Loretta Barnard

Know who you’re Googling: Sappho – Feminist trailblazer, ancient poetess, mystery


Approx Reading Time-12Sappho has many labels: the muse of thousand poets, the godmother of feminism, the pioneer of sexual freedom. But who was she?




“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness.”

Thus was the ancient poet Sappho dismissed by the Church, according to American writer Daniel Mendelsohn.

Sappho: her very name evokes many a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” response. She’s revered as a gay icon and a feminist trailblazer, but the truth of the matter is that we know very little about her.

Born into an upper-class family around 620BCE on the Greek island of Lesbos (hence “Lesbian”), Sappho is known to have had a few brothers, a husband and a daughter named Cleïs. She was renowned in her own time as “the Poetess” (Plato supposedly called her “the tenth Muse”), but tall poppy syndrome has always been alive and well, and before long her words were being excised or changed to suit the sensibilities of the time(s); but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What we have of Sappho’s poems are just fragments, the great body of her work lost over the millennia. She’s reported to have written nine goodly-sized volumes of verse that were known across antiquity and were often consulted by scholars in ancient libraries. Over the years, these were lost in fires, floods, wars; and during the fifteenth century, the Church destroyed what manuscripts they owned because they were considered immoral and indecent. Censorship – what treasures have been lost in the name of so-called good taste.

Sappho’s homoerotic verses – poems addressed to women – were the reason for her later vilification, and yet homoeroticism wasn’t anything unusual at the time. Both men and women wrote poetry extolling the virtues of their same sex companions (whether sexual or platonic), and social and religious practices consisted of both single sex and mixed events.

She’s been maligned as decadent and salacious, but this was a poet of rare sensitivity. Before her, poetry was primarily about gods, goddesses, wars and heroes. Sappho brought poetry into the realms of personal experience.

The most famous of her extant poetry is the “phainetai moi”, known as Fragment 31. Often quoted, variously interpreted, it has influenced a huge assortment of poets over thousands of years.

He seems an equal of the gods,
That man who sits across from you
And your sweet speaking, being near,
Can overhear


And that seductive laugh, which sets
the heart to flutter in my chest
For when I glance your way, my words
Dissolve unheard.


Silence breaks my tongue and subtle
fire streams beneath my skin,
I can’t see with my eyes, or hear
through buzzing ears.


Sweat runs down, a shiver shakes
Me deep – I feel as pale as grass:
As close to death as that, and green,
Is how I seem.


(Translation by Richard Welland Crowell)

The description of the physical manifestations of love is rather brilliant. The fire under the skin, the sweating and shaking, the rapid heartbeat. You can’t but marvel at the poet’s skill. The words are simple yet passionately compelling, capturing that happy-sad turmoil of love.

Okay, so it appears to be about a woman watching the woman she loves with a man. There seems little doubt that there is a measure of jealousy in her observation – she remains unseen, unheard, indeed she’s rendered speechless; but the poem can also be read in a different light.

Some scholars feel the fragment may have been part of a wedding song, and it’s notable that in her day, Sappho’s poems were sung, usually accompanied by a lyre. The poet was writing an incantation for a public audience – writing a love song, much as songwriters write to this day.

Many of Sappho’s poems concern love. Fragment 1, for instance, Hymn to Aphrodite, is an anguished plea to the goddess of love to help the poet win her beloved. It’s not clear whether the beloved is a man or a woman.

In Fragment 105c, Sappho compares her paramour with a delicate flower easily crushed.

O my mountain hyacinth
What shepherds trod upon you
With clumsy, rustic foot?
Now you are a broken seal:
A scarlet stain upon the earth.


(Translation by Anita George)

It’s a breathtaking work, perhaps made all the more powerful by the forced brevity of fragmentation.

Over the centuries she’s been maligned as decadent and salacious – wowsers really do wield such extraordinary power – but this was a poet of rare sensitivity.

To discover that Sappho may have led a group of women and girls in the worship of Aphrodite muddies the waters. Some think this group was akin to a finishing school where girls were prepared for marriage. So on the one hand, Sappho could be despairing that her beloved is so elusive; on the other hand, perhaps her poems are simply songs written with the religious or ritual purpose of preparing girls for their role as wives.

The whole “lesbian” thing is another vexed issue. As mentioned, homoeroticism in ancient Greece wasn’t really a big deal, and apart from signifying a person from Lesbos, the word “lesbian” apparently had another meaning. Mendelsohn points out that ancient Greeks associated “lesbians” with fellatio and Sappho was vilified as having a rampant sexual appetite for men.

Speculation about her sexuality will no doubt continue, but in the end does it matter? We know Sappho from what remains of her poetry. Is it really important to know whether the subjects of her poems were men or women? The fact that she described the despair of unrequited love, the agony of longing, the sleeplessness and the wretchedness should be enough. Can’t we marvel at the art and leave the private life alone?

Sappho brought poetry into the realms of personal experience. Before her, poetry was primarily about gods, goddesses, wars and heroes. Sappho’s poems are about emotions: they’re reflective; they describe love and yearning. They’re really quite something.

Also on The Big Smoke

Her lyrical four-line stanzas are called Sapphic stanzas. There’s a particular metrical form to a Sapphic stanza in the ancient Greek. The first three lines usually contain eleven syllables, the last line just five.

Translations are always challenging, and when you consider that Sappho wrote in Aeolic Greek, essentially an ancient Greek dialect, and that we have only fragments of her work left, you get an idea of the difficulties facing translators. Where do the line breaks go? Which syllables should be stressed? What words best mirror the poet’s original lines? How do you know whether you in fact have the original lines, given transcribing errors and editorial interference over centuries? How do you capture the lyricism without sacrificing the metre and so on? Gives you new respect for translators.

There’s still much we can savour from the ancients. Sappho must have had an inkling of this when she wrote:

You may forget but let me tell you this:
Someone in some future time will think of us.



Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

Related posts


  1. Pingback: buy viagra online

  2. Pingback: online pharmacy

  3. Pingback: cheap cialis

  4. Pingback: tadalafil 20 mg

  5. Pingback: international pharmacy

  6. Pingback: canada pharmacy

  7. Pingback: drugstore online

  8. Pingback: canadian pharmacies online

  9. Pingback: drugstore online

  10. Pingback: viagra without a doctor prescription

  11. Pingback: viagra pills

  12. Pingback: buy viagra online

  13. Pingback: viagra without prescription

  14. Pingback: buy levitra 20 mg

  15. Pingback: viagra price

  16. Pingback: viagra pill

  17. Pingback: generic cialis online

  18. Pingback: viagra online pharmacy

  19. Pingback: viagra in action

  20. Pingback: cialis vs levitra

  21. Pingback: viagra cost

  22. Pingback: viagra alternative

  23. Pingback: real viagra

  24. Pingback: online viagra

  25. Pingback: online pharmacy viagra

  26. Pingback: marley generic viagra

  27. Pingback: herbal viagra

  28. Pingback: generic viagra prices

  29. Pingback: cost of viagra

  30. Pingback: canadian viagra

  31. Pingback: sildenafil side effects

  32. Pingback: sildenafil dosage

  33. Pingback: sildenafil citrate 20 mg

  34. Pingback: where to buy cialis online safely

  35. Pingback: where can i buy cialis over the counter at walmart

  36. Pingback: sildenafil 20 mg tablet

  37. Pingback: buy cialis online without script

  38. Pingback: sildenafil 100mg tablets

  39. Pingback: buy cialis canada online

  40. Pingback: generic viagra sildenafil citrate

  41. Pingback: best place to buy cialis online without script

  42. Pingback: generic cialis pricing

  43. Pingback: cialis prices walmart

  44. Pingback: generic cialis tadalafil 20mg

  45. Pingback: cialis prices 5mg

  46. Pingback: cialis prices 20mg

  47. Pingback: viagra without a doctor prescription from canada

  48. Pingback: cialis prices 100mg

  49. Pingback: viagra side effects

  50. Pingback: cialis prices 10mg

  51. Pingback: viagra sex

  52. Pingback: cialis generic tadalafil india

  53. Pingback: cialis generic tadalafil for sale

  54. Pingback: cialis generic tadalafil walmart

  55. Pingback: cialis generic tadalafil 60mg

  56. Pingback: cialis generic tadalafil 10mg

  57. Pingback: viagra online canada pharmacy

  58. Pingback: cialis generic tadalafil

  59. Pingback: cialis generic name

  60. Pingback: viagra for sale

  61. Pingback: viagra dosage recommendations

  62. Pingback: sophia viagra

  63. Pingback: sildenafil 20 mg tablet vs viagra

  64. Pingback: pfizer generic viagra

  65. Pingback: cialis over the counter at walmart

  66. Pingback: generic viagra online pharmacy

  67. Pingback: dutch women viagra

  68. Pingback: 5 mg viagra coupon printable

  69. Pingback: buy viagra

  70. Pingback: discount cialis

  71. Pingback: cialis on line

  72. Pingback: cialis black

  73. Pingback: tadalista vs cialis

  74. Pingback: cost of cialis

  75. Pingback: cialis medication

  76. Pingback: cialis and alcohol

  77. Pingback: otc cialis

  78. Pingback: cialis without prescription

  79. Pingback: cialis generic canada

  80. Pingback: online cialis

  81. Pingback: cialis wikipedia

  82. Pingback: non prescription cialis

  83. Pingback: cialis walmart

  84. Pingback: cialis from canada

  85. Pingback: cialis 5mg coupon

  86. Pingback: no prescription cialis

  87. Pingback: cialis 5mg

  88. Pingback: natural cialis

  89. Pingback: cialis soft

  90. Pingback: cialis for women

  91. Pingback: marley generics cialis

  92. Pingback: cialis for sale

  93. Pingback: liquid cialis

  94. Pingback: cialis saving card

  95. Pingback: cialis drug interactions

  96. Pingback: cheap generic cialis

  97. Pingback: cialis samples

  98. Pingback: cialis dosage information

  99. Pingback: cheap cialis generic

  100. Pingback: generic for cialis

  101. Pingback: cialis reviews

  102. Pingback: cialis professional

  103. Pingback: cialis daily

  104. Pingback: canadian pharmacy cialis

  105. Pingback: generic cialis reviews

  106. Pingback: cialis price

  107. Pingback: cialis coupons printable

  108. Pingback: canadian cialis

  109. Pingback: generic cialis canada

  110. Pingback: buying cialis online

  111. Pingback: cialis patent expiration

  112. Pingback: free cialis samples

  113. Pingback: cialis copay card

  114. Pingback: free cialis coupon

  115. Pingback: 5mg cialis

  116. Pingback: free cialis

  117. Pingback: tadalafil without a doctor prescription

  118. Pingback: generic cialis tadalafil uk

  119. Pingback: generic cialis available

  120. Pingback: what is levitra

  121. Pingback: generic cialis 20mg

  122. Pingback: vardenafil hcl 20mg

  123. Pingback: vardenafil generic

  124. Pingback: cialis without a doctor prescription

  125. Pingback: cialis tablets australia

  126. Pingback: levitra vs cialis

  127. Pingback: viagra without doctor prescription

  128. Pingback: levitra side effects

  129. Pingback: levitra recviews

  130. Pingback: cialis pharmacy

  131. Pingback: cialis generic pharmacy

  132. Pingback: levitra prices

  133. Pingback: what is augmentin

  134. Pingback: cialis generic availability

  135. Pingback: levitra online

  136. Pingback: side effects augmentin

  137. Pingback: augmentin vs amoxicillin

  138. Pingback: what is levaquin

  139. Pingback: augmentin uses

  140. Pingback: levaquin uses

  141. Pingback: augmentin side effects

  142. Pingback: levaquin side effects

  143. Pingback: levitra cost

  144. Pingback: augmentin for uti

  145. Pingback: buy leviton insted

  146. Pingback: levitra 20mg

  147. Pingback: levaquin renal dose

  148. Pingback: cialis 20mg tablet prices

  149. Pingback: cialis 20mg tablets prices

  150. Pingback: augmentin for dogs

  151. Pingback: levaquin lawsuit

  152. Pingback: cialis 20mg generic

  153. Pingback: augmentin dose

  154. Pingback: levaquin for uti

  155. Pingback: augmentin dosage

  156. Pingback: levaquin dosage

  157. Pingback: sildenafil coupons

  158. Pingback: augmentin antibiotic

  159. Pingback: generic levitra

  160. Pingback: levaquin antibiotic

  161. Pingback: augmentin and alcohol

  162. Pingback: buy levitra online

  163. Pingback: cheap levitra

  164. Pingback: levaquin 750 mg

  165. Pingback: augmentin 875 mg

  166. Pingback: buy levitra

  167. Pingback: levaquin 500 mg

  168. Pingback: augmentin 875

  169. Pingback: levaquin

  170. Pingback: augmentin

  171. Pingback: buy cialis generic tadalafil

  172. Pingback: Viagra 20 mg

  173. Pingback: duloxetine 60 mg

  174. Pingback: duloxetine side effectss

  175. Pingback: duloxetine hcl

  176. Pingback: vardenafil 20mg

  177. Pingback: duloxetine 20 mg

  178. Pingback: vardenafil 20 mg

  179. Pingback: duloxetine

  180. Pingback: generic cialis tadalafil

  181. Pingback: vardenafil

  182. Pingback: cymbalta withdrawal

  183. Pingback: levitra vs viagra

  184. Pingback: cymbalta side effects

  185. Pingback: cymbalta reviews

  186. Pingback: cialis side effects

  187. Pingback: levitra dosage

  188. Pingback: cymbalta medication

  189. Pingback: levitra coupon

  190. Pingback: cymbalta generic

  191. Pingback: cialis pills

  192. Pingback: levitra 20 mg

  193. Pingback: cymbalta for pain

  194. Pingback: atorvastatin 10mg

  195. Pingback: cialis online pharmacy

  196. Pingback: levitra

  197. Pingback: cymbalta dosage

  198. Pingback: atorvastatin 10 mg

  199. Pingback: levitra generic

  200. Pingback: cymbalta

  201. Pingback: atorvastatin

  202. Pingback: cialis free trial

  203. Pingback: cialis dosage

  204. Pingback: cialis cooupons

  205. Pingback: cialis coupons

  206. Pingback: cialis cost

  207. Pingback: cialis canada

  208. Pingback: cheap cialis

  209. Pingback: buy cialis online

  210. Pingback: Cialis generic

  211. Pingback: Discount viagra

  212. Pingback: Canadian viagra

  213. Pingback: cialis from canada

  214. Pingback: prednisone and acid reflux

  215. Pingback: amazon escitalopram

  216. Pingback: medicine/baclofen

  217. Pingback: does amitriptyline cause dementia

  218. Pingback: tadalafila

  219. Pingback: tadalafil generic

  220. Pingback: tadalafil 20mg

  221. Pingback: tadalafil 20 mg

  222. Pingback: tadalafil 5mg

  223. Pingback: tadalafil

  224. Pingback: generic cialis

  225. Pingback: cialis tablets

  226. Pingback: cialis prices

  227. Pingback: cialis online

  228. Pingback: cialis generika

  229. Pingback: cialis generico

  230. Pingback: cialis generic

  231. Pingback: cialis coupon

  232. Pingback: cialis 20mg

  233. Pingback: cialis 20 mg

  234. Pingback: cialis 5 mg

  235. Pingback: cialis

  236. Pingback: buy cialis

  237. Pingback: viagra without doctor prescription usa

  238. Pingback: viagra medicine online order

  239. Pingback: sildenafil generic

  240. Pingback: generic viagra available

  241. Pingback: viagra without a doctor prescription usa

  242. Pingback: viagra generic

  243. Pingback: sildenafil citrate 100mg

  244. Pingback: generic viagra 100mg

  245. Pingback: viagra without a doctor prescription

  246. Pingback: viagra for women

  247. Pingback: sildenafil citrate

  248. Pingback: generic viagra

  249. Pingback: viagra vs cialis

  250. Pingback: viagra for men

  251. Pingback: sildenafil 100mg

  252. Pingback: female viagra pills

  253. Pingback: viagra tablets

  254. Pingback: viagra doctor prescription

  255. Pingback: sildenafil 100 mg

  256. Pingback: female viagra

  257. Pingback: viagra tablet

  258. Pingback: viagra coupons

  259. Pingback: sildenafil 100

  260. Pingback: cialis vs viagra

  261. Pingback: viagra prices

  262. Pingback: viagra connect

  263. Pingback: sildenafil 20 mg

  264. Pingback: cheap viagra

  265. Pingback: viagra pills

  266. Pingback: viagra 100mg

  267. Pingback: sildenafil

  268. Pingback: buy viagra online

  269. Pingback: viagra online

  270. Pingback: viagra

  271. Pingback: over the counter viagra

  272. Pingback: buy viagra

  273. Pingback: viagra on line

  274. Pingback: sildenafil tablets

  275. Pingback: natural viagra

  276. Pingback: 100mg viagra without a doctor prescription

  277. Pingback: sildenafil cost

  278. Pingback: tadalafil 20 mg

  279. Pingback: cialis uk

  280. Pingback: cialis super active online mail-order pharmacies

  281. Pingback: vardenafil cost

  282. Pingback: smettere di fumare

  283. Pingback: Online cialis

  284. Pingback: Viagra 20mg

  285. Pingback: Cialis 20 mg best price

  286. Pingback: Cialis online

  287. Pingback: Viagra pills

  288. Pingback: Viagra 20 mg

  289. Pingback: Low cost cialis 20mg

  290. Pingback: Maria Smith

Comments are closed.

Share via