, and was exiled. From exile he wrote bitter satires about the tyrant and his regime, but when things cooled down was forgiven and returned to Lesbos. We have no idea if this is what happened to Sappho, but it was said she and her family were exiled for a time to Sicily (Sicily and Italy were where most Greeks lived, not Greece – I said there was no national feeling about Greece at that time). Perhaps we have lost some mocking political poems of Sappho’s.

3 Woman with lyreThere were other female singers than Sappho in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. One of the most famous was Erinna, one of whose poems, the Distaff, was famous and much quoted.

‘Lesbian’ has also come to mean a female homosexual. The word actually refers to Sappho, from whose name we also get ‘sapphic’, with the same meaning. The idea was, Sappho was a homosexual, and she was a Lesbian, so Lesbians were homosexual. Faulty logic. Those born on Lesbos might sometimes be homosexual, but no more on average than any other random group.

‘Homosexual’ (or ‘Lesbian’) is another word we use anachronistically. Homosexuality was rare in ancient times. What was acceptable at least for a period in a person’s youth was bisexuality. This arose from the segregation of the sexes in ancient societies, which had the same result as it does in an average boarding school in modern times.

In fact we have not the slightest idea if Sappho was homosexual or bisexual, just as we have no idea of anyone’s sexual orientation unless they flaunt it. In Sappho’s case she expressed passionate feelings for other women in her poetry, but that’s not homosexuality. It can be just a literary artifice, or a dramatic one.

4a Sappho poem4b Saphhos On Old Age papyrus c. 3 BCA modern reconstruction of a papyrus fragment of a poem by Sappho, and the normal condition in which such fragments are found, in this case among some mummy wrappings

Ancient books, whether scrolls or codices (books) were written without punctuation, and without separation between different works. Sappho’s poems were in an edition at one time of nine books, of which a papyrus fragment tells us volume one contained 1320 lines (about 12000 lines all told of which 5% survive). The speaker or poet was expected to know when each piece began and ended. The dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles often had no speakers names before their parts in manuscripts of their plays.

In Sappho’s case, unlike Greek drama, we have no idea how the poems were performed. They could have been dramatic in nature too, and so the expressions of passionate feeling might have been between named characters relevant to the occasion of recitation. They were certainly written for and performed at public festivals, where a declaration of passionate love to another might have seemed inappropriate. There is no justification for assuming Sappho expressed personal desires in her work. It is just one of several possibilities, but we have decided it is the only one.

Sappho was a lyric poet

Another word used anachronistically is ‘lyric’. We have three meanings for ‘lyric’. One is the expression of personal feeling in poetry, one is the words to a song, and a third, the original meaning, is songs accompanied by a lyre.

5 Fresco of a woman playing the lyre, AD 50-79, PompeiiThe lyre as played in Pompeii first century AD. There was a larger model called a kythera, but I imagine Sappho, as a woman, and a small one at that, might have preferred the ordinary lyre

Of the names of seventh century BC Greek poets we know of several ‘lyric’ poets. Yet others wrote choral work, and epic. All poetry (there was no prose at that time) was a performance, accompanied by dancers, who may have been the major part of the performance. They were accompanied by musicians, who played percussion, flute or lyre or a combination of these. At key moments a poet would be expected to speak or chant a poem, conventionally said to be inspired by the god whose ritual was being celebrated. From this came first poetry, and later the drama. Due probably to an earlier poet called Arkhilokhos who was popular and influential throughout Greece, the voice of an individual was first heard, and poetry became more personal. This poetry was always accompanied on lyre, an instrument the size of an autoharp but without a keboard.

It is important to remember the performance elements when reading or speaking Sappho’s poems. Most forget them. When she wrote, poetry was not a private activity. Some god, or hero, or festival was celebrated with dance, music and song. Sappho was a singer. There was no alternative. Homer may well have been an older contemporary from the next island, Chios.

6 Theatre at SyracuseIn the days before TV entertainment was part of civic and religious ritual. In medieval Europe it was saints’ days and seasonal festivals. The ancient Greeks had many heroes, gods and demi gods to celebrate. It was at these festivals that poetry emerged for the first time. Written poetry was a development slightly later than Sappho’s lifetime. Homer was first collected in written form in 566 BC by Peisistratos of Athens, and perhaps that’s when the editions of Sappho began to be produced

No matter how personal the poem, it was always a performance. Arkhilokhos might tell of having thrown away his shield in battle and run for his life, but that doesn’t mean he actually did, and was making a confession. More likely he was parodying the bombast of army recruitment, and voicing the ‘better to live another day’ viewpoint that would have gone down well with the sceptical farmers who formed the army in those days.

When Sappho writes of a speaker (in the first person) who attends a marriage betrothal and feels longing for the woman about to wed, we only assume it is Sappho speaking. The poem (preserved in a work On the Sublime of the third century AD by an unknown writer) would have been performed at a wedding most likely, and not necessarily by Sappho. It tells of the longing and anguish the speaker feels to see this girl with another man, her husband to be. Yet because of Sappho’s reputation, the only possibility we allow is that the words are Sappho’s and the grief is felt because of a lesbian attachment she had with the girl. None of this is in the poem itself, but in our imaginations. We don’t know enough to make a judgment, but that hasn’t stopped us.

7 Sappho on gold coin of PhokaiaSappho became a celebrity in her lifetime but her chief period of fame was between the fifth century BC and the third century AD, between 150 and 800 years after her death. Coins were minted with her image, statues erected, editions of her poems were copied and scholarly works devoted to her. All in vain, as her work vanished

In fact, if Sappho made it a custom to write wedding songs for girls she knew at Mytilene and imagined the emotions of regret of the girls’ unsuccessful suitors at her choice, that would be an ideal topic of ridicule for the hordes of writers of fourth century BC New Comedy who probably, if their works had only survived, we would find were the ones who founded Sappho’s reputation as a lesbian, just as slightly earlier Kratinos had jeered at Sokrates for only being in it for the money.

We can’t say Sappho’s poetry was not lyrical in the modern sense of the expression of personal feelings; just that, given the conventions of the time and the way poetry was then performed, it’s probably unlikely.

One possible exception to this is the song to Aphrodite preserved by Dionysios of Halikarnassos in his first century AD work On Composition. The poem is a dialog between Sappho and Aphrodite. Sappho complains of her anguish and longing for another, and Aphrodite obligingly agrees to help her. It is a poem of some humour at Sappho’s importunities. The only indication it was the plight of Sappho herself the poem is about is her name, mentioned once by Aphrodite. It could be said that the only indication Sappho was a lesbian rests on this one word, her name. One word.

Sappho was a great poet

It is common to see hyperbole about Sappho: the greatest of ancient Greek poets; the greatest of all poets; the greatest of all writers. I read this in reviews of translations of her work, and wonder.

8 AdeleSappho was not just a poet, but a celebrity. Even in her lifetime she was well known, much more so after her death. It is this celebrity which has outlasted her appreciation as a poet. Like Adele, whose autobiographical songs and weight fluctuations outweigh her talents as a singer

We know that many Greeks admired Sappho’s work. She became a classic. Scholars wrote learned books about her and about her poetry, there were many editions of her poems, and people could quote her as readily as they did Homer.

Yet we can’t make a similar judgement. Not with six poems, and a collection of half lines and single words.

Yet we do. And the agendas are obvious. Like Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Sappho is the greatest. Despite being a woman (feminists), a homosexual (gay liberationists), she wrote beautiful poetry about love (romantic poetry lovers). The fact her poetry hasn’t survived is ignored by all these groups. The Church is blamed: the Pope is said to have had her works burned out of disgust at its matter. But that story is not spread about any other poet. Sappho’s disappearance is more likely due to indifference, as Gibbon believed. Her work ceased to be copied, and mouldered into oblivion. Even had Sappho achieved perfection, perfection was not the aim of culture shapers, but power.

To make something of her fragments, translators have ‘completed’ the missing bits of lines, they add lines together that might not belong, ‘adapt’ her to English rhyme schemes (Edwardian ladies were very prone to do this).

In Greek the music lies in rhythmic alternation of syllable length; in English it’s the stress on some syllables which form a beat. The artistry in Greek, translators tell us, is in selecting words that carry the rhythm of the music (there were dancers dancing to it as well) which also reveal the story being told, not always the obvious one.

This adaptation in English gives product, certainly. Remember those 12 plus translations into English now in print. It gives interested campaigners a hero to namedrop, who has somehow survived masculine and sexist oppression.

All very well. We each get the Sappho we need. My only complaint is that this has nothing to do with the historical poet of Lesbos.

Those websites I mentioned at the beginning of this essay? Here’s a sampling. Here are some Greek texts of Sappho. She should ideally be read in her own language (like all poets). For Sappho’s sake use a pronunciation guide and say her words aloud. Sappho’s music has been completely lost, but don’t forget the words are sung to a lyre accompaniment. All this is very difficult, one reason why we like someone else to do it for us. I try, and don’t sound very good, but it’s an aid to just reading the poems. Here’s some of Sappho’s lines read aloud, though without any lyrical musical accompaniment. I think it was more spectacular than this, though the readings could not have been easy, they were in Aeolian. This site has info about Sappho (a few typos as well) and a selection of poems each by a different translator. The translations made me wonder what all the fuss was about, and didn’t sound like Sappho at all. There is no attempt at dialect, no musical accompaniment, no singing. Here’s a contemporary translation by AS Kline. It’s better than most, but still no music, no voice, still a bit literary.


It’s the little things that often count. Sappho saw the world around her with a vividness few are capable of. This countryside on Lesbos was part of what she noticed and wrote about: it’s something we know she loved

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the poet who gives me the impression of having some of Sappho’s qualities as a poet is Emily Dickinson. I’m not saying Emily was a lesbian. But she had a painter’s eye, felt with a rare passion, was clear and concise, and one learns from her every time. So too Sappho. Not too many writers hit the mark after 2600 years. Homer, perhaps Arkhilokhos. Sappho, even in a half line.

I wonder what she was like as a musical composer, or a lyre player. Nobody ever talks about that, as her music seems never to have been written down. I wonder if her complete works were available if it would hurt her reputation. Mostly I just wonder.

©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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