Sappho: The Poetess

The painting “Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene” by Simeon Solomon, in which a pale woman with brown hair wearing a red dress is held by another pale woman with black hair wearing a yellow dress. They sit together on a stone bench surrounded by nature.

The painting “Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene” by Simeon Solomon, in which a pale woman with brown hair wearing a red dress is held by another pale woman with black hair wearing a yellow dress. They sit together on a stone bench surrounded by nature.

You may forget but let me tell you this:

someone in some future time will think of us.”

– Sappho

We thought it best to begin as close to the start as possible, though we're certain the project will jump throughout history. While there is no way to know who was the first human to experience same-gender romantic attraction, we will go back as far as recorded history allows. We begin with the origin of the word Sapphic and one of the most recognizable figures in history: Sappho.

Sappho was a poet born sometime between 630 and 612 BCE on the island of Lesbos. During her lifetime, Greece was much more accepting of same-gender attraction than it is today. It is her reputation for loving women and the island she spent most of her life led to the creation of the word “lesbian.”

Initially, the word described fellatio between a man and a woman, but her reputation shifted it to the word we use today. Sappho had quite an impact on our language; she lends us her name in the word “sapphic,” describing romantic love between two women. Her place as a figurehead and namesake of sapphic communities is not only symbolic but literary as well. Though only fragments of her poetry remain, we know they held numerous mentions of other women in erotic contexts. Still, many scholars insist she was heterosexual.

Sappho is considered one of the greatest poets of her time and throughout history. Her work is both prolific and groundbreaking for its time, leading the way for thousands of other poets who followed in her footsteps. While much of her work was lost in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and later by religious leaders, the fragments that remain are enough for her to be remembered and admired; sometimes in spite of her queerness, but more often because of it.

In addition to the chronological sense of starting with Sappho, there’s also the erasure of her identity that makes her a fitting person with which to begin. It shows exactly the kinds of forces we’re up against in the pursuit of queer history. If we accept that many historians hold prejudice, it leads to the question of why: given the opportunity, why did they not scrub her from history entirely?

It seems 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.

Fortunately, her legacy may remain purely because she is impossible to ignore. As “The Poetess” to Homer’s “The Poet,” one of the nine great lyricists, and according to Plato, the Tenth Muse, she is unforgettable. Though we have little of her work left, she once 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 it is impossible to erase her work, historians were left with the dilemma of having to erase the person. Without the ability to erase her name from history and attribute her accomplishments to someone else, it seems the next best option for some people is to ignore her sexuality.

While she lived in a time where she could love other women, each following era seems to struggle more and more with that idea. Scholars have worked tirelessly to develop theories around her heterosexuality, trying to find a turn of phrase that could prove something that did not exist. Anything to avoid admitting such influential work was written by a queer woman.

One of the less popular but remarkably funny theories is that of the two Sapphos: one a great poet, the other a “notorious slut.” Unsurprisingly, there is essentially no evidence that this was the case.

Others have tried to give her a husband or even a male lover, mistakenly assuming any man would mean she did not also sleep with women. And though a man would not negate her queerness, her supposed husband’s name translated to “Penis, from Men’s Island,” and his existence is unlikely.

Scholars explained away her erotic descriptions of goddesses by placing her in the role of the priestess. In the Victorian Era, some tried to style her as the headmistress of a girls’ school. There is no evidence for either position.

After years of wild theories, homophobic historians have settled on a new take: her poetry was not, in fact, autobiographical. Some even go so far as to suggest she invented the “lyric I,” a term for poems which put the author as a stand-in for the reader. If such a claim was true, then we truly know nothing of the real Sappho.

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 rumours and gossip. Except for her poetry.

Her poetry is the only certain part of her we have. Why then do scholars not look at her work and let 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 a recognized 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 a figurehead 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. 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.

While her personal life has faced incredible speculation, and it has become hard to untangle truth from fiction, she has become more than that. She is a symbol. Despite the efforts of biased academics, she will remain that for many years to come.

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

Academy of American Poets. (1996). Sappho. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/sappho

Balmer, J. (1992) Sappho: Poems and Fragments. Hexham: Bloodaxe.

Duban, J. M. (1983). Ancient and Modern Images of Sappho: Translations and Studies in Archaic Greek love Lyric. Lanham: University Press of America.

Mendelsohn, D. (2015) Girl, Interrupted: Who was Sappho? The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/girl-interrupted

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

Reynolds, M, ed. (2001). The Sappho Companion. London: Vintage.