”Someone will remember us, I say, in another time”- A discussion about Lesbian Sappho

By Andrea Nyholm, MA in Classical Archaeology from Stockholm University, Edufi-intern Spring/Summer 2023

Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves

fr. 16.1-4. Translation by David A. Campbell

The month of June is sometimes referred to as Pride Month, although Pride events are held throughout the year, across the world. It is difficult to say exactly when the idea of a specific month dedicated to Pride came to be, but the first, albeit unofficial Pride event was the Stonewall riot in June of 1969. Official events were not held until the following year in commemoration. This year in Athens several events are held throughout June, but the Pride march takes place on the 10th. Rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals in Greece, as everywhere, have been hard wrought, and there is still much to be done. Still, Greece has a long history of people who we might consider LGBTQIA+. This Pride Month, I would like to discuss the case of one of these individuals. Namely, the mother of sapphism herself, Sappho.

Homosexuality in Ancient Greece is by no means a rare topic for discussion or research nowadays. Plenty has been said since K.J. Dover’s 1978 work Greek Homosexuality, but much of the focus has been on men. This is natural in so much as the textual material from antiquity necessitates a certain focus on men; the vast majority of written sources are by and for men. One glaring exception to this is the poetry of Sappho of Lesbos.

Sappho is overall a well-known figure in the public consciousness. Most would say that they know her sexuality, that she was a lesbian poetess who wrote erotic and/or romantic poetry about other women. Indeed, the simple fact that the words lesbian and sapphic, both used to describe women who love women, originate from Sappho and her island seems to confirm what we assume we know. Namely, that Sappho was a lesbian. The truth is quite a bit more complicated. 

Sappho was a woman who lived on the Aegean island of Lesbos around 600 BCE. She wrote poetry and was highly regarded for her work. Some even came to call her the Tenth Muse. Yet, historical documentation of Sappho and her life is essentially non-existent. What we know about her comes from her own poems, of which only fragments remain, and from accounts written later by male authors. André Lardinois (1989) suggests that to gain information about Sappho herself, we can also use what we know of her historical context from other sources. Optimistically then, we have three categories of source material, and the poet’s own words account for very little of this material. And poetry is not unproblematic as a source material, which I will discuss in more detail below.

What we can note from the material is that Sappho did not always have a reputation as a lover of women. For a time, her heterosexual love for her male lover Phaon, among others, was instead emphasized. In Athenian comedy, Sappho was ridiculed for what Lardinois calls her extreme heterosexuality (Lardinois 1989). Comedy is the likely source of her male lover Kerkylas of Andros, a name which essentially means a dick of Man. We can therefore assume Kerkylas to be entirely fictional. The same may to some extent be true for Phaon as well. Phaon is said to have been an old ferryman who ferried the goddess Aphrodite (disguised as an old woman) and did not ask for payment. As a reward he was given youth and beauty (Dial. mort. 367-369). This mythological figure then became Sappho’s lover or the object of her desires at the very least. Indeed, it seems Phaon did not reciprocate her feelings, as Sappho is said to have thrown herself into the sea to her death, as a result of being spurned by Phaon. Still, there is no evidence from Sappho’s own time that she had a lover called Phaon or that she killed herself as a result of this relationship. No references to Phaon can be found in surviving fragments of her work, although this naturally does not mean that Sappho never wrote about a man by this name. Comparatively little of Sappho’s poetry has survived, so we can never know for sure. However, based on the evidence at our disposal, there are no mentions of a man called Phaon.

Sappho’s alleged love for Phaon is sometimes used as proof that she did not hold romantic or sexual feelings towards women. In debates on Sappho’s sexuality, there seems to be only two options: lesbian or heterosexual. This is not the first or the last time that people forget that there are other options, namely that attraction to more than one gender is nothing unusual or new. Much of what is regarded as ancient Greek homosexuality, could more accurately be described as bisexuality or pansexuality, to use labels that conform with modern standards. Relationships between men, or between men and boys, were a common occurrence but these men would also have relationships with women. This has more to do with social expectations than anything else, likely there were those who engaged in homosexual activity only because it was expected of them and those who only had heterosexual relationships for the same reason. Still, with so much evidence for behavior outside the frame of homo- and heterosexuality, it is extraordinary that the debate about Sappho still boils down to the two binaries: men or women.

[…] has reminded me now of Anactoria who is not here; I would rather see her lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed infantry

fr. 16.14-20. Translation by David A. Campbell

Researchers who discuss the topic of Sappho’s sexuality, or of any other historical person’s for that matter, caution against the usage of labels such as homosexual and lesbian. This is completely understandable. Firstly, these words simply did not exist in antiquity. It is important to remember that ancient people did not view their environment in the same way we do and did not make the same efforts to label their thoughts and feelings we do today. But this caution creates an environment where anything that is not normal according to our heteronormative views must be questioned and ultimately dismissed. So while it is important to be cautious, I think there is still a fine line to thread before one seems eager to dismiss anything that is different. It should also be remembered that just because they lacked the words we have created to describe these kinds of feelings, does not mean that these feelings did not exist. Non-heterosexuality was not created in 1868, when the word homosexual was first used. These people have always existed and that should not be forgotten.

It would be nice if we could simply take Sappho’s poetry at face value and could let her tell us in her own words what she may have felt for women. However, there are some definite problems with using Sappho’s poetry as evidence for her sexuality. Firstly, the narrator need not be Sappho herself, and the opinions expressed need not reflect her own thoughts and feelings. Sappho also does not necessarily make it easy to know exactly who the person she expresses affection for is. Some of this is due to the fragmentary nature of the preserved poems, but the language Sappho uses is also a part of the problem. She has a tendency to use neutral terms to a higher degree than other poets of her time might have (Most 1995). Consider for example fragment 102: ”Sweet mother I cannot work the loom, I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite”, goes Anne Carson’s translation. The original Greek word here is παῖδος, which the translator here interpreta as boy. However, it is equally as common to see the word translated as girl. A more neutral definition that we see in other texts is child, but it’s usage is much more complicated. The Liddell, Scott, Jones Ancient Greek Lexicon shows that παῖς can mean boy, girl, child, slave, or servant. It can also be used more metaphorically. If a group of people are described as οἱ ζωγράφων παῖδες (children of painting), they are painters and not necessarily young. Meaning that the word is very difficult for us to interpret simply as girl or boy and any translator of this fragment has to essentially make a decision that completely changes how we are to understand this poem. What Sappho herself intended with the word remains a mystery.

In Sappho’s best-preserved poem, fragment 1, she has the goddess Aphrodite address a Sappho, whether it is the historical Sappho or not:

”Who wrongs you, Sappho? If she runs away, soon she shall pursue; if she does not accept gifts, why, she shall give them instead; and if she does not love, soon she shall love even against her will.” (fr. 1.19-24. Translation by David A. Campbell)

This Sappho is lovesick and reaches out to the goddess of love herself. It can also be inferred that this is not the first time that Aphrodite has seen Sappho in such a state, based on her exasperation in preceding lines. In most of the fragments that can be interpreted homoerotically, the narrator is not as clear as in this particular poem. Here, we cannot doubt that it is a Sappho, if not the Sappho, who expresses attraction towards a woman. Or can we? The gender of the person referred to in this poem has long been in question. Early translations would often render the person male, although I should think that had more to do with expecting the person to be male than anything else. The reason some question the gender of the object of Sappho’s desires is the uncertainty in transmission of one word, ἐθέλοισα, the participle indicating the person who is unwilling. If this word is correct, there is no doubt the person is female. However, only one source provides us with this version while the other versions have the participle referring to the narrator (Most 1995). Most translations now assume the person to be female, as they on the basis of the evidence we have. And yet, there are those who continue to question the translation of the person as a woman. It is somewhat maddening to see how insistent researchers are in explaining away signs of affection between women. Should we question every word of every text that we have from antiquity in case there are alternate versions? Apparently so if in doing so we can make everything exclusively heterosexual. I think it is telling that this is the largest and most cohesive fragment and that it gives the clearest indication of Sappho’s potential feelings towards women. Perhaps, were the other fragments better preserved, they would also more clearly reveal such feelings.

It is somewhat frustrating that much of the discourse surrounding Sappho’s identity is rooted in an idea of heterosexuality as a baseline. By trying to create distance between our social constructs and those of ancient societies, we seem to do the opposite. We insert our and our predecessors’ homophobia into the past because we assume that if we have not overcome it yet, it must have been in place already then. By constantly cautioning against calling a historical figure homosexual, we maintain the belief that someone is heterosexual until proven otherwise without a shadow of a doubt. As long as there is doubt, they are heterosexual. Perhaps the real solution would be to refrain from using these words entirely. Yet, we experience the past through minds that retain information about contemporary sexuality and to forgetting that would be a near impossibility.

Sappho and others like her, provide sapphic women with a history to look back on. As people, we seem hardwired to seek images of ourselves everywhere. Today, representation in media is much debated and discussed; everyone wants to be able to see themselves reflected in characters on screen or on the pages of books. Sappho has become such a character. Whether that is a good thing or not, is up to everyone to decide for themselves.

In the end, it does not really matter whether we can conclusively show that Sappho was a lesbian or not. And not just because the word lesbian would have meant nothing to her in her own time except indicating her homeland. Sappho as a lesbian is a perception that has taken on a life of its own and cannot be stopped by anything short of Sappho herself returning from beyond the grave and assuring us of her heterosexuality. And even then, some would continue to persist in the idea.

He seems to me equal to the gods that man

whoever he is who opposite you

sits and listens close

to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing – oh it

puts the heart in my chest on wings

for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking

is left in me

fr. 31.1-8. Translated by Anne Carson

Lardinois, A. 1989. ’Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos’, Sappho to de Sade. Moments in the History of Sexuality. ed. Jan Bremmer, London and New York: Routledge, 15-35.

Lucian. Dialogues of the Dead. Dialogues of the Sea-Gods. Dialogues of the Gods. Dialogues of the Courtesans. Translated by M. D. MacLeod (1961). Loeb Classical Library 431. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Most, G. 1995. ’Reflecting Sappho’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 40. Oxford University Press, 15-38.

Sappho. Greek Lyric, Volume I: Sappho and Alcaeus. Edited and translated by David A. Campbell (1982). Loeb Classical Library 142. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sappho. If Not, Winter. Translated by Anne Carson (2002). New York: Vintage Books.