Sappho, Greece c.600 BCE
Sappho was a Greek lyric poet born in Eressos on the island of Lesbos. She is most often associated with Mytilene, the capital city of Lesbos, and a major city even in the 7th century BCE. Most sources say she was born sometime between 630 BCE and 612 BCE, and it is said that she died around 570 BC. The bulk of her poetry has been lost, although her reputation has remained.
Sappho was born into an aristocratic family, which is reflected in the sophistication of her language. Fragments of her work that remain make references to dances, festivals, religious rites, military fleets, parading armies, generals, and ladies of the ancient courts supporting the idea that she was a woman of wealth.
A violent coup on Lesbos forced much of the aristocracy, including Sappho’s family and fellow poet Alcaeus, into exile. Her poetry speaks bitterly of the mistreatment she suffered during those years. Much of her exile was spent in Syracuse on the island of Sicily.
Such was her reputation as a poet that upon hearing that the famous Sappho would be coming to their city, the people of Syracuse built a statue of her as a form of welcome.
Many of her love poems were addressed to women, which has lead many to believe that they are homosexual in nature. The word ‘Sapphic’ was often used prior to the 20th century to describe a lesbian. The word lesbian is itself is derived from Sappho’s home island of Lesbos. This has led to interest in her work in the later part of the 20th Century.
In the ancient Greek world Sappho was called the Tenth Muse, and was one of the nine lyric poets studied by all those wishing to claim that they were properly educated.
Like all early lyric poetry, Sappho’s works were composed to be either sung or recited to music, in particular to the accompaniment of the lyre.
Plutarch credited Sappho with creating the Mixolydian mode of musical composition, which uses a descending scale of notes from b to B and she also developed what is now called the Sapphic stanza as a form of metrical poetry.
Sappho’s work was popular well into Roman times, although her arcane dialect became more and more unpopular to study and translate and her work began to disappear.
Historians have also alleged that Sappho’s works were systematically censored by the early Catholic Church eager to destroy her messages of erotic love and worship of pagan gods, especially Aphrodite.
Sappho allegedly produced nine volumes of poetry, but only a small proportion of that work remains. Some papyrus fragments remain but most of our current sources are ancient translations but Greeks and Romans.
There is but one complete poem, The Hymn to Aphrodite.