Sappho of Lesbos: Great Sluts of History

via Wikimedia Commons,
from a fresco in Herculaneum
Love that she’s using a stylus & wax tablets!

Her lyrics were epic, intimate, erotic, and timeless. Even over two thousand years later, even in fragmented form, Sappho’s poetry sings to the heart.

We shall enjoy it.

As for him who finds

fault, may silliness

and sorrow take him!

(Mary Barnard translation)

She was born about 615 B.C. and died about 550 B.C. Later in her life because of political upheaval, she may have been be exiled to Sicily, where there are records of her statues in some cities, though she may have returned to Lesbos before her death.


Of Course Sappho Was a Lesbian


Legends of Sappho and the island from which she came, Lesbos, gave rise to the term we use today for women who love other women sexually: lesbians.


But back in the day (around 630 B.C.), everybody from the island of Lesbos (culturally belonging to Greece, though as we can see in the map much closer to Turkey) were Lesbians, just as people from London are Londoners, and people from Athens are Athenians.


Contour map of the Aegean, with names

Contour map of the Aegean, with names (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Was Sappho a lover of women? Some of her poems seem to indicate so, however, it is also true that in some places and cultures (Regency England, for example), an extremely affectionate, almost flirtatious and loverly tone is demonstrated in women’s correspondence and behavior, which denoted close friendships.


According to Wikipedia:

…her name is also the origin of the word sapphic; neither word was applied to female homosexuality until the 19th century.[38][39] The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various females, but descriptions of physical acts between women are few and subject to debate.[40][41] Whether these poems are meant to be autobiographical is not known, although elements of other parts of Sappho’s life do make appearances in her work, and it would be compatible with her style to have these intimate encounters expressed poetically, as well. 

Her homoerotica should be placed in the context of the 7th century (BC). “Lesbian” was first used in the modern sense in 1890, and the early sources which describe her reputation for “physical homoerotic involvement” still “postdate her lifetime by at least 300 years”, by which point such conduct was considered “disgraceful for a female.”[42]


Now, of course, very few cultures still consider being a lesbian (in the newer sense of the word) anything shameful, so who cares if Sappho was one?  Her talent was what made everyone sit up and take notice.


Translation Station


Of course, Sappho’s poetry was not written in English, but in Aeolic Greek, which even most Greeks cannot read today.


Here’s a sample of three different translations of the exact same section of the same poem, from


…and the thrill of your laugh, which have so stirred the heart

in my own breast, that whenever I catch

sight of you, even if for a moment,

then my voice deserts me


and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire

suddenly races underneath my skin,

my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle like

the whirling of a top… (Josephine Balmer)




…the enticing


laughter that makes my own

heart beat fast. If I meet

you suddenly, I can’t


speak–my tongue is broken;

a thin flame runs under

my skin; seeing nothing,


hearing only my own ears

drumming… (Mary Barnard)



…Your magical laugh–this I swear–


Batters my heart–my breast astir–

My voice when I see you suddenly near

   Refuses to come…


My tongue breaks up and a delicate fire

Runs through my flesh; I see not a thing

With my eyes, and all that I hear

   In my ears is a hum… (Paul Roche)

Sappho as depicted on a vase via Wikimedia Commons
Her own poems and contemporaries describe her as small, and dark, while her ?daughter? Cleis (who may or may not have been named after Sappho’s mother) was “yellow-haired” and thus more suited to wear flowers in her hair than a headband. Sappho may have had several brothers, and – perhaps – students or acolytes, but she almost certainly did not run the equivalent of a British girl’s finishing school, nor throw herself off a cliff for love of a fisherman.

from Wikipedia:

The Suda [tenth century Byzantine encyclopedia] is alone in claiming that Sappho was married to a “very wealthy man called Cercylas, who traded from Andros”[15] and that he was Cleïs’ father. This tradition may have been invented by the comic poets as a witticism, as the name of the purported husband means “Penis, from Men’s Island.”[16]


Sappho Understood Love


I confess

I love that
which caresses
me. I believe
Love has his
share in the
Sun’s brilliance
and virtue. (Mary Barnard translation)

Without warning

As a whirlwind
swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart (Mary Barnard translation)


Sappho of Lesbos, depicted in a 1904 painting ...

Sappho of Lesbos, depicted in a 1904 painting by John William Godward gave the term Lesbian the connotation of erotic desire between women. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her Brilliance Shines Across the Centuries

The Alexandrians, who weren’t big on female artists, listed her as among the nine lyric poets. (Anybody ever hear of the other eight, all men?) Plato called her the tenth Muse, and her likeness appeared on coins.

It wasn’t until about three hundred years after her death that Sappho acquired a reputation of being promiscuous and a lover of women. More centuries would follow, with Pope Gregory having a conniption over her wickedness, and burning what he could of her work in 1073.

Mostly, it seems that her lyric poetry fell into disuse/disfavor because other dialects of Greek became more widely popular, especially as the world became Roman.

And yet, Sappho’s work has survived, with new fragments of her poetry being found and rejoiced over just in the last few years. She wrote:

I have no complaint

Prosperity that
the golden Muses
gave me was no
illusion: dead, I 
won’t be forgotten (Mary Barnard translation)

About the Great Sluts in History series:
What makes a woman a “slut,” anyway? From Lillith to Jezebel to Sandra Fluke, it seems that whenever women are in positions of power, open about their sexuality, “too outspoken,” or heaven forbid, all three, they are labeled sluts by some men (and sometimes other women), in an attempt to shame them into “knowing their place.” And into meekly accepting “their place.”

This series will look at flawed and wonderful heroines throughout history who insisted on “Following their own weird,” no matter how much it cost them to do so. And how, by doing so, they made the world better for all humans, of all genders, who followed them.

“…it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights… If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” ~Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1995

What did you know about Sappho of Lesbos?
Had you read any of her poetry or translations, before now?
Your thoughts?