Sappho

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Earliest known depiction of Sappho, c. 470 BCE

This woman really needs no introduction, she’s basically the mother of all lesbians. And by that, I mean, they wouldn’t be called lesbians without her. I’m talking about Sappho.

Now, like, Sappho was around in really ancient times and she was a woman, and it kind of took a bit for people to notice she might be someone to pay attention to and maybe write things down about. So, there’s a lot of her life that’s isn’t known for sure or that we have to get from reading in between the lines of things. We’re literally not even sure how to spell her name because there’s a few different ways to spell it, sometimes appearing in her own native dialect.

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“Sappho” by John William Godward

But we do know for sure that she originally came from Mytilene, the capital city of the island of Lesbos — sometime around 630 BCE. Some scholars have guessed that her mother was named Cleïs, but the evidence for that is flimsy at best. The best guess for her father is a dude named Scamandronymous (and I’m not kidding when I call it a guess) but Sappho tells us in her poetry that he died when she was seven.

From her poems, we can also gather that she had three brothers: Erigyius, Charaxus and Larichus. Larichus, apparently, had a job pouring wine in the town hall which also tells us that their family was aristocratic. Charaxus was the black sheep of the family, it seems, who once ransomed off an Egyptian courtesan for a whole lot of money — and Sappho wrote a scathing poem shaming him for it.

She and her relatives were temporarily exiled from Lesbos to Sicily around 600 BCE because some sort of political conflict arose, and her family was involved with the wrong side.

She may have had a daughter named Cleïs (and that’s why its suggested that could be her mother’s name), though some sources indicated Cleïs may have actually been a younger lover. I, personally, think that’s more likely especially since the word “pais” — used in a couple of places to describe Cleïs — is sometimes used to denote a younger same-sex lover (albeit typically in a male relationship. For fun, look up where the word “pais” was used in the Bible some time. That’s a super controversial post for another day.)

And then of course, I’m also fairly convinced because of who is described as her husband in the Suda (which was like an ancient encyclopedia). Her husband was Kerkylas of Andros. The thing is, according to basically everyone, Kerkylas wasn’t a name — it was a word for “penis”…and Andros, although it is a Grecian island, is also a word that means “man”. So…yeah, Sappho was supposedly married to “Penis of Man”? I’m just a little skeptical. It’s been suggested that this was invented for a comedic play, which makes more sense but it’s still kind of at fart-joke levels of humor. Like most scholars, dating from 64 BCE to today — I am also really skeptical of the story that she ultimately killed herself for the love of a guy named Phaon. While we still don’t know how she died, this little story tells us two things: she died around 580 or 570 BCE, and straight-washing has been going on for a long time.

It’s believed that, much like Socrates, Sappho led a sort of informal “school” that was really more a collection of people, mostly women, who liked to discuss art and philosophy and culture. Theoretically, a number of these women may also have been her lovers but we really don’t know for sure.

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Anyways, throughout her life, Sappho wrote something like ten thousand poems in the rare Aeolic Greek dialect — making her the earliest known Lesbian poet. (To clarify — that’s Lesbian with a capital L — as in from Lesbos.) She was also one of the greatly revered Nine Lyric Poets — lyrics poets from ancient Greece who were determined to be worthy of study by the scholars of Alexandria (you know, before they torched the library.) Of those Nine Lyric Poets, Sappho is the only woman. Plato is also known to have described Sappho as “the Tenth Muse.” Statues of Sappho were built, her face appeared on coins in Mytilene — given that she was in a pretty strictly patriarchal society, and that she is the only woman who’s cultural contributions survive to this day, it’s pretty incredible that she managed to reach such high levels of respect and celebration across Greece.

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Sappho in “Parnassus” by Raphael, depicted with a paper that says “Sappho” because I guess the Greeks invented name tags?

As of this writing, about 650 of them are known to have survived. Her most famous of these are lyric poems, which were intended to be played with music. Her contemporaries who wrote about her spoke mainly of her love poetry, but she also has a lot of poems about her family (mostly her brothers).

None of the love poems are truly explicit — it’s hard to say if she was actually sexually or romantically attracted to men or women or both or neither, or if it changed from day to day. The Suda states that accusations of her sexual relationships with female students were slanderous, and other ancient sources only describe her as being accused of having relations with other women. And so — for centuries — it’s been hotly debated whether or not Sappho was in love with women or just really good friends with them — and conversely, whether or not she was in love with any guys or just really good friends with them. A lot of the answers may depend on cultural context that we simply don’t have and probably will never get.

That said, it’s from her name and her life that we’ve derived the words “sapphic” and “lesbian” so I’d say that we get to claim this one.

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