SAPPHO

Born late 600s B.C.

Greek lyric poet

Sappho was one of the greatest Greek lyric* poets. Her poems are famous for their intensely passionate descriptions of love. Hellenistic* scholars collected Sappho’s poems into nine books. Of these, only one complete poem, “Ode* to Aphrodite,” and fragments of several others still survive. Most of her poems were destroyed by early Christians who strongly disapproved of their content.

Very little is known about Sappho’s life. Born into an aristocratic* family, Sappho lived most of her life on Lesbos, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea. She was a citizen of Mytilene, the main city on the island. Around 600 B.C., she probably became involved in a political power struggle, and she and other aristocrats were exiled to Sicily, where she may have died. Sappho had a brother named Charaxus, to whom she addressed several of her poems, and a daughter named Cleis. Sappho was involved with other young women in a group devoted to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The group concerned itself with love, beauty, and poetry, and it may have been a training school for young women before they were sent off to be married.

Although men are the subjects of some of Sappho’s love poetry, her most passionate and personal poems are addressed to women and girls. Sappho’s interest in women and her involvement in the cult of Aphrodite have prompted much speculation that she was sexually attracted to women. The word lesbian, which refers to females who are homosexual, is derived from the name of Sappho’s home island, Lesbos. Although the ancient Greeks accepted male homosexuality as normal, little is known about their attitudes toward female homosexuality. Sappho’s poetry provides some of the little evidence that exists for female homosexuality in ancient Greece.

Most of Sappho’s lyric poetry was meant to be recited aloud or sung to the accompaniment of a lyre* before small groups of cult members. Sung at specific occasions, the performance of these poems took on the quality of a ritual* within the cult. Even the most intimate and personal matters were addressed in these poems and shared with the group. In Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite,” she reveals her interest in a life centered on love affairs, as well as her awareness of the painful price this life sometimes exacts. In another fragment of poetry, the poet despairs as she watches a girl whom she loves sitting next to the man the girl will probably marry. Not all of Sappho’s poetry concerns passionate longings, however. She also examines other themes, such as old age, death, appearances, and immortality. But Sappho regarded love as the ultimate personal fulfillment. One of her poems begins:

Some say a host of cavalry, some say infantry,

Some say a host of ships, is the loveliest thing

Upon this dark earth; but I say

It’s whatever you love.

While the philosopher* Plato did not share Sappho’s feelings about love, he admired her poetry and referred to her as one of the Muses, the Greek goddesses of the arts and sciences. (See also Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)

* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* ode lyric poem often addressed to a person or an object

* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class

* lyre stringed instrument similar to a small harp

* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

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