Out of the Gynaeceum: A New Look at Ancient Greek Society

Sappho Is Not a Myth

By Sandra Boehringer

Sapho à Leucate

Fig. 1: Antoine-Jean Gros, “Sappho at Leucadia” (1801), oil on canvas (122 x 100 cm), Bayeux, Musée d’art et d’histoire Baron-Gérard © Wikimedia Commons. Photo: DR.

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. 

On the modern legend that has taken shape around the figure of Sappho, see: Joan Dejean, Fictions of Sapho, 1546-1937, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Alcée et Sappho

Fig. 2: Alcaeus and Sappho. Face A of an Attic red-figure calathos, circa 470 B.C. Origin: Akragas (Sicily). Brygos Painter. Beazley, ARV2, 385, 228; Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Inv. 2416. © Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Matthias Kabel.

Hydrie à figures rouges

Fig. 3: Red-figure hydria attributed to the Polygnotos Group, 440-430 B.C., National Archeological Museum of Athens. Inv. 1260. ©Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Marsyas.

Papyrus provenant de la bibliothèque de Cologne

Fig. 4: Papyrus from the library at Cologne, dating from the 3rd century B.C. (11.5 x 17 cm). P. Köln 21351+21376 (ed. M. Gronewald & R. W. Daniel, ZPE 154, 2005, 7-12)

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. 

Boehringer, Sandra & Calame Claude, “Sappho and Kypris. The Vertigo of Love (P. Sapph. Obbink 21-29; P. Oxy. 1231 fr. 16),” in Anton Bierl and André Lardinois, The Newest Sappho, P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1-4), Leiden & Boston, Brill, 2016, p. 353-367.
Plat polychrome

Fig. 5: Polychrome plate, circa 620 B.C., on exhibit at the Archeological Museum of Santorini (Greece). © Photo: DR.

This plate represents two women, one of whom is touching the other’s chin (a gesture typical of scenes of erotic courtship—both between men and between a man and woman—from the archaic and classical ages). Each woman holds a crown of leaves: the crown is a gift of love that also indicates a festive context. The exchange of gazes is underscored by the symmetrical construction of the scene.



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.

Sandra Boehringer, L’homosexualité féminine dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2007.
Claude Calame, L’Éros dans la Grèce antique, Paris, Belin, [1996] 2009.

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)

Φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν' ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει
καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ' ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·
ὠς γὰρ <ἔς> σ' ἴδω βρόχε' ὤς με φώνη-
σ' οὐδ' ἒν ἔτ' εἴκει,
ἀλλὰ †καμ† μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε† λέπτον
δ' αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ' οὐδὲν ὄρημμ', ἐπιρρό-
μεισι δ' ἄκουαι,
†έκαδε† μ' ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ' ὀλίγω 'πιδεύης
φαίνομ' ἔμ' αὔ[ται.
ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον ἐπεὶ †καὶ πένητα†