Who Was Sappho?

Where did the name 'lesbian' come from? Why do people sometimes call lesbians 'Sapphist' or refer to Sappho when talking about lesbianism? The basic information about Sappho that most people know, if anything, is that she was a Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesvos (or Lesbos) in around 600BCE, that's 2,600 years ago. Are you into older women?

You might have fancied Sappho if you'd been around then, I know that I would have. She is described as 'small and dark' by a Third Century philosopher. Although no contemporary descriptions or paintings of Sappho remain, many artists have depicted her as being classically beautiful with flowing dark curly hair, slim but with womanly curves, swarthy skin and deeply mysterious eyes. Yum yum. Plus she was rich, and came from an aristocratic family. Help me make a time machine, anyone?

Sappho is also depicted holding a lyre, which is a quite basic stringed instrument like a hand-held harp: the electric guitar of the day. The reason for this is that Sappho wrote 'lyrical' poetry, which means that she composed poetry to music. Lyrical poets were musicians and this is where the term 'lyrics' comes from. Although the music was very different to our music today, in contemporary terms it would be appropriate to see her as a rock star figure. She sang about love and beauty, invoked scandal in her personal life, attracted hordes of followers and died young, reputedly by suicide though an element of mystery surrounds her death.

Very little of the actual poetry remains, sadly, and although there were reputedly nine volumes of Sapphic verse, only one full poem and a handful of almost complete ones have survived. The rest are fragments of papyrus on which verses, lines, or just a few words are written. Conjecture surrounds why the poetry was lost when much earlier writing survived. Some say that it was ordered to be burned by outraged religious miserable gits, but it is more likely that it simply rotted away over the years, as papyrus is made from organic material. Sappho wrote in a dialect that died out and was no longer studied by scholars, so her poetry was not copied into volumes that were then handed down and thus preserved for posterity. A lot of the fragments that have been discovered were strips of papyrus that had been used to wrap mummies and stuff sacred animals in the Nile Valley. Perhaps it was a deliberate plan to preserve the Sapphic verse from censors, or perhaps it was simply scrap like newspapers today.

As with any historical figure, there are conflicting stories and arguments about Sappho. Was she even a lesbian at all? Well, clearly she was a lesbian by the definitions of the time as the word simply meant anyone, male or female, who lived on Lesbos. It only came to mean a woman-loving-woman when (male) poets and artists began to depict scenes of sexuality between women, using Sappho as a figure on which to hang their fantasies. It was said that she was married, though there is no evidence. It is also that she had a daughter named Cleis. This Cleis is sung to in one of Sappho's poems. There is debate over whether the girl called Cleis is Sappho's daughter, or a servant as the name is synonymous in that culture with the word for a young slave-girl. Perhaps Sappho was into BDSM?

That Sappho had a romantic heart is certain, as her poetry expresses her love for women, and for beauty. It is also known that young women came to Sappho for tutoring once they had finished their formal schooling but before marriage, and she often composed poetry in reference to these women. Many of Sappho's poems refer to individual women, so she presumably loved more than one girl, the lucky tart. There is conjecture over whether this love was sexual, and over whether Sappho ran a formal all-girls 'finishing school' academy, inviting boarders and accepting fees. Both of these were asserted later, by male historians and philosophers and by the Victorians, who loved a saucy romance.

Sappho was said to have died by throwing herself off a cliff, over the love of a man named Phaon or Fawn. Some say that this is quite obviously made up as a way of asserting Sappho's heterosexuality. As there is no evidence of her marriage, and no record of the man Fawn, the facts around this remain in doubt. One suggestion is that Sappho being in love with 'Fawn' is allegorical. Fawn is the name of a spirit who is the pet of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. So saying that Sappho is in love with Fawn is like saying that Sappho is in love with being in love.

Another problem that we will have in categorising any historical figure's sexuality, behaviour and beliefs in modern terms is that the culture we have now is very different to the culture in which she lived. Sappho was an aristocrat and as such had much more freedom than many other women in Ancient Greece, where having a personal body slave was an accepted norm and love between men was accepted, even encouraged. Especially in the mentor-student relationship, intensely intimate same-sex relations were considered to be a part of growing up, and were not frowned on if they became sexual.

It doesn't take much of a leap of faith to accept that Sappho probably had sexual relationships with other women and older teenage girls. But does this make her a 'lesbian' in what we define as the term in the modern world? It might be worth thinking about what the term 'lesbian' does mean.

A lesbian is a woman who loves women – Sappho loved women.

A lesbian prefers the company of women to men – Sappho spent most of her time tutoring young women.

A lesbian is a woman who has sexual experiences or wants to have sexual experiences with other women – this is the point where we don't have evidence.

In considering whether Sappho was or was not a lesbian, we may be missing the point. Sappho wrote love poetry which was addressed to women, so even if she wasn't a lesbian herself (which seems unlikely anyway) she will always be an icon and our namesake.

The name Sappho became synonymous not only with the love between two women, but with the idea of romantic love, serial monogamy, flirting and dating. Sappho did not restrict herself to one woman by any means! We believe that Sappho would have approved of our dating site and would be proud that nearly 3000 years after her own lifetime, women are still romancing each other in her name.

Josie Henley-Einion