Sappho (Attic Greek Σαπφώ, Aeolic Greek Ψάπφα, Sapphô) was an Ancient Greek poet, from the city of Eressos on the island of Lesbos, which was a cultural centre in the 7th century BC. She was born sometime between 630 BC and 612 BC. It was said that she was small and dark.
Sappho, daughter of Scamander and Cleïs, was married (Attic comedy says to a wealthy merchant, but that is apocryphal) and had a daughter also named Cleïs. She became very famous in her day for her poetry—so much so that the city of Syracuse built a statue to honor her when she visited. Her family was politically active, which caused Sappho to travel a great deal. She was also noted during her life as the headmistress of a sort of Greek finishing school for girls. Most likely the objects of her poetry were her students.
She was a lyric poet who developed her own particular meter, known as sapphic meter, and she was credited for leading an aesthetic movement away from classical themes of gods, to the themes of individual human experience. An epigram in the Anthologia Palatina ascribed to Plato referred to her as the "tenth Muse".
Sappho wrote mainly love poems, of which only fragments survive, save a single complete poem, Fragment 1, "Hymn to Aphrodite". Given her reputation in the ancient world, since only fragments of her work remain, the world lost a valuable treasure in her work.
Some of her love poems were addressed to women. The word lesbian itself is derived from the name of the island of Lesbos from which she came. (She is also the origin of its much rarer synonym sapphic, derived from her name.)
Due to its homosexual content—and because of its explicit eroticism—her work was disapproved of by the Christian church, which is arguably the main reason why most of it has not survived, due to a combination of neglecting to copy it, and actively destroying it.
Romantic representation of Sappho
While in the modern period this content is well known, in ancient and medieval times she was more famous for (according to legend) throwing herself off a cliff due to unrequited love for a male sailor named Phaon. This legend dates to Ovid and Lucian in Ancient Rome and certainly is not a Christian overlay. It is not unusual for significant figures in Greek history to have conflicting accounts told about them. (Of particular note is that a purported consort of hers was named Cercglas of Andros, literally "Penis, from the town of Man"). As far as history is concerned, Sappho came from a noble family, had three brothers, married and had at least one daughter, was exiled to Syracuse for political reasons, returned in 581 BC, and died at old age.
Sappho in Literature
The philosopher Maximus from Tyrus (second half of 2nd c. AD), writes that Sappho was "small and dark" and that her relationships to her female friends were similar to those of Socrates:
- What else was the love of the Lesbian woman except Socrates' art of love? For they seem to me to have practiced love each in their own way, she that of women, he that of men. For they say that both loved many and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to the Lesbian.
Plato has called Sappho the Tenth Muse and the mortal Muse.
Aelianus Claudius wrote in Assorted History (Ποικίλη ιστορία) that Plato called Sappho wise.
The Greek poet Odysseas Elytis (20th century AD from Lesbos) admired her in one of his Mikra Epsilon: .. Such a being, both sensitive and courageous, is not often presented by life. A small-built deep-dark-skinned girl, that did prove to be equally capable of subjugating a rose-flower, interpreting a wave or a nightingale, and saying 'I love you', to fill the globe with emotion.
Horace writes in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics are worthy of sacred admiration.
Lord Byron wrote the following lines about her in Childe Harold:
- And onward viewed the mount, not yet forgot,
- The lover's refuge and the Lesbian's grave.
- Dark Sappho! could not verse immortal save
- That breast imbued with such immortal fire?
Charles Baudelaire writes about Sappho in his volume of poetry The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal).