Before there was Time's Up and #MeToo, there was Sappho.
Sappho wasn't advocating for change. Not exactly. But nevertheless, she was revolutionary. Sappho was doing what very few, if any, other women were doing at the time. She was writing. And she was becoming famous for it.
Today, Sappho is considered not only one of the best female poets in ancient Greece, but also one of the best period. Her sensual poems written from a first person perspective speak of domestic life, wedding ceremonies, virginity, motherhood and above all things, love. In doing so, Sappho gives a voice to a whole sphere of society generally ignored by male writers of the time. Even when writers such as Homer spoke of women, most famously of Penelope in The Odyssey, it was filtered through a male gaze. When Sappho speaks of women, she speaks as a woman.
Sappho was born sometime in the latter part of seventh century BC on the island of Lesbos. While little is known about her life, there are some facts that can be gleaned from her poetry and the work of other authors: she was from an aristocratic family, she had three brothers, she was exiled in Sicily due to political tensions in Greece and she also had a beloved daughter named Cleis. Other than this, not much can be said. Except for something quite surprising: Sappho appears to have engaged in various same-sex romantic relationships. And not only did she take part in them, she wrote about them publically. If you're wondering, the word 'lesbian' is thought to come from Sappho's birthplace, 'Lesbos.'
It's impossible to say, of course, if Sappho's poetry can be taken at face value. Over the years many have tried to discredit her and argue that her poetry can be interpreted various ways. Some have even gone as far as to say that while she may have written as a woman being in love with a woman, she was just creating a fictitious voice for her poetry that wasn't really her. Yet it's hard to understand why she would have done so.
Ancient Greece didn't have the same strictly defined categories of sexual preference we have today. In fact, male sexuality was much more fluid. Many men engaged in both male-female and male-male relations. However, it wasn't the same for women. Their sexual freedom was much more limited. Certainly female-female romantic and sexual relations weren't normalized. Sappho's writing is an anomaly in the sense that it discusses such action openly, and heightens it with her beautiful use of language.
Calling Sappho's poetry lyrical is both a literal and figurative statement. Literal because Sappho's verses were actually written as songs to be performed out loud with the accompaniment of, you guessed it, a lyre. Figurative because her poetry just oozes beautiful and imaginative emotion.
One of my favourite of Sappho's poems is this one below, numbered 31:
'He seems to me equal to the gods,
that man who sits opposite you
and listens near
to your sweet voice
and lovely laughter. My heart
begins to flutter in my chest.
When I look at you even for a moment
I can no longer speak.
My tongue fails and a subtle
fire races beneath my skin,
I see nothing with my eyes
and my ears hum.
Sweat pours from me and a trembling
seizes my whole body. I am greener
than grass and it seem I am a little short
But all must be endured, for even a poor man . . .'
It's worth quoting at length because I think it demonstrates the quality of Sappho's verse. She makes use of a variety of senses to articulate the transformative power of love: sight, sound, touch and physical feeling. In doing so, she seems to get to the heart of the matter. She poignantly captures what love does to a person, along with the chaos, self-abasement and confusion it entails in both the physical body and mind. It also is worth mentioning that Sappho is speaking of a woman, made evident in the original Greek language.
Sappho isn't making the slightest effort to censure herself. Instead, her poetry is all raw and genuine emotion. However, it's the way she pulls these various emotions together in such clear, simple and eloquent prose that's so remarkable. As the writer Longinus describes so acutely:
Aren't you amazed how in this poem she in the same moment seeks out the soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight and skin as though they were something external to her, and how she both freezes and burns, is afraid and nearly dead, so that we see in her not a single emotion but many coming together? All this of course is what happens to people in love. But it is her selection, as I have said, of all the most important features and her combination of them that have produced such an amazing result.
You may have noticed the poem above ends in an ellipsis. This isn't just a stylistic choice. Sappho's writing only comes to us in fragments. Although it is believed she was a prolific poet at the time, most of her writing was destroyed over the years. In fact, until 1896, the only access we had to her was in quotations found in the work of other ancient writers. That year, however, an archaeological dig in the small Egyptian town of el-Behnesa found numerous pieces of badly damaged ancient papyrus with Sappho's writing. More have since been discovered.
Poem 31 reads somewhat completely, but take a look at 43:
... disturbs the stillness
... distress, mind
... settles down
... but come, beloved ones
... for day is near
In a sense, it's frustrating that we will likely never know precisely what Sappho wrote. But I think these impossible gaps also give her writing a haunting, ethereal quality. They allow a level of input from the reader, a space to insert your own words and interpretation into the poem. Sappho could be speaking of almost anything here. Yet even in the few words, there is a distinctive tone. She appears to be describing some sort of distressed mind but also proclaiming there is hope, for the day is near. Even in the little we have of this poem, there is enough to call it thought provoking.
I could probably go on endlessly discussing the merit of Sappho's work. But I'll conclude by quoting 132, a short fragmented poem in which Sappho discusses her daughter Cleis:
I have a beautiful child who is like golden flowers
in form, my beloved Cleis, for whom
I would not take all of Lydia or lovely ...
It's not a lot. But I think what is remarkable about this poem is how it showcases Sappho's pride in her daughter. Daughters weren't typically seen as symbols of prosperity and wealth in ancient Greece. Sons were. They were the ones to bring fortune and status to a family. But it's clear how much Sappho adores Cleis. She compares her to golden flowers. She also articulates that she would trade nothing, no matter how substantial a prize, in place of her.
In writing of Cleis with such high praise, Sappho speaks as a mother who loves her daughter. But she also does something else. By assigning a value to Cleis, Sappho assigns a value to all women. She advocates for women's worth. She celebrates women's existence.
It's for this reason that I think Sappho can be called one of the world's first feminists. In a world dominated by male voices, Sappho spoke. She gave voice to a silent realm of women. And not only did she do so, she also placed women in an admirable light. She weaved poems about female individuals who are mesmerizing and clever and delightful. Flawed to be sure, but complex and real. When I read Sappho's writing I am reminded of all the women I know.
Sappho may only come to us in fragments, but these fragments are certainly enough to create a powerful and memorable female voice.
*For more information on Sappho I would highly recommend Philp Freeman's book Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet. The first portion of the book is a sort of biography on Sappho and life in ancient Greece. The second portion features all of her discovered poems. Much of the background information on Sappho in this post was taken from Freeman's work.