The famous poet Sappho may be well known, but not many details about her life are clear. Born around 615 B.C., her life and its events remain debated and details surrounding her death are still contested. According to a legend by Ovid, she died at a young age from throwing herself off a cliff after being heart broken by a young sailor later identified as Phaon. Phaon, however, is unlikely to have been a real person as he only appears in mythology and was possibly just an attempt to present Sappho as being a heterosexual. Others claim she lived into old age and died around the time of 550 B.C. There is also very little known about her work and her poems as only a few have ever been found, so the history of Sappho is a difficult one to discuss in detail. What we do know is that she was born on the island of Lesbos and ran an academy for unmarried women which worshipped the cult of Aphrodite. Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, passion, lust, pleasure, beauty, and procreation. Eros the companion to the goddess Aphrodite is the Greek god of love and sexual desire. Eros is sometimes written about as the son of Aphrodite and other times as a minion or constant companion to her. Hence, the worship of them both simultaneously. Eros is also where the term erotic originates from. Most of Sappho’s life was spent running her academy in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos. She did apparently marry a wealthy man and have a daughter named Cleis but again, details surrounding this information and her personal life are difficult.
As far as her poetry goes, Sappho was referred to as the “Tenth Muse” by Plato, and her work was highly regarded. Around the third century B.C. her poems were collected into nine volumes, but were still lost for many years. For a long time, Sappho and her poetry were only primarily known through references to her work or mentions by other authors and only a few lines of her work still existed intact. In 1898 however some of her work was found by scholars on papyri, and in 1914 Egyptian archaeologists found coffins made of scraps of paper that included some poem fragments which were credited to Sappho. Most of Sappho’s poetry was intended to be sung, accompanied by a lyre, which is a musical instrument that often accompanied sung poetry, hence the term “lyric” poetry. Sappho’s poetry was different to that of other poets like Homer, because instead of discussing epic narratives or talking to the gods, Sappho’s poetry was about the struggles of love and desire, which is still a topic that people can easily relate to today. Sappho wrote in different styles, voices and verses which made her work even more interesting as it offered variety.
Unfortunately, with the changing of the times, attitudes towards Sappho and her work also changed. Modern Greek society was not the same as ancient Greek society and Sappho and her poetry became associated with promiscuity. The reputation she gained, apparently led Pope Gregory VII to burn some of her work in 1073, so scandalised was he by her writing. Sappho also became associated with loving women. Her poems about Eros, however, have been argued to show sexual favour to both men and women and discuss such things with equal passion. Although the most complete poem written by Sappho that still exists is a plea to the goddess Aphrodite to assist her in a relationship with a woman. Because Sappho became associated with the idea of women loving women, she and her poetry also inspired the origins of the word lesbian, which came from the Island of Lesbos where she lived and worked. Through her writings of love, she became a lesbian icon and an inspiration and comfort to many. Lesbian women therefore have also called themselves Sapphic Women, Sapphic Sisters, or Daughters of Sappho meaning women who love women. Therefore, Sapphic means someone who identifies as female who is attracted to other people who identify as female. Sapphic is no longer a term commonly used but did come back a little as a slang term during the early 2000s. Many young women are now preferring the term Queer over lesbian, but the island of Lesbos and the origins of the term are still important to lesbian history. Several other languages have also taken inspiration from Lesbos and used the word lesbian to describe women loving other women. In Greek the word is “lesvia” and in Japanese (phonetically spelt of course) it is “rezubian”.
Because of the importance that Sappho holds in the lesbian community, many women make the pilgrimage to visit Lesbos, specifically visiting the town of Eresos where Sappho was born. This little town has been flooded with lesbian tourism since the 70’s with many women stating that Lesbos has become a place where they feel being lesbian is accepted. There were some initial difficulties between the locals and the tourists and some serious conflicts. However, some of the locals and business owners in Eresos are now lesbian women who came to visit and decided to move there permanently. Many of the locals also now welcome the tourism and the income it brings to their town. Although much of Sappho’s life and even her death remain a mystery, her work has had a very significant impact on many women and their identity. Sappho’s work has been influential to many women and is still relatable centuries later continuing to prove her place in history as one of the greats.
Elizabeth Simpson is a student at the University of Auckland and is currently working at the Charlotte Museum as part of our internship programme through the Museum and Cultural Heritage course.