Sappho of Lesbos

Sappho of Lesbos

by Darrell Sutton

John William Godward, In the Days of Sappho

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace

Byron had a strong affection for Lucan’s Pharsalia. His attachment to Aeschylus’s Prometheus was equally pronounced. Acquainted with the classical tongues, bi-lingual editions of Greek and Latin texts were commonplace. His poems illuminate his penchants. He preferred the territories and literature of ancient Greece to its modern terrestrial forms. The ‘Isles of Greece’, though nationalistic in tone, is imbued with nostalgia. From a distance of two thousand years, Byron roamed the ruins of Greece daily by means of its preserved treasury of writings, and this he accomplished without a great fondness for their contemporary scenery. To quote his own words:

Let Aberdeen and Elgin still pursue
The shade of fame through regions of virtu;
Waste useless thousands on their Phidian freaks,
Mis-shapen monuments, and maimed antiques;
And make their grand saloons a general mart
For all the mutilated blocks of art.

Byron had other appetites. Had the public known of them, his reputation would have been sullied. These cravings came and went. Whether they were enabling or inhibiting factors of his poetic prowess is a matter for his critics. But clearly, select authors of classical Greece retained a permanent place in his heart throughout his life.

Ancient Greek literature, its prose and poetry,  is one of the many gifts bequeathed to citizens of Western Civilization. Hellenic philosophy addressed both popular and arcane topics. Poets and poetry, however, were of a different order. They inflamed minds and kindled passions. Homer was “Lord” of all the ancient bards. His poems were the first of their kind in the transmission of Grecian lore. Other poets and poetesses recited their songs. After they passed from the scene, Homer’s legacy remained. In his wake others emerged. Sappho (c.630-570BC) achieved an acclaim that was arguably unrivalled. Once Byron drew attention to her, the fascination for her commenced and it has continued for over two centuries wherever the words ‘Burning Sappho’ are expounded.

Which of Sappho’s writings was Byron familiar with? Can anything be known definitively of Sappho and her background? The answer is not much. The ancient authorities do little to aid us here. Plato referred to her as the Tenth Muse, in the sense that her poetry possessed divine qualities seemingly bestowed upon her by her own inspirational goddess. In fact, she was considered by many in antiquity to be an author worthy of close-reading – by all Greeks. Legend has it that when Solon of Athens, the son of Execestides, heard a young man reciting one of her compositions, he asked for it to be repeated so that he might “learn it and die”. Whether or not this anecdote is apocryphal, it suggests that Sappho was held in great esteem in the archaic period.

As for her name, Günther Zuntz believed it was originally *Shappho* (see his article ‘The Etymology of the Name Sappho’ (1951) in Museum Helvetica, Vol.8, No.1.) Sappho’s homeland, Lesbos, a beautiful island, was well known from Homeric texts. Originally colonized in the tenth or eleventh century BC, it came to be closely related to Anatolia. Among the Lesbian people, the folktales of the Iliad were popular, the Odyssey less so. That statement is confirmed by literary attestation. The testimonies of Sappho’s life are fragmentary and are not much better preserved than the extant pieces of her poetry, some of which feature the spirit of her island’s ethos. Apparently, she was prolific, nine or ten books were attributed to her; and about the same were ascribed to her counterpart, indeed maybe her lover, Alcaeus of Mytilene. According to historians, the famed library in Alexandria, Egypt held approximately nine volumes of her works, but all that remains now are a few poems and a series of words and short phrases.

Sappho may have been born into an aristocratic family. Arguably bi-sexual, Attic comedians assert that she went on to marry well, supposedly to a merchant of means. She also had a daughter named Clius—possibly named after her grandmother. Other commentators claim that her family was exiled to Syracuse on the island of Sicily, on account of political upheavals. So there she began life anew. Moreover, it is believed that she had three brothers: Charaxus, Larichus, and Eurigius. Only a few remarks about two of the siblings have come down to us through time, with nothing on the third. As one might guess the sketch of her life is based on supposition.

As for her occupation, no one knows what she did. Plutarch credits her with the creation of her own musical form and monody. Whether she was in charge of some type of debutante finishing school or was a high priestess of Aphrodite is unclear, but two things are certain: (1) her poetry evokes vivid imagery, which advanced her fame in seventh and sixth centuries BC; and (2) examinations of her use of Greek grammar and metaphorical language is critical for observing changes in Greek meter and vocabulary up to the Greco-Roman period of the first century AD, and (3) her literary pieces touch on ethics, morality, aspects of the love of wisdom etc.


As a distant parallel, herewith this aside. Roughly twenty-eight hundred years ago a female temple singer by the name of Meresamun dwelt in Egypt. She was a priestess also. The University of Chicago lately has begun to publish informative but brief analyses on the landmark discovery of her body and coffin. At present, scholars are unable to ascertain concrete specifics about her life, but the social reconfigurations naturally begin with the demotic papyri and hieroglyphic scripts concurrent with her tenure as a singer for the god Amun—found on the exterior of the coffin–in the area of Karnak.

Supposedly, the physical evidence derived a from a highly sophisticated Cat-Scan indicates that she was well to do, likely “Mistress of the House”, with great influence over a cadre of personnel. The manner of her mummification forms the basis for those arguments, and human fossil records, too, provide some insight into the world of women about the time of seven hundred BC. Although later in time and of a different culture, but like the Egyptian songstress, Sappho appears to have had the oversight of a small circle of influence and composed songs highly religious in nature.

The coffin in which Meresamun lies is covered with pictorial language. Stories easily understood back then are mysteries today. Her days and nights were dedicated to the god Amun. Scholars are now at work to reconstruct ‘what they believe’ about her existence through philological means.

Similar work is required in Sapphic studies. Within some quarters, Sappho’s popularity today is built on a false foundation, one that is mixed with cultural interpretations rather than with true philological cement. The bulk of assessments of Sappho’s psychology that are published today are based upon militantly activist theories, which have driven us further from the authentic poetess and the originality of her work. For a comprehensive investigation of Sappho’s life and writings see J.M. Duban, The Lesbian Lyre: Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century (2016). Through 800 pages his investigation proceeds with caution and good sense. Was she a priestess? Maybe. Setting aside issues related to the provenance of certain papyri, new discoveries continue to shed new light. Poems composed by women in antiquity were not altogether atypical. But lyrics composed (and preserved) by women for a goddess stand out. In the Hebrew text of Exodus 15:21 (c. fifteenth century BC), Miriam sang to her God (Ex. 15:21); but apparently the song was composed by her brother Moses. Of Sumerian texts, one Enheduanna, daughter of a king in the twenty-third century BC, inscribed a poem in praise of Inanna, goddess of procreation. Examples of her writing can be found in The Babylonian Collection at Yale University (see tablet YBC 7169), which is a cuneiform inscription datable to the eighteenth century BC. The literary form of the opening approbation of the gods in Enheduanna’s invocation is not dissimilar to Sappho’s literary style of praise.

The later hypothesis asserting that Sappho’s books were attacked and burned on account of its subject matter is unreliable. Some supposed book burning of 380AD is offered as the reason for the lack of MSS now extant. Yet truthfully, there were Latin writers like Petronius, Martial and even Catullus who were studied and yet were ruder in their speech and declarations than Sappho, and they were studied continuously. So the ‘censored’ theme runs aground when studied critically. It is common knowledge that she was read right into the eleventh century when the Suda was composed. Inter alia, this document offers various historical perspectives on Sappho and her lives. Our problem is in learning how to critically judge the alleged biographical content of her verse.

By medieval times, the literary tastes of literate persons were in a state of flux. The shadow of the Roman church loomed large, and one easily can turn up records of the Roman Church’s private licentiousness and of their attempt to censor the texts of various ancient writers. The expurgation of texts commenced with little opposition. Thankfully, those days are long gone. By the late nineteenth century, preferences were changing even amongst the decadent, and veiled texts and older manuscripts were sought out. In 1894, Pierre Louys, a French novelist, published a volume entitled “Songs of Bilitis” in which he fabricated the story of a 6th century BC poetess-lesbian (who was a friend of Sappho). Not only did the existence of the poetess and her poems prove to be a falsehood, so was the bibliography: there never were any authentic Aeolic Greek texts brought to the attention of the scholarly world through this pretense. However, his purpose was achieved: a literary stigma was attached to one of the great composers of ancient Greece. Today, it seems the situation is not much better.

Sappho’s poetry bespeaks a mind informed by Homeric literature. Where Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey shows creative genius in its descriptions of warfare caused by fatal love connections, Sappho used Homeric personages in her poetic worlds to show what could be as she penned her versions of love, myth, and history. She was writing in an era when her contemporaries, the Israeli bards Jeremiah and Daniel, expressed themselves prophetically in lyrical verse. Greek myth was essential to her expressive lines. By introducing Helen, Priam, Troy and others into her poetry she provided readers with glimpses of how Homer was read, understood and appreciated throughout the Hellenic world; but particularly on Lesbos, Homer is utilized not only for his depictions of human struggles in conflict but for human interactions involving love and emotion. Greek gods stirred up human passions and felt no grief when frustrating mankind’s desire to see those same passions fulfilled.

The text of Sappho’s first poem, appended below, is emotive. It contains one hundred and fifty Greek words, the vast majority of which may be found in classical Greek literature (See Theognis 221-226) and in any New Testament Greek text. The Church Fathers were unafraid to read the Greek texts of their forebears, even though the whole Greek body of literature had been condemned by several rabbinical authorities. This comparative case for usage of old citations is on record in the writings of ancient Greek authors. E.g., Heraclitus, of the fifth century BC, wrote the following lines in fragment 24 of his corpus:

ἀρηϊφάτους θεοὶ τιμῶσι καὶ ἄνθρωποι—Gods and men honor those slain [in battle] by Ares. The comment appears many centuries later in the works of Titus Flavius Clemens (150AD-215AD), who was also known as Clement of Alexandria.

This reference was evidently noted in order to be used by Christian writers for apologetical purposes in Patristic times. Now though, as students pore over the writings of Greek authors, they find a permanent value in reading the literature of Hellas. One reason for studying ancient texts should be obvious, but this point is rarely observed: locutions change in meaning as time passes. At the same time, new definitions tend to originate, although in different situational arenas. And unless word-signs are examined in multiple but varied settings, such a limited understanding is guaranteed to hamper the understanding of these passages by laypersons and experts.

Exploring the issue directly, here is the entire text of Sappho’s ‘Ode to Aphrodite’, with supra linear glosses—and sub linear transliterations, (see appendix below for smoother renderings).


(lines 1-4)

Oh Aphrodite, immortal enthroned with many colors
Ποικιλόθρον’, ἀθάνατ’ Ἀφρόδιτα,
poikilothron athanat Aphrodita

Child, of Zeus, the bewitcher, I implore thee
παῖ Δίος, δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε
pai Dios doloploke lissomaise

No, not with grief nor reproach crush my
μή μ’ ἄσαισι μήτ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
mē masaisi mēt oniaisi damna

Dear lady heart
πότνια, θῦμον·
potnia thumon

(lines 5-8)

However, come to this (place) if ever
ἀλλὰ τυῖδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴποτα κἀτέρωτα
alla tuid elth ai pota katerwta

You are hearing my voice from afar
τᾶς ἔμας αὔδως ἀΐοισα πήλυι
tas emas audas ai>ousa phlui

You listen, leaving your father’s dwelling
ἒκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
eklues, patros de domon lipoisa

golden, you have come
χρύσιον ἦλθες
crusion elthes

(lines 9-12)

bound chariot; so beautifully you are led
ἄρμ’ ὐποζεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
arm upadeuxaisa kaloi de s  agon

by swift doves around the blackened earth
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
wkee~ strouthoi peri ga~ melaina~

thick wings fluttering from the heavens
πύκνα δινεῦντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνω αἴθε-
pukna dinneuntes pter ap ōranwi aethe~

through the midst
ρας διὰ μέσσω.
ras dia messō,

(lines 13-16)

Suddenly they arrived, but you O blessed
αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· τὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
aipsa d eksikonto. tu d, ō makaira,

smiling with immortal face
μειδιάσαισ’ ἀθανάτῳ προσώπῳ,
mediaisais athanatō proswpō

you asked what is it that has hurt me, for what
ἤρε’, ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
hre otti dēute pepontha kwtti

[do] I cry aloud once again?
δηὖτε κάλημι,
dēute kalēmmi,

(lines 17-20)

And most of all, what do I want to become
κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
kōtti moi  malista thelō genesqai

of my crazy heart? Who do I persuade once more
μαινόλᾳ θύμῳ· τίνα δηὖτε Πείθω
mainola thumō. tina dēute peithō

to lead you into your affection  [who is it]
(μαῖ)ς ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα, τίς σ’, ὦ
mays aghn es san filotata … tis  s  ō

Sappho that wrongs thee
Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει;
Psaph, adikhei …

(lines 21-24)

For should he flee, he will quickly follow
καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
kai gar ei pheugei takheōs diōxei

but and if he does not receive gifts, he will give
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’ ἀλλὰ δώσει,
ai de dōra mh deket,  alla dōsei

and then, if he does not love, he will quickly love [you]
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
ai de mē filei takheōs  filēsei

And I am not wanting to
κωὐκ (ἐθέλοισα).—Reconstruction w/feminine ending
kōuk etheloisa.

(lines 25-28)

Come to me now, but the cruelty release
ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλεπᾶν δὲ λῦσον
elqe moi kai nun, khalepan de luson

from thoughts, as much as, for me to be finished
ἐκ μεριμνᾶν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τελέσσαι
ek merimnan, ossa de moi telessai

[this] heart’s desires, finish it! And you yourself
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον· σὺ δ’ αὔτα
thumos imerrei, teleson. su d  auta

be my battle-ally
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.
summacos  esso

This poem represents the best of Lesbian poetry. The natural beauty of its lines is seen in its formation. The prayer’s microstructure is compact and there is rapidity to each line when read aloud, as aural images dance back and forth in abundance. The poem is written in Aeolic Greek. It was once believed that Homeric epics were translations into Ionic Greek of poems that were initially composed in Aeolic. I refer to Sappho’s poetry as Aeolic only to locate and limit certain distinct features of changes in its literary composition. It is doubtful that Sappho or others of her era would have looked upon their writings as anything but proper Greek, albeit, written in a meter with long and short vowel variations. Indeed, if we recount the history of early Greek dialects as we know them from texts, we encounter one problem after another. In Homer’s works his terms describe several peoples of diverse areas – the Hellas, Achaean, Argean or Danean. Communication was not much of a problem for them as can be seen in historical texts where interaction occurred, but they were not a confederation of united states either as we tend to think of unified groups.

There was no standard archaic “Koine” language that controlled the development of idioms in the local districts as is so often posited now among some New Testament scholars. But with so little linguistic information from Lesbos, or on Aeolic, it is amazing that one should dare to separate its language from the whole of Greek experience and speech.


Deity was foundational both to Sappho’s and Byron’s society. His commendation of Sappho was guarded for he faced a confessional church, whose liturgy and outward forms he distrusted. This distrust is evident in his poem, ‘The Prayer of Nature’. Religion in Byron’s day was monotheistic; her’s, polytheistic; but supplication, within whatever culture that is swayed by belief in god(s) or goddesses, tends toward certain similarities. Usually there is an acknowledgement of the greatness of the deity. Abilities to guide and preserve are seen everywhere; and the most basic belief is the confidence that one’s petition, when offered to a deity, will be answered.

There is hardly anything remarkable or innovative in her requests. Fragments of Sappho contain more than one prayer to Aphrodite: e.g., see 2, 5, 15, 33, 35 and 86. Codices that include Sappho’s verse are not numerous. Any manuscript tradition is bound to be faulty since much of its history is speculative and unreliable. Therefore, from the corpus of poetry available, many hands tried to reconstruct what may presumably be her poems in their original forms. This type of textual criticism is useful and never complete. An emendation, popularly received today, may, in someone else’s hands, prove itself to be weak or plain wrong. To begin with, we note its oral structure. Ordinarily, one would cite the strophe and mark out the long and shorts. This procedure is useful but unneeded now. The main purpose here is to accentuate the sound quality of the narrative and to make a few analogies. That being the case, you should read the poem aloud. Ancient readers did so, with the ear being as important to ancient rhetorical devices as the eye.

  1. Sappho’s choices of wording figure prominently as they reveal the deep meditations of one whose cry is to her eternal goddess. Language has always been used to probe the heavens for answers to lingering queries on earth. It is no less so here. Sappho envisions a many colored throne of beauty fit for deity. This is an eleven syllable verse with similar verbal textures. The ‘theta’ in the first two words contrasts well with the ‘dhelta’ in Aphrodite. [line 1]
  2. The poetess writes as though god[dess] is someone who plays tricks on mortals. Sappho’s approach within the confines of an ancient Greek Temple is one of reverence and caution. She comes not seeking judgment and condemnation, but deliverance. Depending on whether or not you read the diphthongs with an improvised ancient method or use the Modern Greek way will affect each verse’s euphony. The controlled euphonic quality of Modern Greek is recommended.

Her verbal compounds are locatable too in Second Temple era Greek and further along in the Patristic age. In line 2 she uses a compound word with the prefix δολό from δολόπλοκε. It is a tag for trickery, guile and deception-Lat. dolus. Often utilized by New Testament writers you will find it glossed in English as the word guile, c.f. Jn 1:47; II Cor 12:16; I Thess 2:3; I Pet 2:1;  Rev 14:5. The English ‘guile’ is an appropriate equivalent for the Greek term because it encompasses the crafty core inherent in the prefixed stem.

σαισι–νίαισι from line 3: The root stem aisi encapsulates the central meaning connected to judgment, reproach, guilt, shame et cetera. In Koine usage this stem is compounded in many forms, c.f.- the word ‘shame’, especially in in Lk. 14:9; I Cor. 11:6; Eph. 5:12; Heb. 12:2, Rev. 3:18. In many ways the root relates to senses and perception, with the resultant shame or reproach derived from discernment. But this line of thought is carried throughout the Hellenistic era. Plato, Herodotus and Sophocles all use this form illustrating its embodiment of a moral characteristic. Sappho’s employment of it is evidence that its root-meaning was well established even in her time.

[lines 2 -4]

3. Sappho understands the mythic narratives of Greece. Her plea is for a visitation in which the everlasting goddess would hear and heed a personal plea. Notice Sappho’s knowledge of the gold chambered domain of the father.  Sappho’s measured tones of arrival and descent is eurhythmic and suitably placed–αἴ-πο-τα κἀ-τέ-ρω-τα [lines 5-8]

4.Some see or envision Aphrodite as riding the rays of the sun, spiraling downward to the earth, with birds of the air as signs of her presence. These words intuitively guide us in our ancient understanding of gods and their saddled chariots—coming forth suddenly! [lines 9-12]

5.The Greek text gives the impression that Sappho was very familiar with the goddess. She refers to her as “O blessed [one]”. Her descriptions of her are laudatory, replete with a description of an eternally countenanced smile et cetera. Behind the beauty of her presence Aphrodite muses over why she has been summoned…? [lines 13-16]

6.Sappho’s poem is a window into the worlds of private prayer among practitioners of humble pleas, with all of its involved liturgy and superstition. She has given the reader of her verse and occasion to enter a Greco holy place where the gods appear to console the one making her petition. [lines 17-20] *This archaic Greek theology is out of step with the Roman poet Lucretius, who later would write of the god’s disinterest in the affairs of men—See his classic De Rerum Natura.

7.The question of the gender, regarding whether the pursuer or giver is male or female, has exasperated many students. Historically her poetry was read from the male perspective. Newly reconstructed texts have added feminine markers to select verbs. The Greek text betrays neither the identity nor the gender of the reluctant lover. Despite appearances, Wilamowitz believed Sappho was singing of, and to, a young lady for whom she had affection, but needed to keep such regard secret. Sappho’s request, definitely, is for a change in her lover’s heart. [lines 21-24]

8.Sappho concludes by requesting that Aphrodite become her fellow soldier in her personal struggle, hoping the latter would fulfill or finish the mission brought to her attention. Interestingly the Greek word τελέσσαι reappears centuries later in the Gospel of John on Jesus’ lips when he declares “It is finished!”—John 19:30. Sappho is resolved to see the conclusion to this harsh matter which afflicts her heart so. [lines 25-28]

More than a hymn to sing, this treatise is a plea for divine help, a Greek psalm of invocation. Homer’s epics contain these sorts of solicitations and were the first reader for children in classical times. Homer’s gods were the deities of later Greco-Roman theological constructs, and if understanding of classical Greek is to be gained one must acquaint one’s self with Homer’s texts, the ‘Bible of the Greeks’.

The Homeric and Hellenistic culture of Sappho’s day depicted the gods as the creators of fortuitus circumstances or circumstances leading to hardships and calamities. Consider line from Sappho’s supplication: μή μ’ ἄσαισι μήτ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,. Observe the language—“No, not with grief nor reproach crush…” She prays because she should, but one is not led to believe that a hopeful thrill fills her soul.

Sappho’s poetry is unique to classical literature since few MSS authored by women have survived. Her uniqueness would not have been as special in antiquity if female poets already had been a thriving community at the time of her appearance on the literary scene. A few poets of olden days held negative views of women. Hipponax wrote the trite little couplet: “Woman brings pleasure twice to man, the wedding night and her funeral”. Hopefully, thoughts like this were not present in the minds of any readers of Sappho. But if so, it matters little, because from what we have to study presently of Sappho’s insightful verse, it is a useful link to yesteryear, and for comparative philologists and historical linguists her poetic verse is well worth mastering.

Post-mortis investigations of her writings persisted. She continued to speak from the grave in the Seleucid period. Sappho enjoyed a good afterlife in Greco-Roman texts and modern writing. Horace described her this way, mascula Sappho, which seems to nod toward gender ambiguity. But no one understands precisely what he meant. Her significance to literary studies is indicated clearly by the publication of T.S. Thorsen and S.J. Harrison, Roman Receptions of Sappho (2019). It contains a useful chapter, entitled ‘Receiving Receptions Received. A New Collection of Testimonia Sapphica c. 600 BC-AD 1000’. Opinions about her vary. But admiration for her writings will surely only increase.



Beautiful-throned, immortal Aphrodite!
Daughter of Zeus, beguiler, I implore thee,
Weigh me not down with weariness and anguish,
O, thou most holy!

Come to me now! if ever thou in kindness
Hearkenedst my words, — and often hast thou hearkened,
Heeding, and coming from the mansions golden
Of thy great Father,

Yoking thy chariot, borne by thy most lovely
Consecrated birds, with dusky-tinted pinions,
Waving swift wings from utmost heights of heaven
Through the mid-ether:

Swiftly they vanished; leaving thee, O goddess,
Smiling, with face immortal in its beauty,
Asking what I suffered, and why in utter longing
I had dared call thee;

Asking what I sought, thus hopeless in desiring,
’Wildered in brain, and spreading nets of passion
Alas, for whom? and saidst thou, “Who has harmed thee?
O my poor Sappho!

“Though now he flies, erelong he shall pursue thee;
Fearing thy gifts, he too in turn shall bring them;
Loveless to-day, to-morrow he shall woo thee,
Though thou shouldst spurn him.”

Thus seek me now, o holy Aphrodite!
Save me from anguish, give me all I ask for,
Gifts at thy hand; and thine shall be the glory,
Sacred protector!

Translated by T.W. Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, 1871

Darrell Sutton publishes papers on ancient texts and reviews biblical and classical literature

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