Western literature is largely indebted to ancient Greek and Latin canon. As a literature student, one cannot avoid reading about the Greeks, and literature has a direct relation with its corresponding socio-politico situation. The Greek society was largely patriarchal. It placed a lot of emphasis on masculinity and associated the same with ideas of valour, justice, honour and bravery. Heroism was largely concerned with dedicating oneself to the service of one’s people in an ancient sense of nationhood, and that would mean that one was free to sacrifice his entire family too, if it was for the nation. The women we hear of in Greek culture, like Helen of Troy or Clytemenestra were wives or mothers, their identity and characterisation done completely to complement the events that were the main stories- and main stories meant wars and battles and heroes saving damsels in distress, so basically the glorification of masculinity. Among this completely men’s society where all the significant interactions are between men, there was born one lady. The Tenth Muse, as Plato called her. And she swayed the world with her poems with their wonderful articulations of desire, their soft tremulous words of love that defied the men’s world of valour and courage and violence. Sappho today is read as a mother figure in Gender studies, because it is after her birthplace Lesbos, that the word lesbian is coined.
Sappho was a Greek lyric poet,lived much before the the famous Greek epics and tragedies were written.The Alexandrians included her in the list of nine lyric poets. The only information modern scholars have gathered and construed about her is through the fragments of poetry that have been discovered. Her entire life is a mystery- a shadowy world much like the themes of her poetry. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC.
Judging from the inscribed chronology on the Parian Marble, she was exiled from Lesbos to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594 BC. She probably had a daughter by the time she was exiled. Ancient papyrus from around 200 AD refers to Sappho as having a daughter named after her mother. It is noticeable how in Sappho’s world, significant are only the women, never are men mentioned in her context. It is almost as if she is directly inverting the order of the society she was born in- where women were not even considered human beings equal to men.
Fragment 102 has its speaker address a “sweet mother”, sometimes taken as an indication that Sappho began to write poetry while her mother was still alive. The great Ovid mentions Sappho as lamenting that, “Six birthdays of mine had passed when the bones of my parent, gathered from the pyre, drank before their time my tears.”
Sappho’s lifetime coincided with a period of political turbulence on Lesbos and saw the rise of Pittacus. Sappho’s surviving poetry has very few allusions to political conditions.They are replete with varied expressions of desire that is forbidden both for her to show and for her loved woman to receive, desire that is orgasmic as well as excruciatingly painful.She has a number of poems addressed to Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of love and Cupid’s mother. It is usually assumed that Sappho returned from exile later and that she spent the rest of her life in Lesbos.
eternal daughter of God,
snare-knitter! Don’t, I beg you,
cow my heart with grief! Come,
as once when you heard my far-
off cry and, listening, stepped
from your father’s house to your
gold car, to yoke the pair whose
beautiful thick-feathered wings
soaring down mid-air from heaven
carried you to light swiftly
on dark earth; then, blissful one,
smiling your immortal smile
you asked, What ailed me now that
me me call you again? What
Her name is also the origin of the word “sapphic” but this word was applied to female homosexuality until the 19th century. Sappho’s contemporary Alcaeus described her thus: “Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho”. She has poems addressed to both sexes thus releasing love from the constraints of sex or sexuality. Sometimes there are references to other famous Greek women-
Some celebrate the beauty
of knights, or infantry,
or billowing flotillas
at battle on the sea.
Warfare has its glory,
but I place far above
these military splendors
the one thing that you love.
For proof of this contention
we all remember Helen,
who left her family,
her child, and royal husband,
to take a stranger’s hand:
her beauty had no equal,
but bowed to love’s command.
Sappho for Equality is a social reform organisation based in Calcutta, working for for not only LGBT rights, but also producing entire chunks of literature by people whose experiences are often suppressed by mainstream society. Needless to say, they hold Sappho, the transgressive Greek woman as their primary source of inspiration. Their website is http://sapphokolkata.org/ where one can find their publications, their documentaries and a list of projects they have successfully carried out.