Categories
History & Religion

Sappho

Sappho is known for her lyric poetry, written to be sung while accompanied by a lyre.

Sappho was an ancient Greek female poet famous for its intense passion and description of love. Being born on the Isle of Lesbos she is also referred to as the first Lesbian poet.Lived about 60 years during c. 630 – c. 570 BC

Lived about 60 years during c. 630 – c. 570 BC

Sappho’s Early life

Little is known of Sappho’s life. She was from a wealthy family from Lesbos, though her parents’ names are uncertain. Ancient sources say that she had three brothers; the names of two of them, Charaxos and Larichos, are mentioned in the Brothers Poem discovered in 2014. She was exiled to Sicily around 600 BC, and may have continued to work until around 570. Later legends surrounding Sappho’s love for the ferryman Phaon and her death are unreliable.

Profession, Work & Activities

Most of Sappho’s poetry is now lost, and what is extant has survived only in fragmentary form, except for one complete poem: the “Ode to Aphrodite”. As well as lyric poetry, ancient commentators claimed that Sappho wrote elegiac and iambic poetry.

Three epigrams attributed to Sappho are extant, but these are actually Hellenistic imitations of Sappho’s style.

Sappho was a prolific poet, probably composing around 10,000 lines. Her poetry was well-known and greatly admired through much of antiquity, and she was among the canon of nine lyric poets most highly esteemed by scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. Sappho’s poetry is still considered extraordinary and her works continue to influence other writers. Beyond her poetry, she is well known as a symbol of love and desire between women, with the English words sapphic and lesbian being derived from her own name and the name of her home island respectively.

In ancient times, Sappho was widely regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets and was given names such as the “Tenth Muse” and “The Poetess”.

Sappho’s poetry

“Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.”

  • from Please by Paul Roche

“Some an army of horsemen, some an army on foot
and some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest sight
on this dark earth; but I say it is what-
ever you desire:
and it it possible to make this perfectly clear
to all; for the woman who far surpassed all others
in her beauty, Helen, left her husband —
the best of all men —
behind and sailed far away to Troy; she did not spare
a single thought for her child nor for her dear parents
but [the goddess of love] led her astray
[to desire…]
[…which]
reminds me now of Anactoria
although far away, 

–Translated by Josephine Balmer

Her poems were written in Aeolic Greek dialect; as this dialect was quite rare, it explains why her poems became increasingly lost as fewer people were able to translate them.

The difficulties of the Aeolic Greek metre, also means there is considerable variance in English translations.