What We Know of Sappho


Arts & Culture

Fragment of parchment preserving parts of several poems by Sappho. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As Nebuchadnezzar II is plundering Jerusalem, Solon ruling Athens, Phoenician seafarers circumnavigating the African continent for the first time, and Anaximander postulating that an indefinite primal matter is the origin of all things and that the soul is air-like in nature, Sappho writes:

He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
….to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
….is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
….fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
….I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty …

Buddha and Confucius are not yet born, the idea of democracy and the word philosophy not yet conceived, but Eros—Aphrodite’s servant—already rules with an unyielding hand: as a god, one of the oldest and most powerful, but also as an illness with unclear symptoms that assails you out of the blue, a force of nature that descends on you, a storm that whips up the sea and uproots even oak trees, a wild, uncontrollable beast that suddenly pounces on you, unleashes unbridled pleasure, and causes unspeakable agonies—bittersweet, consuming passion.

There are not many surviving literary works older than the songs of Sappho: the down-to-earth Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ethereal hymns of the Rigveda, the inexhaustible epic poems of Homer and the many-stranded myths of Hesiod, in which it is written that the Muses know everything. “They know all that has been, is, and will be.” Their father is Zeus, their mother Mnemosyne, a titaness, the goddess of memory.

We know nothing. Not much, at any rate. Not even whether Homer really existed, or the identity of that author whom we for the sake of convenience have dubbed “Pseudo-Longinus,” who quotes Sappho’s verses on the power of Eros in the surviving fragments of his work on the sublime, thereby preserving her lines for future generations, namely us.

We know that Sappho came from Lesbos, an island in the eastern Aegean situated so close to the mainland of Asia Minor that, on a clear day, you might think you could swim across—to the coast of the immeasurably rich Lydia of those days, and from there, in what is now Turkey, to that of the immeasurably rich Europe of today.

Somewhere there, in the lost kingdom of the Hittites, must lie the origins of her unusual name, which either means “numinous,” “clean,” or “pure source,” or—if you trace its history back by a different route—is a corruption of the ancient Greek word for sapphire and lapis lazuli.

She is said to have been born in Eresus, or perhaps in Mytilene, in about the year 617 before our calendar began, or possibly thirteen years earlier or five years later. Her father was called Scamander or Scamandronymus, or otherwise possibly Simon, Eumenus, Eerigyius, Ecrytus, Semus, Camon, or Etarchus, according to the Suda, a highly eloquent but not very reliable Byzantine encyclopedia from the tenth century.

We know she had two brothers named Charaxus and Larichus, and perhaps a third named Eurygius, and that she was of noble birth, since her youngest brother, Larichus, was a cupbearer in the Prytaneion in Mytilene, a post reserved only for the sons of aristocratic families.

We believe her mother was called Cleïs and that Sappho had a daughter of the same name, even though the word, which she uses when addressing the beloved girl in a poem, can also mean slave.

Nowhere does Sappho refer to a husband. The name “Kerkylas of Andros Island” mentioned in this connection in the Suda has to be a smutty joke by the Attic comic poets, who undoubtedly took pleasure in ascribing to her, of all women, a husband with a name sometimes rendered as “Dick Allcock from the Isle of Man.” The legend of her unhappy, even self-destructive love for a young ferryman named Phaeon, later embellished by Ovid in his Letters of Heroines, must date from the same time.

We know from an inscribed chronicle dating from the third century before Christ that at some point—when exactly is not recorded on the Parian marble tablet—she fled by ship to Syracuse. We can conclude from another source that it was in around 596 B.C., when Lesbos’s fortunes were in the hands of the Cleanactidai clan.

Seven or eight years later, when the island was under the rule of the tyrant Pittacus, Sappho must have returned from exile and founded a women’s circle in Mytilene, which may have been a cultish community set up to honor Aphrodite, a symposium of fellow females bearing an erotic attachment to one another, or a marriage preparation school for daughters of noble birth: no one knows for sure.

No other woman from early antiquity has been so talked about, and in such conflicting terms. The sources are as sparse as the legends are manifold, and any attempt to distinguish between the two virtually hopeless.

Every age has created its own Sappho. Some even invented a second in order to sidestep the contradictions of the stories: she was variously described as a priestess in the service of Aphrodite or the Muses, a hetaera, a man-crazed woman, a love-crazed virago, a kindly teacher, a gallant lady; by turns shameless and corrupt, or prim and pure.

Her countryman and contemporary Alcaeus described her as “violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling,” Socrates as “beautiful,” Plato as “wise,” Philodemus of Gadara as “the tenth Muse,” Strabo as “a marvelous phenomenon,” and Horace as “masculine,” but there is now no way of knowing what exactly he meant by that.

A papyrus from the late second or early third century for its part claims that Sappho was “ugly, being dark in complexion and of very small stature,” “contemptible,” and “a woman-lover.”

At one time bronze statues of her were common; even today, silver coins still bear her laurel-crowned profile, a water jug from the school of Polygnotos portrays her as a slim figure reading a scroll, and a gleaming black vase from the fifth century before Christ shows her as tall in stature, holding an eight-stringed lyre in her hand as if she had just finished playing or were just about to start. We do not know how Sappho’s verses sounded in Aeolic—the most archaic and tricky of the extinct ancient Greek dialects, in which the initial aspiration was omitted from words—when they were sung at a wedding ceremony, at a banquet, or in the women’s circle, accompanied by a stringed instrument: the hushed sound of a plucked phorminx or the festive ring of the cithara, the deep tones of the barbitos or the harp-like strains of the pectis, the high tones of a magadis or the dull resonance of a tortoiseshell lyre.

All we know is that the word lyric derives from one of these instruments, the lyre, and was coined by Alexandrian scholars some three hundred years after Sappho’s death. It was they who dedicated to her an entire edition in eight or nine books, many thousands of lines on several rolls of papyrus, arranged according to meter, several hundred poems, of which only a single one has come to us intact, because the rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived in Rome during the reign of Augustus, quotes it in full in his treatise On Literary Composition as an example worthy of admiration. Other than that, four consecutive stanzas were recorded by the scholar known as Pseudo-Longinus; five stanzas of another poem were successfully reassembled from three different papyrus fragments; four stanzas of another were discovered in 1937 carelessly scrawled on a palm-size potsherd by an Egyptian schoolboy in the second century before Christ; fragments of a fifth and a sixth poem were preserved on a tattered early medieval parchment, and large portions of a seventh and eighth were recently discovered on strips of papyrus forming part of the cartonnages used for the preservation of Egyptian mummies or as book covers, although the deciphering of one of the two poems still divides the throng of experts to this day.

A handful of words or isolated lines cited by grammarians like Athenaeus and Apollonius Dyscolus, the philosopher Chrysippus of Soli, or the lexicographer Julius Pollux to illustrate a certain style, a particular item of vocabulary or the meter named after her, were provided by the large-format codices of medieval scribes—the rest is nothing more than scraps: a scattering of stanzas one or two lines long, fragmentary verses, words plucked from their context, single syllables and letters, the beginning or end of a word, or a line, nowhere near a sentence, let alone a meaning.

and I go …

… immediately …
… for …
… of harmony …
… the chorus, …
… clear-sounding

… to all …

It is as if, in the places where the singing has faded away and the words are missing, where the papyrus scrolls are rotten and torn, dots had appeared, first singly, then in pairs, and soon in the vague pattern of a rhythmic triad—the notation of a silent lament.

These songs have fallen silent, turned to writing, Greek characters borrowed from the Phoenician: dark majuscules, carved into clayey earthenware in a clumsy schoolboy hand or copied onto the pith of the woody wetland grass by a diligent professional using a reed pen; and delicate minuscules, written on the pumice-smoothed, chalk-bleached skins of young sheep and stillborn goats: papyrus and parchment, organic materials that, once exposed to the elements, eventually decompose like any cadaver.

… nor …
… desire …
… but all at once …
… blossom …
… desire …
… took delight …

Like forms to be filled in, these mutilated poems demand to be completed—by interpretation and imagination, or by the deciphering of more of the loose papyrus remnants from the garbage dumps of Oxyrhynchus, that sunken town in central Egypt where a meter-thick layer of dry sand preserved these rock-hard, worm-eaten fragments—fragile, creased, and tattered from being rolled and unrolled—for nearly a thousand years.

We know that people wrote on papyrus scrolls in tightly packed columns without spaces between words, punctuation, or guidelines, making even well-preserved items hard to decipher. Divinatio, in the ancient art of the oracle, was the gift of prophesying the future by observing bird migrations and interpreting dreams. Nowadays, in papyrology, it refers to the ability to read a line where all that is visible are faded fragments of ancient Greek letters.

The fragment, we know, is the infinite promise of Romanticism, the enduringly potent ideal of the modern age, and poetry, more than any other literary form, has come to be associated with the pregnant void, the blank space that breeds conjecture. The dots, like phantom limbs, seem intertwined with the words, testify to a lost whole. Intact, Sappho’s poems would be as alien to us as the once gaudily painted classical sculptures.

In total, all the poems and fragments that have reached us, as brief, mutilated, and devoid of context as they are, add up to no more than six hundred lines. It has been calculated that around 7 percent of Sappho’s work has survived.

It has also been calculated that around 7 percent of all women feel attracted solely or predominantly to women, but no calculation will ever be able to establish whether there is any correlation here.

The history of symbols contains a number of markers of the unknown and indeterminate, of the absent and lost, of the void and the blank: the zero on the corn lists of the ancient Babylonians, the letter x in an algebraic equation, the dash used when someone’s words are abruptly interrupted.

goatherd ………….longing ………….sweat
… roses …

Aposiopesis—the technique of suddenly breaking off midsentence—we know is a rhetorical device that Pseudo-Longinus, too, will certainly have written about in that part of his treatise On the Sublime that has been lost owing to the carelessness of librarians and bookbinders. If someone stops speaking, starts stuttering and stammering or even falls silent, it suggests he is overcome by feelings of such magnitude that inevitably words fail him. Ellipses open up any text to that vast obscure realm of sentiments that cannot be verbalized or that capitulate in the face of the words available.

… my darling one …

We know that the letters Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend and future sister-in-law Susan Gilbert had a series of passionate passages deleted from them, prior to publication, by her niece Martha, Gilbert’s daughter, who omitted to indicate these deletions. One of these censored sentences, from June 11, 1852, reads: “If you were here—and Oh that you were here, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language.”

Wordless, blind understanding is as much a firm topos of love poetry as is the wordy evocation of unfathomable feeling.

Sappho’s words, where decipherable, are as unambiguous and clear as words possibly can be. At once sober and passionate, they tell, in an extinct language that has to be resurrected with each translation, of a heavenly power that, twenty-six centuries on, has lost none of its might: the sudden transformation, as wondrous as it is merciless, of a person into an object of desire, rendering you defenseless and causing you to leave your parents, spouse, and even children.

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me—
sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in

We know that the categorization of desire according to whether its protagonists were of the same or different genders was a concept foreign to the ancient Greeks. Rather, what mattered to them was that, in sexual relations, the role of each of the persons involved mirrored their social one, with adult men taking an active sexual role, while youths, slaves, and women remained passive. The dividing line in this act of control and submission ran not between the sexes, but between those who penetrate and possess, and those who are penetrated and possessed.

Men are not mentioned by name in the surviving poetry of Sappho, whereas many women are: Abanthis, Agallis, Anagora, Anactoria, Archeanassa, Arignota, Atthis, Cleïs, Cleanthis, Dica, Doricha, Eirana, Euneica, Gongyla, Gorgo, Gyrinna, Megara, Mica, Mnasis, Mnasidica, Pleistodica, Telesippa. It is they whom Sappho sings about, with tender devotion or flaming desire, with burning jealousy or icy contempt.

Someone will remember us
I say
…….even in another time

We think we know that Sappho was a teacher, even though the first source to refer to her as such is a papyrus fragment dating from the second century A.D., which reports, seven hundred years after her death, that she had taught girls from the best families in Ionia and Lydia.

There is nothing in any of Sappho’s surviving poetry to suggest an educational setting, although the fragments contain descriptions of a world in which women come and go, and there is often mention of farewells. The place seems to be one of transition, which led some to interpret it as hosting the female equivalent of the more widely attested Greek practice of pederasty. This reading also conveniently enabled the undeniable presence of female eroticism in poetry to be accounted for as a form of preparation for the main focus, the undisputed culmination of that teaching, namely marriage.

We do not know the exact nature of the relationship between Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill, whose marriage was recorded without comment in the register of marriages of the parish of Taxal in northern England on September 4, 1707, though we do know that the expression “where you go I will go,” commonly used in Christian marriage ceremonies, is borrowed from the words spoken by the widowed Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the Old Testament.

We also know that in 1819, in the court case involving the two headmistresses of a Scottish girls’ boarding school who—a pupil had alleged—had engaged in improper and criminal acts on one another, Lucian’s Dialogues of the Hetaerae was quoted to show that sex between women was actually possible. In it the hetaera Clonarion asks the cithara player Leaina about her sexual experience with “a rich woman from Lesbos” and in particular presses her to reveal what exactly she had done with her and “using what method.” But Leaina counters: “Don’t question me too closely about these things, they’re shameful; so, by Aphrodite, I won’t tell you!”

The chapter ends at this point, the question goes unanswered, and so what women do with one another remains both unuttered and unutterable. At any rate the two teachers were acquitted of the charge, as the judge came to the conclusion that the transgression of which they were accused was not actually possible: where there is no instrument there can be no act, where there is no weapon there can be no crime.

For a long time, what women do with one another could only be regarded as sex and therefore an offense if it mimicked sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. The phallus marked the sexual act, and where it was absent there was nothing but an unmarked blank, a blind spot, a gap, a hole to be filled like the female sexual organ.

For a long time, this empty place was occupied by the concept of the “tribade,” that specter that haunts the writings of men, namely a masculine-acting woman who has sex with other women with the help of a monstrously enlarged clitoris or a phallic aid. As far as we know, no woman has ever described herself as a tribade.

We know that words and symbols change their meaning. For a long time, three dots in a row along the writing baseline designated something lost and unknown, then at some point also something unuttered and unutterable; no longer only something omitted or left out, but also something left open. Hence the three dots became a symbol that invites one to think the allusion to its conclusion, imagine that which is missing, a proxy for the inexpressible and the hushed-up, for the offensive and obscene, for the incriminating and speculative, for a particular version of the omitted: the truth.

We also know that in ancient times the symbol for omissions was the asterisk—the little star that only in medieval times took on the task of linking a place in a text to its associated margin note. As Isidore of Seville writes in the seventh century in his Etymologies: “The asterisk is placed next to omissions, so that things which appear to be missing may be clarified through this mark.” Nowadays the asterisk is sometimes used as a means of including as many people as possible and their sexual identities. The omission becomes an inclusion, the absence a presence, and the empty place a profusion of meaning.

And we know that in ancient times the verb lesbiazein, “to do it like women from Lesbos,” was used to mean “to violate or corrupt somebody” and to refer to the sexual practice of fellatio, which was assumed to have been invented by the women of the island of Lesbos. Even Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his collection of ancient sayings and expressions, renders the Greek word as the Latin fellare, meaning “to suck,” and concludes the entry with the comment: “The term remains, but I think the practice has been eliminated.”

Not long after that, at the end of the sixteenth century, Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, comments in his pornographic novel The Lives of the Gallant Ladies: “’Tis said how that Sappho the Lesbian was a very high mistress in this art, and that in after times the Lesbian dames have copied her therein, and continued the practice to the present day.” From then on the empty space had not only a geographical but also a linguistic home, although the term amour lesbien remained in common use until the modern age as a term describing the unrequited love of a woman for a younger man.

We know that the two young poetesses Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien were disappointed when, in late summer 1904, they fulfilled a long-cherished dream and visited the isle of Lesbos together. When they finally reached the port of Mytilene, French chansons were blaring from a phonograph, and both the visual appearance of the island’s female inhabitants and the crudeness of their idiom were at odds with the poetesses’ noble imaginings of this place so frequently evoked in their own poems. Nevertheless, they rented two neighboring villas in an olive grove, went for long moonlit and sunlit walks, rekindled their love that had grown cold some years earlier, and talked about setting up a school of lesbian poetry and love on the island.

The idyll ended when a third woman—a jealous and possessive baroness with whom Vivien was in a liaison—announced she was on her way, and a telegram had to be sent to stop her. Barney and Vivien separated. Back in Paris, their mutual Ancient Greek teacher served from then on as the bearer of their secret letters.

We know that, in 2008, two female residents and one male resident of the island of Lesbos unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a ban on women not originally from the island naming themselves after it or being named after it by others: “We object to the arbitrary use of the name of our homeland by persons of sexual deviation.” The presiding judge rejected the application and ordered the three Lesbians to bear the court costs.

Who, these days, is still familiar with the “Lesbian rule” alluded to by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, used in cases where general laws cannot be applied to concrete situations, following the example of the master builders of Lesbos, who used a leaden rule that “can be bent to the shape of the stone,” since it was better, in a concrete situation, to have a crooked but functioning rule than to follow an ideal that was smooth and straight but useless.

And who, these days, is still familiar with the Sapphic stanza, that four-line verse form comprising three hendecasyllabic lines of matching structure, consisting of trochees with a dactyl inserted in third place, and an adonic as the fourth line, in which each line starts directly with a stressed syllable, every line ending is feminine, and the solemn dignity so characteristic of this meter yields at the end to a sense of reassurance or even serenity.

For a long time terms like tribadism, Sapphism, and lesbianism were used more or less synonymously in the treatises of theologians, jurists, and physicians, though in some instances they denoted a perverse sexual practice or shameless custom, and in others a monstrous anomaly or mental illness.

We do not know exactly why the term lesbian love has endured for some time now, only that this expression and its associations will fade in the same way as all its predecessors.

L is an apical consonant, e the vowel expelled most directly, s is a hissing, warning sound, b an explosive sound that blasts the lips apart …

In German dictionaries, lesbisch (“lesbian”) comes immediately after lesbar (“legible”).

—Translated from the German by Jackie Smith


Judith Schalansky was born in Greifswald in former East Germany in 1980 and studied art history and communication design. Her international best seller, Atlas of Remote Islands, won the Stiftung Buchkunst (the Art Book Award) for “the most beautifully designed book of the year,” while her novel The Giraffe’s Neck, in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside, won a special commendation of the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for the best translation from German in 2015. Both books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Schalansky works as a freelance writer and book designer in Berlin, where she is also publisher of a prestigious natural history list at Matthes und Seitz.

Jackie Smith studied German and French at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and then undertook a postgraduate diploma in translation and interpreting at the University of Bradford. In 2015 she was selected for the New Books in German Emerging Translators Programme and in 2017 won the Austrian Cultural Forum London Translation Prize. An Inventory of Losses is her first literary translation.

From An Inventory of Losses, by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Jackie Smith. © New Directions. Lines from If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson, copyright © 2002 by Anne Carson. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.