SAPPHO OF LESBOS
c. 600 BC
By Christina A. Clark
“Violet-haired, holy, sweetly smiling Sappho”
Alcaeus fr. 384
Sappho of Mytilene, a city on the Ionian island of Lesbos (six miles off the coast of Lydia, modern day Turkey), was a poet and musician so talented that later Greeks named her the “tenth Muse” (Palatine Anthology 9.506). An aristocrat who lived in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, Sappho composed poetry set to the lyre. Of the nine papyrus rolls of her songs that existed in antiquity, only one song survives complete – all the rest are fragments, or lost. We can glimpse the breadth of Sappho’s versatility in the fragments that remain, which include marriage and cult hymns in addition to songs for private occasions.
Sappho’s songs for religious and public rituals may have been performed by choruses of girls, while solo performers probably sang the songs for private occasions. Sappho is important not only because of the technical and aesthetic quality of her poetry, but also because she was a woman. We have much literary evidence about women in antiquity, but most of that is male-authored. In Sappho, we have a female voice that evokes the world women inhabited in Greece’s largely sex-segregated society. Sappho, like most respectable Greek women, would have spent most of her time with other women in the domestic sphere. What stands out in Sappho’s poetry, as opposed to that of her male contemporaries such as the poet Alcaeus, is that she portrays women as desiring lovers rather than the passive objects of desire. For example, fragment 16 shows us the famous Helen of Troy leaving her husband, parents and daughter for love of Paris, an act which led to the Trojan War. Many male authors blamed Helen for the war, even as they emphasized her status as desired object, but Sappho uses the desiring Helen to illustrate the power of love:
“Some say a host of horses, some say an army of infantry, and some say an
army of ships is the most beautiful thing on the black earth. But I say it is whatever one loves.
Easy to make this entirely understood by all. For Helen, who surpassed mortals by far in beauty, left her noble husband and went sailing to Troy, nor did she remember at all her child or her dear parents, but [ led her astray … ] for lightly . . . reminded me of Anaktoria, who isn’t here.
I would rather see her sexy walk and the shining sparkle of her face than Lydian chariots or armed infantry.”
In poem 1, the only complete poem, the female speaker “Sappho”prays that Aphrodite, goddess of love, will spare her heartbreak by making the woman she desires return her feelings. In fact, Sappho composed a large number of homoerotic poems, and these in particular have generated much interest in the last twenty years. Sappho’s poems in general evoke the senses and strong emotions such as desire, joy, grief, and longing. She achieves an incantatory effect by playing with sound, using alliteration, assonance, rhythm and word repetition. Anne Carson incorporates such effects in her translation of fr. 112, addressed to a bridegroom:
“Blest bridegroom, your marriage just as you prayed
has been accomplished
and you have the bride for whom you prayed
gracious your form and your eyes
as honey: desire is poured upon your lovely face
Aphrodite has honored you exceedingly.”
Reading her poetry, we are drawn into a world of religious ritual and domestic space. We read of incense burning, flowers blooming, cool water running. We feel the wind and enjoy the sight of leaves shivering as it blows in fr. 2, a song that invokes the goddess of erotic love, Aphrodite:
“(Come) here to me from Crete to this holy temple,
where is your charming grove of apple-trees, and altars
smoking with frankincense, and in it cold water sounds
through apple branches, and the whole land is shadowed
by roses, and from shimmering leaves sleep drops down;
in it a meadow grazed by horses blooms with spring flowers,
and the winds blow gently. There you, Kypris, having taken
up gold cups delicately pour nectar, mingled with festivities.”
Sappho evokes aesthetics that trigger desire, such as the charming laughter of young women (fr. 31), the sight of a dress swirling around a girl’s ankles (fr. 22) and a girl’s sexy walk (fr. 16). She also describes the violent effects of desire itself:
“Eros shook my heart like wind falling on oaks down the mountain.” (fr. 47)
“You came, and I was mad for you. But you cooled my heart, burning with desire.” (fr. 48)
Sappho creates songs which seem spontaneous and of the moment. They use traditional forms (such as prayer formulas and epic conventions), but rework them cleverly. Perhaps fragment 168B can hint at Sappho’s aesthetic and emotional power:
“The moon has set, and Pleiades: middle night, the hour goes by, and I sleep alone.”
Carson, Anne. If not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Clark, Christina. “The Body of Desire: Nonverbal Communication in Sappho 31V.” Syllecta Classica 12 (2001): 1-29.
Greene, E., ed. Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Williamson, Margaret. Sappho’s Immortal Daughters. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Christina Clark, PhD
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies
Omaha, NE 68178