Peithô's Web   Sappho index 


Dates, Character, Women in Lesbos vs. Athens, Phaeon, The Leucadian Rock, Sappho's erotic delicacy, Sappho and other women, That Man fragment, Hymeneals, Apple fragment, Hyacinth fragment, Sappho's ancient fame.

§ 6. We come now to the other leader of the Lesbian school of poetry, Sappho, the object of the admiration of all antiquity. There is no doubt that she belonged to the island of Lesbos; and the question whether she was born in Eresos or Mytilene is best resolved by supposing that she went from the lesser city to the greater, at the time of her greatest celebrity. She was nearly contemporaneous with her countryman Alcaeus, although she must have been younger, as she was still alive in Ol. 53, 568 B.C. About Ol. 46, 596 B.C. she sailed from Mytilene in order to take refuge in Sicily,1 but the cause of her flight is unknown; she must at that time have been in the bloom of her life. At a much later period she produced the ode mentioned by Herodotus, in which she reproached her brother Charaxus for having purchased Rhodopis2 the courtesan from her master, and for having been induced by his love to emancipate her. This Rhodopis dwelt at Naucratis, and the event falls at a time when a frequent intercourse with Egypt had already been established by the Greeks. Now the government of Amasis; (who permitted the Greeks in Egypt to dwell in Naucratis) began in Olymp. 52.4, 569 B.C., and the return of Charaxus from the journey to Mytilene, where his sister received him with this reproachful and satirical ode, must have happened some years later.

The severity with which Sappho censured her brother for his love for a courtesan enables us to form some judgment of the principles by which she guided her own conduct. For although at the time when she wrote this ode to Charaxus, the fire of youthful passion had been quenched in her breast; yet she never could have reproached her brother with his love for a courtesan, if she had herself been a courtesan in her youth; and Charaxus might have retaliated upon her with additional strength. Besides we may plainly discern the feeling of unimpeached honour due to a freeborn and well educated maiden, in the verses already quoted, which refer to the relation of Alcaeus and Sappho. Alcaeus testifies that the attractions and loveliness of Sappho did not derogate from her moral worth, when he calls her 'violet-crowned, pure, sweetly smiling Sappho.'3 These genuine testimonies are indeed opposed to the accounts of many later writers, who represent Sappho as a courtesan. To refute this opinion, we will not resort to the expedient employed by some ancient writers, who have attempted to distinguish a courtesan of Eresos named Sappho from the poetess. A more probable cause of this false imputation seems to be, that later generations, and especially the refined Athenians, were incapable of conceiving and appreciating the frank simplicity with which Sappho pours forth her feelings, and therefore confounded them with the unblushing immodesty of a courtesan. In Sappho's time, there still existed among the Greeks much of that primitive simplicity which appears in the wish of Nausicaa in Homer that she had such a husband as Ulysses. That complete separation between sensual and sentimental love had not yet taken place which we find in the writings of later times, especially in those of the Attic comic poets. Moreover the life of women in Lesbos was doubtless very different from the life of women at Athens and among the Ionians. In the Ionian States the female sex lived in the greatest retirement, and were exclusively employed in household concerns. Hence, while the men of Athens were distinguished by their perfection in every branch of art, none of their women emerged from the obscurity of domestic life. The secluded and depressed condition of the female sex among the Ionians of Asia Minor, originating in circumstances connected with the history of their race, had also become universal in Athens, where the principle on which the education of women rested was that just so much mental culture was expedient for women as would enable them to manage the household, provide for the bodily wants of the children, and overlook the female slaves; for the rest, says Pericles in Thucydides (II. 45), 'that woman is the best of whom the least is said among men, whether for evil or for good.' But the Aeolians had in some degree preserved the ancient Greek manners, such as we find them depicted in their epic poetry and mythology, where the women are represented as taking an active share not only in social domestic life, but in public amusements; and they thus enjoyed a distinct individual existence and moral character. There can be no doubt that they, as well as the women of the Dorian states of Peloponnesus and Magna Grecia, shared in the advantages of the general high state of civilization, which not only fostered poetical talents of a high order among women, but, as in the time of the Pythagorean league, even produced in them a turn for philosophical reflections on human life. But as such a state of the education and intellect of women was utterly inconsistent with Athenian manners, it is natural that women should be the objects of scurrilous jests and slanderous imputations. We cannot therefore wonder that women who had in any degree overstepped the bounds prescribed to their sex by the manners of Athens, should be represented by the licentious pen of the Athenian comic writers, as lost to every sentiment of shame or decency.4

§ 7. It is certain that Sappho, in her odes, made frequent mention of a youth, to whom she gave her whole heart, while he requited her passion with cold indifference. But there is no trace whatever of her having named the object of her passion, or sought to win his favour by her beautiful verses. The pretended name of this youth, Phaon, although frequently mentioned in the Attic comedies,5 appears not to have occurred in the poetry of Sappho. If Phaon had been named in her poetry, the opinion could not have arisen that it was the courtesan Sappho, and not the poetess, who was in love with Phaon.6 Moreover, the marvellous stories of the beauty of Phaon and the love of the goddess Aphrodite for him, have manifestly been borrowed from the mythus of Adonis.7 Hesiod mentions Phaethon, a son of Eos and Cephalus, who when a child was carried off by Aphrodite, and brought up as the guardian of the sanctuary in her temples.8 This is evidently founded on the Cyprian legend of Adonis; the Greeks, adopting this legend, appear to have given the name of Phaethon or Phaon to the favourite of Aphrodite; and this Phaon, by various mistakes and misinterpretations, at length became the beloved of Sappho. Perhaps also the poetess may, in an ode to Adonis, have celebrated the beautiful Phaon in such a manner that the verses may have been supposed to refer to a lover of her own.

According to the ordinary account, Sappho, despised by Phaon, took the leap from the Leucadian rock, in the hope of finding a cure for the pains of unrequited love. But even this is rather a poetical image, than a real event in the life of Sappho. The Leucadian leap was a religious rite, belonging to the expiatory festivals of Apollo, which was celebrated in this as in other parts of Greece. At appointed times, criminals, selected as expiatory victims, were thrown from the high overhanging rock into the sea; they were however sometimes caught at the bottom, and, if saved, they were sent away from Leucadia.9 This custom was applied in various ways by the poets of the time to the description of lovers. Stesichorus, in his poetical novel named Calyce, spoke of the love of a virtuous maiden for a youth who despised her passion; and in despair she threw herself from the Leucadian rock. The effect of the leap in the story of Sappho (viz. the curing her of her intolerable passion) must therefore have been unknown to Stesichorus. Some years later, Anacreon says in an ode, 'again casting myself from the Leucadian rock, I plunge into the grey sea, drunk with love'10 The poet can scarcely by these words be supposed to say that he cures himself of a vehement passion, but rather means to describe the delirious intoxication of violent love. The story of Sappho's leap probably originated in some poetical images and relations of this kind; a similar story is told of Aphrodite in regard to her lament for Adonis.11 Nevertheless it is not unlikely that the leap from the Leucadian rock may really have been made, in ancient times, by desperate and frantic men. Another proof of the fictitious character of the story is that it leaves the principal point in uncertainty, namely, whether Sappho survived the leap or perished in it.

From what has been said, it follows that a true conception of the erotic poetry of Sappho, and of the feelings expressed in it, can only be drawn from fragments of her odes, which, though numerous, are for the most part very short. The most considerable and the best known of Sappho's remains is the complete ode,12 in which she implores Aphrodite not to allow the torments and agitations of love to destroy her mind, but to come to her assistance, as she had formerly descended from heaven in her golden car drawn by sparrows, and with radiant smiles on her divine face had asked her what had befallen her; and what her unquiet heart desired, and who was the author of her pain. She promised that if he fled her now, he soon would follow her ; if he did not now accept her presents, he would soon offer presents to her; if he did not love her now, he would soon love her, even were she coy and reluctant. Sappho then implores Aphrodite to come to her again and assist her. Although, in this ode, Sappho describes her love in glowing language, and even speaks of her own frantic heart,13 yet the indelicacy of such an avowal of passionate love is much diminished by the manner in which it is made. The poetess does not importune her lover with her complaints, nor address her poem to him, but confides her passion to the goddess and pours out to her all the tumult and the anguish of her heart. There is great delicacy in her not venturing to give utterance in her own person to the expectation that the coy and indifferent object of her affection would be transformed into an impatient lover; an expectation little likely to find a place in a heart so stricken and oppressed as that of the poetess; she only recalls to her mind, that the goddess had in former and similar situations vouchsafed her support and consolation. In other fragments Sappho's passionate excitable temper is expressed with frankness quite foreign to our manners, but which possesses a simple grace. Thus she says, 'I request that the charming Menon be invited, if the feast is to bring enjoyment to me;'14 and she addresses a distinguished youth in these words: `Come opposite to me, oh friend, and let the sweetness which dwells in thine eyes beam upon me.'15 Yet we can nowhere find grounds for reproaching her with having tried to please men or met their advances when past the season of youth. On the contrary, she says, 'Thou art my friend, I therefore advise thee to seek a younger wife, I cannot bring myself to share thy house as an elder.'16

§ 8. It is far more difficult to discover and to judge the nature of Sappho's intimacies with women. It is, however, certain that the life and education of the female sex in Lesbos was not, as in Athens, confined within the house; and that girls were not entrusted exclusively to the care of mothers and nurses. There were women distinguished by their attainments, who assisted in instructing a circle of young girls, in the same manner as Socrates afterwards did at Athens young men of promising talents. There were also among the Dorians of Sparta noble and cultivated women, who assembled young girls about them, to whom they devoted themselves with great zeal and affection; and these girls formed associations which, in all probability, were under the direction of the elder women.17 Such associations as these existed in Lesbos in the time of Sappho; but they were completely voluntary, and were formed by girls who were studying to attain that proficiency in music or other elegant arts, that refinement and grace of manners, which distinguished the women around whom they congregated. Music and poetry no doubt formed the basis of these societies, and instruction and exercise in these arts were their immediate object. Though poetry was a part of Sappho's inmost nature, a genuine expression of the feelings by which she was really agitated, it is probable that with her, as with the ancient poets, it was the business and study of life; and as technical perfection in it could be taught, it might, by persevering instructions, be imparted to the young.18 Not only Sappho, but many other women in Lesbos, devoted themselves to this mode of life. In the songs of this poetess, frequent mention was made of Gorgo and Andromeda as her rivals.19 A great number of her young friends were from distant countries,20 as Anactoria of Miletus, Gongyla of Colophon, Eunica of Salamis, Gyrinna, Atthis, Mnasidica. A great number of the poems of Sappho related to these female friendships, and reveal the familiar intercourse of the woman's chamber, the Gynaeconitis ; where the tender refined sensibility of the female mind was cultivated and impressed with every attractive form. Among these accomplishments, music and a graceful demeanour were the most valued. The poetess says to a rich but uncultivated woman, 'Where thou diest, there wilt thou lie, and no one will remember thy name in times to come, because thou hast no share in the roses of Pieria. Inglorious wilt thou wander about in the abode of Hades, and flit among its dark shades.'21 She derides one of her rivals, Andromeda, for her manner of dressing, from which it is well known the Greeks were wont to infer much more of the native disposition and character than we do. `What woman,' says she to a young female friend, 'ever charmed thy mind who wore a vulgar and graceless dress, or did not know how to draw her garments close around her ankles?'22 She reproaches one of her friends, Mnasidica, because, though her form was beautiful as that of the young Gyrinna, yet her temper was gloomy.23 To another, Atthis, to whom she had shown particular marks of affection, and who had grieved her by preferring her rival Andromeda, she says, `Again does the strength-dissolving Eros, that bitter-sweet, resistless monster agitate me; but to thee, O Atthis, the thought of me is importunate; thou fliest to Andromeda.24 It is obvious that this attachment bears less the character of maternal interest than of passionate love; as among the Dorians in Sparta and Crete, analogous connexions between men and youths, in which the latter were trained to noble and manly deeds, were carried on in a language of high-wrought and passionate feeling which had all the character of an attachment between persons of different sexes. This mixture of feelings, which among nations of a calmer temperament have always been perfectly distinct, is an essential feature of the Greek character.

The most remarkable example of this impassioned strain of Sappho in relation to a female friend is that considerable fragment preserved by Longinus, which has often been incorrectly interpreted, because the beginning of it led to the erroneous idea that the object of the passion expressed in it was a man. But the poem says, 'That man seems to me equal to the gods who sits opposite to thee, and watches thy sweet speech and charming smile. My heart loses its force: for when I look at thee, my tongue ceases to utter; my voice is broken, a subtle fire glides through my veins, my eyes grow dim, and a rushing sound fills my ears.' In these, and even stronger terms, the poetess expresses nothing more than a friendly attachment to a young girl, but which, from the extreme excitability of feeling, assumes all the tone of the most ardent passion.25

§ 9. From the class of Sapphic odes which we have just described, we must distinguish the Epithalamia or Hymeneals, which were peculiarly adapted to the genius of the poetess from the exquisite perception she seems to have had of whatever was attractive in either sex. These poems appear, from the numerous fragments which remain, to have had great beauty, and much of that mode of expression which the simple, natural manners of those times allowed, and the warm and sensitive heart of the poetess suggested. The Epithalamium of Catullus, not that playful one on the marriage of Manlius Torquatus, but the charming, tender poem, Vesper adest, juvenes, consurgite, is an evident imitation of a Sapphic Epithalamium, which was composed in the same hexameter verse. It appears that in this, as in Catullus, the trains of youths and of maidens advanced to meet; these reproached, those praised the evening star, because he led the bride to the youth. Then comes the verse of Sappho which has been preserved, 'Hesperus, who bringest together all that the rosy morning's light has scattered abroad.'26 The beautiful images of the gathered flowers and of the vine twining about the elm, by which Catullus alternately dissuades and recommends the marriage of the maiden, have quite the character of Sapphic similes. These mostly turn upon flowers and plants, which the poetess seems to have regarded with fond delight and sympathy.27 In a fragment lately discovered, which bears a strong impression of the simple language of Sappho, she compares the freshness of youth and the unsullied beauty of a maiden's face to an apple of some peculiar kind, which, when all the rest of the fruit is gathered from the tree, remains alone at an unattainable height, and drinks in the whole vigour of vegetation; or rather (to give the simple words of the poetess in which the thought is placed before us and gradually heightened with great beauty and nature) 'like the sweet apple which ripens at the top of the bough, on the topmost point of the bough, forgotten by the gatherers-no, not quite forgotten, but beyond their reach.'28 A fragment written in a similar tone, speaks of a hyacinth, which growing among the mountains is trodden underfoot by the shepherds, and its purple flower is pressed to the ground;' 29 thus obviously comparing the maiden who has no husband to protect her, with the flower which grows in the field, as contrasted with that which blooms in the shelter of a garden. In another hymeneal, Sappho compares the bridegroom to a young and slender sapling.30 But she does not dwell upon such images as these alone; she also compares him to Ares,31 and his deeds to those of Achilles;32 and here her lyre may have assumed a loftier tone than that which usually characterized it. But there was another kind of hymeneal among the songs of Sappho, which furnished occasion to a sort of petulant pleasantry. In this the maidens try to snatch away the bride as she is led to the bridegroom, and vent their mockery on his friend who stands before the door, and is thence called the Porter.33

Sappho also composed hymns to the gods, in which she invoked them to come from their favourite abodes in different countries; but there is little information extant respecting their contents.

§10. The poems of Sappho are little susceptible of division into distinct classes. Hence the ancient critics divided them into books, merely according to the metre, the first containing the odes in the Sapphic metre, and so on. The hymeneals were thus placed in different books. The rhythmical construction of her odes was essentially the same as that of Alcaeus, yet with many variations, in harmony with the softer character of her poetry, and easily perceptible upon a careful comparison of the several metres.

How great was Sappho's fame among the Greeks, and how rapidly it spread throughout Greece, may be seen in the history of Solon,34 who was a contemporary of the Lesbian poetess. Hearing his nephew recite one of her poems, he is said to have exclaimed, that he would not willingly die till he had learned it by heart. Indeed the whole voice of antiquity has declared that the poetry of Sappho was unrivalled in grace and sweetness.

And doubtless from that circle of accomplished women, of whom she formed the brilliant centre, a flood of poetic warmth and light was poured forth on every side. A friend of hers, Damophila the Pamphylian, composed a hymn on the worship of the Pergaean Artemis (which was solemnized in her native land after the Asiatic fashion); in this the Aeolic style was blended with the peculiarities of the Pamphylian manner.35 Another poetess of far higher renown was Erinna, who died in early youth, when chained by her mother to the spinning wheel; she had as yet known the charm of existence in imagination alone. Her poem, called The Spindle (Ἠλακάτη), containing only 300 hexameter verses, in which she probably expressed the restless and aspiring thoughts which crowded on her youthful mind, as she pursued her monotonous work, has been deemed by many of the ancients of such high poetic merit as to entitle it to a place beside the epics of Homer.36

1. Marb. Par. Ep. 36. Comp. Ovid, Her. XV. 51. The date of the Parian marble is lost; but it must have been between Olymp. 44.1 and 47.2.

2. II. 135, and see Athen. XIII. p. 596, Rhodopis or Doricha was the fellow slave of Aesop, who flourished at the same time (Olymp. 52).

3. Ἰόπλοχ' ἁγνὰ, μειλιχόμειδε Σαπφοῖ.

4. There were Attic comedies with the title of Sappho, by Amphis, Antiphanes, Ephippus, Timocles, and Diphilus; and a comedy by Plato entitled Phaon.

5. As in the verses of Menander in Strabo, X. P. 452.

οὗ δὴ λέγεται πρώτη Σαπφώ
τὸν ὑπέρκομπον θηρῶσα Φάων'
οἰστρῶντι πόθῳ ῥῖψαι πέτρας
ἀπὸ τηλεφανοῦς.

6. In Athen. XIII. p. 596 E, and several ancient lexicographers.

7. Cratinus, the comic poet, in an unknown play in Athen. II. p. 69. D. relates that Aphrodite had concealed Phaon en thridakinais, among the lettuce. The same legend is also related of Adonis by others, in Athenaeus; and it refers to the use of the horti Adonidis. Concerning Phaon-Adonis, see also Aelian, V. H. XII. 18. Lucian Dial. Mort. 9. Plin. N. H. XXII. 8. Servius ad Virg. Aen. III. 279, not to mention inferior authorities for this legend.

8. Hesiod, Theog. 986. sq. nêopolon muchion, according to the reading of Aristarchus.

9. Concerning the connexion of this custom with the worship of Apollo, see Müller's Dorians, B. XI. ch. ii. §10.

10. In Hephaestion, p. 130.

11. See Ptolem. Hephaestion (in Phot. Bibliothec.) Biblion z.

12. Fragm. 1. Blomf. 1. Neue.

13. Mainola thumô.

14. Fragm. 33. Neue, from Hephaest. p. 41; it is not, however, quite certain, that the verses belong to Sappho. Compare fragm. 10. Blomf. 5. Neue (elthe Kupri)

15. Fragm. 13. Blomf. 62. Neue. Compare fragm. 24. Blomf.32. Neue. (glukeia mater outoi-), and 28 Blomf. 55. Neue, (deduke men a selana).

16. Fragm. 12. Blomf. 20. Neue (according to the reading of the latter).

17. Müller's Dorians, B. IV. chap. IV. § 8. ch. V. § 2.

18. Hence Sappho calls her house, `the house of the servant of the Muses,' mousopolô oikian, from which mourning must be excluded: Fragm. 71. Blomf. 28. Neue.

19. From the passage on the relations of Sappho in Maxim. Tyrius, Dissert. 24.

20. In Suidas in Sappho the heterai and mathêtriai of Sappho are distinguished; but the heterai were, at least originally, mathêtriai. Thus Maximus Tyrius mentions Anactoria as being loved by Sappho; but it is probable that Anagora Milêsia, mentioned by Suidas among her mathêtriai, is the same person, and that the name ought to be written Anaktoria Milêsia. This emendation is confirmed by the fact, that the ancient name of Miletus was Anactoria; Stephan. Byzant. in voc. Milêtos, Eustath. ad. Il. II. 8, p. 21, ed. Rom.; Schol. Apoll. Rhod. I. 187.

21. Fragm. 11. Blomf. 19. Neue.

22. Fragm. 35. Blomf. 23. Neue. This passage is illustrated by ancient works of sculpture, on which women are represented as walking with the upper garment drawn close to the leg above the ankle. See, for example, the relief in Mus. Capitol. T. IV. tab. 43.

23. Fragm. 26, 27. Blomf. 42. Neue. The reading, however, is not quite certain.

24. Fragm. 31. Blomf. 37. Neue. Cf. 32. Blomf. 14. Neue. Ἠράμαν μὲν ἐγὼ σέθεν, Ἀτθὶ, πάλαι πότα.

25. Catullus, who imitates this poem in Carm. 51, gives it an ironical termination, (Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est, &c.,) which is certainly not borrowed from Sappho.

26. Fragm. 45. Blomf. 68. Neue.

27. Concerning the love of Sappho for the rose, see Philostrat. Epist. 73, comp. Neue, fragm. 132.

28. Οἷον τὸ γλυκύμαλον ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ' ὄσδῳ.
      Ὄσδῳ ἐπ' ἀκροτάτῳ, λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδροπῆες.
      Οὐ μὴν ἐκλελὰθοντ', ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐδύναντ' ἐφίκεσθαι.

The fragment is in Walz, Rhetores Graeci, vol. VIII. p. 883. Himerius, Orat. I

29. §16. cites something similar from a hymenaeus of Sappho.

Οἵαν τὰν ὑάκινθον ἐν οὔρεσι ποίμενες ἄνδρες
ποσσὶ καταστείβουσι· χαμαὶ δέ τε πόρφυρον ἄνθος.

Demetrius, de Elocut. c. 106, quotes these verses without a name; but it can scarcely be doubted that they are Sappho's. In Catullus, the young women use the same image as the young men in Sappho.

30. Fragm. 42. Blomf. 34. Neue.

31. Fragm. 39. Blomf. 73. Neue.

32. Himerius, Orat. I. 4. §16.

33. Fragm. 43. Blomf. 38. Neue. It is worthy of remark, that Demetrius, de Elocut. c. 167, expressly mentions the chorus in relation to this fragment.

34. In Stobaeus, Serm. XXIX. 28.

35. Philostrat. Vit. APollon. I. 30, p. 37. ed. Olear.

36. The chief authority is Anthol. Palat. IX. 190.

K.O. Müller (Karl Otfried Müller), A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece (London: John W. Parker, 1858), Vol. I. pp. 228-239.