(Author of Story Power) Kate Farrell remembers this greek lore- the life of Sappho- during the Pride Month of June.
“May I write words more naked than flesh,
stronger than bone, more resilient than
sinew, sensitive than nerve.”
Only a handful of details are known about the life of Sappho. She was born around 615 BCE to an aristocratic family on the Greek island of Lesbos. Evidence suggests that she had several brothers, married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and had a daughter named Cleis. She spent most of her adult life in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos where she ran an academy for unmarried young women. Sappho’s school devoted itself to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros.
Sappho earned great prominence as a dedicated teacher and poet. The history of her poems is as speculative as that of her biography. She was known in antiquity as a great poet. Plato called her “the tenth Muse” and her likeness appeared on coins. It is unclear whether she invented or simply refined the meter of her day, but today it is known as “Sapphic” meter.
Her poems were first collected into nine volumes around the third century BCE, but her work was lost almost entirely for many years. Merely one twenty-eight-line poem of hers has survived intact, and she was known principally through quotations found in the works of other authors until the nineteenth century.
In 1898 scholars unearthed papyri that contained fragments of her poems. In 1914 in Egypt, archeologists discovered papier-mâché coffins made from scraps of paper that contained more verse fragments attributed to Sappho.
Three centuries after her death, playwrights of the Greek “New Comedy” dramas parodied Sappho as both overly promiscuous and lesbian. This characterization held fast, so much so that the very term “lesbian” is derived from the name of her home island, Lesbos. Her reputation for licentiousness would cause Pope Gregory to burn her work in 1073.
Because social norms in ancient Greece differed from those of today and because so little is actually known of her life, it is difficult to unequivocally answer such claims. Her poems about Eros, however, speak with equal force to men as well as to women.
Sappho is not only one of the few women poets we know of from antiquity, but also is one of the greatest lyric poets from any age. Most of her poems were meant to be sung by one person to the accompaniment of the lyre (hence the name, “lyric” poetry).
Rather than addressing the gods or recounting epic narratives such as those of Homer, Sappho’s verses speak from one individual to another, they speak simply and directly to the “bittersweet” difficulties of love. Many critics and readers alike have responded to the personal tone and urgency of her verses, and an abundance of translations of her fragments are available today.
In Fragment 16, possibly Sappho’s most inspiring poem, well preserved though a little tattered, her definition of beauty is individual:
Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry,
and others of ships, is the most beautiful
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
whatever a person loves.
It is perfectly easy to make this
understood by everyone: for she who far
surpassed mankind in beauty,
Helen, left her most noble husband
and went sailing off to Troy with no thought at all
for her child or dear parents,
but [love?] led her astray …
has reminded me
now of Anactoria
who is not here;
I would rather see her
lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her
face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed
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