Sappho is the only woman from archaic or classical Greece whose writing has survived. (She is not the earliest woman writer. That honor goes to Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon, in Iraq two thousand years earlier.) Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos in the 600s BC.
Sappho seems to have come from a fairly wealthy family. 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:
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.
That’s how you might 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,
(Adapted from Edwin Marion Cox )
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. Some even published 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
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.