Who is Afraid of Sappho? New Poems of an Ancient Lesbian

Few ancient Greek poets can capture the imagination of modern pop culture as much as does Sappho, the West’s (probably) first gay poetess. Sappho’s work inadvertently taps into the lesbian imagery fetishised in large pockets of current pop culture, and also, the writings of Sappho have their place in LGBT literary history, which begins its turbulent course in ancient Greece and winds up in the 21st century via Virginia Woolf, feminist critics, and the great detour of emerging bourgeois morals in the 19th century.

Sappho’s writings appear to have begun to suffer from censorship and rejection from the official canon of Greek classics in the early Byzantine era already. According to late ancient rumors – which are quite hard to substantiate, some 1600 years after the event – the church ordered the burning of pagan books in the 4th century A.D., with Sappho’s writings uppermost on the list. But these policies, if they existed, certainly were not easy to implement, as copies of Sappho’s text would have been held in several independent locations. Perhaps, no less, the cultural oblivion of Sappho’s works was somewhat intentional, and the decay of her reputation hastened by the church leaders and grammarians in whose hands, for a long time, fell the charge of preserving the cultural legacy of ancient Greece.

For many centuries before the invention of printing, every piece of ancient text had to be copied by hand, if it was to be preserved to posterity. Only a slim and fragmented collection remains of Sappho’s once several volumes strong poetic opus. As the modern recipients of this material, „we“ are very much at the mercy of the scribes and scholars who came before us, and our appreciation of the texts is in many ways filtered by their selections of, and accidental as well as intentional alterations to, these very ancient documents.

By the 19th century, scholars and poets were casting a new eye on the Sapphic corpus yet again. In the 19th century lies the origin of the synonymity between Lesbian and gay female, as until then, the word Lesbian merely referred to the island Lesbos, from which Sappho came. A great resurgence in interest for Sappho, bordering on obsession in the case of certain poets, and characterized by extreme whitewashing and gross distortion in the case of certain preceptors, threw the text back into the classical canon with an added baggage of the 19th century’s moral complexes and scholarly axioms.

Now that two hitherto unknown poems by Sappho were discovered this spring (a major sensation in classical scholarly circles) here’s a rare chance to have a perfectly fresh look at some of these once banned ancient poems. Strangely enough, they don’t seem scandalous at all. Perhaps, after all, they simply went out of fashion at some point in the middle ages, stopped being copied out by hand, and vanished, being less impressive than others of the same author (at least this is what Martin West seems to think), perhaps the flamboyant censorship hypothesis doesn’t pan out now.
One of the poems appears to be about Sappho’s absent brothers : one absent because he is away, the other absent because he is yet too young to take on the man’s duties in the family. What these duties might have comprised historically is difficult to know, and scholarship on household, kin and community in the ancient world exists in plenty. In the poem, Sappho admonishes another to talk less about the brother’s expected return home with many riches on his ships, and requests a more serious focus on prayer to the gods. It faintly recalls, as I think, the opening of the Oresteia, where Agamemnon’s household awaits him; or, as the editor of the fragments, Dirk Obbink, seems to have concluded, the resemblance here is rather with Odysseus and his return home.

Regardless of particulars, the return home of a man who has been away on some exploits is a popular trope throughout ancient Greek literature and many heroes and illustrious men have not only their great achievements, but also the stages of their homeward journey and return home, recounted in their mythology. Drawing parallels with other texts is helpful in understanding them, but in the case of a writer as unique as Sappho, it might be even more helpful to desist from comparisons, and simply to ponder whether and how the new fragments may help us flesh out just a little bit more the piecemeal idea of her and her work that the decimated transmission of her corpus so far afforded us with.


Article by Dirk Obbink in the Times Literary Supplement:

Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives. By P. DuBois, New York, 2001.

Scribes and Scholars : A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature. By L.D. Reynolds & N.G. Wilson , 3rd ed. Oxford, 2009

Special thanks for the discussion, to all the participants of the Hellenic Studies Colloquium at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

Image: Sappho Pompeiana. Wikimedia Commons.