Only fragments of her poetry have survived, preserved by later writers quoting her or on badly-damaged papyri reused as padding in late Egyptian mummies. Her poetry is the first to put into words an author's feelings and personal experience, as opposed to mythology or more public themes such as farming, war, philosophy and politics. In ancient times she was hailed as one of the best, if not the best, Greek poet, and later classical writers such as Horace and Catullus imitated her.
She is most famous for her love of women, and modern "Lesbians" take their name from Sappho's nationality.
Article by: Ellen Brundige, © 1996-2009.
Biography of Sappho
We know very little about Sappho's life, but scholars have conjectured that she was a priestess who led a group of women in religious festivals, or perhaps an instructor to aristocratic young women preparing for marriage. She was apparently part of a well-to-do, politically active family. She lost her parents, Skamandronymos and KleÃ¯s, at age six. In her thirties, she was exiled to Sicily, probably as fallout from her family's political activities.
Her older brother Charaxos was a merchant who moved to Egypt, and Sappho scolds him for taking up with a courtesan there. Her younger brother Larichos served as a page in the city hall of Mytilene, capital of Lesbos. She may have been married to a wealthy merchant named Kerkylas, but the obscene meaning of his name suggests that he may have been invented by later comic writers who sometimes used Sappho as a semi-fictional character.
Classical tradition has it that Sappho was "short, dark, and ugly," but again, this detail may have been added to her legend by comic playwrights. Classical art (see 5th century BCE vase painting above) portrays her in more flattering terms.
Several of Sappho's verses express passion towards other women. Apparently Lesbos was famous for "lesbian" tastes. Anacreon, writing a generation after Sappho, joked that the girl he loved was from "well-built Lesbos, and gapes after some other girl." However, Sappho was married and speaks fondly of her daughter KleÃ¯s. Classical Greeks didn't have the same categories of "gay" and "straight" that we do.
The Greeks tended to relate sexuality and phases of life in a way that seems very foreign to us. In the upper class, older men would choose as protegÃ©s young men on the verge of adulthood, teaching them about politics and all aspects of a man's life, including sexuality. Once the young man reached maturity -- marked by a full beard -- it was time for him to end this relationship, get married and have children. It's possible that Sappho's relationships with younger women followed a similar pattern.
From what remains, it seems that her poetry can be divided loosely into four categories: marriage hymns; ceremonial verses probably written for performance at religious festivals; poems on mythological themes, particularly the characters of the Trojan War; and intensely personal self-revelations of passions and experience. Sometimes a poem may combine several of these themes.
Here is my translation of the only poem of Sappho's that has been preserved intact:
Deathless Aphrodite of the finely-painted throne,
wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I pray you,
no longer with sorrows and burdens damn
my heart, Lady,
but come hither, if ever at another time
you heard my words from afar
and heeded, and, having left your father's
golden house, came
on yoked chariot; and the lovely swift
sparrows led you over the black earth
beating whirling wings down from heaven
through the middle air,
and suddenly they alighted. And you, O blessed one,
smiled with immortal visage,
and inquired what I was suffering this time and why
again I had called,
and what I really wished to happen to me
in my frenzied heart: "Whom this time should I persuade
to bring you at once into her love? who, O
Sappho, wrongs you?
But if now she flees you, soon she'll pursue you;
if she won't receive gifts, then she will give them;
if she doesn't love you, soon she will love you,
Come to me even now, and loose hardship
from my anxious thought, and bring to pass as many
things as my heart desires to happen. You yourself
be my ally for the fight.
You might be interested in comparing mine with Other translations of this poem. Note that older translators gave her beloved a sex change; the word "ai" that Sappho uses repeatedly in the second to last stanza is the pronoun for "she," not "he"!
Modern Performances of Sappho - Sappho In Greek with Subtitles
The second one is casual, but I suspect it catches the spirit of Sappho's school for girls better than more sophisticated productions.
Online Translations of Sappho's Poems
- Selections From Sappho: Translations of Greek Poetry
While studying classical Greek, I translated into English most of the Sappho fragments found in David Campbell's Greek Lyric Poetry collection.
- The Divine Sappho
Another website on Sappho, including the original Greek as well as many alternate translations of most of her poems. Drawn from H.T. Wharton's 1895 Sappho.
What do you think of Sappho's poetry?
Where IS Lesbos, Anyway? - Zoom Out to See Aegean Sea
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© 2007 Ellen Brundige