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Sappho from Lesbos (by Private)

Sappho, also known as “The Poetess” and “the Tenth Muse”, was born around 630-620 BCE on the Greek island of Lesbos. While little is known about her parents, sources say she had three siblings, all of them brothers. Unfortunately, there are not many records that can tell us about Sappho's life. Most of the information we have about her today is gleaned from texts written down long after her death, thus making it difficult to verify. Furthermore, much of what has been written has since been deemed inaccurate by modern scholars. However, the so called testimonia, a term that refers to collections of classical biographies and literary references to classical authors, remain the most important sources of insight into her life.

Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, Sappho spent most of her life in Mytilene, which was the capital of Lesbos. Around 600 BCE, Sappho and her family were exiled to the town of Syracuse in Sicily. The reason for this is thought to be her family's involvement in the elites' political struggles at the time. A popular legend (that was perhaps invented to present her as heterosexual) states that she committed suicide by jumping off a cliff because of unrequited love from a sailor named Phaon. While this legend is most likely not true, it is clear that the sources detailing Sappho's life and legacy have been greatly influenced by the time in which they were written. In the Victorian era, Sappho was commonly referred to as having run a girls' school, and was sometimes also rumoured to have had romantic encounters with her female students. This claim of Sappho being a principal has since been refuted; however, it seems to have been the case that she was the leading figure of a group of women, which purpose remains unclear.

Sappho is mainly known for her lyric poetry, written to be accompanied by music. She is said to have been a performer herself, and has been credited with inventing a certain type of lyre (string instrument) as well as the plectrum. She was an immensely popular poet during her time, and was highly regarded by both contemporaneous and later scholars. In Greece, where Homer, most famous for writing the Iliad and the Odyssey, was known as the Poet, Sappho was seen as his female counterpart – The Poetess. The Greek philosopher Plato, who was not a fan of poetry, called her “the Tenth Muse”, while Aristotle remarked that she was “honoured although she was a woman”. In Egypt, scholars at the Library of Alexandria included Sappho, as the only woman, in their canon of nine lyric geniuses. Her importance is also evident from the fact that there are numerous paintings and vases depicting her, she had statues raised in her honour, and her name and image was minted on coins. Although Sappho has been highly regarded for her poetic prowess, most of the modern scholarship of her and her poems has been coloured by discussions of her sexuality. Throughout the many centuries of studying her poems, some scholars have attempted to cover up and heterosexualise the content of her poetry in their translations, which originally contained more or less explicit allusions to relationships with women.

Reading the name Sappho in this article might have reminded you of the term sapphism. If you are not familiar with the term, then at least lesbianism is most likely not a word foreign to you. What these two words have in common is not only the fact they are both terms for love between women, but also that they are both derived from Sappho, through her name and home island of Lesbos. Although widely celebrated as a sapphic icon, some dispute the definition of Sappho as lesbian, calling it nonsensical. Her poems do include many references to love between women, but it is not known for certain whether this content is derived from the experiences of Sappho herself. Scholars have also remarked that the notion of Sappho as a lesbian only appeared in writings 300 years after her death, making this claim highly unreliable. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the idea of Sappho as lesbian, whether she actually did have relationships with women or not, has been hugely important for many people, and she thus still holds a significant position as a sapphic icon today.
Although Sappho was a very prolific writer, few of her poems have survived to this day. Most of what is left consists of fragments, many of them transcribed centuries after her death. Indeed, only one of her poems, “Ode to Aphrodite”, exists in its complete form, while the so called Brothers Poem and the Tithonus poem are nearly complete. Fragments of her poetry have been preserved on papyrus, parchment and potsherds, some of them only containing a single word. Many have tried to decipher and piece together the different parts of Sappho's work to gain a better understanding of her poetry. In some cases, scholars have attempted to fill in the blanks, adding their own words instead of only including what is actually left of her poems.

Sappho's poems are likely to first have been written down on Lesbos, either during her lifetime or shortly after her death. Decades later, Athenian book publishers began to make copies of her poems. In the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, Alexandrian scholars crafted a critical edition of her poetry, which was divided into at least eight books. Her poetry was also circulated in other collections, but by the 9th century CE, almost all her work had been lost. As a poet who was widely celebrated during her lifetime and up to this day, you might wonder why only so little of her work has been preserved. Popular myth states that her work was deemed heretical by the church and hence burned. While there might actually be some truth to this, the main explanation is simply that as demand for her works declined, no new copies were made. Since everything had to be painstakingly transcribed by hand at the time, market forces deemed her work insufficiently popular to be worth copying. Part of this decline in popularity can be explained by the fact that Sappho's poems were written in the ancient Aeolic dialect, which, by this time, had become difficult for people to understand.

Sappho's poems often dealt with themes of personal identity and emotions, such as love and passion. Her works contain several references to love between women, and often centred around a longing for the love of younger women. Many of her poems dealt with more or less explicit erotic content: instantly a delicate flame runs beneath my skin; with my eyes I see nothing; my ears make a whirring noise. Such lines have caused great dismay to some scholars, who have tried to mask these aspects of her poetry to present her as a “virtuous” woman. Apart from such apparently scandalous content, her poetry also includes references to ancient Greek gods, such as Aphrodite, Eros and Zeus.

Sappho's poetry is known for its clear language and vivid imagery, as well as the ardent use of hyperbole. Her poetry often make references to a luxurious lifestyle, for example stating that “I love the finer things”. She had an individualistic and personal style, which was very uncommon at the time. Her style is widely regarded as innovative, being one of the first Greek poets to use the “lyric I”, writing from the viewpoint of a specific person, rather than as a “conduit of divine inspiration”. She is also accredited with inventing a new meter, known as the Sapphic stanza, which consists of four lines with a specific structure of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Although Sappho's poetry mostly remains in the form of short fragments, her work continues to evoke the emotions of those who read them. Her poetry deals with themes that are as relevant today as they were when she wrote them, and her direct and spontaneous writing style makes her poems easily accessible even for contemporary readers. As her wit and mastery of words continue to inspire poets and readers alike, we can only wonder what the rest of her poetry looked like. While it is a shame that we do not know more about her life and destiny, and that so little of her work remains for us to revel in, we can only hope to discover more fragments written by this great Greek Poetess.

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Oh my! The layout is amazing 
Interesting article 
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omg this layout is brilliant, thank you Cissi for this interesting article, and you Melk for this beautiful layout (my talented melky T-T so proud)
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Wow lovely and the layout, amazing Melk I can see why you have been chosen 
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*googles ode to aphrodite*
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A big thank you to @Melk for making the amazing layout that inspired this article!
Thank you for wanting to write it!
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Private wrote on 20-09 23:32:
BloomCissi wrote:
A big thank you to @Melk for making the amazing layout that inspired this article!

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