Sappho of Lesbos

Woman Poet of Ancient Greece

Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene by Simeon Solomon
Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene by Simeon Solomon. Fine Art Photographic Library/Corbis via Getty Images

Sappho of Lesbos was a Greek poet who wrote from about 610 to about 580 B.C.E. Her works include some poems about love of women for women. "Lesbian" comes from the island Lesbos, where Sappho lived.

Sappho's Life and Poetry

Sappho, a poet of ancient Greece, is known through her work: ten books of verse published by the third and second centuries B.C.E. By the Middle Ages, all copies were lost. Today what we know of the poetry of Sappho is gleaned only through quotations in the writings of others. One poem from Sappho survives in complete form, and the longest fragment of Sappho poetry is a mere 16 lines long. Sappho probably wrote about 10,000 lines of poetry. We have just 650 of them today.

The poems of Sappho are more personal and emotional than they are political or religious, especially compared to her contemporary, the poet Alcaeus. A 2014 discovery of fragments of ten poems has led to a reassessment of the long-held belief that all her poems were about love.

Very little about Sappho's life has survived in historical writings, and what little is known comes to us primarily through her poems. "Testimonies" about her life from contemporaries, like Herodotus, potentially tell us something, though some of these "testimonies" are known to include inaccuracies.

She was from a wealthy family, and we do not know her parents' names. A poem discovered in the 21st century mentions the names of two of her three brothers. Her daughter's name is Cleis, so some have suggested that for her mother's name as well (unless, as some argue, Cleis was her lover rather than her daughter).

Sappho lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, where women often congregated and, among other social activities, shared poetry they'd written. Sappho's poems usually focus on the relationships among women.

This focus has given rise to speculation that Sappho's interest in women was what today would be called homosexual or lesbian. (The word "lesbian" comes from the island of Lesbos and the communities of women there.) This may be an accurate description of Sappho's feelings towards women, but it may also be accurate that it was more acceptable in the past—pre-Freud—for women to express strong passions towards one another, whether the attractions were sexual or not.

A source that says she was married to Kerkylas of the island of Andros is probably making an ancient joke, as Andros simply means Man and Kerylas is a word for the male sexual organ.

A 20th-century theory was that Sappho served as a chorus teacher of young girls and that much of her writing was in that context. Other theories have Sappho as a religious leader.

Sappho was exiled to Sicily about the year 600, possibly for political reasons. The story that she killed herself is probably a mistaken reading of a poem.

Bibliography

  • The Love Songs of Sappho (Literary Classics) , Sappho, et al. 1999.
  • Sappho: A New Translation, Mary Barnard (Translator), Dudley Fitts. Reissue 1999.
  • The Sappho Companion, Margaret Reynolds (Editor). 2001.
  • The Laughter of Aphrodite: A Novel About Sappho of Lesbos, Peter Green