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Sappho

6th century BCE Greek poet whose work implies erotic relations with women and whose name and home island of Lesbos have become standard references to love between women.

LHMP entry

Hobby looks at the work of 17th century English poet Katherine Philips, and in particular the subset that expresses sentiments of deep emotional attachment to women that could reasonably be classified as erotic, though never in an overtly sexual manner.

It makes most sense simply to list the bits of evidence that Dover discusses. He is largely providing a catalog, with very detailed citations of sources, but without the in-depth discussion of context and interpretation that we say, for example, in Lardinois 1989 with respect to Sappho.

There are no identifiably female authors in this set. Several works are anonymous, but unlikely to be by female authors. Sappho continues to be a theme, with approaches that range from a positive interpretation of her homoerotic themes to a satirical portrayal of her invention of lesbianism. Out and out pornography is well represented, presenting sex between women for the male gaze, in one case disguised as condemnation. And we have a couple examples of the blurring of gender categories in ways that could be interpreted as homoerotic (among other interpretations).

There is less segregation of content by the gender of the author in this group. Men continue to translate or emulate the poetry of Sappho, often downplaying but never entirely erasing the homoeroticism. There’s also an example of satirizing a historic individual with crude stereotypes of the predatory “butch” lesbian. While the women continue to write poems of romantic friendship, we also have a social satire envisioning an all-female society, complete with romantic and sexual relationships between women.

The themes of this set of selections might be: the re-discovery of Sappho, men lamenting that women who love each other aren’t available for them, and the use of queer-baiting for socio-political purposes. The significance of the suppression and erasure of women’s own voices from the record is seen in the one item known to have been written by a woman, which presents a positive and personal view of same-sex love. We also continue the literary motif of same-sex desire being due to confusions caused by gender disguise.

The association of the name Sappho and the word Lesbian with female homoeroticism is so well entrenched that the question is rarely asked: what evidence do we have that Sappho was a lesbian (in the orientation sense, rather than the geographic one)? And how would such an orientation have been understood in her age and culture? Lardinois addresses these questions from empirical (if scanty) evidence.

The revival of interest in, and knowledge of, the works and life of Sappho as part of the general revival of classical culture in the Renaissance created a major context for discussing female homoeroticism, although the myth of Sappho’s abandonment of women for a fatal desire for Phaon was also popular.

Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.

Chapter 1 (Introduction)

A discussion of terminology, some of the cross-cultural problems of defining the topic of the book, and a statement of intent.

Chapter 2 (In the Beginning: 40,000-1200 BCE)

Skinner examines the relationship between female poetic inspiration and the homoerotic implications of a female poet with a female muse. Although the article opens with a consideration of modern discussions of the concept of poetic muse and the implications of gendering this imagined relationship, the heart of her paper concerns the Greek poets Sappho and Nossis and the ways they portray their relationship to inspiration in the form of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and secondarily to the nine Muses.

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