Not much is known about Sappho’s life. She was likely born around 630 BC in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. The identities of her parents are not certain.
According to certain ancient sources, her mother was a woman named Cleïs. However, it is possible that ancient scholars might have deduced her name, believing Sappho named her daughter Cleis after her.
The identity of her father is the subject of a scholarly debate that has lasted for over two millennia. Ten names were provided by the ancient testimonia for her father. This happened possibly because Sappho never downright named him in any of her works. The earliest and most mentioned name is Scamandronymus. According to Ovid’s ‘Heroides’, Sappho lost her father at the age of seven.
At present, there is no reliable portrait of Sappho. All depictions, be it ancient or modern, are based on the conceptions of the respective artists. In the ‘Tithonus’ poem, she reveals that she used to have black hair which since has turned white. According to a literary papyrus of the second century A.D., she was “pantelos mikra,” which means quite tiny.
Sappho grew up with her three brothers: Erigyius, Larichus, and Charaxus. There are indications in her writing that she belonged to a wealthy and aristocratic family.
According to one ancient tradition, Charaxus was once in a relationship with the Egyptian courtesan Rhodopis. Herodotus, the earliest historian to write about the story, reveals that Charaxus paid a large ransom to free Rhodopis and was later rebuked by Sappho because of it.
According to most traditions, she was the mother of Cleis, who has been mentioned in two fragments. There are some scholars who believe that they were not related. It has also been suggested that Cleis was actually one of Sappho’s younger lovers.
The Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, states that Sappho’s husband was Kerkylas of Andros. However, it is likely an invention of a comic poet. The name “Kerkylas” is originated from the word "κέρκος" (kerkos), which has several possible meanings, one of which is “penis”, and was also not generally used as a name. Furthermore, although Andros is a real Greek island, its name is a variation of the Greek word "ἀνήρ" (aner), which means man.
Around 600 BC, she and her family were thrown out of Lesbos, possibly due to their close connections with the quarrel between political elites on Lesbos in this period. Years later, they were granted permission to come back.
A tradition that dates back at least to Menander tells that Sappho committed suicide by leaping into the Ionian Sea from the Leucadian cliffs for love of a ferryman named Phaon.
Modern scholars dispute this, considering it to be unhistorical. They suggest that it can be another invention by comic poets or even a result of a misread of a first-person reference in a non-biographical poem. It is possible that the legend had been developed to portray Sappho as heterosexual.
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Out of the 10,000 lines Sappho composed during her lifetime, only about 650 exist today. She is most prominently known for her lyric poetry, traditionally performed with a lyre.
The Suda states that she also wrote epigrams, elegiacs, and iambics. Three of these epigrams survive, but those, while inspired by Sappho’s works, were in reality composed during the Hellenistic period. Same is true about the iambic and elegiac poems the Suda states were composed by her.
Although the ancient writers stated that Sappho predominantly composed love poetry, the papyrus tradition indicates that this is probably incorrect. In the 2014 publication of a series of papyri, parts of ten consecutive poems from Book I of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho appear. Two of these are love poems, but three or four revolve around family.
Her works were probably recorded for the first time either while she was still alive or not long after her death. In the early years, they were put out in the form of a score.
Alexandrian scholars put out a critical edition of Sappho's poetry at some point in the second or third century. Many scholars believe that there were possibly more than one Alexandrian edition.
It used to be a commonly held view that the most of Sappho’s poetry is lost because the church did not like her morals. This belief apparently took shape during the renaissance. However, the reality was something different.
The probable reason most of her work did not survive is that the demand for it was not adequate to be copied onto parchment when codices started replacing papyrus scrolls as the predominant form of books. Another problem likely was that her Aeolic dialect was believed to be obscure.
Among her approximately 650 surviving lines, only one poem, ‘Ode to Aphrodite’, exists in its entirety. She was a prolific poet composing her poems within a well-developed tradition of lesbian poetry, which had created its own poetic diction, meters, and convention. Some of her poetic predecessors were Arion and Terpander.
Exploration of Sexuality
In modern times, Sappho has emerged as a symbol of homosexuality. English words like “sapphic” and “lesbian” originated from her name and the island from which she hailed, respectively. However, this has not always been the case.
She was depicted as a promiscuous heterosexual woman in classical Athenian comedy. The earliest candid material on Sappho’s homoeroticism is from the Hellenistic period.
Ancient writers held the view that Sappho was not involved in sexual relationships with women. According to the Suda, there were “slanderous accusations” against the poet of indulging in sexual relationships with her “female pupils.”
The debate still continues in the present day, though most modern scholars agree that her poetry contains homoerotic emotions. Sometime in the early 20th century, the idea of “Sappho as a schoolteacher” emerged. According to this, Sappho’s perceived passion for other women can be explained as her love for her students. However, this theory cannot explain all of her works.
Sappho was one of the most celebrated poets of the antiquity. She was often hailed as “The Poetess”, just as Homer was referred to as “The Poet”. Multiple ancient sources portray her as the “Tenth Muse”. Her life and poetry inspired generations of writers and poets who came after her.
Today, her poetry continues to inspire feminist authors and poets, as well as advocates of LGBTQA+ and women’s rights. In 2004 and 2014, the publications of her “new” poems garnered both scholarly and media attention.