A Woman to Know: Sappho

Eros harrows my heart. — Sappho

(image via Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Today, Sappho is maybe known as the world's most famous lesbian -- but for centuries after her death in the sixth century BC, scholars, theologians and even her fellow poets have attempted to hide the truth of her sexuality.

Immediately upon Sappho's death, Church censors set about "cleaning" her body of work. One called her a "sex-crazed whore" and another claimed her verses "sang about her own licentiousness." But they knew that while they could destroy the physical copies of Sappho's work, they couldn't erase her legacy; the "Great Poetess" of Lesbos had been celebrated entirely too much during her lifetime for that. People held up her poems as pieces of living mythology, testaments to Classical beauty. They called her "the tenth muse," and honored her scandalous poems:

I have not had one word from her

Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept a great deal;
she said to me, "This parting
must be endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."

I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember whom you leave shackled by love."


Today, the debate about Sappho and her not-so-secret trysts rages on, with scholars fighting to analyze the few remaining scraps of verse. As one wrote, "Imagine what the name Homer would mean to Western civilization if all we had of the Iliad and the Odyssey was their reputations, and say, ninety lines of each poem." The enduring conversation is frustrating, yes, but maybe also testament to the power of one "sex-crazed" woman and her "licentious" legacy. Even though her work only exists in fragmented lines and broken poems, the name "Sappho" still conjures up so much: images of a renowned poetess, a remote island and (maybe) (hopefully) a few of her lines that survived so much:

I asked myself

What, Sappho, can
you give one
who has everything,
like Aphrodite?

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