Skip navigation

Search

The Core Curriculum

Sappho

630 BCE – 570 BCE
Dates are approximate

Greek lyric poet from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Born on Lesbos at the close of the seventh century BCE, Sappho was famously declared the “Tenth Muse” by Plato. Ancient sources state that Sappho produced nine volumes of poetry. While two hundred fragments have been attributed to Sappho, only two complete poems and approximately forty fragments survive. Much of the fascination about Sappho over the centuries has been fueled by the fact that she is a woman addressing many of her love poems to other women, that we know almost nothing about her life, and that, in modern times, her poems survive mostly in fragments.

Like other poetry of her day, Sappho's was composed primarily for oral performance. But there is considerable disagreement among scholars about whether Sappho's poems were for solo or choral performance. Unfortunately, there is not enough conclusive evidence to determine the context in which Sappho's songs were sung. At the very least, it seems likely that her wedding songs might have been performed by choruses. We do know that Sappho wrote in the Aeolic dialect in a variety of meters and that her work covers a broad range of themes and concerns: romantic love, marriage, fellowship and community, myth and ritual, politics, and philosophical reflections on nobility and goodness.

For years, notions of Sappho as the head of a religious cult or as a teacher in a kind of finishing school for young aristocratic women dominated Sappho scholarship. While the nature of Sappho's “circle” is still open to debate, contemporary scholars generally regard Sappho as connected in some way, formally or informally, to a group of women affiliated with one another through the bonds of friendship and love. Even in poems that do not deal explicitly with love, Sappho often depicts herself as part of a world in which the emotional and/or erotic bonds between women take center stage. Several of Sappho's extant poems (notably fragments 94, 96, and 16) emphasize the pathos and longing in the departure of a young woman from Sappho and from a circle of women to which they all appear to be affiliated. Some scholars regard these depictions of separations as alluding to the transition from girlhood to womanhood and possibly from homoerotic relationships to conventional marriages. Claude Calame takes this idea further by positing that the activities of Sappho's “circle” might have included rites of initiation for young girls on the brink of womanhood and marriage.

While the notion of a “circle” of young women remains undefined in Sappho's poems, the exploration of love, desire, and the pursuit of beauty remain the most prominent themes in Sappho's poetry and those for which she is most remembered. 

Despite Sappho's primary emphasis on love and sexuality, she does not confine herself to these themes. Sappho's poetry also shows an interest in politics and philosophy. We know from the poetry of Sappho's contemporary, Alcaeus, that the politics of Lesbos were often violent and tumultuous. In some of her fragments (e.g., fragment 57) Sappho attacks a number of powerful families on Lesbos through insults to the women of those families. We can see in those fragments how Sappho's concern about social class is indicative of the ways in which her poetry in general champions aristocratic values.

Sappho also shows a concern with moral values. In fragments 3, 50, 148, and 16 she describes what it means to be a noble man and attempts to define abstract notions of beauty and goodness. In fact, some scholars regard Sappho's work as “pre-philosophical” in that some of her poems seem to explore ethics as well as erotics. The exciting, recent discovery of a new Sappho poem (poem 58) not only extends Sappho's extant body of work but also provides another instance of Sappho's interest in philosophical issues—in the broad colloquial sense of that term. In that poem Sappho contemplates the inevitability of aging and mortality. While she laments the difficulties and losses associated with growing old, she also reflects on aging in the context of more general ruminations on the relationship between permanence and change. These ruminations may be seen as part of the intellectual climate in which Sappho lived and wrote. We can see some of the central themes in Presocratic philosophy play out in a number of Sappho's surviving poems, in particular the concern with issues of permanence and change not only in human life but in all of nature. Sappho acknowledges the inescapable fact of human mortality but also alludes to the prospects of poetic immortality. In other fragments as well, Sappho expresses an abiding confidence that she will be remembered for all time. Most famously, in fragment 147, Sappho asserts that “someone will remember us in the future.”

Source: Adapted from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

For a detailed overview of the broad range of scholarship on Sappho's life, see:

André Lardinios, "Introduction", Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, edited and translated by Diane Rayor