Who was/is, women of history, women of literature, writer

Who was Sappho?

Sappho is one of the most famous poets of ancient Greece, despite the little information we have of her life, it is believed that she lived in the 6th century BC. Her poems about love and desire have influenced the history of our poetry, some scholars believed that is impossible to express love without Sappho’s influence.

It is believed that Sappho lived around 630 and 570 BC and that she was born in a wealthy and aristocratic family of the island of Lesbos. Her poetry made her famous in antiquity, but today we only have small fragments of her poetry. Even tough most of her work is lost, these little fragments are remarkable, those fragments are preserved in manuscripts of other ancient writers or in papyrus. Part of one poem survives on a potsherd, it is known as fragment 2.

In Sappho’s poetry the most important subjects are love and sex, they are re everywhere on her poems. But they are presented as they could be applied to everyone. This happens because Sappho played with the voice of the poem, forcing us to question “who is speaking? male or female? who is the beloved? male or female?”. According to scholars, her poems could be considered as “gender fluid” or “blind gender”, which means that the important is not who feels love, but the feeling itself. Even tough people associate her poems with the love between two women, her poetry aspires to make people think about love experience and about the sensations it brings, sensations and feelings that transcend gender. And for me, this is the beauty of her poetry.

In Art

Since ancient times Sappho has inspired poets and artists, being one of the few women to be pictured on pottery which is a proof of her recognition in antiquity. One of the earliest images of Sappho is from c.470 BC, it is an example of Greek red-figure pottery and in it she is depicted holding a lyre and plectrum, turning herself to listen to Alcaeus.

Sappho holding a lyre in a Greek red-figure pottery from c. 470 BC

Other early representations of Sappho are: a Roman sculpture, based on a classical Greek model with the inscription “Sappho of Eresos”; and this depiction of her in a red-figure hydria made by a painter from the Group of Polygnotos.

During the medieval period, Sappho had a reputation as an educated woman and a talented poet. In this woodcut she is portrayed surrounded by books and musical instruments, this image is an illustration of an early incunable of De mulieribus Claris by Boccaccio (image below).

One of the most famous depictions of Sappho is probably in Raphael’s Parnassus, where she appears alongside other poets, holding with her left hand a scroll in which her name is written.

Detail of Sappho in Raphael’s Parnassus, 1510-11

Sappho was remembered by artists of 19th century, some of them were inspired by Sappho’s death, especially the version in which she committed suicide by jumping off the Leucadian cliff as it is the case of the painting by Charles Mengin. Other painters put the focus on her sexuality, which has long been on debate, as we can see in Sappho and Alcaeus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema or in Sappho with Erinna by Simeon Solomon.

Sappho and Alcaeus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Sappho and Erinna by Simeon Solomon

Since the importance of Sappho to world poetry and as an example of woman who achieved recognition in antiquity, I am very surprised that I could not find any work on Sappho made by a woman artist.

Curiosities

  • Did you know that originally the term Lesbian only meant someone from the island of Lesbos?
Sappho by John William Godward, 1910

In my opinion Sappho and her poetry did not receive the treatment they deserved throughout history, they have been judged and labelled based mostly on assumptions about her sexuality. We cannot know for sure whether Sappho had homosexual relationships and if so, I do not believe this is a relevant point to understand or appreciate her work.

“Some say thronging calvary, some say foot soldiers, others call a fleet the most beautiful of sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s whatever you love best.”

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