Sappho was a poet born in the 7th century BCE (around 620) on Lesbos, a small island off the coast of modern Turkey. Like many ancient figures, what is known about her life is mostly speculation based on the lives of other Greek women in the 7th century and personal references in her poetry. One aspect of Sappho’s life that has received significant attention (and debate) is her sexuality. Much of her poetry heavily suggested that Sappho was in relationships with other women, which this article will dive deeper into.
Sappho & Love in Her Ode to Aphrodite
Only one poem of Sappho’s survived in its entirety, and it is titled Ode to Aphrodite. It was common for poets to write odes or hymns to specific gods, sometimes referencing popular mythology or other times making requests to the deity. Sappho’s poem is written as a conversation between her and Aphrodite as she seeks the goddess out for help with her love life. The lover alluded to in this poem is a woman based on the pronouns in the original Greek text, with this stanza providing the greatest evidence for the romantic object of the poem:
“She that fain would fly, she shall quickly follow,
She that now rejects, yet with gifts shall woo thee,
She that heeds thee not, soon shall love to madness,
Love thee, the loth one!”
Despite the references to a relationship between the speaker and a woman in this poem, some scholars have tried to argue that the narrator for Ode to Aphrodite and other Sappho fragments is not Sappho herself. Rather, they believe that Sappho writes from the perspective of a man. These debates will be discussed further in a future section.
Fragments about Her Personal Life
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The rest of Sappho’s poetry only survived in fragments, but many of these fragments provide readers with insight into the poet’s personal life, similar to Ode to Aphrodite. Due to the length of these fragments and the uncertainty of the narrator, there has been speculation on certain figures who reappear between fragments.
For example, a girl named Atthis appears in multiple fragments. Some readers have interpreted her as Sappho’s daughter based on fragments like the following:
“I loved you, Atthis, long ago
even when you seemed to me
a small graceless child.”
Others believe that she was one of Sappho’s lovers, based on fragments such as this one:
“But you hate the very thought of me, Atthis,
And you flutter after Andromeda.”
In addition to fragments that specifically mention a person in Sappho’s life, there are other fragments that discuss love more ambiguously, often describing the challenges Sappho faced with unrequited love and desire. Women in the ancient world would have married young in what was often an arranged relationship, so love and desire did not often factor into these partnerships. However, this would have been doubly true if Sappho loved other women, putting the romantic anguish of some of her poetry into perspective. Marriages or serious relationships between men were also impossible, but it was more common for men to be in relationships with each other, whether it was the teacher and student relationship between an older man and a younger boy or military relationships.
Women were much more isolated socially and domestically than men, and there was no acceptable format for a relationship between two women as there was between two men. This could possibly be reflected in Sappho’s poetry in verses such as this one:
Honestly, I wish I were dead.
Weeping many tears, she left me and said,
“Alas, how terribly we suffer, Sappho.
I really leave you against my will.”
Based on her poetry, Sappho was likely upper class and educated, giving her more freedom to explore relationships with women than others in the ancient world, but she still would have been very limited compared to a man of her same social standing. Her poems mention the same women repeatedly, deal with heartbreak and unrequited love, and focus on desire and passion. These may all be ways of dealing with her sexuality in a world that would not have acknowledged her existence. However, not every scholar of Sappho has agreed with these interpretations, so the next two sections will look at some of those arguments.
How Can We Interpret Sappho’s Poetry? (3 Theories)
There have been many interpretations of Sappho’s poetry over the past few decades that have all presented a different image of the poet, but there are a few angles that have reappeared time and time again.
1. She Was a Woman Who Loved Other Women
The first and most widely popular angle is that Sappho was a woman who loved other women, with her poems being examples of an upper-class, educated woman expressing herself. She mentions women, both ambiguously and by name, as she discusses love and desire in many of her fragments. She also mentions herself in the third person when discussing these relationships, making it likely that she speaks from her personal experiences. Many who have interpreted her works this way have also imagined these poems being a private means of expression that would not have seen the public eye much in her lifetime.
2. She Was A Teacher Writing about Her Students
Another interpretation that held weight in the 20th century was that Sappho was a teacher, and her poetry concerned her students or children. Many believed that Atthis was Sappho’s daughter, and the other mentions of girls in her poetry were explained as close relationships with her students. Furthermore, Sappho’s education and interest in poetry were attributed to her role as a teacher. This interpretation has possibly been modeled off the close relationships between male teachers and students in Athens, which could often be intimate. Compared to the former, this interpretation is less likely. Girls were primarily uneducated unless they were from a wealthy family that hired private tutors. Perhaps Sappho could have been hired as a tutor, but this was a role typically reserved for men.
3. She Wrote from a Man’s Perspective
The final interpretation that was also more popular in the 20th century was that Sappho wrote her poetry for the public on Lesbos from the perspective of a man. Essentially, supporters of this theory argue that Sappho’s poetry is not personal. Instead, they believe she wrote about general feelings of love and desire from the perspective of a man at times, hence the feminine pronouns and names. They often cite her possible relationship with a ferryman named Phaon as evidence of her not being interested in women without considering the possibility of bisexuality. This interpretation has fallen out of favor in recent years, but scholarly debates over Sappho’s personal life and poetry are still ongoing.
Throughout this article, the different interpretations of Sappho’s poetry and her personal life have been summarized and discussed. Although there are multiple interpretations of the poet’s work, most scholars fall within two sides of one debate: Sappho is a woman who loved other women, and her poetry reflects this, or Sappho’s poetry is not personal and therefore says nothing about her preferences.
In recent years, the former argument has received much more attention than the latter. There are a few reasons why.
- LGBTQ+ studies, particularly in the ancient world in this instance, have received greater attention from institutions and programs, making the study of Sappho and her works more relevant than ever.
- There has been a general shift in the scholarship on Sappho over the past few decades as new academics entered the field, as the argument about her writing from a man’s perspective was primarily defended by older scholars of the ancient world who did not wish to entertain the idea that Sappho was not heterosexual.
- Sappho and ancient history and mythology, in general, have become more mainstream, allowing Sappho’s works to reach a broader audience who relate to her poetry more than the scholars who studied it in the 20th century.
Although it is almost widely accepted now that Sappho’s poetry is indeed about her own love and desire for other women, there are still some scholars who are adamant about her being heterosexual, and they cite the narrator of her poetry and her possibly mythical lover as evidence. We can never truly know whether Sappho’s poetry was personal and about her own experiences, but the same can be said of the other side of the debate. There is no hard evidence that Phaon existed, and even if he did, Sappho could have been with men and women. Furthermore, the language of Sappho’s poetry, the pronouns, the mentions of her name, and the references to people she knew in real life all point toward her works, or at least many of them, being about herself.
The Legacy of Sappho
Despite the rocky history of scholarship on Sappho, there is no denying the lasting impact that her poetry has had over the last few centuries. Her name has given rise to the labels “sapphic” and “lesbian,” and she has been read by LGBTQ+ people over the ages. With much fewer documented LGBTQ+ women over time compared to men, Sappho sheds some light on a period in history that has excluded women who loved other women. Her works have resonated with people who have had the same feelings as her, and they will continue to be read and analyzed for times to come. Although complete insight into Sappho’s mind is impossible with the fragments we have, it is undeniable that her poetry was greatly influenced by her feelings for women and the impact this poetry has had on generations of lesbians, bisexual women, and other LGBTQ+ people cannot be understated.