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Sappho (fl. c.610 - c.580 BC)


Greek poetess, who lived on the island of Lesbos. Sappho is the most famous female poet of antiquity, but only incomplete poems and fragments remain of her work. Most of Sappho's love poems were addressed to women. The Greek philosopher Plato called her the tenth Muse.

I asked myself
What, Sappho, can
you give one who
has everything,
like Aphrodite?

(in Sappho: A New Translation, by Mary Barnard)

Little is known for certain of Sappho's life, although there are many anecdotes. Her parents were of aristocratic origin. Sappho may have been born in 612 BC at Eresus, one of the towns of Lesbos. Her father was Scamandronymus, or according to some sources his name was Scamander. She had three brothers, Erigyius, Larichus and Charaxus, the eldest, who was a merchant. He sailed to Egypt with a cargo of wine. There he was involved with a local slavewoman named Doricha and purchased her freedom. Sappho disapproved the affair. She was more fond of the young Larichus; he poured the wine at council banquets.

As a child, at some date between 604 and 595 BC, Sappho was taken to exile in Sicily due to political disturbances. An inscription in the Parian Chronicle says: "When Aristokles reigned over the Athenians Sappho fled from Mitylene and sailed to Sicily." After returning she spent most of her life at Mytilene, the native city of her mother Cleis. Countless sources mention that Sappho was married to Kerkylas of Andros, but according to Holt N. Parker, it's a joke name - "Dick Allcock from the Isle of MAN" (see 'Sappho Schoolmistress' in Re-Reading Sappho, ed.  Ellen Greene, 1996)

Sappho's slightly senior contemporary poet, Alcaeus, another leader of the Aeolian school of poetry, also came from Lesbos. He wrote some erotic (homosexual) lyrics. Not much imagination has been needed to develop the argument, that they lived in friendly intercourse, especially when fragments of their existing poetry point to the direction. Sappho had a daughter, Kleis, named after her grandmother. Sappho speaks of her daughter's beauty: ''I have a beautiful child who is like golden flowers / in form, darling Kleis / in exchange for whom I would not / all Lydia or lovely."

Ovid portrays the poetess as short and dark in complexion. Alcaeus calls her ''violet haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho''. Boccaccio knew more: she "had so fine a talent that in the flower of youth and beauty she was not satisfied with writing solely in prose, but, spurred by the geat fervor of her soul and mind, with diligent study she ascended the steep slopes of Parnassus, and on that high summit with happy daring joined the Muses, who did not nod in disapproval." The medieval writer Christine de Pizan (1364-1430), who advocated women's equality and education, said that Sappho had a beautiful body and face, "but the charm of her profound understanding surpassed all of the other charms with which she was endowed". Actually, we don't know anything about her physical appearance. For that matter, she could have looked like Jabba the Hut.

The eleventh-century Byzantine lexicon Suda writes, that Sappho had three companions, Atthis, Telesippa, and Megara, and she was accused of "shameful love with them." Her pupils were Anagora of Milestos, Gongula of Colophon, and Euneika of Salamis. Sappho probably could read and write, not a common skill at that time, and it is not impossible, that she taught young women, preparing them into adulthood. One source dating to the second century AD speaks, that she educated "the best women not only from the natives [of Lesbos] but also of Ionia". Sappho's advices were practical. In one fragment she instructs Kleis, how to do her hair: "a girl / whose hair is yellower than / torchlight should wear no / headdress but fresh flowers" (tr.  Mary Barnard) .

In Mytilene, Sappho was the central figure of a female literary group. It also formed the audience for her poetry. With her friends Sappho may have performed religious rituals and worshipped the goddess of love, Aphrodite, but her surviving poetry doesn't refer to any systematic religious philosophizing. Aphrodite was also called Cypris, the Cyprian. In one fragment Sappho said: "Come, goddess of Cyprus, and in golden cups serve nectar delicately mixed with delights."

When antique philosophers examined the laws of nature and the outside world, Sappho was interested in the inner world, her own feelings. Aristotle said that "everybody honored the wise... and the Mytilineans honored Sappho although she was a woman." Sappho's lyrics were more personal than in the widely read or recited Homeric epic. And her poems were really read - old Greek vases, some of which date to the 5th century, provide the proof. One of them shows an imaginary portrait of Sappho and words from her poem.

Because of her intense feelings for her own sex, Sappho has often been described as a homosexual (lesbian) - originally the word "lesbian" meant "a person from the island of Lesbos". In one fragment she wrote: "At mere sight of you / my voice falters, my tongue / is broken." In the poem she depicts her jealous passion while watching a young woman. A man sits facing the woman, listening her "sweet speech and lovely laughter."

Sappho was unsentimental about the feeling of love: cold sweat pours off the poet, trembling shakes her body, she is paler than grass. Longinus praised the poem in his treatise 'On Sublimity', a classical work of criticism from the first century AD: "She is cold and hot, mad and sane, frightened and near death, all by turns.... Lovers experience all this; Sappho's excellence, as I have said, lies in her adoption and combination of the most striking details." In some love poems Sappho questioned the masculine, heroic gender role familiar from Homeric epic: "I don't like a tall general, swaggering, / proud of his curls, with a fancy shave. / I'd rather have a short man, who looks / bow-legged, with a firm stride, full of heart." (tr. Diane Rayor)

It is generally believed, that Sappho died c. 580 BC; she was about thirty. The legend of her death is most probably a fabrication. The comic playwright Menander tells in The Girl from Leukas, that Sappho fell in love with the young Phaon, a boatman. When she was rejected, she flung herself into the sea from the Leucadian cliff. In the Suda, this person has the same name than Sappho, but she is not the well-known poet. She is a harp player from the city of Mytilene and she composed poetry, too. However, the story inspired Ovid, whose version is found at the end of his Heroides, where she, supposedly writing to Phaon, "burns like Etna". The English playwright John Lyly (1554-1606) and the American playwright Percy MacKaye (1875-1956) have also dealt with the subject.

The person and poetics of Sappho have fascinated a number of male and female writers, including John Donne, Tennyson, Baudelaire, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Richard Aldington, Hilda Doolitle, Renée Vivien, Marguerite Yourcenar, Ezra Pound, and Lawrence Durrell. In Verses: Dedicated to Her Mother (1847)  Christina Rossetti (1830-94) imagined her living unloved and dying unwept, untended and alone. Rossetti meditated further Sappho's afterlife in 'What Sappho Would Have Said Had Her Leap Cured Instead of Killing Her' (1848). This poem was not published during her lifetime.

Sappho's poetry was translated respectfully into Latin and much of her work survived until the end of antiquity. Scholars at the great Alexandrian library collected her poems in an edition of nine books, but this edition got lost during the Middle Ages. Such Roman poets as Catullus and Horace in the first century B.C. knew her work. Horace used the sapphic stanza frequently. Antipater of Thessalonica from the second century BC included Sappho in his list of nine women poets. Later critics quoted her works and there are also papyrus fragments. One poem is cited in full by the critic and historian Dionysius of Hallicarnassus, who lived in the first century AD, as an example of "polished and exuberant" expression.

Approximately two hundred fragments have been attributed to Sappho. Many of them contain only a few words or lines. Some fragments have been found scratched in broken clay pots. She is supposed to have called herself Psappha, a word meaning lapis lazuli. It has been suggested that she was not a woman, but a group of women, but none of the commentators on Sappho have doubted her to be a single, individual woman.

In Sappho's time the Greeks had no paper. An average Greek used pottery as a writing material, or anything at hand. Pieces  of pottery were recycled into "scap paper". The earliest papyrus containing Sappho's poems is from the third century BC. The text, wrapped around an Egyptian mummy, was rediscovered by two researchers at Germany's Cologne University and published in 2005 with  English translation in the Times Literary Supplement. Nearly all the Sappho papyri has been found from a dump in Oxyrhynchus, nowadays el-Behnese, 200 kilometres south of Cairo. Why the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus threw their papyri – legal documents, laundry lists, accounts, letters, poems, and other pieces – into the  dumps is a mystery. 

Sappho wrote in the Lesbian vernacular, which did not become a literary language, as Homer's Greek did. Apuleius found it rustic and quaint. Her Aeolian dialect, direct, spontaneous, and simple, has been difficult to translate into English - or as Ford Madox Ford noted in The March of Literature (1938): "But work at your English version how you will, you will never - simply because English vowel sounds are so indeterminate - get either the sonority or the vowel coloring of the original Greek." Sappho mastered various meters. One four-line stanza has been named after her. The first three lines are long, and the fourth is short. Sappho's 'Hymn to Aphrodite' was written in this meter. Is addressed to the goddess to aid her seduction of a young girl whom the poet loves. Sappho also addressed informal hymns to Hera, the sister and wife of Zeus. Her other works include marriage songs (epithalamia), composed for choral performance.

For further reading: Sappho und Erinna by Johann Richter (1833); A Critical History of the Language and Literature of Ancient Greece, 5 Vols., by William Mure (1850-1857); Sappho in the Added Light of New Fragments by J.M. Edmonds (1912); Sappho and Her Influence by D.M. Robinson (1924); Sappho of Lesbos by Arthur Weigall (1932); Sappho:Welt und Dichtung, Dasein in der Liebe by W. Schadewalt (1950); Sappho and Alcaeus by Denys L. Page (1955); Zur Kunst Sapphos by Helmut Saake (1972); Ancient and Modern Images of Sappho: Translations and Studies in Archaic Greek Love Lyric by Jeffrey M. Duban (1983); Love as War by Leah Rissman (1983); Sappho Was a Right on Woman: A Liberated View of Lesbianism, ed. Sidney Abbott, Barbara Love (1985); The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition by Judy Grahn (1985); Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937 by Joan DeJean (1989); Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, tr.  Diane Rayor (1991); Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet by Germaine Greer (1995); Re-Reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission, ed. Ellen Greene (1996); The Sappho Companion, ed. Margaret Reynolds (2001); The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues, edited by Ellen Greene and Marilyn Skinner (2009)  - In Finnish: Sapfon runoja on kääntänyt mm. Aapo Junkola kokoelmaan Sapfon runoja (1966) ja Pentti Saarikoski kokoelmaan Iltatähtu, häälaulu (1969)


  • Les odes amovrevses charmantes et bachiqves des poetes grecs Anacreon, Sappho, et Theocrite, 1670
  • Les Poésies d'Anacréon et de Sapho, 1681 (by Anne Le Fèvre Dacier)
  • Sapphus, poetriae Lesbiae fragmenta et elogia ... cura et studio Jo. Christiani Wolfii, 1733
  • The Works of Anacreon and Sappho with Pieces from Ancient Authors, 1768
  • Sapphvs Lesbiae Carmina et fragmenta recensuit, 1810 (ed. Henr. Frid. M. Volger)
  • The Works of Sappho, 1810? (tr. Francis Fawkes)
  • A Fragment of an Ode of Sappho from Longinus, 1815 (priv. print. by J.-M. Eberhart)
  • Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation, 1887 (2nd ed., tr. Henry Thornton Wharton)
  • The Songs of Sappho, 1891
  • The Poems of Sappho; an Interpretative Rendition into English, 1907 (tr. John Myers O'Hara)
  • Poems and Fragments of Sappho, 1915 (tr. Edward Storer)
  • Sappho, and the Virgil of Venus, 1920 (tr. Arthur S. Way)
  • Sappho. Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation, 1920 (tr. Henry Thornton Wharton, Anne Bunner)
  • The Songs of Sappho, Including the Recent Egyptian Discoveries; the Poems of Erinna, Greek Poems about Sappho, Ovid's Epistle of Sappho to Phaon, 1925 (tr. Marion Mills Miller)
  • The Poems and Fragments, 1926 (by C.R. Haines)
  • Sappho of Lesbos, 1932 (by Arthur Weigall)
  • Complete Fragments, 1936 (by Joseph R. N. Maxwell)
  • Sappho and Alcaeus, 1955 (by Denys L. Page)
  • Sappho: A New Translation, 1958 (tr. Mary Barnard)
  • Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, 1963 ( 2nd ed., ed. E. Lobel and D.L. Page)
  • Lyrics in the Original Greek, 1965 (tr. Willis Barnstone, foreword by Andrew R. Burn)
  • Poems, 1967 (tr. Suzy Q. Groden)
  • The Soldier and the Lady: Poems of Archilochos and Sappho, 1975 (tr. Barriss Mills)
  • The Art of Loving Women: the Poetry of Sappho, 1975 (photos. by J. Frederick Smith)
  • Poems & Fragments, 1992 (tr. Josephine Balmer)
  • Sappho, a Garland: the Poems and Fragments of Sappho, 1993 (tr. Jim Powell)
  • If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 2002 (tr. Anne Carson)
  • Poems and Fragments, 2002 (translated by Stanley Lombardo, edited by Susan Warden, introduction by Pamela Gordon)
  • The Poetry of Sappho, 2007 (translation and notes by Jim Powell)
  • The Complete Poems of Sappho, 2009 (translated by Willis Barnstone)

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