Historiography Saturday: Sappho

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The poet whose name gave rise to ‘sapphic’, a 19th century term for lesbian love ( taken from her home island of Lesbos), is remembered through a combination of her fragmented writings and secondhand accounts from her literary contemporaries and successors, including Plato. (And, as is the way of romantic historical figures, from a panned film that uses her life as a framing device.) She was likely educated as part of an aristocratic upbringing and married into wealth, which allowed her to compose the lyric poetry for which she became famous.

Sappho poses an unusual historiographic challenge in that, despite being the iconic Classical lesbian, it is difficult to determine if she was even sapphic herself. How much of her poetry can be taken as autobiographical fact is, excepting details like her daughter that were independently verified, a matter of interpretation. She did participate in a thiasos, the Classical equivalent of a romantic tension-charged women’s book club, and wrote erotic works about women, but debate exists as to whether or not they depict lesbian relationships, and men were also featured as subjects of poetic lust. Barring the discovery of new historical documents, Sappho will remain tagged only as ‘Historiography Saturday’.

A selection of Sappho’s poetry is available here and on numerous other websites.

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