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Sappho (ca 630? B.C.E.)  
 
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Sappho as a Teacher

It is supposed that Sappho was the teacher of a group of young, unmarried aristocratic girls who came to her from all over the Greek world for instruction in the arts of beauty, music, poetry, and dance. From Sappho's poetry, we infer that there were other such women's circles on Lesbos during her time, for she directed witty invective poetry against her rivals, Gorgo and Andromeda.

For example, Fragment 57 insults Andromeda's taste in girls (all translations are my own):

Sponsor Message.

What witch, Andromeda, addled your wits?
     Some farm-girl with her faded calico
     Dragging the dust. This season,
     Hemlines skim slim ankle-bones
     And we wear silk
     In the city.

Atthis, to whom Sappho directed tender verse, apparently became a defector and is chastised accordingly in Fragment 49:

I did love you once, Atthis
     But that was long ago.
I thought you were a little thing:
     A girl without grace.

But what Sappho is primarily known for is her impassioned love poetry toward young women.

Sappho's Poetry

Of Sappho's nine books of lyric poetry, approximately 200 fragments survive, many of them consisting of only one or two words or a few isolated characters. Many of the surviving fragments are in the same poetic meter, a meter that appears to have been Sappho's favorite (if not her invention) and so is called after her, the sapphic stanza.

We have only one complete poem and forty fragments that are long enough to offer a degree of sense. What happened to the prodigious volumes of her work? Legend has it that after the church father Tatian branded Sappho a whore in 140 C.E., presumably due to her "unnatural" love for young women, her books were burned by the Christians.

One version of the legend claims that this occurred under Gregory Nazianzen about 380 C.E. Other sources set the burning in Constantinople and Rome in 1073 C.E. Whether the stories are true, or whether her work disappeared through neglect (as with many ancient authors), no manuscript survived in Europe. Still, as Meleager, the compiler of the ancient anthology (ca 90 B.C.E.) said, the remains of Sappho are "few, but roses."

The surviving fragments of Sappho focus on the sensual world. Gardens, varieties of flowers and blossoming herbs, smoking incense, and perfumed oils provide a riot of scent and color. The poems express delight in the look and feel of fine fabrics, in floral garlands set about flowing hair, the soft bed, a companion's tender flesh, the music of the lyre, the thrill of a girl's singing, the joyful dance, the pleasures of love, and the sadness of the inevitable parting.

The Presence of Aphrodite

Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexuality, is ever present. In the poems of Sappho, she is not portrayed as a fearsome deity, but as a mentor and confidante. We see this special relationship in the two summoning hymns to Aphrodite.

In poem 1, Sappho, the rejected lover, calls upon Aphrodite for aid. In Fragment 2, Sappho invokes Aphrodite, the Cyprian goddess, to attend upon her and her companions in an idyllic setting:

Come to me from Crete
     To this, your sacred temple.
Here, to this gracious glade of apples
     And altars thick with incense.

Here, cool water bubbles up
     Through broken apple-boughs
     In a clearing shaded all with roses
     And quivering leaves drip enchantment.

Here, meadow grass that feeds strong horses
     Concedes to a riot of spring flowers
And soft honeyed breezes blow.
     ...

Here, then, Cyprian, bring garlands
     And gods' nectar in golden cups.
Be our gentle serving maid:
     Let divinity mingle with our feast.

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