Another Woman Nearly Written Out Of History

In salient contrast to the liturgical works of her predecessors, Sappho’s bittersweet emotional world was ahead of its time, capturing sentiments of modern pop culture some 2,000 years in advance. Few and far between are the women whose voices speak directly to us through the thick and silencing veil of time - and of those few, Sappho serves as an especially unique example. A renowned poet and educator in a literary world dominated by men, Sappho represents a particularly rare window into the times in which she lived. Famous and infamous for her homosexuality, she certainly had no shortage of muses working at an academy for unmarried girls (supposedly dedicated to the cults of aphrodite and eros). Her fiery passions, brought to life through brilliant, yet tender language, have tugged on the heart-strings of many generations and marked her as the first female poet to go down in western history. Sappho’s striking expressions of vulnerability were circulated so widely that she was referred to as Homer’s female counterpart, the “poetess”. An incredibly unique character to go down in history, she is in many ways the exception that proves the rule.

The majority of the humanities’ characters are men facing physical and external obstacles symbolic of their internal moral and existential struggles. Said struggles are presented as ultimate archetypes of the human experience. Woven throughout the winding landscapes of these epic tales are the concepts of identity, war, and mortality. While these stories touch on many ultimate truths, they are nonetheless limited. There are a myriad of perspectives and stories to be told, many of which were neglected or out-shone by those of characters like Odysseus and Achilles. In light of this, Sappho offers us a valuable alternative to our understanding of life’s most important themes. Her work’s divergence from the status quo is felt most palpably when she makes direct comparisons between the glories of love and war, claiming the former to be of a superior quality:

Some say an army of horsemen,

some of footsoldiers, some of ships,

is the fairest thing on the black earth,

but I say it is what one loves.

I would much prefer to see the lovely

way she walks and the radiant glance of her face

than the war-chariots of the Lydians or

their foot soldiers in arms.

Sappho described the earth as black, calling attention to the darker dimension of love. For even the fairest thing - that which one loves - isn’t entirely pure. The beloved exists in a world permeated with shade. This explains why the longing said beloved incites is often quite painful. Just as a rose’s delicate petals are contradicted by its menacing thorns, so the thrill of passion is countered by the unbearable pang of desire. The juxtaposition between love and war not only points to the greater value of love, but adds depth to the complicated feeling, begging us to consider its painful and war-like qualities. After all, it’s no coincidence that they say all is fair in love and war... Ultimately, the relationship between the two concepts is up for interpretation, calling the reader to reflect on both the pleasures and pains of love.

The search for meaning through physical and mental strife (such as that of Odysseus) certainly represents an essential characteristic of the human experience, but it mustn’t be mistaken as the only one. There is (among others) a more subtle, but equally powerful dimension of humanity: the messy, overwhelming, and involuntary experience of falling in love. Until Sappho came along, this dimension was largely dismissed in the world of lyrical poetry. Rather than using godly and prophetic language to shed light on the existential plights of men, her intimate verses speak from one individual to another of the excited but aching sense of vulnerability birthed by hopeless enamorment. To read her poems is to feel her whispering into your ear with a quivering voice. Known for vivid depictions of the “bittersweet” (she is in fact credited with creating the very term), Sappho draws powerful parallels between internal emotions and physical sensations and phenomena in the external world - referring to love with such images as, “limb-loosener”, “crawling beast”, and the “assault” of “a wind in the mountains”. Such comparisons draw attention to the incredible, even subjugating, power of lust. In a male dominated historical narrative, Sappho is a breath of fresh air - calling attention to a more fragile, yet equally intrinsic, side of humanity.

It must be noted that femininity and power wasn’t mutually exclusive in the world of Ancient Greece, as made evident by the dynamism of women like Hera, Athena, and the mortal Dido. Driven by their strong beliefs to speak their minds and act on their intuitions, these were influential women. There is no denying, however, that mortal women play a passive role in the narrative, usually confined by such limited concepts as physical beauty, motherhood, loyalty, and victimhood. With the bracing exception of Sappho, the female experience was portrayed not by females themselves, but rather was funnelled through the interpretations of men (an early example of “mansplaining” - a behavior loathed by women everywhere).  Even in Sappho’s case, a significant portion of her surviving body of work lives only through references found within the works of men writing centuries later, many of which took the liberty to make assumptions about her personal life and pass judgement on it - as if her sexuality somehow relates to her profound contribution to the literary world.

It was written by an unknown Greek author that, “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure and will endure, speaking out loud . . . as long as ships sail from the Nile.” This prediction ironically foreshadows the later attempts made to censor and destroy her work. Mendelsohn reflects that, “It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.” Of nine papyrus rolls reported to contain a complete record of her work (each scroll containing roughly 1,000 lines) in the library in Alexandria during the third century B.C., no more than 500 lines have survived. Considering the widespread circulation of Sappho’s work during her time, how is it that only a minute fraction of her poetry has been preserved? Why do the works of Homer, for example, survive in perfect condition while hers have been found only in scraps? What does this tell us about the way her work was received? Christian censors in Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople condemned her in words such as those of Tatian, who called her "a whore who sang about her own licentiousness." Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Pope Gregory VII burned her works. A hardly surprising phenomenon, the church strongly opposed her work - as it has historically done to virtually any female expression that ventured beyond the constraints of the pious and obedient virgin.

An article on Sappho published by the Academy of American Poets explains that, “Three centuries after her death the writers of the New Comedy parodied Sappho as both overly promiscuous and lesbian.”  Midway through the first century, treatises regarding the possibility that Sappho was a prostitute were published in Greek Academia. It went so far that it was believed that two different Sappho’s existed - “one the great poet, the other the notorious slut” (There is an entry for each in the Suda). Entire plays have been written not about her literary career, but her “promiscuous” lifestyle. In a sense, Sappho became a projection of the moral values of others. In his New York Times article, “How Gay Was Sappho?”, Daniel Mendelsohn’s reflects on this trend, “The eagerness to come up with “innocent” explanations for the poet’s attachment to young women persisted through the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The most tenacious theory held that Sappho was the head of a girls’ boarding school, a matron whose interest in her pupils was purely pedagogical.” The Poetry Foundation also published a striking account of Sappho’s role in history, writing that, “the facts of her life have often been distorted to serve the moral or psychological ends of her readers. Christian moralists pronounced anathemas upon her. Many modern editors have exercised "gallantry" and "discretion" by eliminating or changing words or lines in her poems that they believed would be misunderstood by readers. This history of her reception is itself part of Sappho's significance.” Despite her unquestionable skills and accomplishments, Sappho has been repeatedly chastised for her sexuality throughout history, serving as evidence of an unsavory reality: To be a female in this world is to constantly be measured and judged according to one’s physical rather than intellectual existence.