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Sappho | Ancient Greek Poetess | The Iconic Tenth Muse from Lesvos

Updated: Jan 31

Author

George Papadellis | SG Head


Sappho Greek [630 – 570 BC] is a famous archaic poet from Lesbos. Her poetry was lyric, i.e. written to be accompanied by music, and she is known for Sappho love poems. However, papyri published in 2014 contains fragments of ten poems from Book I of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho, of which only two are certainly love poems, while at least three and possibly four are primarily concerned with family.


Statue of Sappho of Shiny Greece

Bust of Sappho, inscribed Sappho Eresia, "Sappho of Eressos". Roman copy of a Greek original of the 5th century BC | Photo by: in the public domain (according to Wikimedia Commons)


Sappho was widely recognized as one of the greatest lyric poets and was given several astonishing names, such as the "Tenth Muse" and "The Poetess".


Sappho Poems

Most of Sappho poetry is lost or it has survived in parts; only the "Ode to Aphrodite" is certainly complete. She composed around 10,000 lines, of which, today, only about 650 survive. More than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments.


Her poetry was well-known and greatly admired through much of antiquity, and she was among the Nine Lyric Poets most highly esteemed by scholars of the Hellenistic Alexandria. Sappho poetry is still considered extraordinary and her works continue to influence other writers.


Sappho clearly worked within a well-developed tradition of Lesbian poetry, which had evolved its own poetic diction, meters, and conventions. Prior to Sappho and her contemporary Alcaeus, Lesbos was associated with poetry and music through the mythical Orpheus and Arion, and the seventh-century BC poet Terpander.


Statue of Sappho Poet of Shiny Greece

Sappho Statue | Photo by: Eric Gaba, Wikimedia Commons user Sting, Sappho portrait Istanbul Archaeological Museum - inv. 358 T 01, CC BY-SA 3.0


A tradition going back at least to Menander, suggested that Sappho killed herself by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs for love of Phaon, a ferryman. This is regarded as historical for modern scholars, perhaps invented by the comic poets or originating from a misreading of a first-person reference in a non-biographical poem. The legend may have resulted in part from a desire to assert Sappho as heterosexual.


Outside of academic circles, she is best known as a symbol of same-sex desire, particularly between women. Today, it is generally accepted that Sappho poetry portrays homoerotic feelings. Towards the end of the twentieth century, though some scholars began to reject the question of whether or not Sappho was a lesbian – Glenn. Most wrote that Sappho herself "would have had no idea what people mean when they call her nowadays a homosexual".


Sappho Coin

Sappho's life and works are a testament to the enduring power of poetry and the importance of artistic expression. Her legacy continues to inspire and influence modern writers and thinkers, and her intimate and personal style of poetry has captured the hearts of readers for centuries. As we continue to explore the life and works of Sappho, we are reminded of the beauty and power of language, and the profound impact it can have on our lives and the world around us.


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