Sappho (the greek poet)
One of the great Greek lyrists and few known female poets of the ancient world, Sappho was born some time between 630 and 612 BC. She was said to be small and dark in appearance. Sappho's home was the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. She was born of a noble family, the child of Skamandronymos and Cleis. She also was an aristocrat who married a prosperous merchant, Kerhylas of Andros, and she had a daughter whom she also named Cleis. Her wealth afforded her with the opportunity to live her life as she chose, and she chose to spend it studying the arts on the isle of Lesbos.
In the seventh century BC, Lesbos was a cultural center. Sappho spent most her time on the island, though she also traveled widely throughout Greece. She was exiled for a time around 600 B.C. because of political activities in her family, and she spent this time in Sicily. By this time she was known as a poet, and the residents of Syracuse were so honored by her visit that they erected a statue to her. She was a prolific writer, and her work was collected into nine books around the third century B.C. Unfortunately, her work was deemed obscene by the Church, and most of it was burned. Most of them were lost, and Sappho was known only through quotations in other ancient writers until 1900, when considerable fragments of her work began to be found on papyrus in Egypt and so only a few hundred lines of her poetry remain. In her lifetime, she invented a 21-string lyre which she used to accompany herself when she sang her poems. She also founded a "thiasos", a society of women bound by religious and secular oaths. Her Sapphic stanza which consists of three long lines and one short one was greatly
emulated by later poets such as Horace and Catullus.
Sappho was called a lyrist because, as was the custom of the time, she wrote her poems to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre. Sappho composed her own music and refined the prevailing lyric meter to a point that it is now known as Sapphic meter. She innovated lyric poetry both in technique and style, becoming part of a new wave of Greek lyrists who moved from writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual. She was one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it
affected her personally.
Her style was sensual and melodic; primarily songs of love, yearning, and reflection. Most commonly the target of her affections was female, often one of the many women sent to her for education in the arts. She nurtured these women,
wrote poems of love and adoration to them, and when they eventually left the island to be married, she composed their wedding songs. That Sappho's poetry was not condemned in her time for its homoerotic content (though it was disparaged by scholars in later centuries) suggests that perhaps love between women was not persecuted then as it has been in more recent times. Especially in the last century, Sappho has become so synonymous with woman-love that two of the most popular words to describe female homosexuality--lesbian and sapphic have derived from her.
From ancient times to today, Sappho has remained an important literary and cultural figure. Her works continued to be studied and translated, new poets are inspired by her constantly, and speculation on her life remains popular in the
form of fictionalized tales and ardent research. For a woman who has been dead for over two thousand years, this is quite an achievement.