Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sappho the Lesbian

One of the few things we know about the poet Sappho is that she was a Lesbian.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 
by Simeon Solomon (at the Tate)
 Uhm...that is...she lived on Lesbos, a Greek island off the coast of what is now Turkey. 

Of course, what most of us grew up hearing is that she was a lesbian Lesbian--but on that lower-case adjective, we're a lot less certain.  Certainly the way Sappho's sexuality has been portrayed over the centuries gives us a much more complex picture.  She has been portrayed as a sex-crazed heterosexual prostitute, a suicide that leaped to her death because her love for a specific man was unrequited, a school marm, a cult leader, and a virgin.  Take your pick.

Sappho was probably married, although some scholars suggest that the name for her husband implies her marriage was all a big joke.  (Could she really be married to someone named "Dick All-Cock from the Isle of Man," as one scholar questions?)  Her poems indicate she had a daughter, although some scholars suggest that her references are in fact to a young lover.

And some of her poems are about heterosexual love, as is this one, translated by Mary Barnard:

12. It's no use

Mother dear, I
can't finish my
You may
blame Aphrodite

soft as she is

she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy.

--translated by Mary Barnard

I love the sweet freshness of this poem.  It conveys the emotions of a first crush so beautifully.  But just because Sappho says she is talking about a boy doesn't mean she was in love with a real boy.  Just as Hesiod might have been creating a fictitious narrator, Sappho could have been assuming a different persona.  Since it is believed that many of her poems might have been performed at weddings, this interpretation seems quite feasible.  We just can't know what a love poem means about the feelings of its author.

Many of Sappho's poems are about a particular group of women.  And interestingly, many of these poems are much more erotic--about both bodily pleasure and bodily desire.  Look at this example, translated in that late 1950s by the incomparable William Carlos Williams:

Peer of the gods is that man, who
face to face, sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely

It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast.  At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
          is broken.

Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears

Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down.  I grow paler
than dry grass and lack little
          of dying.

Certainly, the intensity of this poem (or any of the others like it in the collection) does not prove that Sappho loved women any more than the first example proves that she engaged in relationships with men.  And even if it did prove she had female lovers, that would not make her a lesbian (or bisexual) since those are constructions of sexuality that arose more than two thousand years after her death.

Nevertheless, I think it is hard to deny that Sappho's poems saw that women were sexual beings, full of beauty and passion and longing.  She imagined that both emotional and physical desires could be fulfilled in a variety of ways without censure or disapproval.  What a modern--and yet eternal--vision!

Perhaps it is exactly that idea that women can have desires that really sets the poems of Sappho apart from those of most of the men writing in the ancient world.  The poet-narrative feels great desire--and expresses it in her poems as love for other women.  Although this seems to be very clear evidence that Sappho was (at least in a loose ahistorical way) a lesbian Lesbian, I can also imagine that it might have been less threatening to see a woman being an active lover of other women than a woman being an active lover of men.  Whatever the choices that Sappho made, and however we interpret the choices her narrator made, the poems that we have of Sappho's give strength and a sense of eternal tradition to women who love women today.

*  *  *

For more about Sappho's life and her changing reputation over time, see these fascinating books:
The Sappho Companion (a fascinating compendium of writings about Sappho over time)
Sappho Is Burning (a difficult read but a thoughtful and very scholarly book)
Sappho's Immortal Daughters (an erudite and highly readable study)


  1. Your assertion that "it might have been less threatening to see a woman being an active lover of other women than a woman being an active lover of men" is a very interesting one to me - reading a swath of ancient Greek stuff right now, myself, it is interesting how positively frightened many Greek authors were of sexual women. It's a strange, seemingly instinctual kind of fear, but I hadn't considered it from the angle you describe. Honestly, I don't know enough to have an intelligent opinion on the subject of the historicity of her sexuality.

  2. Please don't think my "might have been" is an exertion! Just an idea. It was thinking about the fact that the ancients G's seemed so scared of sexual women that made me think about the fact that a woman who was sexual with women--but not with men--might actually be thought of as asexual by men in power. My gut is that it is the ability to procreate (or rather, the threat of uncontrolled procreation) that makes sexual women threatening. So if they aren't procreating, perhaps they are less threatening. What do you think?

  3. Oh goodness. Exerton? Of course I mean "assertion"! I guess thinking and intellectual argumentation takes a lot out of me...

  4. Ha ha - love the husband's name! And love that a woman from so far back is remembered by name. It's kinda vindicating. (Cleopatra notwithstanding.) ;-)

  5. Oh yes, J! The name is one of my favorite parts!

  6. It is interesting, sex is so taken with the idea of power, to me, in books of the past, particularly female sexuality, that the act of sex, itself seems to be more fearful than the childbirth afterwards (though the idea you present of the generative power of women being mysterious and unattainable and frightening to men is also very interesting). Throughout much of history, you hear these myths and stories of women who controlled men by the power of their 'feminine wiles' - Cleopatra is a great example, as is, in a different way, Clytemnestra. The idea of beingcontrolled by a woman's sexual force is something that lives on today (there's a vulgar word for it I won't repeat here). Beyond this, men have often seemed to believe that sex is something that takes power from them - and by extension gives it to someone else. This was one of the reasons, for instance that men were not to masturbate, because their semen was the seat of their energy. Another fasciingatingly humorous example would be the mad general in 'Dr Strangelove'. A woman who acts powerful, then, ceases to be a harmless receptacle, and becomes a 'thief' of a man's power. Roman history demonizes women llike this all the time - Livia, the wife of Augustus, the mother of Nero, the incestuous sisters of Caligula, etc. A lesbian seems, then, somewhat harmless - she doesn't steal any force from others. The chinese, I believe, at one time for instnace frowned on male homosexuality (because it drained a man's vital force) but had no problem with female homosexuality, a traned that continues through much of history, even today in its way (or, for instance, in the Victorian period, where lesbian encounters were not uncommon in the pornography of the day, particularly the stereotypical girl's school or convent). Women, in a sense, were irrelevant in terms of power until they started taking things from men. Sex, in a sense, was always something of a battle, and sex between two women is just a 'catfight' in this sense - and I won't elucidate on the 'sexy', belittling implications of that word.


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