Sappho Is Not a Myth
By Sandra Boehringer
There is a widespread belief that Sappho was a mythical character invented by the ancient Greeks to account for the origin of love between women. This, in fact, is a modern myth.
Sappho was quite real: she was a Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 6th century B.C. Born to a powerful family, she frequented the aristocratic milieus of the island. As an educated, cultured, and well-known woman, she had a place in the cultural life of the city of Mytilene. The fragments of her poems that have come down to us through the ages give us a sense of the extent of her renown from Antiquity onward.
In most of the compositions by Sappho that were intended to be sung by the poet herself or by a chorus of young women, a female “I” speaks, invoking a past or future love for a woman. The legend that Sappho threw herself from the cliffs of Leucadia out of love for a young man was invented by the 1st century Latin poet Ovid, who attributed to her a (fictive) love letter to Phaon (Heroides, XV). It was this text that, much later, inspired the Romantic painters and poets, and gave rise to the legend of Sappho as a lesbian; as a woman damned, insane, or sick.
But Sappho did not invent lesbian love, because that type of categorization did not exist in ancient Greece. Before her, the Spartan poet Alcman wrote partheneia in which erotic love between women was expressed. However, Sappho is very famous for her love poems featuring two women. Fragment 31 was particularly influential in Western culture (and was imitated by Catullus, Louise Labbé, and Racine, among others). In this poem, Sappho celebrates the force of eros and describes how love marks the body of the lover.
A Well-Known Poet
Sappho has been famous since the 4th century B.C.: Greek vases depict her playing the zither with friends or in the company of the poet Alcaeus. Papyrological evidence shows that she belonged to the “canon” of important authors of Antiquity. A papyrus containing two poems was discovered in the United States in 2014 (P. Sapph. Obbink); another one, shown here, was found in Cologne in 2004, and from it we can piece together a song in which the poet, through the myth of Tithonus, describes how the feeling of love touches the body.
Female Homoeroticism in Antiquity
The categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality did not exist in Greek or Roman Antiquity. The Ancients did not believe that the gender of the object of someone’s desire meant something about that person: thus, the terms “lesbian” and “gay” have no equivalent in Greek or Latin.
There is evidence of love between women during Sappho’s time, but it is less well documented in later centuries, where we find representations of male or male-female couples.
In general, for the Ancients it was above all social status and the modalities of the relationship itself that served as criteria for differentiating between various relationships. Eros struck both men and women, regardless of the gender of the person desired.
Fragment 31 by Sappho
“That one seems to me to be like the gods, the man whosoever sits facing you and listens nearby to your sweet speech and desirable laughter—which surely terrifies the heart in my chest; for as I look briefly at you, so can I no longer speak at all, my tongue is silent, broken, a silken fire suddenly has spread beneath my skin, with my eyes I see nothing, my hearing hums, a cold sweat grips me, a trembling seizes me entire, more pale than grass am I, I seem to myself to be little short of dead. But everything is to be endured…”
(translation by John Winkler)