Friday, December 12, 2008

Last Song of Sappho

Sappho (c. 630/612 BC - c. 570 BC, whose name is Σαπφώ / Sap-pho in Attic Greek and Ψάπφω / Psap-pho in her native Aeolic Greek) was one of the nine great lyric poets of the archaic era (750 BC - 480 BC), and later writers would called her the tenth muse. Furthermore, it is because of her that the words "lesbian" and "sapphic" are used to describe girl-girl love. But was Sappho really gay? Let's see what we can learn about this ancient poetess, her life, work, and love.

Sappho's Life

Our knowledge of Sappho's life is obscured by the mists of time: the only contemporary source we have are her poems where autobiographical items may be intertwined with fiction, and the reliability of later authors' accounts might be questioned. What we do know for sure is that she was born on the Isle of Lesbos, most probably into an aristocratic family. It also seems well established that Sappho had a daughter, whom she named Cleïs after her mother. We're told that she had three brothers, one of whom, Charaxis, purportedly had an affair with a celebrated Egyptian concubine named Rhodopis. According to the historian Herodotus (c. 484 BC - c. 425 BC), Charaxis spent a large sum to ransom Rhodopis from slavery, and Sappho chastised him for this when he returned to Lesbos.

Several sources say that at one point Sappho lived in exile in Syracuse (where Cicero tells us that they erected a statue in her honor), but most scholars assume her sojourn there was brief and that she spent most of her life in Lesbos. Alcaeus (c. 620 BC - 5?? BC), another esteemed Lesbian poet and a contemporary of Sappho, also spent a short time in exile and it is possible that Sappho shared his political affiliations.

There is also a deep-seated tradition (albeit one with a very weak foundation) that says Sappho was a teacher. Some say that she was the head of a chorus of young women whom she instructed in culture and mythology: this sacred chorus (thiasos) would perform at wedding ceremonies, and may have served as a "finishing school" preparing the young women for marriage. Another possibility is that Sappho was the senior member of a "salon" or informal circle of women who saw her as a mentor (not unlike Socrates' circle). Supporting this theory, we are told by some ancient authors that women from outside of Lesbos came to study under Sappho. Here's a very good, entertaining essay I found on "Sappho as Schoolmistress".

Sappho's Works

Sappho was called a lyric poet because her poems were meant to be read with accompaniment on the lyre. She wrote in Aelaic Greek, which had already fallen out of disuse by Roman times. Thus, although her praises were sung by many great classical writers such as Ovid and Horace, over time her poetry fell out of fashion and by the 12th century most of her body of work was lost. In modern times, a legend developed that Sappho's works were destroyed by early Christian fathers due to their perceived immorality, but the fate of her work is really no different than that of the other lyric poets. Their defunct dialect was a pain in the arse for students' to translate, and as they were read more and more rarely they were often not preserved.

Today, Sappho's poetry exists only in fragments and quotes preserved in the work of later writers. Translating poetry is always a tricky business, but here is an English version of the longest fragment, a hymn to Aphrodite:

On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, weaving wiles--I beg you
not to subdue my spirit, Queen,
with pain or sorrow
but come--if ever before
having heard my voice from far away
you listened, and leaving your father's
golden home you came
in your chariot yoked with swift, lovely
sparrows bringing you over the dark earth
thick-feathered wings swirling down
from the sky through mid-air
arriving quickly--you, Blessed One,
with a smile on your unaging face
asking again what have I suffered
and why am I calling again
and in my wild heart what did I most wish
to happen to me: "Again whom must I persuade
back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?
For if she flees, soon she'll pursue,
she doesn't accept gifts, but she'll give,
if not now loving, soon she'll love
even against her will."
Come to me now again, release me from
this pain, everything my spirit longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally

Here's another amusing fragment which may have been written about a romantic rival:

To Andromeda

That country girl has witched your wishes,
all dressed up in her country clothes
and she hasn't got the sense
to hitch her rags above her ankles.
Sappho's Love

So was Sappho gay? Speculating on the happiness of celebrity couples pales in comparison to any attempt to reconstruct the love life of a poetess who lived in the 6th century BC and about whom we have precious little in the way of hard facts. That said, most sources agree that Sappho had a daughter so we can assume that she was married. Some sources also claim the Alcaeus, a fellow poet who lived in Lesbos and was somewhat older than Sappho, might have been her lover. He once referred to her as "violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho." There is also a legend that Sappho killed herself – jumping from a cliff – because of her unrequited love for a ferryman named Phaon. This, however, would seem to be incompatible with what we know about Sappho given that by most accounts she lived into old age.

The idea that Sappho had an affinity for the ladies comes from her poems, many of which celebrate feminine beauty or talk about (often unrequited) desire towards women. Here's a good example:

To me it seems
that man has the fortune of the gods,
whoever sits beside you, and close,
who listens to you sweetly speaking
and laughing temptingly;
my heart flutters in my breast,
whenever I look quickly, for a moment--
I say nothing, my tongue broken,
a delicate fire runs under my skin,
my eyes see nothing, my ears roar,
cold sweat rushes down me,
trembling seizes me,
I am greener than grass,
to myself I seem
needing but little to die.

But all must be endured, since...
Arguing against Sappho's homosexuality, one should note that perhaps her poetry is not necessarily autobiographical or confessional. Also, there are no explicit references to girl-on-girl action. On the other hand, the essay by Parker I cited above notes that whereas Victorians attempted to whitewash the Life of Sappho by painting her as a teacher or a mentor to young girls, it is equally likely that these women mentioned in connection with Sappho were in reality her lovers. Some later writers such as Maximus of Tyre (2nd century AD) claim that these relationships were between an older Sappho and younger girls, thus likening them to paiderastria – the familiar Greek custom of sexual relations between man and boy/teacher and student, but again we have no evidence that the women she consorted with were pubescent rather than her coevals.

Even if the female-oriented love in Sappho's poems should be taken as autobiographical, it is possible that Sappho's relationship to these women may have been romantic and loving but also "platonic"; but then again bisexuality was common among Greek men (who sometimes saw it as the most enlightened love given their thoughts on male intellectual/spiritual superiority) so why couldn't Sappho too be a bisexual who had affairs with both men and women?

Sappho's Last Song

In recent years, a new fragment of Sappho's poetry was uncovered, thanks to a roll of papyrus found among the wrapping of an Egyptian mummy. It's subject is old age, and I'll leave you with an English translation which first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in June 2005 (click here for discussion of the poem):

(You for) the fragrant-bosomed (Muses') lovely gifts
(be zealous,) girls, (and the) clear melodious lyre:

(but my once tender) body old age now
(has seized;) my hair's turned (white) instead of dark;
my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world's end,
handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o'ertook him, husband of immortal wife.

Translation of Aphrodite Hymn and "To me it seems" by Diane Rayor, translation of "To Andromeda" by Jim Powell, translation of "old age" fragment by Martin West. For more translations of Sappho's poetry on the web check out these sites: Diotima, The Divine Sappho, Isle of Lesbos. Images are a mosaic from Pompei which can be found at Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli and a Hellenistic era marble head from Smyrna which can be found the Istanbul Archeological Museum.

1 comment:

nola32 said...

you know, all i could think about was that episode of 'coupling' in the last season where they try to make up for jeff's departure by having him on the other end of phone calls to steve and you can't here what he's saying. anyway, in that episode his job has sent him out to lesbos and he gets really upset when he gets there because he feels that the name of the place had so horribly misled him as to what his actual surroundings would be like.