Sappho, the Poetess

You may forget but let me tell you this:

someone in some future time will think of us.”

– Sappho

For this first article, we thought it might be best to start as close to the beginning as possible, even though we are certain the project will skip around through history from here on in. While there is no way to find out who the first human to experience romantic attraction to a person of the same gender was, we will go as far back as we can manage, to the origin of the word for attraction between women, to one of the most recognizable figures in history: to Sappho.

Sappho was a poet, born sometime between 630 and 612 BCE and spent most of her life in Lesbos. This placed her in Greece during a particular period when it was much more acceptable to be attracted to the same gender than it is now, and she took full advantage of that fact.

In fact, her reputation for loving women, combined with the island's reputation, led to the creation of the word lesbian.

Though the word began as a descriptor for fellatio between a woman and a man, her reputation shifted it into the word we use today. That is not the only way she affected the language we use today; her name itself is used to describe the romantic love between two women in the word “sapphic.” Her place as a figurehead and namesake of women who are attracted to women communities is not only a symbolic one but a literary one. Fragments that remain of her poetry contain numerous mentions of other women in erotic contexts. Yet many scholars still insist she must have been heterosexual.  We will look at the why and how of that now.

Sappho has been ranked among the greatest poets of all time ever since there have been rankings of poets and has more than earned her spot. Her work is both prolific and groundbreaking for its time, leading the way for thousands of other poets who came after her. While much of her work was lost in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and much of it has been destroyed by religious leaders, the fragments that were recovered are enough for her still to be remembered and admired. Sometimes in spite of her queerness, and other times because of it.

So beyond the chronological reasons we choose this place to start, the mental gymnastics people have to do to think Sappho was straight is a fitting place to begin, as it will show exactly what kind of forces we will be dealing with throughout the growth of this project. Accepting the prejudice that lies behind the logic of the scholars who try so desperately to pretend she is straight, why, even though they had the opportunity to do so, didn’t they scrub her from the history books entirely?

 

It seems like a simpler solution to cover up history than to rewrite it. She wouldn’t have been the first queer person to be erased from history, and it would have been easy. Even now, we don’t have much left of her work or life as time has left little for us to examine. She is remembered, and highly praised, even by the people who work so hard to only see history as heterosexual.

One possible reason for her legacy still enduring today may be that it’s simply impossible to ignore her. As “The Poetess” to Homer’s “The Poet,” one of the nine great lyricists, and according to Plato, the Tenth Muse, she is unforgettable. We have little of her work left, but she originally had nine volumes of poetry, all of which were well loved and referenced by other famous writers. Plato, who was not known for enjoying poetry even said,

“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!/Look, there's Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”

Horace wrote in his Odes that Sappho's work was worthy of sacred admiration, she is not someone who can fade away. Her work is known as some of the best poetry of all time, full of wit and eloquence, and inspiring other writers for thousands of years to come.

Because of her great work historians were left with the dilemma of wanting to consume the work of a queer person without giving any credit to a queer person.  Without the ability to erase her name from history and attribute her accomplishments to someone else, it seems the next best option to some people is to ignore her sexuality.

While in the time and place she lived it was acceptable within mainstream society to have romantic and sexual connections with women while also being a woman yourself, each era after seems to try to retroactively change that. Scholars have worked tirelessly to come up with wild theories why she must have been heterosexual. Trying to find some loophole or turn of phrase they could use to avoid admitting that such influential work could have been written by a queer person.

We will take time now to look at some of the ridiculous theories about how Sappho could have done the work she did, leaving the reputation and legacy she did, and still be heterosexual. One of the less popular theories is that that there were, in fact, two Sapphos: one a great poet, the other a “notorious slut." Unsurprisingly, there is little to no evidence that this could be the case.

Other scholars have tried to give her a husband, or male lover, working under the mistaken belief that she couldn't have had a relationship with a man and still be attracted to women, as bisexuality exists. Though the existence of a husband would not negate her queerness, the husband she was reported to have has a name that translates out to “Penis, from Men's Island,” so his existence is unlikely. Also, the primary source of this information is The Suda, which also gives eight possible names for her father, so it is hardly a solid reference. The erotic way in which she described goddesses was explained away by scholars by placing her in the role of the priestess, just doing her job. In the Victorian Era, some tried to style her as the headmistress of a school for girls, but there is no recorded evidence to back this change in occupation.

After years of coming up with different theories why she must have been heterosexual, the most common one now is that her poetry was not autobiographical. Some even suggest she was the one to invent "the lyric I" which is a term for poems which put the author as a stand-in for the reader. If such a claim is true, then we truly know nothing of who the real Sappho was.

Many scholars seem content to accept that the poems are autobiographical when she is discussing other things, like politics, or a feud with a friend, but as soon as it comes to her sexuality, they balk.  Almost everything we know of her is speculation; no one has accurate accounts of her life. What we have at best are rumors and gossip. Except for her poetry.

Her poetry is the only certain part of her we have. So why do scholars run to encyclopedias, (one theorized to be written by a Christian scholar, a religion that was notoriously known for the burning of Sappho's work) and present theories, instead of just looking at her work and letting it speak for itself?

Throughout the years, theory after theory has been brought up and subsequently shot down. Though many people will claim she was heterosexual, she is still a recognizable part of queer culture. Whether that is because of the obviousness of her queer identity or because of the queer community itself refuses to allow her to fade into heterosexuality is debatable, but it is probably a healthy mixture of both.

Sappho has become as much of a figurehead of the community of women attracted to women as she was a poet. Activist groups are named after her, books are written about her, queer people themselves identify with her; she is the proof that homosexuality is not a new, but as old as legends themselves. While her personal life has faced incredible amounts of speculation, and it has become hard to untangle truth from fiction, she has become more than that: a symbol. Despite the efforts of biased academics who claim the queer community is the one ignoring reality while they cite a source about as reputable as Wikipedia, she will remain that for many years to come.

Though it is inarguable that the attempts to erase her sexuality will continue, it has always been, and to be impossible to ignore that Sappho’s love for women was sapphic

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Sappho. Sappho Quotes. Goodreads. Retrieved March 3 2016 from
https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/59712.Sappho

Academy of American Poets. Sappho. Retrieved March 3 2016 from
https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/sappho

Mendelshon, D. (2015, March 16.) Girl, Interupted: Who was Sappho? The New Yorker.
Retrieved March 3 2016 from
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/girl-interrupted

Online Etymology Dictionary. Lesbian. Retrieved March 3 2016 from
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=lesbian

Purdue University. Gender Relations and Sexual Behavior in Ancient Greece.
Retrieved March 3 2016 from http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~rauhn/greek_gender.htm

Suda On Line and The Stoa Consortium. (2014, August 1.) The History of the Suda On Line.
Retrieved March 3 2016 from http://www.stoa.org/sol/history.shtml