Who was Sappho? Poems from Ancient Greece
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Who was Sappho?

Sappho
Sappho, from a red-figure vase

Sappho is the only woman from ancient Greece whose writing has survived (before the 300s BC), although she is not the earliest woman writer; that honor goes to Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon, in Mesopotamia two thousand years earlier. Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos in the 600s BC.

Lesbos
Island of Lesbos today

Sappho seems to have come from a fairly wealthy family, and she may have run a sort of school for girls in their teens, just before they got married. She wrote short poems about how beautiful the girls were, and about how beautiful nature was, and about love. Most of these poems unfortunately survive only in pieces, where some of the words are missing.

One of Sappho's poems goes like this:

A troop of horse, the crowded ranks of marchers,
A noble fleet - some think these of everything on earth
Most beautiful. For me nothing else comes close
To my beloved.

To understand this is for all most simple,
For in this same way, gazing much on mortal perfection
And knowing already what life could give her,
Paris chose fair Helen.

He, the betrayer of Troy's honor.
She didn't think about her adored child or parent,
But yielded to love, and forced by her passion,
she dared Fate in exile.

So quickly is bent the will of that woman
so that things near and dear seem like nothing.
So might you fail, my Anactoria,
If she were with you.

She whose gentle footsteps and radiant face
Hold the power to charm - more than a vision
Of chariots and the mail-clad battalions
Of Lydia's army.

So must we learn in that in a world like this
Man can never reach his greatest desire,
[But must pray for what good fortune Fate holdeth,
Never unmindful.]

(Adapted from Edwin Marion Cox [1925])

Apparently in the excitement of learning the new alphabetic writing, and the new idea that anybody could learn to write, some women succeeded in learning to write too, and even in publishing their work. But the men quickly clamped down - Sappho is not only the first Greek woman writer, she's also the last. Hardly any other Greek or Roman women managed to leave any trace of their writing (though women were writing in China and Japan).

There is nothing in any of the poems that clearly says whether Sappho was gay or not, though it is her poems that have given the name "lesbian" to gay women today (after the island she was from, Lesbos).

Learn by doing: write a poem on one of Sappho's themes
More about Archaic poetry: Archilochus

Bibliography and further reading about Sappho:

Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition (Oxford Profiles) by Rosalie F. Baker and Charles F. Baker (reprinted 1997). Short biographies of many famous Greeks including Sappho.

Sappho, by Jane Snyder (2001). For high school students. This biography assumes that Sappho was a lesbian, but also covers other aspects of her life and her poetry.

Outrageous Women of Ancient Times, by Vicki León (1997). For teens. Lively accounts of strong women from Africa, Asia, and Europe in ancient times.

Sappho: A New Translation, by Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard (1986). The poems themselves, translated into English.

Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches, edited by Ellen Greene (1999). A selection of recent essays about Sappho and her poetry.

More about Enheduanna
Another Archaic poet: Archilochus
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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