Sappho: The Poet and the Legend

      Most accounts of Sappho's  life are riddled with inventions, distortions, and glaring contradictions. Even her appearance is in dispute. Although it seems natural to picture her as a chic aristocrat with cool, sleek, ultrafeminine features ( "I adore delicacy," she purrs in one fragment),  a number of commentators--perhaps interpreting Horace's description "masculine Sappho" as referring to her physiognomy rather than her metrical "strong lines"--suggest that she was coarse and manly. Ovid paints her as olive-skinned and dwarfish, with crude, dumpy features--a sort of Socrates in drag. Yet in other accounts she is Aphrodite incarnate--an irresistible and glamorous siren. Some commentators describe her as decadent and salacious; others portray her as aloof, gentle, pensive, and modest. Clearly these extreme, antithetical, yet familiar images (goddess and she-devil; hag and siren; virgin and whore) are nothing more than broad stereotypes, caricatures typical of the intense oppositions that talented women in a variety of fields have traditionally inspired.

    Of fanciful versions and vivid fictions of her life we have no shortage--beginning with Ovid's Heroides and continuing with several modern poetic, dramatic, and narrative accounts such as those by Swinburne, Lawrence Durrell, and Peter Green. But of sound and reliable biographical treatments we have virtually nothing. In fact there is hardly a statement about Sappho in the entire history of earlier classical scholarship that does not involve some degree of sensationalism or myth-making or reflect the pervasive influence of (mostly male) prejudice and fantasy. As a result, the world of Sapphic biography and criticism is a paradoxical realm where putative "facts" usually turn out to be imaginative fictions, and literary fabrications take on a solid life of their own. Consider, for example, the remarkable case of Sappho's "husband." According to the Suda, a classical literary encyclopedia compiled in the tenth century, Sappho was supposedly married to a wealthy merchant named Kerkylos of Andros--a claim that subsequent commentators passed along as an established fact. However, the doubtful nature of this figure's name and origin (Kerklyos from Andros means "Little Prick" from the Island of Man) suggests that he is probably the mirthful invention of one of the Greek comic writers (who were always concocting some form of R-rated mischief at the expense of history's most famous Lesbian).
    Of course, Sappho's sexual orientation and private affairs have long been matters of lewd curiosity and panting speculation. Yet all we can say with any confidence on this subject is that, for all the stories linking her with kinky love rituals and other guilty pleasures, her little writer's and musician's colony was in all likelihood a pretty tame affair. It was probably either a place where creative emancipated females dedicated themselves to aesthetic pursuits and to the celebration of Aphrodite or, as many scholars now believe, a sort of fine arts academy for gifted and privileged younger girls. Either way, it was much less a bohemian love-cult than an elite art institute or private finishing school. Very possibly it was a place of exacting standards and strict regimentation where young girls were prepared not for sexual adventure, social noncomfority, or an independent artistic career, but (however shocking it may seem) for marriage, motherhood, and domestic bliss.  Plato's Academy should have been so chaste.

        Gay Hedonist or Bookish Matron?

    Obviously this view of Sappho as a prim, ruler-wielding schoolmarm contrasts sharply with her current status as the supreme icon of gay liberation and feminist revolt; nor does it accord in the least with the legendary and still popular conception of the Sapphic circle as a sort of sybaritic coterie, a set of arty female homosexuals given to delicate love-making and group orgies with plenty of jealous bickering in between. So was Sappho the erotic revolutionary and sexual gourmet that legend has made her out to be? We'll probably never know. Accusations that she was "sexually irregular" and a "woman lover" appear to have started out as part of a male plot (begun in ancient times and sustained for twenty-five centuries) to defame The Poetess and deprive her of her literary laurels. Indeed there is little evidence (beyond the poetry) to indicate that Sappho was actually a lesbian in the modern sense. And while the poetry obviously provides ample testimony of Sappho's strong homosexual longings--it is still a matter of critical dispute whether her poems constitute a series of true confessions, describing actual people and flesh-and-blood love affairs, or whether they do not instead represent a suite of artful impersonations and witty erotic fantasies. In the end, readers must decide for themselves whether a verse like fragment 131

    O Atthis, you have cruelly deserted me, and fluttered off to Andromeda's side

is the product of poetic craft and a lively imagination or an autobiographical cri de coeur.


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 © David L. Simpson 1998