Women of History, Sappho, Ancient Greek Poetess

Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos sometime between 630 – 600 BCE. Not much is known about her life, but some of her poetry and great notoriety has survived. Sappho was a lyric poet, which means her poems were sung, usually accompanied by a lyre, which was a type of musical instrument. She was included in the list of the Nine Lyric poets, which were seen as highly esteemed poets to the scholars Hellenistic Alexandria. It is widely thought that Sappho was born to an Aristocratic family, her father is said to have been Scamandronymus, and her mother Cleis, which Sappho is said to have named her daughter after. Her poetry was mostly about the love and passion of women, and men as well, though known of her poems contained explicit “lesbian” sexual content. It is also said that she wrote about Goddesses such as Aphrodite, Greek Goddess of Love. She was said, as read in some of her poems, to be a Priestess of Aphrodite, which, if this was the case, she would have been a sacred prostitute. Although this is not known for sure because unfortunately not much of her story has survived.

Sappho lived around the time of some other Lesbian poets, such as Alcaeus and Terpander, both men. The word Lesbian, as it is used today in its sexual connotation, did not appear until the nineteenth century. It is said that Alcaeus was Sappho’s lover at one point as well as Anaktoria, a woman, who was mentioned in one of her poems as being her lover. Sappho’s poems were said to be collected three hundred years after her death, and complied in Alexandria into nine books. When the library of Alexandria was burned down by the Christians, so were Sappho’s books. Only few scraps and fragments survive.

Around 600 BCE or so, Sappho was exiled to Sicily after political turmoil and the rise of Pittacus, Mytilenaean general, in Lesbos. Cicero, Roman statesman and philosopher, writes that there was a statue of her put in the town-hall of Syracuse. She is said to have gone back to Lesbos at some point after her exile, and spent most of her life there.

Out of the fragments of poetry that has survived of Sappho, is that of her Hymn to Aphrodite:

“Immortal Aphrodite of the shimmering thone, daughter of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I pray thee crush not my spirit with anguish and distress, O Queen. But come hither if ever before thou didst hear my voice afar, and hearken, and leaving the golden house of thy father, camest with chariot yoked, and swift birds drew thee, their swift pinions fluttering over the dark earth, from heaven through mid-space. Quickly they arrived; and thou blessed one with immortal countenance smiling didst ask: What now is befallen me and why now I call and what I in my heart’s madness, most desire. What fair one now wouldst thou draw to love thee? Who wrongs thee Sappho? For even if she flies she shall soon follow and if she rejects gifts, shall soon offer them and if she loves not shall soon love, however reluctant. Come I pray thee now and release me from cruel cares, and let my heart accomplish all that it desires, and be thou my ally.” – Sappho

Her poetry was described by Posidippus, a Greek poet, as “divine songs”. Plato is said to have called Sappho wise, and Horace, a Roman lyric poet, referred to her poetry as being “worthy of sacred admiration”. Sappho and her beautiful poetry were honored and respected up until the time that Christianity took over. Her poems were made by the Christian church to look as erotic transgendered love stories. Though in the ancient world, the act of homosexuality was not seen as taboo or evil. And her works are said to be not “erotic” in the least as the Christian church liked to make everyone believe.

Sappho was a woman ahead of her time, and loved by many. It is said that she lived on Lesbos until the time she died which is though to have been around 570 BCE. There is a myth about her death that was formed sometime in the Renaissance period, that she flung herself off a cliff for her love of man named Phaon. Though this could never be proven, and is thought by most scholars to have been a romanticized myth concocted by other poets during the Renaissance.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the powerful and wise poetess, Sappho.



Source by Tara L. Reynolds

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