glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Bookmark and Share
Sappho (ca 630? B.C.E.)  
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  

The earliest woman writer whose work survives and the most famous, Sappho has been admired throughout the ages. To the ancients, she needed no introduction: She was known simply as the poetess, the female equivalent to Homer, the poet. She was so esteemed by her compatriots that her portrait graced the coins of her native Lesbos.

The Importance of Sappho

She was admired by male poets such as Baudelaire, A. C. Swinburne, and Ezra Pound as the greatest of lyric poets; by female poets like Natalie Barney, Amy Lowell, and H.D. as the font of their poetic tradition.

To lesbians around the world today, she is the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

Although Sappho was the sole woman to be admitted to the canon of the nine great lyric poets in antiquity, she was the only one of them to attain mythic status when Plato first elevated her to the rank of the Muses.

She is the only ancient author to have become the stuff of legend: She was a popular subject for Greek art from the sixth and fifth century B.C.E. onward, she was presumably the subject of the six different Greek comedies entitled Sappho (none of which survive), and she became a tragic romantic heroine based on Ovid's use of the legend of her love for the ferryman Phaeon.

Lesbians owe their two most important names to her: Lesbian and . As Judy Grahn so aptly asks in The Highest Apple, "When has a larger group of humans, more pervasive behavior, and much more than this, the tradition of women's secret powers that such names imply, ever been named for a single poet?"

The Life of Sappho

Despite Sappho's fame, almost nothing can be said about her with any degree of certainty. She was born in the town of Eresus on the west shore of the island of Lesbos, the third largest island in the Aegean Sea situated a few miles off the coast of ancient Lydia (modern Turkey), possibly as early as 630 B.C.E. or as late as 609 B.C.E. She spent most of her life in Mytilene, the principal town of Lesbos, and was exiled to Sicily from 604/3 B.C.E. to 596/5 B.C.E. because of her family's political activities.

She was of aristocratic birth. Her father's name is given variously as either Simon, Eunomius, Eurygyus, Eurytus, Semus, Scamon, Euarchus, or Scamandronymus; her mother's name was Cleis. She had three brothers, Larichus, Eurygyus or Erigyus, and Charaxus, whom she is said to have berated in her poetry for his expensive affair with the notorious courtesan Rhodopis.

She was married and had a daughter named Cleis. She was a Lesbian by birth and by inclination.

The Term "Lesbian"

In antiquity, the word Lesbian meant simply "native of Lesbos." So, we refer to Sappho and her male contemporary Alcaeus as Lesbian poets much as one might speak of H.D. and Amy Lowell as American poets.

The denotation of female homosexuality for the word Lesbian is relatively recent. In the English language, it is first attested in the 1890 Billing's Medical Dictionary and moved quickly into medical, literary, and underground use.

The word Lesbian did have special connotations in antiquity. Lesbos was the center of Aeolian culture, and its natives were perceived by the rest of the Greek world (namely, Dorian and Ionian Greeks, who were far more pragmatic and ascetic in temperament) as passionate, intense, and sensual people with a great love of nature and of physical beauty.

As Denys Page states in Sappho and Alcaeus, the poets of Lesbos created "the most exquisite lyrical poetry the world has known." It is perhaps due to this exquisiteness and sensuality that Lesbos was to become "a byword for corruption" and "decadent sensuality" comparable to the reputation of the Provencal troubadours and their erotic literature in later times.

In antiquity, "Lesbian woman" did not denote a female homosexual, but a licentious woman who freely indulged in shameful sexual behavior. Hence the Greek verb lesbiazein, "to act the lesbian," meant "to fellate" or otherwise "play the whore."

After the second century C.E., the common term for a homosexual woman was tribas (from the verb meaning "to rub or "massage"), which the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon defines as "A woman who practices unnatural vice with herself or other women."

The specific term applied to Sappho's relations by the Hellenistic biographers (third century B.C.E.) is gynerastia, the "erotic love of women."

    page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7   next page>  
zoom in
Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Literature
Popular Topics:


Williams, Tennessee
Williams, Tennessee

Literary Theory: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer

The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance

Romantic Friendship: Female
Romantic Friendship: Female

Feminist Literary Theory

American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969
American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Erotica and Pornography
Erotica and Pornography

Mishima, Yukio
Mishima, Yukio

Sadomasochistic Literature

Beat Generation
Beat Generation




This Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.