Sappho, the 10th Muse
- Σαπφω η 10η Moυσα

Life & Works of Sappho, the Lyric Poetess

Sappho lived and prospered during the so called Pre-Classical period, in the early 6th century B.C. (around 580), mostly in Mytilene, the capital of the Aeolic Lesbos island in the North-East Aegean. Arts and culture were thriving there in that period. She was probably born a few decades earlier, by the end of the 7th century BC, around 620, at Eressos, on the same island.

Alkaios was her contemporary, and they both lived about two generations after Terpandros, a well-known guitar-singer that lived in late 7th century and is alleged to be the founder of the first school of lyric poetry on the island of Lesvos. Sappho and Alkaios are the most prominent figures of ancient Lyric poetry, and there are few others, like Archilohos and Anacreon.

She is the most well known poetess of ancient Greece, although some would say of the whole world. She has been loved and praised in her time, and still is, for the beauty and the tenderness in her love lyrics, and for her direct approach to readers feelings. Looks like she loved music and every kind of beauty.
She has been called "the Tenth Muse" and the "mortal Muse" (probably the muse of lyrics and erotic poetry), Plato has called her wise (according to Aelianus Claudious), and Horace in his 2nd ode says that even the dead are admiringly listening to her songs in holy silence in the underworld.

She was the daughter of a distinguished family, of Skamandronymos and Kleida (Kleis) and had three brothers, Larihos, Haraksos, and Eurygios. Larixos was the wine-attendant at the town prytaneum. Haraksos traveled to Egypt on trading business, where he fell in love with the beautiful Rodope and he bought her freedom at quite a high price. Sappho scolds him for doing this, in one of her songs.

There has been some mentioning that she was married to a man named Kerkylas, from the Aegean island of Andros, but no reliable source ever mentions this. We are certain she had a daughter named Kleida.
(In the Aegean there's still families practising the old custom that may hold from matriarchal times - the first daughter has to be named after the mother's mother.)

Sappho's time is a time of change. Colonies along the Mediterranean coasts start flourishing, sometimes becoming more prominent than their parent-cities, democracy is competing tyranny in many a city-state and politics become quite interesting and affect people's lives.

Sappho traveled to Sicily and stayed in Syrakouce ??? for some years, around 600 BC, maybe to avoid political turbulence in Mytilene. She returns home around 585-580 BC, after tyranny is overthrown, at the times of Pitakos the Mytilenian ruling.

There have been extensive rumours that she killed herself by jumping out of the coast cliffs on a cape in the Ionian-sea Island of Leykas, for the pretty eyes of a young man named Fawn (Faon). But this myth does not look real, it's probably due to some misconception about one of her poems where she praises the beauty of Fawn, who was not a real person but a legendary follower of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

After her death, the Mytilenian people minted coins with her image. In Syracusse ??? they made a cenotaph in memory of her visit there. All of the ancient world accepted her as the tenth Muse, the mortal one, and many a Greek city put up images of her bust.

Her private life has been a matter of loads of discussions and arguments, but there is not enough reliable information to help us distinguish between fable, legend, gossips, "politically correct" reparations, and truth.
Looks as though each writer mentioning Sappho tries to support either their private views, or generally accepted public opinions, or even "spicy" enertaining stories, heavily influenced by their social and cultural frames and time-periods. And none of them is near-contemporary to Sappho to have possibly either met her in person or at least to have met people that really knew her. The most reliable sources are the oldest ones (Herodotus etc.) and they refrain from any comments about her personal life.
The heavier smear-campaign was made during the Christian Byzantine times, especially in Soudas lexikon, unshamefully "devising" spicy details bout Sappho's life never mentioned in any previous source.

Some sources say she had fallen in love with some women in her circle, namely Atthis, Telessipa and Megara. Some of her students names are Anagora from Miletus, Gogyla from Kolofon and Eunikia from Salamina.

In those times on the island of Lesvos the daughters of the higher class used to receive musical education (lyre-playing, singing and dancing) in older and more experienced women's salons. Sappho's probably was one of the most distinguished salons in her times. Gorgo, Andromeda and Mica are reported to have been her rivals ('antitexnes' or anti-artists-female, antagonists in this art-offering trade).

In 380 the religious fanatics ruling the empire ordered the first burning of Sappho's poetry. Then in 1073 all known copies of Sappho's lesbian love poems were ordered to be burned by the Christian church authorities in Costantinople and Rome. As a consequence, today we have only one twentienth of Sappho's total output, and even that exists only because of an 1897 archeological discovery, and more discoveries in Egupt and other places away from the church rule.

Writers about Sappho :
- Herodotus, referring to her family
- Aristotele mentions a short dialogue between Sappho and Alcaios, where he ... wants to tell her something ... but he is ashamed, and Sappho answers back "if it was something positive and beautiful you wanted to say and your tongue was not itching to express wrong things, you would not be ashamed to reveal your fair thoughts.''
- Plato ...
- Aristotelian philosopher Hameleon, biographical treatise, ~300 B.C.
- The Kolophonian poet Ermeisianax, contemporary of Alexander or Ptolemy, in his elegy named "Leontion", mentioning love relationships between poets, has written about Alkaios love for Sappho, and claims Anacreon was his rival in this love - but Anacreon lived 70 years after Sappho. This could have been some king of allegory, referring to their poetry.
- Maximus from Tyrus, philosopher of the second half of 2nd c. AD, says Sappho was "small and dark", and rejects all rumours about her having homosexual affairs with her female students, holding her relationships to her female friends were purely educational, comparing it to Socrates relationship to his students.
- Aelianus Claudius, in his Assorted History (Ποικίλη ιστορία), mentions that Plato addressed Sappho as wise.
- Horace in his Odes insists that Sappho's songs are worthy of sacred admiration.

- Odysseas Elytis, 20th century AD Greek poet coming from the same island, marvellous in his very own individual ways, may have been the most impartial of them all.
He says he feels as though Sappho were a distant cousin of his ''two and a half years ago in Mytilene'', maybe somewhat older, but one with whom they ''grew up together, playing in the same gardens, around the same pomegranate trees, over the same cisterns'',
and dedicates one of his ''Mikra Epsilon'' (''petit'' e-letters) ??? to her, where in three small pages he has compressed the all-time world-accepted praise of her poetry, vividly colouring the shades of her ''salon'' almost alive, maybe including the shades of her very soul, ending this ''epsilon'' with the following phrase :
''.. Such a being, both sensitive and courageous, is not often presented by life. A small-built deep-dark-skinned girl, that did prove to be equally capable of subjugating a rose-flower, interpreting a wave or a nightingale, and saying 'I love you', to fill the globe with emotion.''

References & Links...

1. book references:
History of the Hellenic Nation, by Ekdotiki Athinon, (actually knows nothing about Sappho.. she just existed for them)
Papyros-Larousse Encyclopaedia,
Greek high-school books..

2. on-line Links


modern music of Sappho's poems ...

  • "Sappho", LP/CD, singer Aleka Kanellidoy, lurics by Sappho (in modern Greek)
  • "Sappho de Mytilene", music by Aggeliki Ionatos, singer Nena Venetsianou, lyrics by Sappho (original language, some modern Greek)
  • (?) Sapphika, CD by Mariza Koch

    Sappho's poetry

    Sappho wrote love poems, hymns to gods, and wedding poem-songs.
    The Alexandrian scholars divided her writtings to nine books. Though all her poems are estimated to be about half the Iliad in volume, there's very few of her poems saved in our times, mostly small fragments.
    Since late 19th c. archaeologists found eguptian papurs with intersting additional parts of Sappho's poems, and in 1927 four strophes were found on a shell , which include the description of a holy text, possibly located in Crete. After the recent discovery of palimpsest papyrs stufed in mummies, there's more of Sapphos writings returning to public view.
    Her basic subject spin around her female friends (interpreted as supposed students today), and exept the nyptials, they're quite private. She is expresing her emotions freely, her loves, joys and sorrows. The nyptials are quite simple and very close to local folk poetry, but very beaytifull.
    They say her verses are so melodic due to the local aeolic dialect she is using, and some support that's why she was called a muse, but whoever has heard they way the older people in her parts almost sing their daily speech (especially people priming in mid 20th century, the ones raised before the internationalist culture), may think otherwise. She's using siple discription and phrases, accompanied by strong feelings and finest expressions and impressions.


    Sappho's poetry online

    . The Poems of Sappho Translated by Edwin Marion Cox [1925] - Transliterated by J.B. Hare [2000] (in English and Greek-Unicode)

    . Sappho Poetic Fragments, Translated by D. W. Myatt (was @ http://www.earthlight.co.nz/users/spock/sappho.html - http://myatt.port5.com/trans/sappho.htm - & try a google search)

    . Two Poems by Sappho Translations by Halrloprillalar (Venus hymn + a fragment) (was @ http://members.tripod.com/~prillalar/sappho.htm )

    . Elizabeth Vandiver's Sappho. Presents a 1997 translation of Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite" and presents translation notes.

    . Sappho (c.600 BCE) (bits of poetry and more english references.. )

    There are many archives of classical poetry available on the Internet...
    ... many more available, if you just search for "Sappho, poems"



  • aeolian: refering to or originating from the southern parts of Asia Minor south-west coast and the aegean islands off the same coast.

  • aeolian dialect : the one used by Sappho, obviously lesbians, and all South-eastern Aegean Islands at her time. There's still some kind os 'singing' flavour in the way older people talk in these regions.
  • lesbian: at the time of Sappho and through to our time, originaly means any person of any gender originating from the island of lesbos

  • fawn: 'faunos', a mythological creature or young male person, (one of) the several followers of Aphrodite (Venus) - not always entirely human. Since the alledged love of Sappho for some specific male person supposedly called "fawn", just like the other fable about her supposed marriage to some "andreian"(*) man.. only appeared in bysantine times .. we believe there's not any thuth in them. Both stories might well be later misinterpretations of humorous metaphorical stories. Did Sappho fall desparately in love with "a fawn" (ie. one of Aphrodity's male followers), or did distant people of a quite different culture (ie. Athenians, a couple of centuries later) scoptically (ie. humorously) say so because Sappho was a faithfull Aphrodity's follower, a kind of a female fawn herself, always falling in and out of love.. ? Then the byzantines, more than a dosen centuries even later, in their ethical priorities, and quite ignorant of a lot of ancient greek letters and culture (stydying them was strictly prohibited by the church!) tried to "restore" what they thought would thus become "more proper" ?

  • lyric poetry : in distinction from Iamvos -iambic poerty, which used to be recited without music- and Elegeia -where poetry was not strictly epic and started accepting some flute accompaniment-, lyric poetry was accompanied by Lyre, thus the naming. .

  • Sapphic : referred to Sappho, sappho-like, refered to luric poetry..

  • SAPPHIC METER:Typically, this meter is found in quatrains in which the first three lines consist of eleven syllables and the fourth line contains five. The metrical pattern is as follows in the first three lines: (foot #1) / u (foot #2) / x (foot #3) / u u (foot #4) / u (and foot #5) / x. The "x" in each case indicates a syllaba anceps--a syllable that may be either heavily or lightly stressed. In the last line, the pattern is (foot #1) / u u and (foot #2) / /.
    The pattern is notoriously difficult in English, but more common in Greek. The term Sapphic comes from the name of the female Greek poet Sappho.

  • SAPPHIC ODE: Virtually identical with a Horatian ode, a Sapphic ode consists of quatrains in which the first three lines consist of eleven syllables and the fourth line contains five. The metrical pattern is described under Sapphic meter.

  • SAPPHICS: Verses written in Sapphic meter.

  • Sapphic strophe or stanza : the usual form in most of the saved Sappho's poems. Every stanga comprises of four lines, three eleven-sylabes, and an Adonian.
    some more.. http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms_S.html (see sapphic meter)

  • SAPPHIC VERSE: Verse written in Sapphic meter.

  • wedding songs (epithalamia, nyptials) : used to be sung just out of the newly-weds chambers in an all-night feast till day-brake.

  • Did I mention that ancient (to us) Athenian comedy writers used to make a lot of fun of Sappho ? That's a few centuries after her time.. Their reason might or might not be the fear of their own women getting strange ideas after her independent example. Or about their "male citizents-soldiers only" democracy.
    That's Sappho's history lesson. You do your own thinking and decide what you'd rather believe about it all. There's no proof that Sappho ever got married, nor that she has ever been in love with any man - though it's possible. There's no documented name of any man called "Kerculas", and Fawn appeared as a male name much later (in early christian centuries). But there's a lot of proof about the discriminating type of the Athenian democracy, fawn-followers of Aphrodity, and Byzantine witch-hunting against all ancient books and their contemporary literate women..


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