About time we talked about the most famous lesbian in the
Western world – the woman who gave us the words “lesbian” and “sapphic” – you
guessed it: Sappho herself.
Why today? So far, we’d managed to find at least one wlw
birthday or event for every day in January, but February 2nd got us
stumped. But we’d promised you 365 days of lesbians! So today we figured that
Sappho might make for a great lesbian-of-the-day post, especially since she’ll
allow us to talk about labels, uncertainty, and queer history.
So what we know for sure about Sappho amounts to… not much. We
know she was a poet in Ancient Greece, from the island of Lesbos. Her family
was wealthy; she allegedly had three brothers; she was married to a wealthy
merchant; it’s possible that she had one daughter; she was exiled to Sicily
around 600 BC. Even the exact years of her birth and death are approximate. Any
information we have about her life comes either from secondary biographical
sources which cannot be deemed entirely reliable, or from interpretation of her
poems – and that is a whole another problem.
Her poetry is what allowed her name to still be known today:
she was already recognized and admired in her time, and scholars of Hellenistic
Alexandria placed her among the nine lyric poets they deemed to have major
importance. However, we’ve lost most of her poems – and we only have fragments
of what remains, some of which is still being rediscovered today (recent
findings date from 2014, for example). Scholars also have to deal with texts
thought to be Sappho’s but later revealed to be imitations; and translations
can be a headache since sentences are partial and linguistic and cultural context
So, overall, the details of Sappho’s life are not readily
accessible. Even what
she’s best known for – all the lesbianism and whatnot – is uncertain. Some people
said she was just a particularly promiscuous straight woman; others that the
whole homoeroticism of her poetry was just for show. Her social role, among her
circle of female friends and acquaintances, is hard to define. The numerous
uncertainties that surround her life and her sexuality generally point to how
hard it is to use “homosexuality” as this kind of ahistorical category: it can’t
be applied to any culture, at any point in time, in any place, because people
have defined same-sex relationships, whether sexual or not, in different ways –
and we must keep this in mind while researching figures such as Sappho.
This doesn’t mean however that we don’t get to reclaim
Sappho as one of the lesbian icons of the Ancient Western World! But we at 365
Days of Lesbians advocate for a nuanced and historicized look at these icons –
one that takes into account changing definitions, margins of error,
uncertainties, translation issues, and all those things.
On this note, I leave you with one of Sappho’s poems, from
Anne Carson’s translation in If Not,
Winter (which I think is brilliant and strongly recommend to you):
I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me.
with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.
And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.
But if not, I want
to remind you
]and beautiful times we had.
For many crowns of violets
]at my side you put on
and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.
And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself
and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing
and neither any[ ]nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent
no grove[ ]no dance