Greek Poet Sappho Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Sappho was one of the first female authors whose name is known and one of the most revered poets of Greece. She expressed her personal, female experience through lyric love poetry and allegedly took her own life over a failed love affair.

Summary of Event

When Sappho died c. 580 b.c.e., Greece was in its Archaic period (roughly 750-500 b.c.e.). Having emerged from a Dark Age of four centuries’ length around 800 b.c.e., Greece rapidly developed its literary and artistic traditions. During the Archaic period, Greece was not a unified nation but a collection of city-states with differing forms of government. Greeks worshiped many gods, who were imagined to have both human form and emotions as well as immortality and supernatural powers. Humanism was a hallmark of ancient Greece, reflected in its anthropomorphic gods, focus on the human figure in art, and recognition of human achievement. Sappho Alcaeus of Lesbos

Sappho and Alcaeus of Lesbos were the two great leaders of the Aeolian school of lyric poetry. To the Greeks, “lyric” poetry was poetry accompanied by a lyre, although the term now describes poetry of a personal nature, expressing the poet’s emotional response to the world.

Facts are rare and contradictory regarding Sappho’s life. The Roman poet Horace (65-8 b.c.e.) made the earliest reference to Sappho in literature, some six hundred years after her death. Other references to Sappho occur in the New Comedies of the third century b.c.e. These references were compiled and presented as biographical information in the tenth century c.e. in an encyclopedic Byzantine compilation of literature, biography, and history called the Suda. Here it is stated that Sappho, a native of the island of Lesbos from the town of Eresus, was a lyric poet, active in the forty-second Olympiad (612-608 b.c.e.), and a contemporary of the poets Alcaeus of Lesbos, Stesichorus (632/29-556/53 b.c.e.), and Pitticus. The Suda relates that Sappho married a wealthy trader from Andros named Cercylas, and they had a daughter, Kleis. Sappho had three friends named Atthis, Telesippa, and Megara, and because of her “shameful” friendship with them—presumably a reference to her alleged lesbianism—earned a bad reputation.

The Greek poet Sappho stands, surrounded by her students.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Sappho taught Anagora from Miletus, Gongyla from Colophon, and Euneica from Salamis; wrote nine books of lyric poetry; and invented the plectum (a pick for stringed instruments). She also wrote epigrams, elegiacs, iambics, and solo songs. This information was all compiled in the Suda more than fifteen hundred years after Sappho’s death, so its accuracy is questionable. For example, Cercylas, the husband cited in the Suda, is mentioned in none of her poetry, and his name only turns up in a later comedy. The name “Cercylas” is an obscene pun meaning “Prick from the Isle of Males.”

None of Sappho’s original manuscripts survive. It is not known whether Sappho wrote down her poems, but they were not published in her lifetime. Her poems would have been sung to music, perhaps accompanied by dance, and were most likely recorded at a later date, perhaps soon after her death. By the fifth century b.c.e. production of manuscripts on papyrus rolls was established. By the third century b.c.e. the library at Alexandria, Egypt, was established, and Sappho’s works were collected. At that time, Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 b.c.e.) and Aristarchus of Samothrace (c. 217-c. 145 b.c.e.), both librarians of the Alexandria library, edited Sappho’s poems into nine books according to meter. One book was devoted to Sappho’s epithalamia, wedding songs. One of her poems was reportedly1,320 lines in length. The earliest surviving written poems of Sappho are from the second or third centuries c.e. and were found on papyrus fragments that had been used as mummy wrappings and were discovered in the late nineteenth century.

Other speculative information about Sappho is drawn from people or places mentioned in her poems or from later writings. Fragments of her poetry reveal that Sappho was probably born in the town of Eresos to an aristocratic, socially prominent family, and lived most of her life in Mytilene, the most important city on Lesbos. She was orphaned at the age of six. Two of her brothers are mentioned in her poems: Charaxos, a wine merchant in Egypt, and Larichos, the wine pourer at the Mytilenean town hall. The latter position was one generally reserved for men of aristocratic birth.

It is generally believed that Sappho conducted a school for girls devoted to instruction in poetry, music, and dance: the three elements associated with lyric poetry. It may have been a type of “finishing school” to prepare aristocratic girls for marriage and was dedicated to the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Sappho was allegedly exiled to Sicily in her thirties, perhaps as a result of her father’s political activities, but returned to Lesbos—this according to Ovid in his Heroides (before 8 b.c.e.; English translation, 1567). Even Ovid’s account is cast in doubt, though, because Sappho is presented as a comic character in the Heroides.

Ovid, in poem 15, line 1 of his Epistulae ex Ponto (after 8 b.c.e.; Letters from the Black Sea, 1639) and Strabo in his description of Leucas in book 10, chapter 2, line 9 of Geōgraphica (c. 7 b.c.e.; Geography, 1917-1933) relate the legend that Sappho jumped from a cliff to her death because of her unrequited love for a man named Phaon. The idea that Sappho committed suicide because of Phaon spurning her love may be the result of the conflation of an Adonis-like myth of Phaon and a myth that Sappho threw herself off a cliff at Leucas after being spurned. The comedy The Woman of Leucas, by the playwright Menander (c. 342-c. 291 b.c.e.), whose survival is very fragmentary, may refer to the latter. This is the first surviving account of Sappho’s “suicide.”

Significance

The fact that a woman could be as accomplished in Archaic Greece as Sappho appears to have been is remarkable. Sappho’s aristocratic birth may have afforded her the education that most Greek girls of the time lacked, or the island of Lesbos afforded more rights to women than the rest of Greece, where boys were favored, women did not count as citizens, and female infanticide was commonly practiced.

One of the most revered poets of Greece, Sappho is known as the first female Greek author and the only extant female Greek poet from the Archaic period. Sappho used love as the subject of all her poetry, some directed to men, some to women. The term “lesbian” (from Lesbos, the name of the island on which Sappho lived) originated because of Sappho’s poetry, which often expresses love between women. Ironically, the cause of her leap is alleged to be the unrequited love of a man.

No poetry from Lesbos before that of Sappho survives. Sappho’s poems quickly became famous in the Greek world, revered by teachers, influencing later lyric and choral poets and dramatists, both Greek and Roman. Later poets, especially the Romans Catullus (c. 84-c. 54 b.c.e.) and Horace, imitated Sappho’s four-line stanza, which is known as the Sapphic, consisting of three identical lines, and a fourth, shorter line.

Sappho explored human values through her own, female experience. She tells of the prayers and rites of women, as well as their longings. As such, Sappho was the first poet to make love and its accompanying human emotions her theme. In terms of entering into a personal relationship with the reader, she is matched by only Archilochus (seventh century b.c.e.) and Alcaeus. In addition to her monodic lyric poetry, she wrote poetic elegies, hymns, odes and epithalamia in the Aeolic dialect. The Greeks called her the Tenth Muse, and ranked her equal to the epic poet Homer (early ninth century-late ninth century b.c.e.).

Although Sappho was prolific and highly popular in ancient times, today just over two hundred fragments survive, most of which are only a few lines in length. Dramatic stories explain the destruction of Sappho’s poems: The Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople in 1204 destroyed most of the corpus of Sappho’s poetry; Pope Gregory VII burned Sappho’s poems publicly in 1073 and banned them. In actuality, Sappho’s poems do not survive because they became unpopular. Before printing presses, manuscripts had to be laboriously hand-copied. As the Aeolic dialect and lyric poetry became less popular, fewer copies of Sappho’s poems were made, and she slipped into obscurity. Until the late 1890’s, only one complete poem by Sappho survived: “Artfully Adorned Aphrodite,” which was quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his book De compositione verborum (c. 30 b.c.e.; On Literary Composition, 1910). Since the late nineteenth century, more than one hundred fragments have been discovered, but only about five hundred verses survive.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Ann, trans. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. This bilingual translation indicates, with brackets, where text is missing. The book includes a brief introduction to Sappho, the text, and on marks and lacks. Extensive notes on the text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powell, Jim, trans. Sappho: A Garland. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. Powell’s translation reorders Sappho’s fragments into a meaningful thread through a faithful, literal translation. Includes valuable “Afterwards” on Sappho, Sappho’s fragments, measures and translation, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raynor, Diane, trans. Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Annotated translations of Archilochos, Alcman, Stesichoros, Sappho, Alcaios, Ibykos, Anacreon and Simonides.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reynolds, Margaret. The Sappho Companion. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Nicely illustrated work that documents the influence of Sappho and her poetry throughout history. Includes poetry, literary references and artwork about Sappho, as well as different translations of Sappho’s poems over the centuries. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, Margaret. Sappho’s Immortal Daughters. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Williamson’s book is a search for Sappho through her poetry, her culture, and the myths surrounding her.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Lyn Hatherly. Sappho’s Sweetbitter Songs: Configurations of Female and Male in Ancient Greek Lyric. New York: Routledge, 1996. Through gender study, the author compares Sappho’s works to those of Greek male poets and attempts to recreate the world of Sappho. Bibliography.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Clodia; Enheduanna; Homer; Horace; Menander (dramatist); Ovid; Sappho; Simonides. Sappho

Categories: History Content