Unearthing the Tenth Muse: The Greek Poet Sappho - by Lucy Moore

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Keywords:

· Lyre: A stringed U-shaped instrument

· Nine Lyric Poets: A canonical group of ancient Greek poets who were adulated by the scholars of Alexandria as key figures to be studied

· Eros: Passionate, physical love

· Thumos: Spiritedness

· Pothos: Yearning

· Mixolydian Scale: The fifth mode of the major scale (used in music)

· Priamel: A list of alternatives to contrast with the climaxing point

Sappho of Lesbos was an archaic Greek poet (615-530 BCE) who is known for her lyric poetry, which was sung and accompanied by the instrument of the lyre. She was adulated for her poetry and regarded as one of the best of her time: where Homer was known as ‘The Poet’, she was known as ‘The Poetess’ and a member of the Nine Lyric Poets. Despite her fame and ascendancy, most of her work was lost and scholars now have only fragments of poems to analyse; however, it is estimated she wrote an approximate 10,000 lines. Sappho’s poems mainly revolved around the aspects of eros, desire and womanly lust which made her a key symbol in queer identity and influence. Even though many historians, especially throughout antiquity, attempted to erase the elements of homoeroticism throughout her work and credited to her name, it is without a doubt that the ‘violent crowned, pure, sweetly smiling Sappho’ (Alcaeus) was a pioneer for female sensual expression and sexuality and can be considered a martyr for the introduction of lesbianism in literature then and now

Sappho - Ernst Stückelberg 1897
Sappho - Ernst Stückelberg 1897

Lesbos

The island of Lesbos can be found in the north-eastern Aegean Sea and was the home of Sappho until she was exiled to Sicily in 600 BCE alongside her family. Throughout antiquity, the island was mainly renowned for the infamous beauty and sexual behaviour of its women, which is supported by Alcaeus’ remark in his Fragment 130B that female beauty contests were held to honour the goddess Hera.


Due to the nature of female sensuality around Lesbos, and to the writings of Sappho, the term ‘lesbian’ was coined. It first meant the act of a woman giving oral sex to a man; however, it soon became to represent the modern meaning of the term in the late 19th century.


Roles of Sappho

The vocations of Sappho are widely debated: for some scholars, she was a teacher, a cult leader or simply just a poet. Ulrich Von Williamowitz-Moellendorff is credited with the argument that Sappho was a schoolmistress. This is perhaps another historical attempt of eradicating the homoerotic connections within Sappho’s work: her role as a schoolmistress would lend the theme of pastoral love to her discussions about girls, rather than erotic love. This instead appears to be another attempt to erase the nature of Sappho’s identity.


The theme of Love and Desire in Sappho’s work

There are three main components to Sappho’s exploration of love and desire within her work: eros, thumos and pothos. The creation of a narrative of her feelings instead of writing about deities and mythological creatures was new in literature at her time and can be seen as a mirroring of the changes of approach in archaic art too with the Amasis painter.


The imagery of adulation towards women is frequent throughout Sappho’s work. In Fragment 96, she compares the gleam of a girl to the gleam from the moon when it is amongst stars, and Longinus uses her Fragment 31 as a perfect example on how to write about desire when composing his ‘On the Sublime’. Sappho uses phrases such as ‘limb loosening’ and imagery such as ‘delicate fire’ to truly heighten the ferocity and strength of desire – it affects the body in its entirety and creates a sensual boom across the skin. A woman speaking so freely about sexuality would have been seen as sin throughout the contemporary audience and perhaps a reason for the historians who heterosexualised her work. But despite their attempts to eradicate the connotations, the passion cannot be denied.


Anactoria

Despite there being references to Sappho having a husband named Kerkylas of Andros (which translated as ‘penis, from men’s island’, suggesting that he was fictional and just a creation of historians), there is one particular woman who can be seen as Sappho’s other half, the woman who she puts above all earthly goods – Anactoria. There are debates whether she is Sappho’s lover, a student or just an individual who she adorns on from afar. However, it is evident from Fragment 16 that Sappho holds Anactoria incredibly close to her heart.


“Now I am thinking of Anactoria

Who is not here with me.

I would rather see her lovely walk,

And her gleaming face,

Than look at all the chariots of the Lydians

And the foot soldiers with their weapons!

[…]”

- Sappho’s Fragment 16


The four stanza Mixolydian scale poem begins written in priamel which turns hyperbolic when describing what different cohorts find beautiful. Sappho uses this to contrast her love to others and to show how her love for Anactoria is what controls her. She puts her lust for Anactoria above her patriotism and devotion to the army which many would have considered sacrilege.


Even if Anactoria was not a real individual and just a creation of Sappho’s mind, she acts as a tool in proving the homoerotic themes and motifs within the poetry which is still debated for its authenticity by scholars.


Scholarly Arguments

Despite Greece being more accepting of homosexualism in antiquity than in modern-day contexts, ancient authors did try to argue that Sappho did not have sexual relationships with other women. Suda, in the 10th Century, attempted to debate how Sappho was ‘slanderously accused’ of having relations with her female pupils.


The heterosexualised approach to Sappho’s poetry is just another example of the discrimination the LGBTQ+ community faces and has faced throughout history. It is evident that throughout antiquity to modern-day, as the persona of Sappho could not be erased, many historians attempted to erase her sexuality instead and argue that her work was only autobiographical when speaking about politics. In 1711, Ambrose Phillips’ translation of the Ode of Aphrodite insinuated that the object of desire for Sappho was male, not female; plus, scholar Friedrick Gottlieb Weicker argued that it is immature to see Sappho’s feelings for other women as nothing other than ‘simply idealistic and non-sensual’.


Even though the more unanimously accepted approach is that Sappho’s work does indeed reflect the physical attraction between women, modern scholars still umbrella the emotion and psychology of her work under the term the ‘Great Sappho Question’ (Andre Lardinois). Progress is seen to have been made by 1970, where it came under the conclusion that Fragment 31 does indeed show Sappho’s lesbianism and is a true indicator of the celebration of homoeroticism and eros.


Despite there being a changing of opinion in today’s society, it should still not be taken that all issues have been resolved. Many poets, not just Sappho, have had their works silenced or heterosexualised by scholars and historians.


Conclusion

Overall, Sappho can be seen as a shining light for the LGBTQ+ community and her work is a prime example that feelings and desire affect everyone and their hearts. Despite many trying to hide her identity, Sappho is truly an icon in her own right and the poetic greatness of her work should be celebrated today and for many more years to come.


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