Who was Sappho?

Step aside, Homer, and make way for Sappho.

August 17, 2021

In 2008, conservative Lesbians were pissed.

Yup, you read that right. But to clarify, by “Lesbians” I mean inhabitants of the island of Lesbos. They were upset with how many lesbians (women who fancy other women) had been coming to their island for the past few decades as queer cultural tourists. In April of that year, tensions between the Lesbians and the lesbians reached a boiling point. Three native Lesbian plaintiffs submitted a legal challenge against OLKE (Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece) in an attempt to prevent the group from using the word in its name, calling it a “psychological and moral rape” of their culture. Thankfully, and unsurprisingly, the plaintiffs didn’t succeed.

Ignorant as they might be, the inhabitants of Lesbos had some reason to be confused. There is no known record of “lesbian” being used to describe women that loved other women until William King’s satire The Toast in 1732. In the late nineteenth century, it appeared again in a British journal of psychological disorders. By the mid-twentieth century, it had been adopted by queer activists as a term for women who loved women. So why do lesbians make the pilgrimage to Lesbos as if it were a homeland?

It all began with a woman named Sappho. Sappho lived around 600 BCE on the island of Lesbos. Her poetry, performed as songs with a lyre as accompaniment, mused on the erotic nature of romance and desire. A considerable thematic departure from the epic poetry of her male predecessors, Homer and Hesiod, Sappho’s poems were also among the first to use the first person singular, the word “I,” to grant her listeners access to her deepest thoughts and emotions. Historian Lisa Moore argues that this intimacy allowed for queer writers to express their inmost desires, creating a literary tradition that ultimately gave birth to the sonnet.

Sappho’s lyrics were impassioned and deeply sensual, particularly in her reactions to other women. Historians argue over whether Sappho engaged in same-sex activity, and very little is known about her personal life, but the impact women had on her poetry (and arguably her psychology) is undeniable. In reaction to the charms of a female companion, she writes: "My tongue freezes silent and stiff, light flame trickles under my skin, I no longer see with my eyes, my ears hear whirring.

Despite their erotic content, her songs were typically performed in public ceremonies, like weddings. At the time, Greece was divided along gender lines, and women had very little contact with men before marriage. Even after they married, they largely attended to the household while their husbands explored the outside world. Some of Sappho’s poetry functioned as an initiation into womanhood for new brides, a rare testament to the sensuality and intimacy that could be shared between women.

Sappho earned an almost mythological reputation amongst her contemporaries and other ancient writers. Antipater of Thessalonica, a 1st century BCE writer, called her the female companion to Homer; Plato labeled her “the Tenth Muse” (a particularly flattering compliment as the poetry of muses was considered a divine, immortal gift); and Solon of Athens, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, said he wanted to memorize her poetry by heart, so that “he could learn it and die.

Unfortunately, her golden reputation did not stand the stand test of time, at least in the short term. Around the fourth and fifth century BCE, attitudes around female sexuality began to change, and poetry that addressed female passion came to be regarded as unseemly. Sappho was often portrayed in the Classical era and thereafter as a sexual predator of men. In fact, lesbiazein, before it referred to queer women, actually referred to someone who enjoyed performing fellatio because of Sappho’s libidinous and oversexed reputation.

Four centuries after her death, the great library of Alexandria cataloged nine books (around 10,000 lines) of her poetry, but by the Middle Ages, almost all of her work had disappeared. The early church, which viewed same-sex activity as an “unmentionable vice,” is rumored to have burned many of her books. Tatian of Adiabene, an Assyrian Christian and theologian, referred to her as “a sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness.” In the Renaissance, though humanists embraced Sappho’s work in an effort to celebrate the brilliance of the female mind and confront misogyny, they also erased her homoeroticism to make it more palatable to a Christian audience. Even scholars in the Victorian era would try their best to explain away her erotic fascinations.

So the Greek Lesbians who made a fuss over the use of the word “lesbian” weren’t alone. They were following in a centuries-long tradition of attempting to erase any connection between Sappho, the isle of Lesbos, and queer feminine sexuality. Thankfully, a renewed interest by women writers in the 17th and 18th centuries led to a Sapphic revival, ensuring that what remained of her work was cataloged, restored, and preserved.

And our knowledge of Sappho’s work only continues to expand. In 2004, scholars at the University of Cologne discovered a papyrus that nearly completed Fragment 58 of Sappho’s poetry, “Old Age Poem.” And in 2012, an American classicist discovered a complete poem Sappho had written about her siblings, entitled “Brother’s Poem.”

Despite all odds, Sappho has left a remarkable footprint on modern society. Sapphic stanza - repeated sequences of three long lines followed by a short fourth - is still used in modern poetry. “Lesbian,” despite the best efforts of some Mediterranean nay-sayers, continues to be a celebrated label for queer folks around the world. Even the notion of love as “bittersweet” is attributed to the Poetess:

Once again Love, that loosener of limbs, bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing, seizes me.

It’s a fitting description not just of love, but of Sappho’s legacy. Bitter, from how much has been lost or destroyed, but also sweet, for the fragments that remain.