Sappho was one of the greatest of the ancient Greek poets, perhaps the greatest of all lyric poets of antiquity. Born around 630 BC on the island of Lesbos, her erotic affection for members of both sexes, especially women, is the origin of the word lesbian. Unfortunately, virtually all of her poetry has not survived antiquity (nine books were attributed to her), except for one mere complete poem and some fragments. Nevertheless, despite this great cultural misfortune, Sappho remains today one of the most well known and well beloved of all poets of Classical antiquity.
The Greek philosopher Plato refers to her as the “10th Muse” (there are nine canonical muses in Greek mythology):
Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.
Her poetry, or what remains of it, hints of a great beauty, sense of music, a wonderful, delicate flow of thought and emotion, and love of eroticism. Little is known of her life, but she had some sort of circle of young women who were attached to her, and she to them. This is the origin of her erotic affections, and most likely affairs, with these women. There is also a legend that she committed suicide by jumping off a cliff after being spurned by a young ferryman, Pheron. It is most likely simply a myth, but there is really no way of ever knowing for sure.
It was not really until the 19th century that Sappho and her poems began to be seen in a homoerotic, sexual light. There is little evidence of actual physical love in her works, but it can probably be assumed that her expressed affections for different females was erotic, and that this eroticism was ultimately expressed in a physical way. But we can never really know, which means we make what we want of Sappho, and I am more than happy to think of Sappho as a poetess of lesbian love. After all, watching two lovely girls engaging in erotic delights is itself its own delight, only to be surpassed be ultimate delight of actually joining the two girls in their sexual play and pleasures.
But, aside from all that, Sappho stands first and foremost as a great poet, one of the greatest who ever lived, and who still lives today in the paltry fragments that remain of her once magnificent creative life and world. Her works speak for themselves.
The following poem is the only complete poem we have from her. It is hymn to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sex and love.
Immortal Aphrodite, on your intricately brocaded throne,
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, this I pray:
Dear Lady, don’t crush my heart
with pains and sorrows.
But come here, if ever before,
when you heard my far-off cry,
you listened. And you came,
leaving your father’s house,
yoking your chariot of gold.
Then beautiful swift sparrows led you over the black earth
from the sky through the middle air,
whirling their wings into a blur.
Rapidly they came. And you, O Blessed Goddess,
a smile on your immortal face,
asked what had happened this time,
why did I call again,
and what did I especially desire
for myself in my frenzied heart:
“Who this time am I to persuade
to your love? Sappho, who is doing you wrong?
For even if she flees, soon she shall pursue.
And if she refuses gifts, soon she shall give them.
If she doesn’t love you, soon she shall love
even if she’s unwilling.”
Come to me now once again and release me
from grueling anxiety.
All that my heart long
fulfill. And be yourself my ally in love’s battle.
-Tranlsated by Julia Dubnoff