Sappho, lyric poet, c. 630–c. 570 bce
Sappho, lyric poet, c. 630–c. 570 bce
- Page duBois
- Greek Literature
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
The poet Sappho, one of the greatest poets of world literature, a rare example of a woman whose work has survived in appreciable measure from archaic Greece, was celebrated in antiquity as “the tenth Muse” (Anth. Pal. 9.506). The Garland of Meleager, a Hellenistic anthology, includes some verses of Sappho, which the poet calls “few, but roses.” Sappho has long been praised as a superb poet of Eros, capable of subtle and effective evocations of desire and erotic pleasure, especially devoted to Aphrodite, who sends the joys and pains of love. Aphrodite is seen by some as an alter ego to the poet herself. Sappho appeals to her, as the poems voice yearning for an absent object of desire.1 She also invokes the Muses, and the Graces. The erotic poems often recall intimacy; express loss, tender yearning, and homoerotic longing; and create in memory a community bound by pleasure and song, exhibiting great elegance of composition and a sensuous luxury.
Much purported biographical information about the poet is unreliable, based on the poems and on later comedy. Even the spelling of her name varies from Psappho in the extant fragments, to Sappho in later antiquity. Her name may allude to her role as “sister” in various contexts.2 It is said that Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos, daughter of Scamandronymus (a name that may suggest ties to Asia Minor) and Cleis. References to a husband in later sources may be based on comedy, her husband’s name, “Cercylas of Andros,” meaning “Cock from the Isle of Man.” One fragment (96b, 132) mentions a pais, who could be a daughter (but the word can also mean “slave”). Her brothers are named as Charaxus, Larichus, and Erygius (Suda Σ 107). Sappho is mentioned on the Parian marble, as in exile on Sicily (Marm. Par. 36), probably following the aristocratic power struggles on archaic Lesbos. Herodotus describes a brother’s infatuation with a courtesan (see hetairai), a Thracian slave brought from Samos, Rhodopis (elsewhere called Doricha), resident in Egypt and supposedly so wealthy she had a pyramid constructed in her name (Hist. 2. 135). It was said that Alcaeus approached her sexually, and that she rebuffed him. They appear together on some vases. Sappho alone appears on another, and other representations of female performers with a barbitos or lyre may represent the poet.3
Biographical details, such as suicide for love of the ferryman Phaon, figure in the biographical lore concerning Sappho, relying on Ovid (Her. 15) and repeated by later generations to paint her as a tragic victim of heterosexual frustration.4 Catullus’s Lesbia alludes to the Lesbian poet, and Sappho’s verse form, called the Sapphic stanza, was used by other later poets, including Horace.
Debates continue about whether Sappho performed in male symposia as an entertainer, was primarily a choral composer and performer, a teacher, a leader of a religious group, of an initiatory group, a chorus trainer, or the principal figure in a group of companions (hetaireia) who served as entertainers at symposia.5 Sappho may have been a public performer in choral performances in her own day and then seen as a symposiastic poet when her works were reperformed in later contexts.6 A contemporary of the poet Alcaeus, Sappho may have led performances at the great sanctuary on the island of Lesbos at Messon, a shrine to the gods Zeus, Hera, and Dionysus.
Few substantive fragments survived antiquity. Both choral and monodic poems in the literary Aeolic dialect are attributed to Sappho Choral poems and include epithalamia and a lament for Adonis. Fragment 44, from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus, describes in Homeric terms the arrival of Andromache in Troy, to be married to Hector. Fragment 1, transmitted in Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ On Literary Composition (Comp. 23), names the poet and draws on prayer form and the culturally significant flight-and-pursuit motif, present in Homeric battle scenes and in later forensic metaphor. Fragment 2 was published by Medea Norsa in 1937, recovered from an ostracon. It creates a hypnotic, incantatory ritual space. The fragmentary poem 16, against a tripartite foil of cavalry, infantry, and fleets, argues, using the example of Helen, for a definition of the beautiful as “what one loves,” and concludes with the bright smile of the beloved Anactoria. Fragment 31, transmitted in the text of Pseudo-Longinus, describes a scene of bodily disintegration at the sight of a heterosexual couple. Some of this poem’s themes are echoed in the fragmentary and recently discovered “Cypris” poem, which seems to describe a subject pierced and transfixed with erotic suffering at the hands of Aphrodite. Additional lines of fragment 58, discovered in 2004 on a papyrus in Cologne, complain of the inevitability of human aging and contrast the mortal singer in the poem with the mythic figure Tithonus, aged yet deathless.7
Fragment 94 recalls an absent beloved, and remembers flowery, tender pleasures and the satisfaction of longing. Fragment 96 brings to life a beloved companion now among Lydian women, radiant like the moon spreading over sea and fields of flowers, and is remembered as herself yearning. Other fragments touch on luxuries, on the Muses, on rivalries among singers. The most recent publications of contested provenance, “The Brothers (or Charaxus) Poem,” the “Cypris Poem,” and other fragments, are said to have come from Egyptian cartonnage or bookbinding, and are now in private possession.8
These recently recovered fragments seem to have formed part of the first book of a Hellenistic collection of Sappho’s works, in most cases with the poems arranged alphabetically according to the first word of the poem. These have supplemented readers’ appreciation of the poet, who has been seen variously over many centuries as a comic figure in Athenian Old Comedy, as Alexandria’s muse, as lover of the ferryman Phaon following Ovid (Her. 15), subsequently as poetic model, the first woman poet of the European tradition, and more recently as an exemplar of lesbian desire.
Earlier scholarship, often homophobic, focused on aesthetic, historical, and linguistic questions, side-stepping the matter of Sappho’s sexual preference, arguing that Sappho was a chaste headmistress overseeing a house of the Muses that educated and trained other aristocratic young women in the poetic arts. More recent feminists and historians of sexuality have recognized Sappho as a feminist and lesbian forebear. The more recently discovered fragments expand interpretation of her work as scholars have begun to emphasize the performative and fictional nature of her personae, pointing to a variety of versions of selfhood, including that of lover, but also of iambist, abusing or chastising others, possibly including her own brother in the “Brothers” or “Charaxus Poem,” which celebrates the safe return of a sailor from the sea.9 The more recent finds expand reference to family, including brothers, fictive or real, and demonstrate a mediation between spheres, the quotidian and the mythic.10 Recent interpretations place stress on the fictionality of the agents and objects in the corpus, allowing for an instability of poetic identity. Although some suggestions have been made that Sappho was a professional singer, a hetaira, or courtesan, in the classical sense, others add to the portrait of her role as a concerned sister, and as a poet praying to Hera for safety and return from travel for family members or others.11 Themes of commerce and shipping link the poet, her family, and community to Egypt and the ancient Near East.12 Other poems (fr. 16, 39, 96, 132) refer to Lydia in Asia Minor, and show her to be part of a cultural complex, facing eastward.
Post-classical reception for centuries focused on Sappho’s pursuit of Phaon and her alleged suicide.13 Although John Donne registered her desire for women in his “Sappho to Philaenis,” it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that Sappho was seen as a poetic advocate of explicit same-sex desire. Readers in the 19th and 20th centuries began to resuscitate the homoerotic persona, and paved the way for such translators and imitators as Renee Vivien.14 Reception includes musical compositions.15 Because of its associations with her, the island of Lesbos became a favoured site of lesbian tourism in the 20th and 21st centuries, even though upheavals in Western Asia in the early 21st century have made it a vulnerable sanctuary and transit point for migrants and refugees.
- Bierl, Anton, and Andre Lardinois, eds. The Newest Sappho (P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1–4). Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song 2. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.
- Burnett, Anne P. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.
- Calame, Claude. Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious Role, and Social Functions. Translated by Derek Collins and Janice Orion. New and revised edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
- duBois, Page. Sappho Is Burning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
- Finglass, Patrick J., and Adrian Kelly, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Sappho. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
- Greene, Ellen, ed. Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches, vol. 2. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
- Greene, Ellen, ed. Re-reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
- Greene, Ellen, and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues. Hellenic Studies Series 38. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009.
- Johnson, Marguerite. Sappho. Bristol, UK: Bristol Classical Press, 2007.
- Lobel, Edgar, and Denys Page. Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.
- Nagy, Gregory. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
- Page, Denys. Sappho and Alcaeus: Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.
- Rissman, Leah. Love as War: Homeric Allusion in the Poetry of Sappho. Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie 157. Königstein, Germany: Hain, 1983.
- Schlesier, Renate. “Atthis, Gyrinno, and Other Hetairai: Female Personal Names in Sappho’s Poetry.” Philologus 157 (2013): 199–222.
- Schlesier, Renate. “Symposion, Kult und frühgriechische Dichtung: Sappho im Kontext.” In Medien der Geschichte: Antikes Griechenland und Rom. Edited by Ortwin Dally, Tonio Hölscher, Susanne Muth and Rolf Michael Schneider, 74–106. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2014.
- Skinner, Marilyn. “Aphrodite Garlanded: Eros and Poetic Creativity in Sappho and Nossis.” In Rose di Pieria. Edited by Francesco DeMartino, 79–96. Bari, Italy: Levante, 1991.
- Skinner, Marilyn. “Women and Language in Ancient Greece, or, Why Is Sappho a Woman?” In Feminist Theory and The Classics. Edited by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin, 125–44. London: Routledge, 1993.
- Skinner, Marilyn. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. 2nd. ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
- Snyder, Jane M. Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
- Snyder, Jane M., “Sappho in Attic Vase Painting.” In Naked Truths: Women, Sexuality and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology. Edited by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow and Claire I. Lyons, 108–119. London: Routledge, 1997.
- Stehle, Eva. “Sappho’s Private World.” In Reflections of Women in Antiquity. Edited by Helene P. Foley, 45–61. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, 1981.
- Stehle, Eva. “‘Sappho’s Gaze’: Fantasies of a Goddess and Young Man.” In Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Edited by Ellen Greene, 193–225. Berkeley, CA, 1996.
- Stehle, Eva. Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
- Voigt, Eva-Maria. Sappho et Alcaeus. Fragmenta. Amsterdam: Polak and van Gennep, 1971.
- Williamson, Margaret. Sappho’s Immortal Daughters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
- Winkler, John. J. “Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho’s Lyrics.” In Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Edited by Ellen Greene, 89–109. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.
- Yatromanolakis, Dimitrios. Sappho in the Making. The Early Reception. Hellenic Studies Series 28. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008.
1. See Page duBois, Sappho Is Burning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
2. Gregory Nagy, “A Poetics of Sisterly Affect in the Brothers Song and in Other Songs of Sappho,” in The Newest Sappho: P.Sapph.Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1–4: Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, vol. 2, ed. Anton Bierl and Andre Lardinois (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016), 449–492.
3. Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, Sappho in the Making. The Early Reception, Hellenic Studies Series 28 (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008).
4. But see Gregory Nagy, “Phaethon, Sappho’s Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas: ‘Reading’ the Symbols of Greek Lyric,” in Greek Mythology and Poetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 223–262.
5. Stefano Caciagli, “Sappho Fragment 17: Wishing Charaxos a Safe Trip?,” in Bierl and Lardinois, The Newest Sappho, 424–448.
6. Nagy, “Phaethon, Sappho’s Phaon.”
7. See Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel, ZPE 147 (2004): 1–8; ZPE 149 (2004): 1–4; Ellen Greene and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds., The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues, Hellenic Studies Series 38 (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009).
8. On the controversy concerning provenance, see C. Michael Sampson and Anna Uhlig, “The Murky Provenance of the Newest Sappho,” November 5, 2019, and C. Michael Sampson, “Deconstructing the Provenance of P.Sapph.Obbink,” in Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 57 (2020): 143–169. According to the publishers of The Newest Sappho, murkiness of provenance does not affect the authenticity of attribution to Sappho.
9. Patricia Rosenmeyer, “Sappho’s Iambics,” Letras clásicas 10 (2006): 11–36; and Richard Martin, “Sappho, Iambist: Abusing the Brother,” in Bierl and Lardinois, The Newest Sappho, 110–126.
10. Leslie Kurke, “Gendered Spheres and Mythic Models in Sappho’s Brothers Poem,” in Bierl and Lardinois, The Newest Sappho, 238–265.
11. See Renate Schlesier, “Atthis, Gyrinno, and Other Hetairai: Female Personal Names in Sappho’s Poetry,” Philologus 157 (2013): 199–222, and “Symposion, Kult und frühgriechische Dichtung: Sappho im Kontext,” in Medien der Geschichte: Antikes Griechenland und Rom, ed. Ortwin Dally, Tonio Hölscher, Susanne Muth and Rolf Michael Schneider (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 74–106; and Joel Lidov, “Songs for Sailors and Lovers,” in Bierl and Lardinois, The Newest Sappho, 55–109.
12. Kurt Raaflaub, “The Newest Sappho and Archaic Greek-Near Eastern Interactions,” in Bierl and Lardinois, The Newest Sappho, 127–147.
13. Joan de Jean, Fictions of Sappho: 1546–1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
14. Yopie Prins, Victorian Sappho (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Simon Goldhill, “The Touch of Sappho,” Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 65–85; Karla Jay, The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renee Vivien (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988); Jonathan Goldberg, Sappho ]fragments, PDF download, punctum books.
15. “Bantock’s Sappho, Nine Fragments for Contralto,”; Linda Montano, “Portrait of Sappho,”; Esa-Pekka Salonen, “Five Images After Sappho,”.