Sappho: Poems and Fragments

Sappho: Poems and Fragments Themes

Devotion to Aphrodite

Sappho was likely a member of the cult of Aphrodite, a group of women devoted to the worship of the goddess. Some of her lyrics were likely used in religious ceremonies, where they may have been performed by a chorus of women. “Fragment 2” is exclusively devoted to the goddess Aphrodite and reads as a kind of incantation summoning the goddess to the speaker(s). “Fragment 1,” the only Sappho poem to survive in its entirety, is another address to the goddess Aphrodite. It develops a striking intimacy between the poet, who refers to herself by name, and the goddess. It even goes so far as drawing a parallel between “Sappho” and Aphrodite, their two voices mingling in the poem. While the speaker often addresses Aphrodite in the context of her love for a woman, her love for Aphrodite is often just as important. Along with this close personal relationship, several of the Aphrodite fragments implicitly reference a community of devotees. Sappho’s connection to Aphrodite is hence inextricably connected to the web of friendships and romances that weave through her poetry.

Epic vs. Lyric

Several of Sappho’s poems are in explicit or implicit conversation with the works of Homer, especially The Iliad. Homer was, and still is, the best known Greek epic poet, and his works epitomize the values and stylistic characteristics of the genre. Epic poetry centers war and the military heroes who make it possible. It avoids the first person: its heroes don’t speak, but are instead described by the narrator. Lyric poetry, by contrast, tended to center around individual experience, often of romance. It was written to be sung, and is hence more musical, focused on developing beautiful imagery. Although the two genres weren’t necessarily at odds, many of Sappho’s fragments are concerned with the tension between the respective values of lyric and epic. This is especially apparent in “Fragment 44,” which borrows a Homeric verse style to tell a love story. The dynamic is also at play in “Fragment 16,” which uses the speaker’s personal experience and a retelling of the Helen myth to refute the militaristic values espoused in epic verse. It is more subtly at play in “Fragment 96,” which again borrows the language of Homer and turns it on its head in order to celebrate women.


Sappho was an aristocratic woman, born to a wealthy, likely slave-owning family. This lifestyle appears in her poetry mostly as references to precious objects, imported from neighboring and far-flung kingdom, which often represent abundance and celebration in her work. Although the speaker sometimes favors love over objects, as in “Fragment 16,” often love is indicated through the abundance of expensive things, as in “Fragment 94” where the beloved anoints herself in precious oil. Other times, Sappho will invoke luxury without explicitly referring to it. The Greek word which Carson translates as “delicate” had distinctly aristocratic connotations. In “Fragment 58,” she uses this language to describe the sun. Its something which seems fundamentally distinct from worldly wealth, but for Sappho, the essence of beauty was intertwined with finery and aristocracy.


Many of Sappho’s more melancholy fragments deal with the difficulties of reckoning with loss. Often, however, the very act of mourning allows the departed beloved to remain in some way, as in fragments “94” and “96.” In these poems, recalling the beloved becomes an action in and of itself, one which the poet lingers with. The speaker’s journeys into memory are thus often marked by vivid imagery. The practice of remembering provides comfort to the bereaved because it creates something which feels real enough to traverse gaps in time and space. Although the beloved is still gone, the capacity of memory to awaken desire provides something to fill the void.


In ancient Greek society, war was so important that it shaped the way every other aspect of life was interpreted. Male homosexual relationships, which were an expected part of life, were usually between an older man and a boy. The older man was seen as a conqueror, the younger as conquered. It wasn’t unusual to view relationships as a struggle for dominance, and to call on the gods for aid as one might in battle. Many of Sappho’s fragments respond to this dynamic by distinguishing love from military might; she asserted not only that one could choose between them, but that one should choose love. Her own descriptions of romance depart from the dominance model by embracing unfulfilled desire and conceiving of her lovers as fully realized human beings. Although militaristic motifs like alliance and victory appear on the fringes of her poetry, they seldom take center stage or go unchallenged.

The Passage of Time

Dying of old age was relatively rare in Sappho’s time, and many women failed to reach their forties due to complications related to childbirth. Sappho, however, likely died an old woman. Only one of her surviving fragments, “Fragment 58,” deals explicitly with aging. There, the speaker frames it in terms of the body, pointing to the ways her skin, hair, and joints have changed as she grows older. The poem doesn’t express a fear of death, as was typical for the time, but focuses on a fear of aging and a desire for second youth. Yet she understands that it is impossible for her to become younger, and ends the poem by celebrating her own ability to live in the world, regardless of the state of her body. Other poems implicitly deal with the process of growing older because they center around the changes time inflicts on relationships. In these too, the speaker retains a conviction in the inherent value of life, regardless of what has been lost.

Romantic Love

Many of Sappho's fragments center around romantic love in some capacity. Of these, most are somewhat melancholy; for example, fragments “16,” “94,” and “96” all lament a departed lover. “Fragment 1” also refers to past affairs of the heart, but takes a more ironic tone towards these trials of love, acknowledging the humorous side of brief yet all-consuming affection. Regardless of her tone, all of these poems center love as of supreme importance. All four of these poems describe homosexual romances, and none shy away from the sensual and erotic aspects of those relationships. Indeed, Sappho frequently layers erotic imagery with themes of loss and the passing of time, as in “Fragment 94,” where the speaker recalls how her lover “let loose [her] longing” as she describes the many kinds of intimacy they shared.

Yet Sappho’s celebration of love is not limited to her own experiences. “Fragment 16” is simultaneously deeply personal in its description of a departed lover and universal in its argument for the supreme importance of “what one loves.” “Fragment 44” celebrates the marriage between two characters from the Iliad, with no reference to the speaker’s own experiences. What all of these poems share is a respect for love and a tenderness towards women as lovers.