Was Ancient Greek Poet Sappho Gay ?

About the female ancient Greek poet Sappho and the debate over whether or not she was a homosexual.



Person in Question: The great Greek poet Sappho, or "Psappho," as she spelled it, was born around 610 B.C. on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Asia Minor. She came from an upper-class, perhaps noble, family; her father was probably a wine merchant. (Sappho wrote almost no definite information on herself, and her commentators and biographers are often hazy or contradictory.) She had three brothers.

The island's inhabitants were Aeolians, a people whose customs permitted more social and domestic freedom than was common elsewhere in Greece. Aeolian women were not confined to the "harem" as Ionian women were, or subjected to the rigorous discipline of the Spartans. Like other women on Lesbos, Sappho was highly educated and able to mix freely with her contemporaries, male and female.

There were numerous informal societies for women on the island, for the enjoyment of literature, poetry, music, and other pleasures. Sappho led one salon, in which she instructed women in "the arts," such as chanting or singing in the choruses for the marriage ceremony. The women of the salon have been called poetic disciples, friends, and students of a sort of finishing school; Sappho has even been called the president of the world's first women's club, a kind of sacred sorority. But the word usually applied to the group, taken from the name of the island, is lesbian.

Regardless of the relationships between Sappho and her friends and students (the loves, hates, and jealousies she felt for them are the principal themes of her poetry), Sappho may have married. At any rate, she had a child she named Kleis, after her mother.

Her own name may have been a pen name, for one source says the word means lapis lazuli. Whether under a real or assumed name, Sappho wrote more than 500 poems, totaling 12,000 lines. Today we have only 700 lines, many in fragments, yet they are powerful enough to have ensured her a place in literature. For many, however, her fame rests on her presumed homosexuality.

Maybe Yes, Maybe No: "Sappho wrote only of one theme, sang it, laughed it, sighed it, wept it, sobbed it. . . . [Her] lyre . . . responded only to a song of love." When Willa Cather wrote these words in 1895, she did not specify homosexual love. Actually, as far as is known, neither did Sappho. Though the majority of the poems we have describe love for women, some express love for men and celebrate marriage; others address lovers whose sex is not made clear. And there is not one direct mention of homosexual lovemaking.

Of course many of her poems, possibly the most erotic ones, were destroyed by Christian zealots. Around 380 A.D., St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople, ordered her books burned, calling her a "lewd nymphomaniac." Pope Gregory VII had many of the surviving works burned around 1073. Not much was left but fragmentary quotations. (Most of the 700 lines were found in Egypt in the 19th century. They had been torn into strips and used to wrap mummies.)

It must be remembered that in the Greece of Sappho's time, homosexual love between men was accepted and often considered the "purest" sort of love, though of course marriage and reproduction were necessary for the state to survive. Given this bisexual view, and the fact that women were often left alone while the men were at war, it seems likely that female bisexuality or homosexuality was practiced and accepted too. The fact that Greek paintings and decorative carvings depict only heterosexual and male homosexual love means only that Greek art was by, for, and about men.

Sappho's poetry was not only the first in the Western world to express romantic love; it was also the first to depict the intense love and erotic feelings of a woman, for both men and, especially, other women.

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