Sappho

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Ancient Greek bust of Sappho the Eresia.
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Ancient Greek bust of Sappho the Eresia.

Sappho (Attic Greek Σαπφώ Sapph, Aeolic Greek Ψάπφα Psappha) was an Ancient Greek poet, from the city of Eressos on the island of Lesbos, which was a cultural centre in the 7th century BC. She was born sometime between 630 BC and 612 BC. It was said that she was small, dark and very ugly.

Sappho, daughter of Scamander and Cleïs, was married (Attic comedy says to a wealthy merchant, but that is apocryphal) and had a daughter also named Cleïs. She became very famous in her day for her poetry—so much so that the city of Syracuse built a statue to honor her when she visited. Her family was politically active, which caused Sappho to travel a great deal. She was also noted during her life as the headmistress of a sort of Greek finishing school for girls. Most likely the objects of her poetry were her students.

She 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 typical themes of Gods, to the themes of individual human experiences and emotions. Prior to Sappho the theme of poetry was confined to heroic deeds of mythical warriors.

Sappho wrote mainly love poems, of which only fragments survive, save a single complete poem, Fragment 1, "Hymn to Aphrodite". Given her reputation in the ancient world, the fact that only fragments of her work remain today indicates that the bulk of her work has been lost to the world.

Some of her love poems were addressed to women. The word lesbian itself is derived from the name of the island of Lesbos from which she came. (Her name is also the origin of its much rarer synonym sapphic.)

Because of its explicit eroticism, and in particular its homosexual eroticism, her work was disapproved of by the Christian church; this is arguably the main reason why most of it has not survived, due to a combination of neglecting to copy it and actively destroying it.

Romantic representation of Sappho
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Romantic representation of Sappho

While in the modern period this content is well known, 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 named Phaon. This legend dates to Ovid and Lucian in Ancient Rome and certainly is not a Christian overlay. (Of particular note is that a purported consort of hers was named Cercglas of Andros, literally "Penis, from the town of Man"). As far as history is concerned, Sappho came from a noble family, had three brothers, married and had at least one daughter, was exiled to Syracuse for political reasons, returned in 581 BC, and died in old age.

Sappho in Literature

The philosopher Maximus of Tyre writes that Sappho was "small and dark" and that her relationships to her female friends were similar to those of Socrates:

What else was the love of the Lesbian woman except Socrates' art of love? For they seem to me to have practiced love each in their own way, she that of women, he that of men. For they say that both loved many and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to the Lesbian.

An epigram in the Anthologia Palatina ascribed to Plato states:

Some say of nine Muses, how neglected!
Behold, Sappho, from Lesbos, is the tenth


Aelianus Claudius wrote in Assorted History (Ποικίλη ιστορία) that Plato called Sappho wise.

The Greek poet Odysseas Elytis (20th century AD from Lesbos) admired her in one of his Mikra Epsilon: .. Such a being, both sensitive and courageous, is not often presented by life. A small-built deep-dark-skinned girl, that did prove to be equally capable of subjugating a rose-flower, interpreting a wave or a nightingale, and saying 'I love you', to fill the globe with emotion.

Horace writes in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics are worthy of sacred admiration.

Lord Byron wrote the following lines about her in Childe Harold:

And onward viewed the mount, not yet forgot,
The lover's refuge and the Lesbian's grave.
Dark Sappho! could not verse immortal save
That breast imbued with such immortal fire?

Charles Baudelaire writes about Sappho in Les Fleurs du Mal. She has been often described as the female form of Homer.

External links

da:Sapfo de:Sappho el:Σαπφώ es:Safo eo:Sapfo fr:Sappho gd:Sappho it:Saffo he:סאפפו hu:Szapph nl:Sappho nds:Sappho ja:サッポー pl:Safona pt:Safo sl:Sapfo sr:Сапфа sv:Sapfo uk:Сапфо

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