What We Know

Peter Green

  • Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works by Diane Rayor
    Cambridge, 173 pp, £40.00, July 2014, ISBN 978 1 107 02359 8

For various reasons, many of them neither literary nor trustworthy, Sappho has always exerted a magnetic yet frustrating attraction on later generations. The frustration is due in part to the fact that her poetry is predominantly private, only a small amount of it has survived, and very little has ever been known about her. But it’s also safe to say we’re frustrated because a major feature of our limited knowledge has been, right from the start, the undeniable presence in her work of a clear erotic attachment (in whatever sense) to other women. Since the constant unstated – and, I suspect, often unconscious – determination has been to view her through the powerful but astigmatic lens of romantic idealism, this factor has always caused some embarrassment, not always acknowledged as such.

A mosaic fragment with Sappho’s name on it, from Sparta (3-4 CE).
A mosaic fragment with Sappho’s name on it, from Sparta (3-4 CE).

Her alleged lesbianism – a term coined from her island home of Lesbos – has provoked a series of uncomfortable reactions down the ages. As one papyrus fragment of a biographical notice from the second or third-century ce states, ‘she has been accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover.’ Similarly a Byzantine encyclopedia, the so-called Suda: ‘She had three companions and friends, Atthis, Telesippa and Megara, and she got a bad name for her shameful friendship with them.’ Athenian comic playwrights had an overcompensatory habit of crediting her with (often anachronistic) male literary lovers. Horace wrote of ‘masculine Sappho’, the critic Porphyrio noted, ‘either because she is famous for her poetry, in which men more often excel or because she is maligned as having been a tribad’. Ovid, with characteristic witty elegance, enshrined this ambiguity in a single pregnant line: Lesbia quid docuit Sappho nisi amare puellas? – a question which can be read as asking either whether ‘Lesbian Sappho’ taught girls how to love, or how to love girls.

Sappho’s erotic predilections have remained a stumbling block for many, to be explained away or desexualised: witness the late 19th century’s interpretation (very popular for a while among scholars) of her as a kind of glorified headmistress running a high-culture finishing school. The very name Lesbos remains a local embarrassment today: despite the boost it gives to tourism, the island’s modern Greek Orthodox inhabitants prefer to call it by the name of its capital, Mytilene. Yet at the same time the increasing social, cultural and romantic acceptance of homosexual relationships has led to Sappho’s being established, along with Cavafy, as one of the Greek world’s most striking gay icons.

In this connection, the notorious unreliability of ancient Greek biographical details – the earlier the author, current wisdom has it, the less credible the guesses – has been a godsend, since it has allowed critics both to reject anything they regard as inconvenient, and to have great latitude in their own speculations. (The entry on Sappho in Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary, published in 1979, consists of a single blank page.) In fact we have quite a few nuggets of biographical information that seem arguably credible. It’s generally agreed that Sappho lived during the last decades of the seventh and the early years of the sixth century bce. She was born in the coastal town of Eresos, but spent most of her life in Mytilene. Her family belonged to the aristocracy; one young brother, Larichos, was a public wine-pourer, an exclusive office. Another brother, Charaxos, incurred scandal – and a poetic rebuke from his sister – through his much publicised liaison with a notorious courtesan. Their mother’s name was Kleïs; though the sources give no fewer than eight variants for her father’s name, the likeliest is Skamandros or Skamandronymos, which suggests a mainland connection with the Troad and Mount Ida. Sappho is also reported to have married a wealthy man from Andros, Kerkylas, and to have had a daughter by him whom she named Kleïs, after her mother. She was involved enough, as an aristocrat, in the vigorous class warfare of the island to be exiled for a while to Sicily.

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