Who Was Sappho?
Sappho was born sometime during the seventh century B.C. in Lesbos, Greece. An exalted artist who created lyrical poems meant to be set to song, her work expressed love for men and women while also paying homage to the deities of the times. Sappho's poems were posthumously compiled into nine papyrus volumes at the Library of Alexandria, though the bulk of her output was eventually lost. Still, fragments of Sappho's songs have been found through the years, with scholarly dialogue continuing to unfold over the iconic figure's history and motivations.
Background and Career
Limited information is available on the life of the ancient Greek poet known as Sappho, and thus her career and background have been subject to much conjecture. She is believed to have been born on the island of Lesbos during the seventh century B.C., with estimated birth dates ranging from 640–610 B.C.
Oriented in the capital of Mytilene, Sappho was a highly lauded poet of her times noted for her viscerally sensual themes and may have been held in the same esteem as Homer. She ultimately produced nine volumes of work recorded on papyrus scrolls and placed in the Library of Alexandria hundreds of years after she died. She is also credited with devising the Sapphic stanza style, consisting of three lengthier lines followed by a more succinct fourth.
Her poems were actually meant to be placed to music, specifically the lyre, but there’s a question as to whether they were generally performed in public or private and if the lines uttered were personal, individualistic declarations, or statements meant for group representation via choruses. Sappho’s songs were also thought to be geared toward the tutelage of groups of young women known as thiasos. Though philosopher Plato reputedly had a limited taste for poetry, he nonetheless referred to Sappho as the “10th Muse,” a statement that spoke to her important cultural stature.
Sappho is believed to have had at least two brothers and may have been married and had a daughter. There’s also the question of her sexuality. It’s thought that Sappho expressed amorous interest in men, and in fact such expressions were grossly caricatured in later forms of entertainment. Nonetheless, some surviving verses, including a hymn to Aphrodite, prominently showcase same-sex desire. Sappho thus eventually developed a reputation of representing romance between women, with her home island of Lesbos having inspired the term "lesbian" (though the word had different connotations in ancient times).
The question of how long Sappho lived has also been tied into the realm of legend. One story states that she might have jumped from a cliff due to unrequited love from a male sailor. But her “Old Age Poem,” discovered in 2004 and featuring lines about time's effects on the body, implies that the poet lived past middle age. Her reported year of death ranges from 570–550 B.C.
Historical Legacy and Discoveries
The bulk of Sappho’s work was lost due to adverse environmental conditions and the restrictive, destructive mores of the Middle Ages, though papyri fragments managed to surface by the late 1800s. Scholars and biographers over the years have presented a variety of theories about Sappho’s life and how her work can be interpreted, though these offerings are speculative and can’t be verified.
In 2013, Oxford University scholar Dirk Obbink announced the findings of two more pieces from Sappho—“The Brothers Poem” and “The Kypris Poem”—though there’s been attendant controversy, as aspects of the discovery are shrouded in secrecy. Works published on Sappho in the new millennium include If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002) by Anne Carson and Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works (2014) by Diane Rayor.
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