(c. 600 B.C.)
Sappho was a poetess of Ancient Greece. She is thought to have written nine books of poems, although the first written record of her is not dated until approximately the third century BC, nearly a hundred years after she lived. It may be said that in her was born the greatest lyric poetess of all time. By the Middle Ages, all copies were lost.
Only one poem from Sappho survives in complete form, “Hymn of Aphrodite.” The longest fragment of Sappho’s poetry is only 16 lines long. Sappho was a lyric poet who developed her own particular meter, known as Sapphic meter, and she was credited for leading an aesthetic movement away from classical themes of Gods, to the themes of individual human experiences. Sappho wrote mainly love poems, of which only fragments survive, save a single complete poem, “Hymn to Aphrodite.”
Sappho's poems usually focus on the relationships among women. This focus has given rise to speculation that Sappho's interest in women was what today would be called homosexual or lesbian; the word "lesbian" comes from the island of Lesbos and the communities of women there.
Sappho’s poetry was written to be sung accompanied by the lyre. An indication of the respect accorded her music is that she was deemed the inventor of the plectrum and a type of lyre called the pectis. She was also regarded as the creator of an emotional style of music called the mixolydian, which was adopted by the tragedians. As well as a lyre player, Sappho was a singer. It would have been by the performance that her poetry was originally published, passed on from singer to singer.
She was also noted during her life as the headmistress of a sort of a Greek finishing school for girls. Most likely her students were the objects of her poetry. She also became the president of the world’s first woman’s club. It was a kind of sacred sorority to which members were bound by special ties and regulations.
Sappho was married to Cercylas, a wealthy man from the island of Andrus , and had a daughter named Cleis. She became so popular in her time that the city of Syracuse built a statue to honor her when she visited. In ancient and medieval times she was more famous for (according to legend) throwing herself off a cliff due to unrequited love for a male sailor name Phaon. This legend dates to Ovid and Lucian in Ancient Rome.
It is through the words of others that we have gained insight about Sappho’s work and life. Through fragments scattered through time we can piece together an overall picture of what her life must have been like. It is evident through the praise of others that the loss of her work has been a huge blow to the literary world. She was renowned for her talent, her beauty, and for various alleged indiscretions.
Allen, Sister Prudence. The Concept of Woman. Cambridge: Eden Press, 1985.
This source is not a biography. Here, Sister Prudence Allen studies the concept of “woman” in the history of Western philosophy. She explores claims about sex and gender identity of philosophers both men and women, including Sappho. She provides translations of some works by Sappho and works that have been written about her and analyses them regarding the issue of gender. She goes to great lengths to point out that because of philosophers such as Freud; Sappho’s work has been labeled as homosexual eroticism, when during Sappho’s lifetime such conduct was acceptable and professions of love for those of the same sex did not necessarily implicate sexual activity.
Hallett, Judith P., and Marilyn B. Skinner. Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
An interesting presentation on the contrasts the concept of “woman” in the history of Western philosophy. She explores claims about sex and gender identity of philosophers both men and women, including Sappho. She provides translations of some works by Sappho and works that have been written about her and analyses them regarding the issue of gender. She goes to great lengths to point out that because of philosophers such as Freud; Sappho’s work has been labeled as homosexual eroticism, when during Sappho’s lifetime such conduct was acceptable and professions of love for those of the same sex did not necessarily implicate sexual activity.
Lardinois, Andre, and Laura McClure. Making Silence Speak: Women's Voices in Greek Literature and
Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
The female perspective of Ancient Greece through Sappho’s poetry is studied by Lardinois here. He claims that the poetry of Sappho was closely modeled on the public speech genres of women in ancient Greece . By studying the speech patterns in Sappho’s poetry, he speculates on the how the women of Ancient Greece spoke and conducted themselves in every day situations.
Mitchell-Boyask, Robin. "Sappho Page." Temple University. <http://www.temple.edu/classics/sappho.html>
(22 December 2005).
A great resource for someone looking for help in understanding the poetry of Sappho. Information on Aphrodite, one of the most reoccurring characters of Sappho’s poetry is available on this site also. Some of the links provided do not work regarding biographical information, but the ones that do work are rather good. Great background information is available here as well including information on the social and political conditions in which Sappho lived, information on her home, Lesbos , and a few pictures are presented as well.
Plant, I.M. Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2004.
This book is rather encyclopedic in content regarding the numerous women included in the text. All of Sappho’s works are translated and presented. There are excellent interpretations of her work provided and different view points are presented regarding certain pieces of Sappho’s poetry. Again, there is little biographical information, instead Plan focuses on the critique of Sappho’s works and their interpretations throughout history rather than the poet herself..
Robinson, M. David. Sappho and Her Influence. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1963.
Robinson portrays Sappho as a 20th century woman living in the 6th century (B.C.) regarding her lifestyle. He details what life was like for women on the island of Lesbos and how it differed greatly from that of the rest of the world at that time. He extends her influence to numerous areas such as; art, literature, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, music, and American and French literature. It is fascinating to see how much Sappho has influenced various cultures around the globe throughout history and how she influenced the culture during the time in which she lived.
Weigall, Arthur. Sappho of Lesbos. New York: Stokes Company, 1932.
Every fragment of Sappho's work is presented in this book, and there are sketches included that the author himself has drawn. Weigall comes out and admits in the very beginning that there is the tendency for the text to stray from main topics to go into detail Sappho’s contemporaries and of the Greek world of the period. These tangents are rather insightful however, and help gain insight into the full impact Sappho’s work has had on Western culture. Due to the fact that the information available on Sappho from ancient texts is so limited, by looking at the world in which she lived it is easier to put the pieces together of what her life was like.
Unsigned Internet Site. "Sappho, The 10th Muse". Pathfinder. <www.sapphogr.net/sapphoeg.htm>
(22 December 2005).
This is not a scholarly website, but there is a wealth of information available here. The links that are provided give access to pieces of art that feature Sappho, and different interpretations of her work. A short biography is provided that does not provide a lot of information, but the links make up for that.
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Original Written by Claire Sheehan 2005
Last Revision: 22 December 2005
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