Style: Lyric Poetry
Themes: Love, Religion, Sex, Marriage, Suffering, Mortality, Gods
Quotes: “To have beauty is to have only that, but to have goodness, is to be beautiful too” / “Virginity, virginity, when you leave me, where do you go? I am gone and never come back to you. I never return” / “Of course I am downcast and tremble, with pity for my state, when old age and wrinkles cover me, when Eros flies about, and I pursue the glorious young” / “Good grief, gods do what they like. They call down hurricanes with a whisper, or send off a tsunami the way you would a love letter” / “But my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a subtle fire races inside my skin, my eyes can’t see a thing and a whirring whistle thrums at my hearing”
Literary Echoes: Apollonius of Rhodes, Catullus, Ovid, Plutarch, Sir Philip Sidney, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson
Little is known about her life, but it’s widely believed that Sappho (or Psappha, as her name was said in her native Aeolic dialect) was from the island of Lesbos. In ancient Greece, Sappho was regularly referred to as “the Poetess”, up there with the greats like “the Poet” Homer. I’ve got a couple of collections of her poetry, and they’re always presented as numbered fragments, with some (like No.31) much more complete than others. Plato apparently hailed her as “the tenth Muse” and she was honoured on coins and with statues throughout the ancient world. Her apparent sexual preferences have also made her a controversial figure throughout the ages, especially among the religious and culturally conservative. This article is an excellent discussion of her sexuality and also provides a translation of fragment 31.
Female infanticide was practiced in classical Greece (men would often prefer boys to help with farm work and to inherit an estate), while young girls might be lucky to go to school at aged 7, but only long enough to acquire basic numeracy and literacy, and would often be married off by age 14 (sometimes even 12). Sappho has some poignant lines about a girl who goes from the security and bliss of childhood to the anxiety of marriage: see poem 4 in this online collection. Typically, women died at age 36, having borne 4 children. By comparison, men died on average at age 45.
Women in ancient Greece
The inferior role of women is a potent reminder that Greeks were still a primitive people. Even in classical Athens (mid-400s BC), women were second-class citizens (but still better off than slaves or “metics”, foreign residents). Very few skilled or lucrative trades were open to women, who were also forbidden to own much property or vote. Women were expected to be in the home, performing domestic roles like child care, cleaning and spinning & weaving. An exception within the Ancient Greek world is the city-state of Sparta, where women had more freedom to own property and participate in male-imitative activities like gymnastics, a situation that likely arose from the need for women to manage estates while their husbands were at war (compare to the increased freedom of UK women during World Wars, especially WWII).
Aristotle criticised the increased freedom (even sexual) of Spartan women, while Plato imagined a utopian society in his Republic, where women and men would be equally eligible for roles in government. Plato’s position was never entirely clear, given that he has Socrates criticise democracy for excessive egalitarianism, which he believed resulted in a society that lost its structure, but his proto-feminist views were still radical.
Looking back to Mycenaean civilisation (circa 1600-1200 BC), myth and poems suggest certain high-born women did have considerable power in this baronial society (see Penelope and Clytaemnestra in Homer’s Odyssey, both of whom manage large estates and kingdoms). There was a shift in social attitudes to women in the 1100-700 BC period, with the emergence of city states putting more emphasis on military and ideals of male strength & beauty, leading to institutionalised homosexuality. Misogyny to women was expressed in writers like Hesiod, while Pericles said (in his Funeral Oration of 431 BC): “The highest honour for a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether in praise or criticism“. They were often seen as irrational and fearful.
Religion did allow for women to take a more active role, and certain priesthoods were reserved solely for women, such as the office of Pythia, or priestess of Apollo at Delphi. These roles were often tied in with a prehistoric belief in ancient Greece about the magical properties of female fertility.
In the Hellenistic age (300-150 BC), oppression of women lightened somewhat and women (though mainly high-born and wealthy) again influenced public and cultural life. Epicurus admitted women to his school on the same terms as men, which put more emphasis on female intelligence. Poets like Apollonius also put more emphasis on female psychology. However, these advances would hit reverse during most of the first two millennia AD.
I recommend the Poetry Foundation site if you want to delve a little deeper into Sappho’s poetry, and also explore works by other women writers from the classical world. The BBC’s In Our Time podcast on Sappho is also worth your time.