"Some say the muses number nine—
Behold, Sappho of Lesbos: the tenth."Sappho
(c. 630-570 BC) was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, about 2700 years ago. It's hard to overstate her reputation in the ancient world: she was on the Greek curriculum of classics for a thousand
, and there's basically no reference to her that isn't along the lines of "is completely fucking awesome
," which in and of itself is impressive, given the Greeks were some of the biggest Misogynists of the Ancient World.
Sappho's back catalogue is subject to one of history's more heartbreaking cases of Missing Episodes
: she left at least nine volumes of poetry... of which one
complete poem survives. So do about two hundred fragments, some as short as a single word. She was dropped from the standard classical curriculum during the Byzantine era (ca. 6th century AD), possibly because her dialect of Greek was considered archaic and difficult by then.
These days, Sappho isn't known so much for her poetry as for her association with female homosexuality: her native island, Lesbos, is the source of the word
"lesbian"; for which "sapphic" sometimes turns up as an archaic synonym.
In reality, no one knows much about Sappho's life, much less her sex life. Love was a frequent subject of her work, some of her love-poems were addressed to women, and scholars aren't sure how much of her work is autobiographical. There's no particular reason to assume any of it is
autobiographical—after all, people today don't think the lyrics to a song necessarily reflect the songwriter's sexuality—but no reason to assume it isn't, either. All anyone can agree on is that she's one of the most important poets who ever lived, and arguably the Trope Maker
, or at least Trope Codifier
, for many of the concepts of romantic love in western culture (At the very least, she is, by far, the earliest surviving example of such tropes, and Catullus
, another writer who described similar feelings, used the name "Lesbia" as a pseudonym for his lover).