Authors: Sappho

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Greek poet

Identity: Gay or bisexual

Author Works


Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, 1955

Sappho: A New Translation, 1958

Lyra Graeca, volume 1, 1958

Sappho: Poems and Fragments, 1965

The Poems of Sappho, 1966

The Sappho Companion, 2000 (Margaret Reynolds, editor)


Sappho (SAF-oh), properly spelled Psappho, was born on the Greek Island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea west of Turkey. Despite intense political strife around the time of her birth, this island, the largest in the Aegean, was the center of Aeolian culture, which then was superior to the Ionian and Dorian Greek literary traditions. Lesbos was also the birthplace of Sappho’s equally famous contemporary, Alcaeus, another founding figure in classical Greek lyric poetry. Various ancient sources claim that the two poets exchanged their work; but although Alcaeus definitely refers to Sappho once in his poetry, exchanges between the two poets constitute only one of many stories about them that cannot be verified. There is no foundation, certainly, for the story that Sappho, spurned in heterosexual love, threw herself into the ocean from the Leucadian cliffs, a locale that still bears the name “Sappho’s rock.”{$I[AN]9810000399}{$I[A]Sappho}{$S[A]Psappho;Sappho}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Sappho}{$I[geo]GREECE;Sappho}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Sappho}{$I[tim]0630 b.c.e.;Sappho}


The tenth century Byzantine lexicographer Suïdas gave Sappho’s father’s name as Scamandronymous; her mother’s name was Kleis, which also became, as we know from Sappho’s poetry, the name of her daughter. Sappho is reported to have married Cercylas of Andros, although some scholars doubt that she ever wed. Sappho’s family clearly belonged to the Lesbian aristocracy, which was endangered at the time by a group of popular civic leaders. Various biographical information attests to her aristocratic station, but above all the poetry makes her elite position manifest. Sappho spent most of her life in Mytilene, the principal city of Lesbos. Sometime around 597 she went into exile on the island of Sicily, where she may have remained until her death. Although her death date is unknown, in certain of her poems she speaks of herself as an aged woman.

Regard for her poetry caused the ancients to rank her with Homer. In his Geography Strabo claimed that no other woman could rival her poetic skill. In Phaedrus Plato called her the “tenth muse.” (The same approbation, made by an anonymous writer, was also given to Corinna, a Boeotian Greek successor to Sappho and virtually the only other ancient Greek woman writer to be known in later ages.) Less flatteringly, another ancient source, recorded on the Oxyrhynchus papyrus, describes her as a “woman-lover,” calling her “contemptible” and “ugly.” The first collection of her work was made by an Alexandrian scholar during the Hellenistic period (third century b.c.e.); this early editor divided her work, according to metrical principles, among nine books. The final book contains the poet’s epithalamia, poems celebrating marriage feasts. All except the seven stanzas forming Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite” and a few fragments of lesser lyrics were lost for centuries. In fact, not a single collection of her works survived the widespread loss of classical materials during the Middle Ages and the two deliberate attempts (in 380 c.e. and again in the eleventh century) to destroy her poetry for reasons of immorality. In 1879, however, papyrus rolls discovered in Egypt (and others discovered a few years later) provided additional poetry by Sappho, badly mutilated but authentic. Sappho’s entire literary output probably exceeded five hundred lyric poems; possibly it was much more.

In her native Aeolian dialect, free from any formal poetic traditions such as those that influenced the works of Homer and Hesiod, Sappho wrote pure but simple love poems. The poems are charged with passion and vivid language: even many of her briefest fragments contain striking, memorable images. Her writing, however, is pervaded by an extraordinary element of self-restraint, which creates a tension with the evocative, sensuous language. She was extremely sensitive to acoustic effects, preferring liquid consonants and vowels to harsher consonant sounds. (The sound “b,” for example, is deliberately avoided in many works.) She employed a variety of meters, and seems to have preferred the famous stanzaic form that now bears her name, which consists of one short and three long lines. The stanza was widely imitated after her death, by writers of Latin and English poetry as well as Greek.

Although Sappho’s poetry, on the basis of its homoerotic content, was condemned in many historical periods, only in the twentieth century have the terms “Sapphic” and “Lesbian” acquired their primary denotations as synonyms for homosexual relationships between women. Although many classicists still feel that Sappho’s reputation as a lesbian is based on a misunderstanding of her work, few would deny that homoeroticism (a type lacking any explicit descriptions of genital sexual contact) forms a primary theme in her work. Truly understanding the nature of Sappho’s lesbian identity requires a thorough knowledge of her culture–and possibly also fluency in her dialect of Greek. It seems, however, that Sappho and the circle of female students or admirers who surrounded her on Lesbos and Sicily were privileged women who enjoyed the freedom (usually reserved exclusively for men in ancient Greece) to experience sexual orientation as a fluid category that was not polarized, as it is in contemporary culture, between homosexual and heterosexual.

Further Reading:Bowra, C. Maurice. Greek Lyric Poetry: From Alcman to Simonides. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961. A classic review of seven Greek lyric poets stressing their historical development and critiquing important works. Offers groundbreaking theories of the poets as a group and as individual writers. Views Sappho as the leader of a society of girls that excluded men and worshipped the Muses and Aphrodite.Burnett, Anne Pippin. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Rejects theories of ancient Greek lyrics as either passionate outpourings or occasional verse. Describes Sappho’s aristocratic circle and critiques six major poems.DuBois, Page. Sappho Is Burning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. The title is taken from part of David A. Campbell’s translation of Sappho’s fragment 48, in which the poet’s “heart” is “burning with desire.” DuBois assumes and examines an aesthetics of fragmentation and veers to a strained “postmodern” appreciation of the poet.Greene, Ellen, ed. Reading Sappho and Re-reading Sappho. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. A two-volume collection of essays and articles (by writers such as Mary Lefkowitz, Holt N. Parker, and Jack Winkler) important in elucidation of Sappho’s poetry.Jenkyns, Richard. Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus, and Juvenal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Stresses the relativistic view that no one theory can elucidate ancient poetry. Detailed analysis of Sappho’s principal poems and fragments, concluding that she is a major poet.Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Superb study of the presentations of Sappho in nineteenth century English literature. Exposes the imperfections of editions by Dr. Henry Wharton and “Michael Field” (pseudonym of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper). Cogent chapter on Sappho and Swinburne in “Swinburne’s Sapphic Sublime.”Rayor, Diane. Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. In most respects, this is the best available translation of Sappho. Includes fragments of nine women poets besides Sappho, along with poems and fragments of seven male lyric poets.Reynolds, Margaret, ed. The Sappho Companion. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Analogy contains narratives of the way societies in different times have accepted or rejected Sappho’s works. Includes an introduction as well as translations of the fragments of the poems, a bibliography, and an index.Sappho. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Translated by Anne Carson. New York: Knopf, 2002. Presents all of Sappho’s fragments in English accompanied by the Greek text.Snyder, Jane MacIntosh. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. Informative introduction to Sappho and eight female lyric poets of classical antiquity, with representative translations.
Categories: Authors