Sappho of Lesbos (late seventh/early sixth century BCE) was the most famous woman poet of antiquity. We have almost no reliable data about her life, except that she may have had a daughter named Kleis (fr. 132) and a brother (fr. 5), called Charaxos by Herodotus (Histories 2.135). The Marmor Parium records that she went to Sicily as an exile; if correct, this might reflect involvement in the political struggles of early sixth-century Mytilene. Sappho was said, most improbably, to have languished in love for the (mythical) ferryman Phaon and to have ended her life with a lover's leap.
Her songs, in a variety of lyric meters, including the four-line "Sapphic stanza," use a literary version of the Aiolic Greek spoken on Lesbos. Almost all her works survive only as fragments. Like other Archaic Greek lyric poems, some texts were excerpted or paraphrased by later writers, and others have been recovered in tattered papyrus rolls from Greco-Roman Egypt. How the different kinds of songs were first performed (whether by a chorus or a solo performer, and for what kinds of audience) is a matter of lively controversy. In the third century BCE, Alexandrian scholars collected the works transmitted under Sappho's name and edited them in nine (or ten) books, the divisions based largely on meter.
Sappho's extant work is diverse. It includes wedding songs, personal (but not necessarily autobiographical) poems that correspond to the modern notion of "lyric," and an extended mythological narrative (fr. 44, on the wedding of Hektor and Andromache). A number of poems are addressed to gods, especially Aphrodite and the Muses; the extent to which these were performed as actual cult songs (most likely for women's cults) is debated. Her work includes many mythological examples, such as the love of Dawn that could not save Tithonus from old age (fr. 58, recently expanded by an important papyrus find: Greene and Skinner 2009). Sappho is best known for poems poignantly describing the speaker's symptoms of erotic love for a male or (especially) female subject – especially fr. 31, which brilliantly describes the psychological and physiological effects of watching a desired woman.
Ever controversial is the question of Sappho's, or the poetic Sappho-persona's, relationship to the many "girls" (paides) mentioned in her songs, whether with affection, desire, or contempt. It is plausible that such poems were a means to induct young women, who perhaps performed the songs themselves, into adulthood, a passage also marked with ritual activities centered on Aphrodite. Homosexual liaisons may have been part of this process, as was the case with young men in a number of Greek cities. Sappho's work gives oblique but valuable insights into the culture of Archaic Lesbos, including its aristocratic familial rivalries and its close ties to Asia Minor (especially Sardis, frr. 96, 98), and into an otherwise almost unattested world of female relationships and sensibilities.
Alkaios of Mytilene; Homosexuality (female); Homosexuality (male).
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Sappho is thought by classical scholars to have been an actual woman who lived and wrote on the Aeolian island of Lesbos in the 7th century ...