Sappho

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Sappho

Birthdate: (54)
Birthplace: Lesbos, Greece
Death: -571 (54)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Cleïs

Managed by: Alex Christopher Bickle
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Sappho

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho

Sappho (/ˈsæfoʊ/; Attic Greek Σαπφώ [sapːʰɔ̌ː], Aeolic Greek Ψάπφω, Psappho [psápːʰɔː]) was a Greek lyric poet, born on the island of Lesbos. The Alexandrians included her in the list of nine lyric poets. She was born sometime between 630 and 612 BCE, and it is said that she died around 570 BCE, but little is known for certain about her life. The bulk of her poetry, which was well-known and greatly admired through much of antiquity, has been lost, but her immense reputation has endured through surviving fragments.

Life

We know little about Sappho's life for certain – so little that Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig's Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary contains an entire page for the entry on Sappho, deliberately left blank. There are three major sources of information about Sappho's life: her own poetry, other ancient sources, and deductions from our knowledge of the historical context in which Sappho worked.

Of these, the only contemporary source for Sappho's life is her own poetry, and scholars are skeptical of reading it biographically. Later biographical accounts are also unreliable. The other ancient sources on Sappho (known as testimonia) do not date from Sappho's lifetime; however, they were written by people who had much better access to Sappho's poetry than we do today, and so would have been better placed to use it to write her biography

Chronology

Strabo indicates that Sappho was the contemporary of Alcaeus of Mytilene (born c. 620 BCE) and Pittacus (c. 645–570 BCE), and according to Athenaeus, she was the contemporary of Alyattes of Lydia (c. 610–560 BCE). The Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopædia, dates her to the 42nd Olympiad (612/608 BCE), meaning either that she was born then or that this was her floruit. The versions of Eusebius state that she was famous by the first or second year of the 45th or 46th Olympiad (between 600 and 594 BCE). Taken together, these references make it likely that she was born c. 620 BCE, or a little earlier.

Judging from the inscribed chronology on the Parian Marble, she was exiled from Lesbos to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594 BCE. If Fragment 98 of her poetry is accepted as biographical evidence and as a reference to her daughter (see below), it may indicate that she had already had a daughter by the time she was exiled. If Fragment 58 is accepted as autobiographical, it indicates that she lived into old age. If her connection to Rhodopis is accepted as historical (see below), it indicates that she lived into the mid-6th century BCE.

Family

An Oxyrhynchus papyrus from around AD 200 and the Suda agree that Sappho had a mother called Cleïs and a daughter by the same name. The papyrus line reads "She [Sappho] had a daughter Cleïs named after her mother." (Duban 1983, 121) Two preserved fragments of Sappho's poetry refer to a Cleïs. In Fragment 98, Sappho addresses Cleïs, saying that she has no way of obtaining a decorated headband for her. Fragment 132 reads in full: "I have a beautiful child [pais] who looks like golden flowers, my darling Cleïs, for whom I would not (take) all Lydia or lovely..." These fragments have often been interpreted as referring to Sappho's daughter, or as confirming that Sappho had a daughter with this name. But even if a biographic reading of the verses is accepted, this is not certain. Cleïs is referred to in Fragment 132 with the Greek word pais, which can as easily indicate a slave or any young person as an offspring. It is possible that these verses or others like them were misunderstood by ancient writers, leading to the biographical tradition which has come down to us.

Fragment 102 has its speaker address a "sweet mother", sometimes taken as an indication that Sappho began to write poetry while her mother was still alive. The name of Sappho's father is widely given as Scamandronymus, but he is not referred to in any of the surviving fragments. In his Heroides, Ovid has Sappho lament that, "Six birthdays of mine had passed when the bones of my parent, gathered from the pyre, drank before their time my tears." Ovid may have based this on a poem by Sappho no longer extant.

Sappho was reported to have three brothers: Erigyius (or Eurygius), Larichus and Charaxus. The Oxyrhynchus papyrus indicates that Charaxus was the eldest, but that Sappho was more fond of the young Larichus. According to Athenaeus, Sappho often praised Larichus for pouring wine in the town hall of Mytilene, an office held by boys of the best families. This indication that Sappho was born into an aristocratic family is consistent with the sometimes rarefied environments that her verses record.

A story recorded by Herodotus, and later by Strabo, Athenaeus, Ovid and the Suda, tells of a relation between Charaxus and the Egyptian courtesan Rhodopis. Herodotus, the oldest source of the story, reports that Charaxus ransomed Rhodopis for a large sum and that after he returned to Mitylene, Sappho scolded him in verse. Strabo, writing some 400 years later, adds that Charaxus was trading with Lesbian wine and that Sappho called Rhodopis Doricha. Athenaeus, another 200 years later, calls the courtesan Doricha and maintains that Herodotus had her confused with Rhodopis, another woman altogether. He also cites an epigram by Posidippus (3rd century BCE) that refers to Doricha and Sappho. Based on this story, scholars have speculated that references to a Doricha may have been found in Sappho's poems. None of the extant fragments have this name in full but Fragments 7 and 15 are often restored to include it. Joel Lidov has criticized this restoration, arguing that the Doricha story is not helpful in restoring any fragment by Sappho and that its origins lie in the work of Cratinus or another of Herodotus' comic contemporaries.

The Suda is alone in claiming that Sappho was married to a "very wealthy man called Cercylas, who traded from Andros" and that he was Cleïs' father. This tradition may have been invented by the comic poets as a witticism, as the name of the purported husband means "Penis, from Men's Island."

Exile

Sappho's lifetime witnessed a period of political turbulence on Lesbos and saw the rise of Pittacus. According to the Parian Marble, Sappho was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 BCE and 594 BCE and Cicero records that a statue of her stood in the town hall of Syracuse. Unlike the works of her fellow poet, Alcaeus, Sappho's surviving poetry has very few allusions to political conditions. The principal exception is Fragment 98, which mentions exile and indicates that Sappho was lacking some of her customary luxuries. Her political sympathies may have lain with the party of Alcaeus. Though there is no explicit record of this, it is usually assumed that Sappho returned from exile at some point and that she spent most of her life in Lesbos.

Phaon legend

A tradition going back at least to Menander (Fr. 258 K) suggested that Sappho killed herself by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs for love of Phaon, a ferryman. This is regarded as unhistorical by modern scholars, perhaps invented by the comic poets or originating from a misreading of a first-person reference in a non-biographical poem. The legend may have resulted in part from a desire to assert Sappho as heterosexual.

Works

Alexandrian edition of Sappho's poetry

The Library of Alexandria collected Sappho's poetry into nine books, mostly based on their meter:

  • Book I, poems composed in the Sapphic stanza, 330 stanzas in all (Fragments 1–42);
  • Book II, poems composed in glyconic lines with dactylic expansion (Fragments 43–52);
  • Book III, poems in Greater Asclepiad distichs (Fragments 53–57);
  • Book IV, poems in distichs of a somewhat similar meter (Fragments 58–91);
  • Book V, probably consisting of poems in various three-line stanzas (Fragments 92–101);
  • Book VI (contents unknown);
  • Book VII (only two surviving lines in the same meter, Fragment 102);
  • Book VIII (see Fragment 103);
  • Book IX, epithalamia in other meters, including dactylic hexameter (Fragments 104–117).

Not every surviving fragment can be assigned to a book (Fragments 118–213 are unassigned), and other meters are represented in the fragments.

Surviving poetry

The surviving proportion of the nine-volume corpus of poetry read in antiquity is small but still constitutes a poetic corpus of major importance. There is a single complete poem, Fragment 1, the Hymn to Aphrodite, quoted in its entirety as a model of the "polished and exuberant" style of composition by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, with admiration of its consummate artistry:

Here the euphonious effect and the grace of the language arise from the coherence and smoothness of the junctures. The words nestle close to one another and are woven together according to certain affinities and natural attractions of the letters.

Other major fragments include three virtually complete poems (in Voigt's numeration, fragments 16, 31, and the recently supplemented 58).

Recent discoveries

A recent addition to the corpus is a virtually complete poem on the topic of old age (fragment 58). The latter parts of the lines were first published in 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus (P.Oxy. XV 1787, Fragment 1)but little could be made of them, since the indications of the ends of each poem, placed at the beginnings of the lines, were lost. Scholars could therefore only guess where one poem ended and another began. Most of the rest of the poem was published in 2004 from a 3rd-century-BCE papyrus in the Cologne University collection (P.Köln XI 429). The poem refers to the plight of Tithonus, with whom the goddess Eos fell in love and requested he become immortal, but forgot to ensure that he remained forever young. The Greek text has been reproduced with helpful notes for students of the language.

Parts of two previously unknown poems by Sappho were published in February 2014 in the Times Literary Supplement, in the article "New poems by Sappho", by Dirk Obbink. In the article, Obbink states "the authorship of Sappho was clinched", a conclusion shared by Margaret Williamson, a Classics professor who authored Sappho's Immortal Daughters, but was not part of Obbink's team.According to Albert Henrichs (de), the source of the poems is "the best preserved Sappho papyrus in existence, with just a few letters that had to be restored in the first poem, and not a single word that is in doubt". The first poem, The Brothers Poem, mentions "Charaxos" and "Larichos." These two names are described as brothers of Sappho by ancient historians, but did not appear in any of her previously known writings. Thus, the poem is perhaps about her own family, although the loss of the first few lines of it makes the conclusion uncertain. The second poem, The Kypris Poem, is highly fragmented, but may have been a request to Aphrodite to guide Sappho in pursuit of a lover.

Qualities of Sappho's poetry

David Campbell has briefly summarized some of the most arresting qualities of Sappho's poetry:

Clarity of language and simplicity of thought are everywhere evident in our fragments; wit and rhetoric, so common in English love-poetry and not quite absent from Catullus' love poems, are nowhere to be found. Her images are sharp—the sparrows that draw Aphrodite's chariot, the full moon in a starry sky, the solitary red apple at the tree-top—and she sometimes lingers over them to elaborate them for their own sake. She quotes the direct words of conversations real or imaginary and so gains immediacy. When the subject is the turbulence of her emotions, she displays a cool control in their expression. Above all, her words are chosen for their sheer melody: the skill with which she placed her vowels and consonants, admired by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, is evidenced by almost any stanza; the music to which she sang them has gone, but the spoken sounds may still enchant.

Sappho's poetry and Greek myth

Out of over 200 remaining remnants of Sappho’s poetry, Fragment 16 and Fragment 44 in particular are considered lyric retellings of Homer epics, as Sappho was known to be very familiar with Homer's poems. Both fragments make direct allusions to scenes in Homer’s Iliad, while Sappho also expands them with her own narrative illustrations. Fragment 16, for instance, serves to characterise Helen, a key figure of Homer's, while Fragment 44 glorifies domestic joy by depicting the events leading to the wedding of Hector and Andromache.

The political atmosphere of Lesbos during Sappho's time paralleled that of Homer’s Troy, as the cities of Lesbos were constantly plagued with threats from Lydia. Whereas Homer focused on depicting beauty through the glory of militarism, however, Sappho focused primarily on the portrayal of beauty through love. As oratory poets, both Homer and Sappho used their work to celebrate and memorialise events for posterity. The exigency of their verses was therefore to preserve information as well as to entertain.

Both discovered during the 1895 Oxyrhynchus excavation, Sappho’s Fragments 16 and 44 are translations from extant 2nd- and 3rd-century BCE papyrus scrolls, which made them transcribed records of the lyrics Sappho sang while accompanying herself on a cithara. Her work is known to have been canonized during the 3rd century BCE, at which time papyrus copies were held in the House of the Muses, the library in Alexandria. Like the myths woven into her work, a myth surrounds the loss of Sappho’s complete oeuvre as well. The story still circulates that Sappho’s poems were lost due to the repeated attacks on the library in Alexandria.

Legacy

Reputation in antiquity

In antiquity, Sappho was commonly regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets. The Milan Papyrus, recovered from a dismantled mummy casing and published in 2001, has revealed the high esteem in which the poet Posidippus of Pella, an important composer of epigrams (3rd century BCE), held Sappho's "divine songs".

An epigram in the Anthologia Palatina (9.506) ascribed to Plato states:

  • Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
  • Look, there's Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.

Claudius Aelianus wrote in Miscellany (Ποικίλη ἱστορία) that Plato called Sappho wise. A story is recounted in the Florilegium (3.29.58) of Stobaeus:

  • Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho's over the wine and, since he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why, he said: "So that I may learn it, then die."

A few centuries later, Horace wrote in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics were worthy of sacred admiration. Part of one of Sappho's poems (Fragment 31) was famously translated by the 1st-century BCE Roman poet Catullus in his "Ille mi par esse deo videtur" ("He seems to me to be equal to a god") (Catullus 51).

Loss and preservation of Sappho's works

Although Sappho's work endured well into Roman times, her work was copied less and less as interests, styles, and aesthetics changed, especially after the academies stopped requiring her study. Part of the reason for her disappearance from the standard canon was the predominance of Attic and Homeric Greek as the languages required to be studied. Sappho's Aeolic Greek dialect is a difficult one, and by Roman times it was arcane and ancient as well, posing considerable obstacles to her continued popularity. Still, the greatest poets and thinkers of ancient Rome continued to emulate her or compare other writers to her, and it is through these comparisons and descriptions that we have received much of her extant poetry.

Once the major academies of the Byzantine Empire dropped her works from their standard curricula, very few copies of her works were made by scribes, and the 12th-century Byzantine scholar Tzetzes speaks of her works as lost.

Modern legends describe Sappho's literary legacy as being the victim of purposeful obliteration by scandalized church leaders, often by means of book-burning.However, modern scholars have noted the echoes of Sappho Fragment 2 in a poem by Gregory of Nazianzus, a Father of the Church. Gregory's poem On Human Nature copies from Sappho the quasi-sacred grove (alsos), the wind-shaken branches, and the striking word for "deep sleep" (kōma).

It appears likely that Sappho's poetry was largely lost through action of the same indiscriminate forces of cultural change that have left us such paltry remains of all nine canonical Greek lyric poets, of whom only Pindar (whose works alone survive in a manuscript tradition) and Bacchylides (our knowledge of whom we owe to a single dramatic papyrus find) have fared much better.

Sources of the surviving fragments

Although the manuscript tradition broke off, some of Sappho's poetry has been discovered in Egyptian papyrus fragments from an earlier period, such as those found in the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus, where a major find brought many new but tattered verses to light, providing a major new source. One substantial fragment is preserved on a potsherd. The rest of what we know of Sappho comes through citations in other ancient writers, often made to illustrate grammar, vocabulary, or meter.

Translations into English

Poetry, such as Sappho's, written in quantitative verse, is difficult to reproduce in English, which uses stress-based meters and rhyme compared to Ancient Greek's solely length-based meters.As a result, many early translators used rhyme and worked Sappho's ideas into English poetic forms. Still, the Sapphic stanza, strongly associated with Sappho's poetry in the original, has become well known and influential among modern poets as well.

Modern interest in Sappho's writing began with the European Renaissance, starting in France and later spreading to England. The first translation of Sappho into English was the translation of fragment 31 by John Hall in his 1652 translation of Longinus' On the Sublime. Translations of Sappho's work as such began to appear in the 18th century, starting with Ambrose Philips' translations of fragments 1 and 31 published in The Spectator in 1711. In 1877, Henry T. Wharton an authoritative reading edition of Sappho's fragments in translation, which dominated the reading of Sappho for several decades.Wharton's edition included both his own prose renderings and previous verse translations by others.

In 1904, Canadian poet Bliss Carman published Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, which was not just a translation of the fragments but an imaginative reconstruction of the lost poems. While of little to no scholarly value, Carman's translations brought Sappho's work to the attention of a wide readership. In the 1920s, several major translations appeared: the Loeb Classical Library translation by J.M. Edmonds in 1922 (enlarged in 1928), prose and selected verse translations by Edwin Marion Cox in 1924, and combined prose and verse translations by David Moore Robinson and Marion Mills Miller in 1925.

In the 1960s, Mary Barnard reintroduced Sappho to the reading public with a new approach to translation that eschewed the use of rhyming stanzas and traditional forms. Subsequent translators have tended to work in a similar manner. In 2002, classicist and poet Anne Carson produced If Not, Winter, an exhaustive translation of Sappho's fragments. Her line-by-line translations, complete with brackets where the ancient papyrus sources break off, are meant to capture both the original's lyricism and its present fragmentary nature. Translations of Sappho have also been produced by Willis Barnstone, Richmond Lattimore, Paul Roche, Jim Powell, Guy Davenport, and Stanley Lombardo. The first translation of Sappho into English to contain the fragments discovered in 2014, including the "Brothers Poem", was Diane Rayor's Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works.

Representation of Sappho in artwork

The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Sappho.

Sexuality and community

Sappho's poetry centers on passion and love for various people and both sexes. The word lesbian derives from the name of the island of her birth, Lesbos, while her name is also the origin of the word sapphic; neither word was applied to female homosexuality until the 19th century. The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various women, but descriptions of physical acts between women are few and subject to debate. Whether these poems are meant to be autobiographical is not known, although elements of other parts of Sappho's life do make appearances in her work, and it would be compatible with her style to have these intimate encounters expressed poetically, as well. Her homoerotica should be placed in the context of the 7th century (BC). "Lesbian" was first used in the modern sense in 1890, and the early sources which describe her reputation for "physical homoerotic involvement" still "postdate her lifetime by at least 300 years", by which point such conduct was considered "disgraceful for a female."

The poems of Alcaeus and later Pindar record similar romantic bonds between the members of a given circle.

Sappho's contemporary Alcaeus described her thus: "Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho" (ἰόπλοκ᾽ ἄγνα μελλιχόμειδε Σάπφοι, fr. 384). The 3rd-century philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote that Sappho was "small and dark" and that her relationships to her female friends were similar to those of Socrates:

What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he of boys. For they said they loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her ...

During the Victorian era, it became fashionable to describe Sappho as the headmistress of a girls' finishing school. As Page DuBois (among many other experts) points out, this attempt at making Sappho understandable and palatable to the genteel classes of Great Britain was based more on conservative sensibilities than evidence. There are no references to teaching, students, academies, or tutors in any of Sappho's scant collection of surviving works. Anne Pippin Burnett follows others, like C. M. Bowra, in suggesting that Sappho's circle was somewhat akin to the Spartan agelai or the religious sacred band, the thiasos, but Burnett nuances her argument by noting that Sappho's circle was distinct from these contemporary examples because "membership in the circle seems to have been voluntary, irregular and to some degree international." The notion that Sappho was in charge of some sort of academy persists nonetheless.

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Sappho's Timeline

-625
-625
Greece
-571
-571
Age 53