Sappho: The Tenth Muse and Her Legacy
Plato once said, ”Some say the muses are nine: How careless! Look there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.” With a life full of riddles that historians haven't been able to solve for decades, Sappho has undeniably revolutionized poetry.
We continue to discover more about the legendary poet's life as each missing puzzle piece of her life is revealed. Her one-of-a-kind approach to life, the carefree manner of expressing her thoughts and feelings, continues to inspire people all around the world. This begs the question: Who was Sappho of Lesbos really?
The life of Sappho is largely unknown. She was
born into a wealthy family in Lesbos, one of the largest islands in the Aegean Sea. Her parents' names, however, are unknown. According to ancient sources, her three brothers were named Charaxos, Larichos, and Eurygios. Around 600 BC, she was exiled to Sicily, possibly as a result of her political beliefs.
According to a widely believed myth regarding her death, Sappho plunged off the Leucadian rock into the sea, where she would have drowned and died, as a result of her unrequited love for the younger ferryman Phaon. However, some historians believe that this myth is untrue and improbable.
In her lifetime, Sappho is thought to have written close to 10,000 lines of poetry, of which only 650 has survived to date. She is mostly known for her lyric poetry, specifically composed to be accompanied by music. She is frequently pictured holding her lyre, a stringed musical instrument that dates back to at least 1400 BC. Lyric poetry, in modern day, expresses personal sentiments or emotions. Most often, it is written in the first person. However, for the Ancient Greeks, lyric poetry had a technical meaning. A lyre, cithara, or barbitos accompanied the verses and since these works were often chanted, they were also referred to as melic poetry. Sappho was among the earliest Greek poets to use the lyrical style, as well as the first to write poetry from the perspective of an individual.
In her poetry, Sappho often combines symbols and images, which enable her to express her emotions in a more creative manner. A defining characteristic of her writing is spontaneous wordplay. In the Ode to Aphrodite, the only complete work of Sappho that has survived, more than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments. In this poem, a desperate individual, theorized to be Sappho herself, begs goddess Aphrodite to provide her guidance in winning the affection of a reluctant lover. “The Brothers Poem”, another of Sappho's works, was discovered in 2014. Apart from the opening lines, the majority of the text survives. It is a sister’s prayer for the safe return of one of her brothers, a merchant sailor, and the growth to maturity of her other brother. Much of Sappho's surviving fragments simply have one word in them. One fragment, for instance, is only a word that refers to "wedding presents".
Historians have been studying Sappho's sexual orientation for many years. In ancient Greece, female sexuality through the male gaze was complex and controversial. Sappho's love poems offer a perspective in which women are more than just the objects of men's desire. The mostly unrecorded story of female LGBTQ history is strongly impacted by her poetry, which offers historians a unique glimpse into the lives of queer women in ancient Greece. The word “sapphic”, which derives from Sappho’s name, became a term used for gay women in the late nineteenth century, and the term “lesbian”, which comes from the name of the island of Lesbos where Sappho was born, is actually an allusion to the poet. Sappho mentions fourteen women in the few surviving fragments of her poetry as well as describing sensual encounters with lovers of both sexes.
Historical figures like Sappho, who laid the groundwork for lyrical poetry, significant art and culture, and women's voices and opinions, should not be forgotten. Her work continues to be as compelling today as it was three thousand years ago, inspiring generation upon generation.
"Sappho - Wikipedia." Sappho - Wikipedia, 2 July 2016, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho#Works.
"Sappho | Biography and Facts." Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Sept. 2022, www.britannica.com/biography/Sappho-Greek-poet.
Mark, Joshua J. "Sappho of Lesbos." World History Encyclopedia, 8 June 2021, www.worldhistory.org/Sappho_of_Lesbos.