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Sappho (ca 630? B.C.E.)  
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Since there are only two people depicted in the scene--the girl and Sappho--this would seem to be a clear description of lesbian activity, yet some scholars have mistranslated pothos, the word normally used of sexual passion, and taken the verb exies "you expelled (by satisfying)" as reflexive to translate the phrase as "you satisfied your desire (for rest)," that is, after too much dancing.

Attempts to Heterosexualize Sappho

Despite the strong evidence to the contrary, serious attempts have been made to heterosexualize Sappho. In antiquity, a legend was created that, in the end, Sappho renounced the love of women and fell in love with the ferryman Phaeon. Too ugly to get her man, she leapt off of the Leucadian Cliff to her death.

This legend is so incongruous with the authorial voice in Sappho's verse that the ancient biographers themselves were confused: They list two Sapphos of Lesbos. The second Sappho is described as either a lyre-player or courtesan, but specifically not the poetess. It is this second Sappho who committed suicide for love of Phaeon.

Ovid, in his Epistles, conflates the two Sapphos: It is the great poet Sappho who renounces girls and longs for Phaeon. It is this Sappho that writers, artists, and composers have focused on ever after.

Sappho's Marriage as Proof of her Heterosexuality

Some commentators cite as proof of Sappho's heterosexuality the fact that she was married and had a daughter. Curiously, her husband is cited as Kerkylas from Andros. The name Kerkylas is based on the word for "penis." Andros comes from the word for "men." If we translate, then, we find that the most famous lesbian of all was married to Penis of the city of Men.

Too good to be true? In any event, it is likely that she was married, but this has no bearing on her sexual orientation. Greek society was very different from our own: Marriage was seen as a civic responsibility and familial obligation. It was not designed--nor expected--to fulfill one's erotic or romantic needs. For that, men looked elsewhere. And marriage did not interfere with their homosexual affairs.

Marital relations were known as a ponos or "labor," ergon "work," or kamnos, "toil." In contrast, erotic affairs were called paidia or "play." Men were so unenthusiastic about participating in sexual intercourse with their wives that they had to be reminded.

Plutarch in his life of Solon suggests that a man should make love to his wife three times a month in order to ease marital tensions. Foreplay was actively discouraged: Too much pleasure might give a woman power over her husband and, thus, undermine his authority.

Clearly, women could not expect sexual fulfillment within marriage. But for a woman to remain unmarried in this society was unthinkable. According to Eva Cantarella in her book Pandora's Daughters, girls were betrothed as young as five years old and, by thirteen or fourteen, they were subjected to arranged marriages to men who were aged thirty or older.

Before and after marriage, women were completely segregated in the internal part of the house to which men had no access. Women did not come into contact with men outside their immediate family except occasionally at public festivals and funerals.

On Lesbos, aristocratic women like Sappho got an education, albeit a "female" one emphasizing music, singing, and dancing. But as Cantarella points out, at least this education helped form their individual personalities and offered them a means to express it.

If we take Sappho as a model teacher, it would appear that an appreciation of sensual expression, including lesbian affairs, was part of a girl's education. When a girl moved from maiden to married woman (at about fourteen), her time for play was over. She would have only memories of what must have been the happiest time of her life. It is no wonder that she wept on graduation.

Women were segregated with other women, and socialized and trained by them. What would be more natural than for romantic attractions and rivalries to occur among them, as occurred among their menfolk? Who is to say if Greek women had homosexual affairs of their own?

Sappho does, but, unfortunately, she is our only direct source for love between women; as Cantarella states, "Unlike male homosexuality, female homosexuality was not an instrument for the training of citizens. It therefore by definition interested only women."

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