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LHMP: The socio-historic context and evidence regarding Sappho’s “lesbianism”

Sunday, June 19, 2016 - 22:30
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This will be the first time when I publish a new LHMP entry directly to the new website. Maybe next week I’ll experiment with setting up a post-dated publication date. Exciting adventures!

Full citation: 

Lardinois, André. “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos” in Bremmer, Jan. 1989. From Sappho to de Sade: Moments in the HIstory of Sexuality. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-02089-1

The association of the name Sappho and the word Lesbian with female homoeroticism is so well entrenched that the question is rarely asked: what evidence do we have that Sappho was a lesbian (in the orientation sense, rather than the geographic one)? And how would such an orientation have been understood in her age and culture? Lardinois addresses these questions from empirical (if scanty) evidence.

Lardinois notes that the first use of the word “lesbian” in the sexual orientation sense in English dates to 1890 (although other authors have noted much earlier uses in other languages, with the earliest examples dating to the Middle Ages). The question of whether the connection between the isle of Lesbos and female homoeroticism has historic roots in Sappho’s time has been long debated, beginning in Antiquity.

The earliest source materials for Sappho’s life are: the remnants of her poetry (mostly fragments quoted by later writers); an assortment of fiction, gossip, and facts about Sappho and her poetry found in the works of Classical authors; and circumstantial evidence regarding the socio-historic context in which she lived.

Sappho’s body of work includes songs celebrating the beauty of young girls, ceremonial songs (cultic hymns, wedding songs), satires, and songs about members of her immediate famliy. There is also a fragment of an epic. 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. Therefore if her songs in praise of girls are evidence of sexual interest, then that interest must have been acceptable to her community. Similarly, the satirical works that speak of rivalries and jealousies indicate that whatever relationships were involved, they were known and accepted by the community.

Lardinois discusses clues in Sappho’s poems regarding social and political relationships on Lesbos and the respectable position that both she and the girls she addressed held. And yet there is a pattern of references to named girls leaving Sappho, either with her consent or to her regret. The personal and individual nature of these references suggests they were works written for specific occasions. In contrast, her praise verses tend to be generic, not mentioning names either of the speaker or the subject. (Though it should be noted that most of what survives is fragmentary and we can’t know what was in the parts not preserved.)

If one takes the content of these poems at face value, they suggest a context of female pederasty (in the technical, classical Greek sense), and one which was compatible with respected social standing. Over the centuries, these two observations have often been interpreted according to the prejudices of the interpreter.

Although Sappho’s poetry never touches explicitly on sexual activity (with the possible exception of one fragmentary reference to a dildo, insufficient to determine the context), it does use the forms and tropes of erotic love poetry, and details activities associated with courtship (making flower wreaths) or that are suggestive of physical expression (”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 when Sappho notes her own response to it--must also be understood in the context of their performance, often as part of marriage ceremonies. Themes of praise may be conventional rather than personal. 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.

Among the later “testimonia” regarding Sappho’s life, the story used most prominently to argue against her homoeroticism (or at least to argue for her eventual and inevitable “conversion” to heterosexualtiy) concerns Phaon, the man for home she is said to have made a suicidal jump from the Leucadian rock. (The earliest surviving source for this is from Ovid, taking the form of a letter purportedly in Sappho’s voice.) Sappho’s work also refers to a daughter, and it is unlikely that she could have held the social position she did without being married (to a man). Can all these elements be compatible with homoerotic desire? References to that desire (albeit, often disapproving ones) are rife in later classical commentaries. Athenian comedies sometimes caricatured her, but never for homoeroticism, rather for heterosexual promiscuity. It can reasonably be supposed, however, that these authors were as unfamiliar with the historic context of 6th century BC Lesbos as more 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 fact 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? Lardinois suggests this is a mythic reference and a poetic trope. Phaon was one of the legendary beloveds of Aphrodite (who figures prominently in Sappho’s songs), and it is possible that the story arose from a poem that was intended to be understood in the voice of the goddess. 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.

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 the historic plausibility of homoeroticism being 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 CE. Slang uses of the term “lesbian” (lesbis, lesbia) underwent similar shifts. It always had a primary sense of “a female inhabitant of Lesbos”, but picked up a variety of erotic connotations. Aristophanes (5th c BC) used a verb with the same root to mean “to practice fellatio” and this sense continued through late antiquity. The first known explicit association of “lesbian” with female homosexuality comes from Lucian (2nd century CE) 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.” And there are Byzantine references to “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 “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 post-dates her era?

The final part of Lardinois’ paper turns to evidence for that historical context. 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, they would participate in religious and social rituals. 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/girls, in direct parallel to the pederastic relationships between adult men and youths. This claim is corroborated by other authors as early as the 4th century BC. The Greek poet Alcman, who wrote songs for Spartan “maiden choirs” in the 7th century BC (i.e., slightly earlier than Sappho) 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 desires) between the girls themselves. A vase from the Greek island of Thera ca. 600 BC 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 extensive social and political networks. 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.

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