Sappho: The Dangerous and Desirable Educated Woman

By: Ava de Cenizas

Born six hundred years before the common era, Sappho exists solely within two poems and a few lyrical fragments. As a result, the contours of her story reflect the feverish desires of the paternalistic Greco-Roman culture more than any accurate historical knowledge of the preeminent poetess herself.[1] Her admirers lauded her poetry. Plato, theorized as a proto-feminist, called Sappho the tenth Muse. In more modern times, the early Church transformed her titillating love of women into the perversions of a pre-Christian culture. But to us, she shows another face: Sappho as the educated woman lighting the way for a younger generation.

Sappho Things

We know that Sappho was born in mid 600 B.C.E.[2] She spent a sizable portion of her life in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Despite the speculations of her sexuality, Sappho was likely married, although not to Kerkylas of Andros, a coarse joke from Sappho’s afterlife in Roman comedy. The name roughly translates to “Dick All-cock from the Isle of Man.”[3] Her daughter was named Cleis. She had several brothers. Or so we think.

Literate, Sappho belonged to an elite family. The dialect Aeolic her medium, she wrote and sung in a sophisticated meter that now carries her name, Sapphic. The subject, often the love of a woman:

Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless

Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you,

Don’t–I beg you, Lady–with pains and torments

Crush down my spirit….

And to Sappho, Aphrodite promises:

Now she runs away, but she’ll soon pursue you;

Gifts she now rejects–soon enough she’ll give them;

Now she doesn’t love you, but soon her heart will

Burn, though unwilling….[4]

Did Sappho cultivate young naïve women as her acolytes? Did she indoctrinate them into the cult of the goddess of love? Did the “her” in Sappho’s lines even exist?

Sapphro Sultry

The true nature of this salacious love has swamped discussion of Sappho’s relation to major cultural and political forces on Lesbos during her lifetime. But recent scholarly work attempts to extract Sappho from the hedonism. She is enthroned as the leading member of a circle of highly educated, aristocrat women bound by love, loyalty, and polity. Sappho’s words now seem clever political criticisms of rival families rather than frivolous love. Amid the conflict in Mytilene, Sappho and her family fled Lesbos for southern Italy, willingly or banished.[5]

Every new discovery of her lyrics tucked away in the lining of a sarcophagus tantalizes us with more hints, not answers. The “true” Sappho remains veiled.

But she is not lost. If “[e]very age creates its own Sappho” as the “metonym for all women,” then from her sparse history, let us reclaim this. In a sphere dominated by the erudite male, who pontificated on all aspects of society, including the woman’s role, Sappho seized power through the act of writing and song .[6] And those stodgy men expressed “rapturous admiration for her exquisite style.”[7] Even if the ensuing two thousand years have garbled the message, Sappho’s impact remains indelible on Western literature. Whether she wrote luscious poetry to beguile her female lover or as political satire, Sappho spoke her own truth. So should we in our own writing.

Ava de Cenizas

Sappho Sleeps

[1]When it comes to the fragments of poetry that remain from Sappho, “There are lies (the handbooks), damned lies (the ancient biographies), and statistics.” Parker, H. Sappho’s Public World. In Women poets in ancient Greece and Rome. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press (2005).

[2]Mendelsohn, D., “Girl Interrupted: Who was Sappho?” The New Yorker (Mar. 16, 2015); “Sappho,” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/Sappho (accessed April 15, 2017).

[3]Parker, H. “Sappho Schoolmistress,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 123 (1993).

[4] “Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite,” The Stoa Consortium,  http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/vandiver.shtml#meter (accessed April 15, 2017).

[5] Parker, H. “Sappho Schoolmistress” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 123 (1993).

[6] Katz, M. “Sappho and her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece,” Signs Vol. 25, No. 2 (Winter 2000).

[7] Id.