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LHMP #391 Andreadis 2014 The Sappho Tradition

Full citation: 

Andreadis, Harriette. 2014. “The Sappho Tradition” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Part I - Reading Ancient and Classical Cultures, Chapter 1 The Sappho Tradition

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This chapter begins with a discussion of what is known about Sappho, her poetry, and her reputation among her contemporaries in ancient Greece. The tragically fragmentary nature of the written legacy of her work is traced, including the nine volume collection lost in the 9th century and the recovery of fragments of her work from papyrus sources in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

New work of Sappho is still being discovered up to the current date. However, due to this long gap in familiarity with her actual work, Sappho’s reputation throughout most of Western history has been based on secondhand accounts of her poetic reputation and myths about her personal life.

Only two nearly complete poems that were transmitted by other writers, the Ode to Aphrodite, and the poem, beginning “That man seems to me…”, formed the basis for translations, reinterpretations and pastiches in western languages beginning around the 16th century. Besides that, Sappho’s image was largely based on the fictional Sappho of Ovid’s Heroides, the one who was said to have given over the love of women for the ferryman Phaon, for whose sake she committed suicide.

This fictional tradition combined with the difficulty historic cultures had in reconciling the two faces of Sappho—the famous poet and the lover of women—resulted in a tradition of two Sappho’s: one desexualized and chaste and one promiscuous and lesbian. In the tradition of “there can be only one,” Sappho became the sole icon of female poetic excellence, erasing the existence of other female poets, which had the side effect of associating, female poetics with questionable sexuality.

By the early modern period, Sappho had split further into three images: the renowned poet, the example of transgressive sexuality, and the mythologized, suicidal abandoned woman of Ovid. The modern era has added a fourth image: that of the heroic lesbian pioneer and proto-feminist muse.

The next section of the article discusses the themes and content of Sappho’s poetry, and the traditions of translation that inspired an entire industry of versions of Sappho’s small oeuvre. Part of this tradition has always been, especially for male translators, to reconfigure the gender of the poetic voice such that Sappho is instead expressing desire for a male beloved, or to imply that the poetic voice of the poem is male, thus removing same-sex desire from the equation. This section includes a fairly extensive catalog across the centuries of poets who have translated or reworked Sappho’s most complete fragments. Only in the 20th century has Sappho’s legacy largely been picked up by female authors, retaining the same-sex context of the content.

The next section traces the historic reflections of Sappho’s image as a poet, as well as her transgressive sexuality, which was largely viewed negatively before recent times. Then we have a section tracing the development and legacy of the Phaon myth, and how it affected the image of Sappho, especially in the early modern period. Finally, the article closes with a section entitled “Sappho as Modern Lesbian Heroine,” which looks at the reclamation of Sappho as a positive figure, while also as an image of female homoeroticism. This is the era in which the use of “lesbian” and “sapphist” to indicate female same-sex eroticism became widespread.


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