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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

Preface

Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.

This is a study, not so much of Sappho the person, but of her lyrics, particularly an interpretation of them in the context of homoerotic desire. The book takes a detailed look at all the poems and fragments known at the time of publication, both in the original Greek and with a closely annotated translation apparatus. It takes a philological approach influenced by women’s studies and gay and lesbian studies. The book does not assume a familiarity with ancient languages but embraces those that do have that familiarity.

Introduction

This is a study of the ways that writers and translators of the 16th century onward have used and re-made Sappho to suit their needs and prejudices. DeJean attributes the start of this process specifically to the French.

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.

Pages

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