Sappho was the first major poet of the West and one of the creators of the lyrical, personal and intimate poetry.

Sapphic and lesbian are two words with which we name the homosexual love between women. The origin of these terms is in the name of the most famous Greek poetess of all antiquity, Sappho, and the name of the island where she lived most of his time, Lesbos, in the late seventh century BC in an aristocratic family.

Some other of the few biographical data that the ancient sources, no secure nor firm,  provide us, are that she was married to a merchant, that she  had a daughter named Cleis, that she lived some time in exile in Sicily and that she had three brothers, one of them ruined by his mad love for a prostitute (some poems refer this). Some other interesting details  can be deducted from her own poems.

By the way,  Alcaeus, the other great primitive lyric poet, was also from Lesbos,  and sometimes these two great poets are represented together.

Note: homosexual is a word compound of the Greek word ὅμοιος, homoyos, meaning "same" and the Latin word sexualis, from sexus, sex. Therefore it refers to the love between persons of same sex. It has nothing to do  its origin with the Latin word "homo" meaning “man”.

Love between persons of the male gender is often called specifically "gay", English term which originally means "happy"; the love between women, as it is indicated, is called "Sapphic" or "lesbian". It seems that these terms began to be used in the eighteenth century in the Illustrated France.

We know almost nothing about Sappho of Lesbos, and even  much of which about her is said with little critical sense, it is due to a negative opinion and tradition since antiquity itself, then enhanced by Christian morality. And yet in that there is general agreement is that she was the first and best Greek poetess whose reputation was known from antiquity itself. (There were other lesser-known poetesses   like Sappho, Korinna, Telesila, Praxila, Cleobulina, Beo, Erina, Noside, …)

Sappho wrote nine books of odes, epithalamiums or wedding songs, elegies, hymns to the gods and goddesses. But just we know only seven long poems which we might considered quasi-full or less destroyed, and a few fragments, 264 in total, the most from quotes, sometimes a word on ancient grammarians and commentators. In fact, 63 are formed by a single line; 21 by a strophe and, as I said  7 are quasi full poems.

Almost everything in your life is enigmatic and fascinating and rarely tested. It has been said, without sufficient basis, that Sappho had and governed a school or group of young girls (parthenoi, maidens) circle of hetairai or "partners", perhaps in the likeness of male groups. The discussion about the nature of this group or "thiasos" θίασος, has been abundant. The girls would go to his house, which she called "Abode of the servants of the Muses", as reflected in the passage 101, perhaps to receive some training and cultivate the spirit, composing and singing poems of love, of beauty , of the modesty of the virgin girls, learning gymnastics, music and dance, personal adornment, like a girls' school; perhaps as preparation for marriage; perhaps to worship Aphrodite or Eros, like other similar associations or "thiasos" θίασος. Perhaps for some of this. In any case it would be a group of friends women who meet to celebrate with singing and dancing, also with banquets, friendship, as the men did. But if this is so, what is needed to make it a sort of directress of "Academy" for young ladies of good family?

The discussions and clarifications about the type of relationships that were established in the thiasos have been very numerous and still they are today in that many feminist groups with different ideas about the role, status and relationships of women in society are also involved.

The opinion expressed without any rigor, that her house was simply a brothel is absolutely discredited. Seneca, it is true that ignoring the useless know to that many persons are delivered, makes a reference to it in his letter to Lucilius, LXXXVIII, 37:

Didymus the Grammarian is said to have wrote 4000 lbooks; how wretched must a man have been only to have read so many trifling things? For, in these books, great enquiry is made after the country of Homer; who was the true mother of Aeneas; whether Anacreon was more sottish than  amorous; wheter Sappho was a prostitute; and other the like trifles; which, if a man knew them, he would not be sorry to forget. Go now, O man, and deny, that life is long. (Translated by Thomas Morrell, London 1786

Quattuor milia librorum Didymus grammaticus scripsit: misererer si tam multa supervacua legisset. In his libris de patria Homeri quaeritur, in his de Aeneae matre vera, in his libidinosior Anacreon an ebriosior vixerit, in his an Sappho publica fuerit, et alia quae erant dediscenda si scires. I nunc et longam esse vitam nega!

Sappho is one of the creators of lyric poetry, which does not sing the great epic feats  of the Greek heroes who represent the collective spirit, but the simple and refined personal feelings of delicate and educated girls of Lesbos and especially the love between people. She sings  the goddesses of the arts, of the beauty, of the love, of the voluptuousness: Eros, Aphrodite, the Muses. Clearly she expresses  her disinterest in the epic and her interest in her feminine  and delicate world in these verses:

Some say an army of horsemen, or infantry,
A fleet of ships is the fairest thing
On the face of the black earth, but I say
It's what one loves.

(Translated by William Harris)

This poetry of personal feelings, especially the love, face the great heroic ideals today does not strike our attention, but we should think that we're talking about the origins, the first time this has happened and this must be shocking then.

It is a poetry to be sung at the sound of the lyre (curiously, though unfounded, it is credited to Sappho  the invention of plectrum or pick which is used to vibrate the strings of musical instruments). The musicality and sonority is precisely one of her most valuable features.

Note: Precisely because of the accompanying of the musical instrument, the lyre, this poetry is called “lyric”. The word epic comes from the Greek adjective ἐπικός (epikos),from ἔπος (epos = word, speech, story, song, sentence).

Other features, which cause a strong emotion, are the simplicity of the words (she uses everyday language, the name of things), naturalness of feelings and freshness of a strongly sensuous poetry of direct and intelligible expression, unadorned or affectation, as far from many ancient and modern poets, saturated with rhetorical or cloying incomprehensible language. Her simplicity, then, is in words, in expression and sound.

The Sapphic stanza consists of three heroic verses  and another one of five syllables called “adonius”. Although this metric is still based on the length of syllables, the fact that they are verses of a certain number of syllables, approaches it to our system of versification. Sappho popularized this strophe and from her it is called so.

Definitely it is not an irrelevant fact that the island of Lesbos is facing  and close to the coasts of sensual Asia  and not to the most severe and rigid coasts of the Greek mainland.

Although it has long wanted to hide, sometimes not knowing the correct interpretation of the text, it is evident a homosexual love, that was probably true, in his poems aimed to  young girls "servants of the Muses" expressing feelings of love, tenderness, jealousy, rejection …,

Lying on soft beds
    you could fill your desire
(fragment 54)

So the appointment of Horace in Carmen II, XIII 24-25 takes it for granted

and Sappho complaining on her Aeolian lyre
of her own country-damsels
(Translated by C.Smart,A.M.)

Aeolibus fidiibus  quaerentem
Sappho puellis de popularibus

And the same Horace in the Epistle 19 of Book I, verse 28 refers to her as "mascula Sappho," "masculine Sappho."

I first showed to Italy the Parian iambics:
following the numbers and spirit of Archilochus,
but not his subject and style, which afflicted Lycambes.
You must not, however, crown me with a more sparing wreath,
because I was afraid to alter the measure and structure of his verse:
for the manly Sappho governs her muse by the measures of Archilochus,
so does Alcaeus; but differing from him in the materials and disposition.
[of his lines] (Translated by C. Smart, A.M.)

Parios ego primus iambos
ostendi Latio, numeros animosque secutus
25Archilochi, non res et agentia verba Lycamben.
ac ne me foliis ideo brevi oribus ornes,
quod timui mutare modos et carminis artem,
temperat Archilochi Musam pede mascula Sappho,
temperat Alcaeus, sed rebus et ordine dispar,

Her womanhood, the direction of a group of girls (thiasos), cultivating an intimate poetry that sings personal feelings, aimed especially to  other girls  (up to fifteen: Atis, Anactoria, Citron, Arquenasa, Girino, etc. ) and revealing her  homosexual relationships, her devotion to Aphrodite, goddess of love, and to Eros himself, the accusations of immorality …, they were essential components with which the ancient moralists and built a negative view of the great poet, censored, misunderstood and forgotten. Of course,  her model of freedom and equal sex between relations between lovers certainly would clash  with the model of love of men, where there is always a hint of one over another woman domain or another man (in the case of pederast love of youth).

But her work was preserved at least until the third century AD; it is proof of appreciation that she enjoyed. Then, because of his bad reputation, it, which has come of her, is just a few snippets (218 fragments) of her work.

In a paroxysm of moral criticism, both blamed are attributed her: unrestrained sexual appetite that caused her to have many male lovers, and the statement that if she would  been  more attractive to men, she should not have had relations with women. There are theater plays with your name where she is drawn   as dominated by a strong sexual appetite. So on Aristophanes it appears the term "lesbiatsein", verb formed from "Lesbos", which would mean "doing a lesbian";  the reader can easily deduce the meaning of this word comparing it  with other forms of loving practice which is also designated by the name of the place, like "French or Greek."

There are even some text that describes her as short, brunette and ugly. It is curious how modern they seem  some of these statements, absolutely sexist, related to homosexual women.

Menander created a legend about his death, which also Ovid divulges and recreates  in his Heroidas, according to which Sappho jumped off the cliff Leucade (Lefkada) by unrequited love for the young and beautiful Phaon. Lefkada is a mythical place, a high promontory and who throws from it, he or she is freed from a unrequited passion of love.

Although  it is a little digression, I will comment that Ovid wrote a book of imaginary letters in which twenty Greek heroines write to their loved ones. They are The Heroides. All women are mythical characters, except Sappho, real character, protagonist of the letter number XV, which sends to her love Phaon.

With this letter Ovide greatly helped to spread some of the topics on Sappho which and ran in antiquity. Thus:

the inflamed sexual appetite and lust of the poetesses, in verses 9-10:

I burn like a ripened field of corn,
when driving east-winds spread the catching flames.

Uror, ut, indomitus ignem exercentibus Euris,
Fertilis accensis messibus ardet ager.

Also in Ars amatoria, III, 331  he asks rhetorically

Look at Sappho: what more lascivious than she?

Nota sit et Sappho (quid enim lascivius illa?),

a bad reputation for her love, on  Heroides, verse 201:

Lesbians, the objects of my guilty love;

Lesbides, infamem quae me fecistis amatae

the recognition and fame she already had, v. 29-30

and the name of Sappho resounds through all nations. Even great Alcæus, the partner of my country and my harp, has not more renown, though he sings in loftier notes.

Iam canitur toto nomen in orbe meum.
Nec plus Alcaeus, consors patriaeque lyraeque,
Lausdis habet, quamvis grandius ille sonet

her ugliness, short and dark-skinned, 31-38

If unfriendly nature has denied me an engaging form,
yet the charms of my wit abundantly compensate that deficiency.
I am short of stature; yet I have a name that fills the whole earth,
and by my own merit have gained this extensive renown.
What if I am not fair? Was not even Perseus
pleased with Andromede, an Æthiopian dame?
Doves of various colours often unite,
and the white turtle matches with the shining green.

Si mihi difficilis formam natura negavit,
Ingenio formae damna rependo meae.
“Sum brevis; at nomen quod terras impleat omnes
Est mihi; mensuram nominis ipsa fero.
Candida si non sum, placuit Cepheia Perseo
Andromede, patriae fusca colore suae.
Et variis albae iunguntur saepe columbae;
Et niger a viridi turtur amatur ave.

In this letter Ovide created a famous verse, expression of love feeling: the v. 96

I ask not your love, but let me love you

Non ut ames oro, verum ut amare sinas.

Or verse 121, abstract of very much love and socially correct behavior:

Love and shame are ever inconsistent

Non veniunt in idem pudor atque amor:…

But all this negative view clashes with the serious and important old men and with the recognition with  which she was considered by her city and by these men, even though her work and poetry is enclosed exclusively in the female world.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in his De Compositione verborum XXIII, 173 considers her as the best representative of the lyric, with Anacreon. It is in this passage in which is transcribed and preserved,  thanks to him by the conservation, almost single complete poem, Hymn to Aphrodite.

Stobaeus is a Byzantine author of the V-VI centuries who wrote an anthology of texts; he makes a quote of  Aelian in which he says an interesting anecdote referring to the poetess.

Stobaeus,  Florilegium, 3.29.58:   


Solon of Athens heard  his nephew Execestides sing a song of Sappho about wine and he liked the song so much than  he asked the boy to teach it to him; when he was asked why he wanted to learn, he replied that “So I may  learn it and then die”.
Socrates  also considered her as one of the sages of ancient Greek history.

The following epigram of the Palatine Anthology is credited to Plato, who calls her "the tenth Muse"

Antología Palatina, IX, 506

Some say the Muses are nine, but how carelessly!
Look at the tenth, Sappho from Lesbos.

(Translated by W.R. Paton. The Loeb Classical Library).

And some attributed to Plato and others to Antipater of Sidon an epigram called "Epitaph for Sappho", on which she is called "mortal Musa who sang with the immortal Muses". It is in  Palatine Anthology, Hellenistic Epigram (VII 14):

Antipater of Sidon: On Sappho

O Aeolian land, thou coverest Sappho, who with the immortal Muses is celebrated as the mortal Muse; whom Cypris and Eros together reared,with whom Peitho wove the undying wreath of song, a joy to Hellas and a glory to thee. O ye Fates twirling the triple thread on the spindle, why spun ye not an everlasting life for the singer who devised the deathless gifts of the Muses of Helicon? (Translated by W.R. Paton. The Loeb Classical Library.)

Her compatriot Alcaeus gave him a tender and lovely verse on fragment 63D:

Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho"

I wanted to title this article with this verse.

Strabo also in XIII, 2,3:

And along with these flourished also Sappho, a marvellous woman; for in all the time of which we have record I do not know of the appearance of any woman who could rival Sappho, even in a slight degree, in the matter of poetry. (translated by  ed. H. L. Jones, The Geography of Strabo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.)

There are many other positive or negative similar valuations. These contradictions in the assessment  brought  some antiques to assume or absurdly invent the existence of two Sapphos, one the beloved  poetess  and another one of frivolous life and lover to Phaon.

Sappho certainly impressed Ovid and Catullus (see the article

 where I mention the poem 51 of Catullus, translation of Sappho) and Petrarca and Leopardi and Byron and Baudelaire

I will present the Hymn to Aphrodite, very interesting, although with some difficulty of understanding for the little knowledgeable reader of the ancient world. I also introduce the famous poem that inspired Catullus, but also Plutarch, Longo, Horace, and Lucretius himself in his De Rerum Natura III, 53-156 when he speaks on the relationship between body and soul. I also offer a few minor pieces for the reader should check the fragmented state of her work that we have and the enormous value which from  these bits can be deducted.

The numbering of the fragments is certainly complicated; as far as possible I use the numbering Page and Campbell in the edition of The Loeb Classical Library  or Voigt.

1. (Pag,Voigt)

Hymn to Aphrodite

Immortal Aphrodite of the broidered throne, daughter of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I pray thee break not my spirit with anguish and distress, O Queen. But come hither, if ever before thou didst hear my voice afar, and listen, and leaving thy father's golden house camest with chariot yoked, and fair fleet sparrows drew thee, flapping fast their wings around the dark earth, from heaven through mid sky. Quickly arrived they; and thou, blessed one, smiling with immortal countenance, didst ask What now is befallen me, and Why now I call, and What I in my mad heart most desire to see. 'What Beauty now wouldst thou draw to love thee? Who wrongs thee, Sappho? For even if she flies she shall soon follow, and if she rejects gifts shall yet give, and if she loves not shall soon love, however loth.' Come, I pray thee, now too, and release me from cruel cares; and all that my heart desires to accomplish, accomplish thou, and be thyself my ally. (Translated by H. T. Wharton)

31 (Voigt)

That man seems to me peer of gods, who sits in thy presence, and hears close to him thy sweet speech and lovely laughter; that indeed makes my heart flutter in my bosom. For when I see thee but a little, I have no utterance left, my tongue is broken down, and straightway a subtle fire has run under my skin, with my eyes I have no sight, my ears ring, sweat pours down, and a trembling seizes all my body; I am paler than grass, and seem in my madness little better than one dead. But I must dare all, since one so poor ...(Translated by H. T. Wharton)

2 (Voigt)

Come, goddess of Cyprus, and in golden cups
serve nectar delicately mixed with delights.

(Translation by Henry Thornton Wharton)

160 (Page)

This will I now sing deftly to please my girl-friends.

37 (Page)

Pain penetrates
Me drop
by drop

(Mary Barnard)

36 (Page, Voigt) .

And I long and yearn

15   (Page, Voigt)

Cypris, and may she find you very harsh; and may she, Dorica, not boast, telling how he came the second time to a longed-for love.

16  (Page, Voigt)

Some say an army of horsemen, or infantry,
A fleet of ships is the fairest thing
On the face of the black earth, but I say
It's what one loves.
This is very easily understandable to do
For each of us. She who far surpassed
The beauty of all, Helen, just went and left
Her noble husband
Sailing she went far away to Troy,
And thought nothing of child or parents dear,
Nothing at all, but ……………….led her off,
……………………….and lightly………
…reminds me of Anactoria who is not here
Whose lovely way of walking, and the dark flash
Of her face I would rather see —- than
War-chariots of Lydians and spear-men struggling
On a dusty battlefield.

       (Translated by William Harris)

23 ( Page, Voigt)

…(hoped?)… of love…

(for when) I look at you face to face,
(not even) Hermione (seems to be) likie you,
and to compare you to golden-haired Helen
(is not unseemly)
… mortal women; and be assured,
by your…(you) would (free?) me
from all my cares…
(dewy) banks…
to stay awake all night…

22 (Page,Voigt)

I bid thee come back the quickest way, my rosebud Gongyla, taking thy milk-white cloak; truly a longing from me flits about thyself, the beautiful, for thy robe sets me all aflutter, as I look at it, and I rejoice. For I myself once blamed the Cyprus-born goddess. I pray that this word lose me not her grace, but bring to me back again thee
whom most of all mortal women I desire to see.

30 (Voigt)

. . . And we maidens spend all the night at this door,
singing of the love that is between thee, thrice happy
bridegroom, and a bride whose breast is sweet as violets.
But get thee up and go when the dawn shall come, and
may great Hermes lead thy feet where thou shalt find
just so much ill-luck as we shall see sleep to-night.
(Edmons 47)

47  (Page, Voigt)

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds sweeping desolate mountains
uprooting oaks. 
(translation by Michael R. Burch)

48  (Page, Voigt)

You came, and I was longing for you; you cooled my heart
which was burning with desire.

50 (Voigt)

He who is fair to look upon is good, and he who is good,
will soon be fair also.

46 (Page,Voigt) 

And I will lay down my limbs on soft cushions

55 (Page, Voigt)

But thou shalt ever lie dead,
nor shall there be any remembrance of thee then or thereafter,
for thou hast not of the roses of Pieria;
but thou shalt wander obscure even in the house of Hades,
flitting among the shadowy dead
. (Wharthon)

82 (Page,Voigt)

Mnasidica is more shapely than the tender Gyrinno.

168B (Voigt)

The moon has long since set;
the Pleiades are gone;
now half the night is spent,
yet here I lie—alone.
(Translation by Michael R. Buch)

94 (Page, Voigt)

I just really want to die.
She, crying many tears, left me
And said to me:
"Oh, how terribly we have suffered, we two,
Sappho, really I don't want to go away." And I said to her this:
Go and be happy, remembering me,
For you know how we cared for you.
And if you don't I want to remind you
………….and the lovely things we felt
with many wreathes of violets
and ro(ses and cro)cuses
and …………..and you sat next to me
and threw around your delicate neck
garlands fashioned of many woven flowers
and with much……………costly myrrh
…………..and you anointed yourself with royal…..
and on soft couches…….(your) tender…….
fulfilled your longing……….

       (Translated by William Harris)  


by J. Addington Symonds

The bitter-sweet impracticable thing,
Wild-beast-like rends me with fierce quivering
. (Translated by J. Addington Symonds)

102 (Page,Voigt)

Sweet mother, I cannot weave my web, broken as I am
by longing for a maiden, at soft Aphrodite's will
. (Warthon)

112 ( Page)

Thy form, O bride, is all delight; thy eyes are of a gentle
hue; thy fair face is overspread with love; Aphrodite hath
done thee exceeding honor.

114 (Page,Voigt)

‘Virginity, virginity, where have you gone, deserting me?’
‘Never again shall I come to you: never again shall I come.’

115 (Page, Voigt)

To what may I well compare you, dear bridegroom?
I compare you above all to a slender sapling.

142 (Page, Voigt)

Leto and Niobe were very dear companions

126 (Page, Voigt)

May you sleep on the bosom of your tender companion

138 (Page, Voigt)

Stand before me if you love me, and spread abroad the grace that is on your eyes.

119  ( Bergk)

This is the dust of Timas, whom Persephone's dark chamber received, dead before her wedding; when she perished, all her fellows dressed with sharpened steel the lovely tresses of their heads. (H. T. Wharton)

“Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho

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