Sappho’s Reception

Sappho, a Greek lyric poetess, was born around 615 BCE and said to have died at an old age at around 550 BCE (3). Born on the island of Lesbos, she wrote songs and poems to be accompanied by a lyre. She was highly revered by the Greeks who thought of Sappho as “the Poetess”, just as they thought of Homer as “the Poet”. She was the only female writer to be enshrined as part of the nine most important lyric geniuses in the Library of Alexandria (2). Her talent was so profound that Plato claimed she was the tenth Muse and might even have been an inspiration to the Muses themselves. Even Aristotle, who lived in a deeply misogynistic time, could not deny how good Sappho was. During the Roman era, it also became popular among poets to imitate her (1).

Despite being known as one of the greatest lyric poet of all time, much of her work has been lost throughout the ages. This makes her biography and poetry mostly speculative. Only a few poems and two hundred fragments survived from her original nine volumes that were collected in the Library of Alexandria around 3rd century BCE (5). In 1898, scholars found more fragments of her poems and in 1914, papier-mâché coffins that were made out of fragments relating to Sappho were found in Egypt (3). Recently, two new poems by Sappho were discovered in 2014 (7).

Papyrus fragment containing Sappho's poems

People have speculated that the cause for the loss of Sappho’s works was because of the changing preferences in writing during the Byzantine period where people preferred writings in Attic Greek, not Aeolic dialect and non-Attic Greek that is seen in Sappho’s writings. But if that were the case, most of Homer’s works should have been lost as well (1).

A more probable theory would be that the content of Sappho’s poems had led to their destruction. Many of her works contained homoerotic themes, where her songs of love and affection were directed at women or female friends (this eventually leads to the term “lesbian” that is derived from her birthplace) (4)(6). For example, in fragment 31, she writes about being jealous of men who could talk to the woman she loves while she could not:

“He seems to me an equal of the gods—

whoever gets to sit across from you

and listen to the sound of your sweet speech

so close to him,

to your beguiling laughter: O it makes my

panicked heart go fluttering in my chest,

for the moment I catch sight of you there’s no

speech left in me,

but tongue gags—: all at once a faint

fever courses down beneath the skin,

eyes no longer capable of sight, a thrum-

ming in the ears,

and sweat drips down my body, and the shakes

lay siege to me all over, and I’m greener

than grass, I’m just a little short of dying,

I seem to me;

but all must be endured, since even a pauper . . .”

(2)

Poetry containing homoeroticism, and same-sex relationships were not a problem in ancient Greece but that quickly changed when Christianity became popular during the Roman Empire (5)(1). Misogyny from the Middle Ages and homophobia brought on by the Christian era proved to be an unfortunate combination for Sappho. Homoeroticism was seen as unnatural and she was perceived as someone who lacked morals. Furthermore, in 5th century BCE, Sappho was depicted as a prostitute in Attic comedy. On stage, she was shown as a woman with many male lovers even though there is no indication that any of them were real. Real or not, her reputation of being licentious has followed her since (1). Hence, it is not surprising that in 1073, Pope Gregory VII ordered the burning of her works (3).

Later, during the early Italian Renaissance period, humanists attempted to erase the homoeroticism in Sappho’s works in order to use her as a role model for female writers and combat the misogyny of that time. A prominent humanist author, Petrarch, strived to rehabilitate her image to fit the Christian context and references her in his work, only praising her skill. Between 1361 and 1362, Petrarch’s friend, Boccaccio, adds Sappho to his catalog of famous women for her accomplishments (1).

In the 19th century, scholars who found Sappho’s fragments tried to downplay the homoeroticism in her poems and find ways to explain them in a more acceptable manner. For example, one scholar theorized that Sappho might have been running a girls’ boarding school and her feelings toward her students were merely professional (2). However, this theory is supported by little evidence and seems implausible considering how erotic some of her poems were (5).

It is tragic that the life and works of someone as talented as Sappho still remain a mystery. Regardless, the fact that small traces of her poems continue to impact and inspire works of other people to this day is indicative of her brilliance.