2021 - 2022 Ancient Volume 21

The “Poetess”: A short history of Sappho of Lesbos

By Hannah McCann

“Someone, I tell you, in another time will remember us.”

Sappho – Fragment 147

Sappho is an enigma. All we know that she was born sometime around 620 BCE on the Ancient Greek island of Lesbos. We know she had a wealthy family, possibly some brothers, possibly a husband and a daughter names Cleis. We know she was a poet, Plato called her the “Tenth Muse” and she was said to have written nine volumes. Coins were minted to celebrate the “Poetess”, the equal of Homer the “Poet”. Yet while Homer’s Iliad has survived, all we have of Sappho’s work is two poems and 40 fragments.

Her work was attacked in the Ancient world because of its contents. Many of Sappho’s poems are written for women, love poems potentially composed to be sung. Many of these women may have been part of her “circle”, her ‘finishing’ school on the island of Lesbos for young women.

and your enticing laughter— that indeed has stirred up the heart in my breast. For whenever I look at you even briefly I can no longer say a single thing.

Sappho – Fragment

While we cannot pin down Sappho’s sexuality, we do get the word Lesbian from her island, and the term Sapphic (also meaning a woman who loves a woman) from her name. As a result, Sappho is deeply engrained in LGBTQ+ culture even if we don’t realise it. Her birthplace, the village of Skala Eresou on Lesbos, has become a popular pilgrimage destination for queer women. For many in the LGBTQ+ community, Sappho acts as a queer icon, a reminder of our history.

For by my side you put on many wreaths of roses and garlands of flowers around your soft neck. And with precious and royal perfume you anointed yourself. On soft beds you satisfied your passion. And there was no dance, no holy place from which we were absent.

Sappho – Fragment

The Muses have filled my life with delight. And when I die I shall not be forgotten.

Sappho – Fragment