Influential Homosexuals in History – Sappho

SapphoSappho was a Greek Lyric Poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Her birth was between 630 and 612 BCE, and she died sappho_cmsometime around 570 BCE, making her around 60 years of age when she passed.

The Nine Lyric Poets were a canon of Greek composers deemed worthy of critical study by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria.

Sappho was also considered to be one of nine earthly muses, based on a catalogue of the most respected women poets, collected by a poet from the 1st century BCE, named Antipater of Thessalonica.

images (10)Not much is known or documented about her, and the bulk of Sappho’s poetry has been lost. The only source for her history is through what little remains of her work, which is referred to as ‘Fragments’.

She appears to have been exiled from Lesbos to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594 BCE, because of her family’s political involvement, which was contradictory to the government of Lesbos at the time. It is documented that she possibly had a daughter, Cleis, named after her mother. Other documentation indicates that she had three brothers, Erigyius, Larichus, and Charaxus. She was born into an aristocratic family, and it is widely believed that her father’s name was Scamandronymus, but no surviving fragments of her works refers to him.

Sappho has a long standing history of being a symbol of the female homosexual community. Variations of her name and the island she was born on have come to describe homosexual women (Sapphic and Lesbian). Much of her surviving poetry alludes to ideas of deep passion and love. Sappho’s contemporary Alcaeus described her as “violet-haired, pure, 1350789482honey-smiling Sappho” and it has been written that her relationships among her female friends were of a homosexual nature. 3rd century philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote:

What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to me to have practiced love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he of boys. For they said they loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her…

Because she was such an influence in poetry and literature, attempts were made to justify her closeness with women in such a way as to lead away from the idea that she was a lesbian. In the Victorian era, it was told that she ran a boarding school for females, however in the surviving fragments of her works there are no references to teaching, students, or academies. Nowadays, this notion still persists, despite the suggestion that the story was created to make her more acceptable to the genteel classes of Great Britain and other cultures at the time. In fact, the story of Sappho and her ‘girl’s academy’ have transpired to something of a lesbian commune, where students engaged in lesbianism and wrote poetry about it.

Nine books of Sappho’s poetry was collected by the Library of Alexandria. While the remaining collection of her work is small, her work has greatly influenced poetry throughout the ages. Such was her fame that a meter of poetry was named after her, the Sapphic meter.

The Sapphic meter is a verse form containing four lines. Using a “-“ for a long syllable, an “s” for a short syllable and an “f” for a free syllable, the Sapphic meter looks as such:

–  s  –     f     – s s –    s – –

–  s  –     f     – s s –    s – –

–  s  –     f     – s s –    s – –

–  s  s  –  s


220px-Kipling_ndMany famous poets used the Sapphic meter in there writing, including Rudyard Kipling, in a tribute to William Shakespeare, called “The Craftsman”. The first verse is as follows:

Once, after long-drawn revel at The Mermaid

He to the overbearing Boanerges

Jonson, uttered (if half of it were liquor

Blessed be the vintage!)

The Sapphic meter was used in 330 stanzas of Book I of the Alexandrian collection of her works.

Because so much of her work was lost, what we know of Sappho exists from other writers and poets, and from stories handed down throughout the ages. Her influence on literature, the arts, and poetry in particular, is undeniable, despite the mystery that shrouds her. Sappho wrote about love and passion for both men and women alike, and her odes to goddesses show a loving quality that only continues to lend to her legacy as the world’s most famous and influential lesbian poet.


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