• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Sappho - The "Poetess"

Homer, undisputed father of the western literary canon, immortal bard by whose epic imagination the soil of European culture was seeded, watered, and tilled, is known to posterity as “The Poet”. Beyond this simple nickname, this modest sobriquet for which so many men of letters and champions of verse have subsequently vied, little else need be said. It captures him entirely, it defines him for eternity, and it places him—the inventor of Achilles and the drawer of Odysseus, the author of the former’s wrath, and the singer of the latter’s wiles—above all others. In the storied pantheon of the bards, he is the wielder of thunder, the mighty Zeus before whose eloquent splendor and timeless renown, we mortals bend our knee.


There is no question, then, about the identity of the man to whom the nickname, “The Poet” refers—and, more than that, to whom it rightly and uncontestably belongs—but what about “The Poetess”? Surely, if Homer is our father, we must also have a mother, but, as far as I can tell, we concern ourselves little with just who this literary matriarch might be. This, I declare, is the absolute height of filial impiety, a shameless disregard for the woman by whom we were given birth. Having accomplished what she did, and endowed us all with the blessing life, is she not someone about whom we might be just a bit more curious? Is this not a forebear deserving of our respect, our admiration, our gratitude, and our love?


Who, then, in the sprawling world of ancient Greece, that vast and picturesque assortment of islands, territories, colonies, and budding mainland empires through which the dazzling rays of lyrical talent effulgently streaked, atop which the tuneful air of music, the gentle breeze of meter, and the honeyed clouds of poetry so sweetly hovered, was considered the female counterpart to Homer? Exactly who was the “Poetess”? Who was the vaunted “Tenth Muse”—that last addition to the established nine? On whose head was the verdant diadem of laurel crowned—that leafy gift of Apollo and Daphne? To whom was the famed Pierian Spring—a fountain from which the “nine”, and the nine alone, enjoyed the privilege of taking their refreshment—made accessible?


As it turns out, she was to be found on the magnificent island of Lesbos, a fertile, wealthy outpost on the eastern fringe of the Aegean Sea.


Lesbos, detached by little more than a thread from the coast of Asia Minor, enjoyed an enviable position in the ancient world. It was advantageously situated along the trade routes of the Aegean, a well-trod highway across whose tranquil waters and predictable tides, profit-seeking merchants unhesitatingly sailed.


As such, Lesbos came to be an inviting rest stop at which the east came into uninhibited contact with the west. Year after year, the two mingled in her chief city, Mytilene, into whose swelling coffers, a constant stream of foreign income poured. It is always at such points, at which multiple cultures come into awareness of one another, that genius takes its deepest root and the arts begin to flourish. One thinks of Venice as a more recent example of this happy phenomenon, the northern Italian city through which so much eastern business was conveyed, and to which so much wisdom, art, and science was consequently imparted. America—named after one of Italy’s venturesome children—serves as yet another, even more recent example of such a place.


In terms of wealth, learning, refinement, and artistic output, Lesbos came to rival many of the ancient world’s most esteemed countries. Not only was it home to rich farmland, abundant vineyards, rolling pastures, and splendid olive groves, it was a cultural hub of the highest achievement. Mytilene, its capital city located on the island’s eastern shore, welcomed the opportunity to be compared with such grand and venerable cities as Ephesus, Miletus, and Samos—Ionian centers of intellect and commerce out of which the Pre-Socratic philosophers (men bearing such famous names as Heraclitus, Thales, and Pythagoras) would eventually spring.


It was in Mytilene that Sappho, our heretofore undisclosed “Poetess” was born. And, without further ado, it is to this deliciously intriguing, this endlessly beguiling figure we now turn.


The exact year of her birth is uncertain. Most fix the date somewhere in the middle of the seventh century before Christ, possibly around 630 BC. As a point of chronological reference, Homer, “The Poet”, was born toward the end of the eighth, and Alcaeus, her fellow Lesbian poet, was a contemporary with whom she was intimately acquainted. Solon, the Athenian reformer, legislator, and widely-celebrated bard was born around 640 BC. He would later become one of Sappho’s most vocal admirers, exclaiming in all seriousness to his son that, if only he could learn the hidden genius of Sappho’s art, he could die a happy man. None but an Athenian politician would ever be caught saying such a thing—preferring aesthetics to politics, and poetry to life.


From every account of which we’ve come into possession, out of which the gaping, ravenous jaws of history haven’t taken their customary bite, we know that Sappho was the daughter of privilege. She was born at Mytilene to an aristocratic family behind whom a long and celebrated pedigree stood. One might even go so far as to call her an all-out sybarite, perhaps even a voluptuary—such is the consequence of having been born mouthing the elegant contours of a silver spoon. In one of her characteristically frank poems, she confesses to being in love with “soft living”, an admission on which we—a generation softer than any other in history—cannot, in all good faith, harshly judge her.


Sadly, we have no definitive description of her physical appearance, but, if the surviving accounts are to be believed, the beauty of her face was incommensurate with that of her verses. Must I express the matter more plainly? Put bluntly, she was not altogether good-looking, despite the sexiness and seduction with which her lines are rife. She was a small, delicate figure—unblessed by the ample bosom and shapely buttocks of the goddess Aphrodite whom she often invoked—with a skin tone far darker than the Greeks thought becoming. If asked to grade her looks, I would say that hers were comparable to those of the renowned African princess, Cleopatra—a Macedonian, not a Lesbian, by whose intellect and charm (as opposed to whose arresting and undeniable beauty) every man was somehow intoxicated.


Sappho, like Cleopatra, was a passionate woman, of this we can be sure, and her words, as Plutarch tells us, were “mingled with flame”. Her mouth was a furnace and her tongue—that most dangerous of all organs—an incendiary device. Yet this fiery passion failed to extend to the political. She had too much love in her heart to be bothered by the drab, sordid affairs of state. Eros, rather than politics, was the recipient of her focus.


The same can’t be said of her friend and fellow aristocrat, Alcaeus, whose poetry is bathed in the vehemence of political discontent and military zeal.


An example of his style reads as follows:


“The great hall is aglare with bronze armament and the whole inside made fit for war with helms glittering and hung high, crested over with white horse-manes that nod and wave and make splendid heads of men who wear them. Here are shining greaves made out of bronze hung on hooks, and they cover all the house’s side. They are strong to stop arrows and spears…These shall not lie neglected...”


I daresay, having read these lines, none would question the sincerity of their author’s propensity and willingness to fight. His bellicosity is no boast, and he sings not in vain. At but a glance, one feels the immediacy of Alcaeus’ readiness to strip bare the gilded armory by which his verses are adorned, outfit his body, unsheathe his sword, and engage his opponent on the blood-soaked field. Frighteningly, one doubts not the absolute assurance with which he delivers his final line: “these (weapons) shall not lie neglected”. They will collect no rust. They’ll not fail to wet their lips with the taste of human gore. During this age of domestic strife and political conflict, this was a very secure guarantee.


As a leader of the aristocratic bloc in Lesbos (of which, by birth, Sappho was also a member), Alcaeus fought for years against the elected tyrant, Pittacus. Pittacus represented the mercantile class and the poorer citizens of Lesbos, those lower rungs and dregs of society at whom, for far too long, the elites looked down disdainfully.


To Alcaeus, however, Pittacus was little more than a detestable upstart, an unworthy striver after status, wealth, and power of whom he said the following:


“One and all,

You have proclaimed Pittacus, the lowborn,

To be tyrant of your lifeless and doomed land.

Moreover, you deafen him with praise”.


Pittacus, careful to cultivate a sturdy base of support, presented himself as the lower class’ champion, and as the one and only man by whom the avarice and blatant self-dealing of elites like Alcaeus could be properly checked. He succeeded in this venture, and, upon gaining power, conferred the blessing of stability upon Lesbos—which was, until now, in a constant state of intrigue and unrest.


Evidently, the masses approved of his rule. They spoke favorably of his character and enjoyed the temperance of his administration. They profited by his lenience and sought to imitate his virtues. They congratulated themselves for having elevated such an honorable man, but Alcaeus would have none of it. An unpopular voice in a sea of support, he rebuked their praise for being over-zealous, blinkered, and servile. He warned them that their enthusiasm was misplaced, and that a tyrant seldom reigns without some attendant hardship or injustice. The city should be governed not by some lowborn demagogue like Pittacus, an infamous, aspiring despot, but a highborn warrior-poet like Alcaeus the great.


Today, “Pittacus” is a name with which not even the most assiduous student of history is familiar, but a reader of philosophy, especially a lover of Aristotle, is likely to have come across it at one point or another. In the Stagirite’s great work entitled, Politics, he thrice mentions the Lesbian king by name. He does so when providing an example of an “elective tyrant”—an untraditional type of ruler whose government is categorized as “kingly”.


Here is a passage from Aristotle’s, Politics, from which I quote:


“(An elective tyranny’s) difference from that which is to be found amongst the barbarians consists not in its not being according to law, but only in its not being according to the ancient customs of the country. Some persons (some elected tyrants) possessed this power for life, others only for a particular time or particular purpose, as the people of Mytilene elected Pittacus to oppose the exiles, who were headed by Antimenides and Alcaeus the poet. For he (Alcaeus) upbraids the Mytilenians for having chosen Pittacus for their tyrant (as we see in his poem above), and with one voice extolling him to the skies who was the ruin of a rash and devoted people”.


In a word, then, an elective tyranny, as instituted at Mytilene by the joint efforts of Pittacus and the suffrage of the people, was perhaps novel, but not unlawful. Aristotle concludes that this sort of government is “despotic, on account of its being a tyranny”, but “inasmuch as it is elective, and over a free people, it is also kingly”. As such, it is not to be discountenanced or overthrown, reviled or rejected. And, as an aside, Antimenides, a minor poet, was Alcaeus’ brother. It’s clear that usurpation, in addition to poetry, was a familial hobby.


After many years of conflict, urged on and financed by Antimenides and Alcaeus, the twin usurpers were defeated. No sooner had Pittacus established himself at the head of the Lesbian government than he decided to exile the two brothers, along with all his other foes. This, after all, was a chief part of the campaign on which he ran, and he was well-inclined to flex his power and to keep his promise. We might cringe at this seemingly wanton demonstration of strength, but there was nothing untoward about what we might understand to be a gross and hostile act of political revenge; it was a common practice unstained by the blot of what we moderns might deem a despot’s overreach.


Thus, Sappho, along with Alcaeus, was exiled from Lesbos. Five years later, she returned, only to be banished again. With increased distance, no fondness grew. Her amorous spirit blazed ever hotter, all while her hostility toward the regime was more dangerously enflamed. She landed finally at Sicily, a part of Magna Grecia (or “Greater Greece”), upon whose picturesque and fertile shores, many a wandering Greek took the occasion to disembark. One cannot but wonder if, while passing her days on the sweeping coast of that Italian island, Sappho came into contact with the philosopher, sage, and mathematician, Pythagoras. One can imagine the exchange of ideas between the mystic and the poetess, the eccentric leader, and the erotic lover.


It was in Sicily, far removed from her Lesbian upbringing, that Sappho succumbed the allurement of heterosexual love. Nature has its way of asserting herself, and Sappho’s walls were finally breached by the sieging gusts of biology. She married a wealthy merchant by the name of Andros (a fittingly virile and masculine name, and a seeming corrective to her infatuation with women), by whom she had a precious little daughter. The girl was named Cleis, possibly after Sappho’s own grandmother, a matriarch of yore for whom she felt the deepest reverence. Of her daughter, in a moment of maternal rapture, she says that, “In her place, I would not accept the whole of Lydia, nor lovely Lesbos…”


Lydia, over which the imponderably rich yet ill-fated Croesus presided, was famous for its spectacular wealth. To Sappho, that mattered little. She says that she would spurn every ounce of its gold, if only to bask in the divine radiance of her daughter’s smiling face. I think every new mother smitten with her child would agree to these terms, but it was particularly easy for someone like Sappho, fabulously wealthy by way of marriage and inheritance, to make this noble claim.


This maternal tenderness, is but one variety of love to which Sappho gives poetic expression. She’s much more famous for her poems about what we might now call Lesbian love. Many of her poems are suggestive of a homosexual predilection, a preference for the love of women about which she was shockingly forthcoming. These poems are as refreshing as they are scandalous, as candid as they are deep. There’s no hint of reticence in their writing, no hesitation in making known her innermost desires and thoughts. Sappho even goes so far as to name the objects of her yearning, adding to the archives of history a list of young women who would otherwise be completely forgotten by time.


Aside from Atthis and her daughter Cleis, Sappho mentions a certain Anaktória, a mysterious maiden to whom she dedicates what must be considered the finest of her poems. I quote from it now:


“Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen

on the black earth is an array of horsemen;

some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say

she whom one loves best


Is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this

plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty

all mortality, Helen, once forsaking

her lordly husband,


Fled away to Troy—land across the water.

Not the thought of child nor beloved parents

Was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus

Won her at first sight.


Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded

Easily, light things, palpitant to passion

As am I, remembering Anaktória

Who has gone from me


And whose lovely walk and the shining pallor

of her face I would rather see before my

eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory

armored for battle”.


If, like me, you’ve been completely overwhelmed by the force of these five glorious stanzas, I’ll give you a moment to recover yourself. Be seated, if you must. Breathe deeply, and regain your wits. For one, I’m unresistingly vulnerable, almost defenseless to their impact every time they leap from the page and make contact with my soul. This poem by Sappho knocks me over every time.


It is, without a doubt, Sappho’s most moving, poignant, heartfelt, wistful, and feeling work. She makes it clear in the last line of the first stanza that the object of her affection, the “fairest thing seen on the black earth” is a female “whom one loves best”. No grand array of horsemen, soldiers, or ships can hope to compete with the awesome majesty and divine beauty of this immaculate figure.


She, more than anything or anyone else, is the loveliest creature of all, a fact for whose proof no further argument beyond the heart’s fluttering and the cheek’s roseate blush is required. Sappho references Helen—the most beautiful woman ever to have graced the earth. She was the queen, married to but—as a consequence of some divine intervention—estranged from her royal husband Menelaus, over whose retrieval the Trojan War was consequently fought. The “Queen of Cyprus” Aphrodite, won her (or, rather, stole her) to recompense Paris for his flattering judgment.


Finally, Sappho reveals to us the identity of her “Helen”: it is Anaktória, a woman of whose immeasurable beauty we cannot but be persuaded.


Of Atthis, Sappho speaks in less exalted language.


“Once upon a time, I loved you, Atthis

Yes, long ago…

Even when I thought of you as a small

And graceless girl…”


The nature of this “love” that Sappho here professes is somewhat more ambiguous and, for that reason, a bit more discomfiting than that extended to Anaktória. As is evident from the passage, this love was not quite as inextinguishable and enduring. Sappho makes clear that this love is an old love, a dead love, a distant passion sublimated by years and memory to which her more mature heart no longer answers. It also depicts Atthis as a “small and graceless girl”—a troubling prospect if she was, indeed, the recipient of an adult Sappho’s sexual love.


If only to preserve Sappho’s decency, and protect her from the not entirely unreasonable charges of illicit amours with non-consenting youth, I like to imagine her as I do a dreamy Marcel Proust—jotting down his notes in the shadow of young girls very much in flower. Next to him, in that same budding grove out of which the exquisite beauties of Albertine and Gilberte would no sooner blossom, I like to think Sappho pulled up a chair, baptized her madeleine in a flavorful cup of tea, and reclined as the scene before her unfolded. There, with her poetic colleague and fellow homosexual, she would watch the young girls in their hour of play, Lolitas one and all, shaded by the same leafy bower under which the gifted Frenchman sleepily composed.


We’re informed by Sappho that Atthis was sent away—possibly because of the rude exigencies of a matrimonial commitment.


About this, she says:


“Although she (Atthis) is in Sardis,

her thoughts often stray here, to us…


But now she surpasses all the women

of Lydia, like the moon,

rose-fingered, after the sun has set,


Shining brighter than all the stars; its light

Stretches out over the salt-

Filled sea and the fields brimming with flowers.


But wandering here and there, she recalls

Gentle Atthis with desire

And her tender heart is heavy with grief”.


There is much sadness in separation, which Sappho captures movingly. She was obviously accustomed to it, for in a later poem, she says:


“Honest, I want to die,” she said to me.

She was in tears when she went away,


Said to me not once but many times:

“Sappho, why must we suffer so?

it’s not by choice; I don’t want to leave you here”.


And I, this is what I said to answer her:

“Farewell. Go in peace. But remember me.

Don’t ever forget how well I took care of you.


If you do, let me recall to you

All the good days we had together,


The wreathes you wore, of roses and violets

As we lay side by side, the necklaces

Woven from flowers to drape your soft shoulders,


The perfume, precious, fit for royalty

How much you used, to anoint yourself!


The soft bed where you would satisfy…desire…”


The final line is left incomplete, but how titillating the prospect of its conclusion! The identity of the departing girl remains undisclosed, but we might assume it to be Atthis. Unfortunately, as the poem makes clear, she won’t be entering her conjugal union voluntarily. A marriage seems to have been planned for her, somewhere far afield to a loveless man. It’s a sad fate over which the unnamed girl is understandably despondent, to which, as a woman living in ancient Greece, she had no lawful recourse. Sappho, in an attempt to alleviate her friend’s suffering, and soften the pain of this sudden blow, recounts the many delightful experiences they shared together. Recall, above all else, she says, the sensuous good times we had together, and, most importantly, the soft bed where desire was—well—satisfied.


Goodness! The loins cannot help leaping up every time this poem reaches its climactic end! It appears, then, that detumescence, a calming of the hormones and a drying of the moistened glands, was thought necessary to restore decency, chastity, and good order to the lines of the “Poetess”.


The possibility of Sappho being so unabashed a homosexual and lascivious a poet disquieted many conservative scholars. The German classicist, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff—well-equipped with a regal name—proposed an alternative view. We refer to his idea as the “Schoolmistress Theory”, which posits that Sappho was not a debauched homosexual singing odes to orgasms and female lovers, but a respectable teacher of young girls at a finishing school in Lesbos. It was Wilamowitz’s aim to restore Sappho to a state of good repute by arguing that she was not sexually involved with the likes of Atthis and Anaktórias, but pedagogically interested, merely. Her poetry, in the Wilamowitz view, was nothing more than an artistic fantasy—one conceived by the imagination without any genitals ever having rubbed.


Few scholars now support this theory. Wilamowitz’s prudery appears to have been defeated, with the final victory going to a very Sapphic sexuality.


Imagine a buttoned-up schoolmistress—toga tenaciously concealing her form—entrusted with the education and oversight of young girls, composing the following lines:


“Percussion, salt, and honey,

A quivering in the thighs;

He shakes me all over again,

Eros who cannot be thrown,

Who stalks on all fours

Like a beast.”

If, upon reading or hearing of these lines, you remain unstirred, motionless, calm, and un-aroused, I know not what to tell you, other than to seek the guidance and possibly the intervention of a medical professional trained in the arts of sexual dysfunction.


“Percussion, salt, and honey”—the opening line is a poem in itself. You can almost feel the one, taste and savor the following two. It most decidedly sets the tone for what’s to come, a string of provocative lines which reads like a veritable ode to orgasm. The thighs are all aquiver as the knees begin to tremble. The ankles stiffen as the toes begin to curl and coil back upon the barren feet. The eyes, once unblinking, are suddenly diverted. The course of their trajectory is backward, as they roll to the brow and the ceiling of the lid. The pores discharge their streams of sweat, as the pulse beats with the rapidity of a hummingbird’s wings.


Such is the effect of Eros on a woman. He makes,


“…me shiver again

Strengthless in the knees,

Eros gall and honey,

Snake-sly, invincible”.


In other words, Eros is not to be defeated. Is he not, after all, one of the primeval gods?—one of the few natural forces by whom, taking seriously the divine genealogy put forth in Hesiod’s Theogony, the cosmos was originally created? As Sappho makes clear, we’re little more than the fleshy playthings of Eros, a god against whose lusty influence, we might be able to erect some excitable organs, but not a meaningful defense.


An amorous spirit, a practitioner of love, can easily become lost in these euphoric lines. If, perchance, you find yourself happily entangled in this labyrinth of lust, caught in this mellifluous web of Sapphic meter and cadence, relish your captivity. Seek not an escape. Open your heart to Sappho, and her lines might just open your loins.


We’ll end with this—a hopeful prayer to the god of love. In supplication to her divine patroness, that beautiful figure born of the foam, Sappho says the following:


“Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,

Child of Zeus, charm-fashioner, I entreat you

Not with griefs and bitternesses to break my

Spirit, O goddess;


Standing by me rather, if once before now

Far away you heard, when I called upon you,

Left your father’s dwelling place and descended,

Yoking the golden


Chariot to sparrows, who fairly drew you

Down in speed aslant the black world, the bright air

Trembling at the heart to the pulse of countless

Fluttering wingbeats.


Swiftly then they came, and you, blessed lady,

Smiling on me out of immortal beauty,

Asked me what affliction was on me, why I

Called thus upon you,


What beyond all else I would have befall my

tortured heart: ‘Whom then would you have persuasion

force to serve desire in your heart? Who is it,

Sappho, that hurt you?


Though she now escape you, she soon will follow;

Though she take not gifts from you, when will give them:

Though she love not, yet she will surely love you

Even unwilling’.


In such guise come even again and set me

free from doubt and sorrow; accomplish all those

things my heart desires to be done; appear and

stand at my shoulder”.


And may Sappho stand at ours. The “Poetess”, the “Tenth Muse”, may she grace our side forever.

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