Notes on Sappho

As with much of ancient literature, the life of Sappho is shrouded in mystery. She is said to have been a poet hailing from the islands of Lesbos and was revered in antiquity for her short songs of revelry -praising the stars, the gods, children, a woman’s love, carefree summer days, and cool evenings. We imagine her poetry taking place at dusk, with young girls dancing and picking flowers.

Sappho is also rumored to be what we moderns would term homosexual or possibly bisexual -a category absent in antiquity. The ancients knew many forms of sexual expression, including homosexuality and also more controversial practices to our modern sensibilities, such as pederasty. Nevertheless, we derive our word “lesbian” from Sappho’s home, meaning a denizen of the island of Lesbos.

Contrary to to popular mythology, Sappho was not a lone nymph reciting haikus from a remote part of the Aegean. At the time, the islands were a bustling hub of art and trade, and Sappho was most likely a leader in a school for the Muses, educating young girls. She is thought to have been a devotee of the cult of Aphrodite and in Hellenistic times, Sappho was frequently listed as among the nine essential lyric poets of ancient Greece, along with Pindar for his Odes. Approximations vary, but she is one of the earliest Greek poets, and possibly lived during the 7th century BC. Unfortunately, the course of modern history has left us with an inability to communicate artfully or esoterically, rather, we must engage in probabilities when speaking about the past.

Her work has been largely lost in antiquity, however, we are still in possession of a considerable number of fragments. Taken from the Mary Barnard translation, notable passages include:

“Although they are

only breath, words
which I command
are immortal”

“To an army wife in Sardis:

Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that swift oars
of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is”

“You may forget but
let me tell you
this: someone in some future time
will think of us”

“Experience shows us

Wealth unchaperoned
by Virtue is never
an innocuous neighbor”

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