Basic Data on Sappho:
The dates of Sappho or Psappho are not known. She is thought to have been born around 610 B.C. and to have died in about 570. This was the period of the sages Thales
, considered, by Aristotle
, the founder of natural philosophers, and Solon
, the law-giver of Athens. In Rome, it was the time of the legendary kings. [See Timeline
Sappho is thought to have come from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos.
Playing with the available meters
, Sappho wrote moving lyric poetry. A poetic meter was named in honor of her. Sappho wrote odes to the goddesses, especially Aphrodite
-- the subject of Sappho's complete surviving ode, and love poetry, including the wedding genre (epithalamia
), using vernacular and epic
vocabulary. She also wrote about herself, her women's community, and her times. Her writing about her times was very different from her contemporary Alcaeus, whose poetry was more political.
Transmission of Sappho's Poetry:
Although we do not know how Sappho's poetry was transmitted, by the Hellenistic Era
-- when Alexander the Great (d. 323 B.C.) had brought Greek culture from Egypt to the Indus River, Sappho's poetry was published. Along with the writing of other lyric poets, Sappho's poetry was categorized metrically. By the Middle Ages most of Sappho's poetry was lost, and so today there are only parts of four poems. Only one of them is complete. There are also fragments of her poetry, including 63 complete, single lines and perhaps 264 fragments. The fourth poem is a recent discovery from rolls of papyrus in Cologne University.
Legends About Sappho's Life:
There is a legend that Sappho leaped to her death as the result of a failed love affair with a man named Phaon. This is probably untrue. Sappho is usually counted a lesbian -- the very word coming from the island where Sappho lived, and Sappho's poetry clearly shows that she loved some of the women of her community, whether or not the passion was expressed sexually. Sappho may have been married to a wealthy man named Cercylas.
Established Facts About Sappho:
Larichus and Charaxus were Sappho's brothers. She also had a daughter named Cleis or Claïs. In the community of women in which Sappho participated and taught, singing, poetry, and dance played a big part.
An elegiac poet of the first century B.C. named Antipater of Thessalonica catalogued the most respected women poets and called them the nine earthly muses. Sappho was one of these earthly muses.