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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 10 - Sappho of Lesbos: The Woman and the Legend

Saturday, June 3, 2017 - 07:00

(Transcript posted 2018/09/26)

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 10 - Sappho of Lesbos: The Woman and the Legend - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/06/03 - listen here)

Looking back at the long history of neglect, erasure, and condemnation of women who desire women, one of the few bright spots is the ancient Greek poet Sappho. Think how marvelous it is that we--as women who love women--have an icon like Sappho who has not only given us a vocabulary to identify and talk about our experiences, but entirely apart from that, who was so talented that even the long centuries could not dim our knowledge of her genius.

I like to try to do some sort of special feature in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to celebrate Pride Month. It was June 2014 when I first started the blogging project and here we are, three years and 140 publications later! This time I thought I’d cover a handful of the books about Sappho that are on my to-do list, and do two special podcasts to book-end the month.

The first one will be about what we know of the historic woman named Sappho and the society she lived in. Then I’ll look at what Greek and Roman writers said about her, and how some of the myths about her life sprang up.

The second episode will look at the legacy of Sappho from the Middle Ages up through the 19th century. I’ll look at how she was used as an example of such different things as decadent sexuality and female literary genius. And I’ll trace the history of how her poetry was translated into everyday languages, and how poets used her themes and imagery in their own work.

* * *

For this first episode, I give a great deal of credit to André Lardinois, whose 1989 article “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos” provides a detailed and even-handed look at the historic and literary context of Sappho’s life. Other sources are listed in the show notes.

The association of the name Sappho and the word Lesbian with female homoeroticism is so well entrenched that we rarely question what evidence we have that Sappho actually was a lesbian (in the orientation sense, rather than the geographic one)? How would such an orientation have been understood in her time and culture? There isn’t a large amount of data, but there’s enough to draw a few conclusions.

Sappho lived around 600 BC on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean sea, very close to the coast of modern Turkey. Other than her own poetry, every record we have of her was written centuries later.

The earliest source materials for Sappho’s life are the remnants of her poetry (mostly in the form of fragments quoted by later writers); an assortment of fiction that included her as a character, salacious gossip and a few more reliable facts about Sappho and her poetry that are found in the works of Classical authors; and general circumstantial evidence regarding the social and historic context in which she lived.

Sappho’s body of work includes songs celebrating the beauty of young girls, ceremonial songs (including cultic hymns addressed to deities and wedding songs), satires, and songs about members of her immediate family. There is also a fragment of an epic poem.

It is the songs in praise of girls that form the primary evidence for Sappho’s erotic interests, but the ceremonial songs provide important evidence regarding the social context. Sappho’s authorship of cultic hymns demonstrates that she was an established and respected member of her community. This is the functional equivalent of writing hymns for church. Therefore if her songs in praise of girls are evidence of sexual interest, then that interest must have been acceptable to her community. Similarly, her satirical works that focus on rivalries and jealousies between women indicate that whatever relationships were involved, they were known and accepted by the community.

There are other clues in Sappho’s poems regarding social and political relationships on the island of Lesbos in her time, and the respectable position held by both Sappho herself and the girls she addressed. And yet there is a pattern of references to the girls named in the songs leaving Sappho, either with her consent or to her regret. The personal and individual nature of these references suggests the songs were works written for specific occasions. In contrast, her poems of praise tend to be generic, and don’t mention specific names, either for the narrator of the verse or its subject. (Though it should be noted that most of what survives is fragmentary and we can’t know what was in the parts that weren’t preserved.)

If you take the content of these poems at face value, they suggest a context of female pederasty in the technical, classical Greek sense. That is, a social pattern where an adult is a mentor and lover of an adolescent of the same gender, and where this relationship is expected to change in nature when the younger person “graduates” to adulthood. Sappho’s poems indicate that whatever form this pattern of relationships took, it was compatible with her respected social standing. Over the centuries, these bare facts have often been interpreted in many different ways, according to the prejudices of the interpreter.

Sappho’s poetry never touches explicitly on sexual activity with the possible exception of one fragmentary reference to a dildo--a reference that is insufficient to determine the context. But it does use the forms and tropes of erotic love poetry. There are references to activities associated with courtship, such as the making of flower wreaths, as well as ones that are suggestive of physical expressions of affection, such as the line ”on soft would satisfy your longing”. For context, these themes should be compared to poems written in the context of male pederasty, which similarly avoid mention of sexual acts (but where no one doubts their existence).

Songs praising the beauty and attractiveness of girls--even those where Sappho notes her own response to that beauty--must also be understood in the context of the songs’ performance, often as part of marriage ceremonies. Themes of praise in this circumstance may be conventional rather than personal. But turning the argument around again, later male poets such as Catullus had no qualms about quoting Sappho’s work to express their own erotic response to a woman. So there was a clear context where her work was understood to represent erotic desire.

Among the later supposedly biographic stories regarding Sappho’s life, the one used most prominently to argue against her homoeroticism (or at least to argue for her eventual and inevitable “conversion” to heterosexuality) concerns Phaon, the man for whom she is said to have made a suicidal jump from the Leucadian rock. The earliest surviving source for this is from Ovid, who wrote in the 1st century BC, and takes the form of a letter purportedly in Sappho’s voice. There is some question whether Ovid was the actual author, but no question at all that Sappho was not.

Sappho’s work also refers to a daughter, and, given that, it is unlikely that she could have held the social position she did without being married--to a man, that is. Can all these elements be compatible with homoerotic desire? References to her desire for women (albeit, often disapproving references) are common in later classical commentaries. Athenian comedies sometimes satirized her, but never for homoeroticism, rather for heterosexual promiscuity. It can reasonably be supposed, however, that the authors of the comic plays were as unfamiliar with the historic context of 6th century BC Lesbos as modern authors are. The only difference is that they most likely had a much larger corpus of Sappho’s work available to them.

So, for example, when classical authors assert that Sappho had a daughter named Cleis, a certain amount of confidence can be placed on this (the name appears in fragments of her work, and she wrote about other family members) even though the existence of a daughter by that name could not be confirmed from what survives of her work today.

What, then, are we to make of the story of Phaon and the Leucadian rock?

One strong possibility is that this is a mythic reference and a poetic trope. Phaon was the name of one of the legendary men beloved by Aphrodite (who figures prominently in Sappho’s songs). It is possible that the story arose from a poem that was intended to be understood in the voice of the goddess.

For another possibility, a near-contemporary poet of Sappho, Anacreon, mentions a “leap from the Leucadian rock” as a proverbial remedy against the pain of love. As love-pangs feature regularly in Sappho’s work, it is not unlikely that she, too, may have made use of it as a rhetorical device. From such references, a later legend of Sappho’s leap of despair for the love of Phaon could have been constructed by someone not familiar with the literary motifs that were being used.

Could Sappho’s reputation for loving women also have originated in a mis-reading of poetic tropes? For this, such tropes would need to exist. And if they existed, then they would reflect prevalent and accepted practices. Did such practices exist? (And if they did, would they not be support for a position that homoeroticism was compatible with Sappho’s professional reputation?)

Sappho’s sexual reputation in pop culture changed radically over time. Sappho flourished around the early 6th century BC. In Athenian comedies of the 4th century BC, she was satirized as excessively heterosexual. Snide references by Roman writers to her “disgraceful friendships” with women began appearing around the 1st century AD.

Slang uses of the term “lesbian” in classical literature underwent similar shifts. The word always had a primary sense of “a female inhabitant of Lesbos”, but it picked up a variety of erotic connotations. Aristophanes (in the 5th c BC) used a related verb to mean “to practice fellatio” and this sense continued through late antiquity. The first known explicit association of the word “lesbian” with female homosexuality comes from Lucian (in the 2nd century AD) who writes, “They say there are women in Lesbos with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women as though they themselves were men.” There are early medieval Byzantine references to the word “lesbia” explicitly meaning a female homosexual.

Were the shifts in Sappho’s sexual reputation a result, or a cause, of shifts in the senses associated with the word “lesbian”? Or is it entirely the wrong question to ask whether Sappho was homosexual, given that a categorical distinction and division between homosexual and heterosexual eroticism arose long after her era?

We can get some sense of what the answers might be by looking at the social and historic context of Ancient Greece. The first consideration is the social institutions that brought young girls together in groups for the sort of education in song, dance, and other activities referenced in Sappho’s works. The second consideration is the evidence in other parts of Greece of that era for institutions of female pederasty, in parallel with the more familiar male institutions.

There is copious evidence for organized institutions of young women who learned music, singing, dance, and other activities to “serve the Muses.” In addition to serving as education for the girls, these institutions would participate in religious and social rituals as a group. This organization and these activities are perfectly compatible with the many references in Sappho’s poetry, including references to beautiful clothing and other adornments. Therefore the context of Sappho’s interactions with the subjects of her poetry could easily be in one of these institutions.

Although later Roman authors generally treated the subject of female homoeroticism with distaste and disapproval, they provide occasional references suggesting that earlier Greek attitudes were different. Plutarch describes a Spartan custom whereby “distinguished ladies” had sexual relationships with younger women or girls, in direct parallel to the pederastic relationships between adult men and adolescent boys.

This claim is corroborated by other authors as early as the 4th century BC. The Greek poet Alcman wrote songs for Spartan “maiden choirs” in the 7th century BC (that is, slightly earlier than Sappho). He used the word “aïtis” for a girl in a sexual relationship, as a direct parallel to male “aïtas”, which was the official term for a boy in a pederastic relationship. Alcman’s songs for the maiden choirs include language that suggests erotic interactions (or at least erotic desires) between the girls themselves.

For visual evidence, a vase from the Greek island of Thera from the time of Sappho’s life shows two women in a stylized interaction similar to depictions of male erotic couples.

From all this, we can envision a scenario where a married female poet of high social status and impeccable reputation could enjoy and openly celebrate erotic relationships with the young women under her guidance. Such relationships could even have been an important part of the extensive social and political networks on the island of Lesbos. Only with the loss of that institution were later writers left with the need to try to make sense of Sappho’s erotic expressions in the context of her life and times.

And the next episode of this podcast will take one of Sappho’s most complete poems and use it to trace how later western cultures understood Sappho, both as a poet and as a woman.

Show Notes

As a special Pride Month celebration, I’m recording a pair of episodes talking about the poet Sappho: what we know about her life and context, the legends that sprang up about her, what people of various ages thought of her, and most especially what they knew of her poetry, how they interpreted and even imitated it.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The known facts of Sappho’s life
  • What classical Greek and Roman writers said about her
  • Possible explanations for some of the contradictory stories about her
  • The social context for Sappho’s expressions of love and desire for women, and what sort of relationships were most likely involved

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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