Sappho: Poems and Fragments


Little is known about Sappho's life for certain.[12] She was from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos[13][c] and was probably born around 630 BC.[16][d] Tradition names her mother as Cleïs,[18] though ancient scholars may simply have guessed this name, assuming that Sappho's daughter Cleïs was named after her.[14] Sappho's father's name is less certain. Ten names are known for Sappho's father from the ancient testimonia;[e] this proliferation of possible names suggests that he was not explicitly named in any of Sappho's poetry.[20] The earliest and most commonly attested name for Sappho's father is Scamandronymus.[f] In Ovid's Heroides, Sappho's father died when she was seven.[21] Sappho's father is not mentioned in any of her surviving works, but Campbell suggests that this detail may have been based on a now-lost poem.[22] Sappho's own name is found in numerous variant spellings, even in her own Aeolian dialect; the form that appears in her own extant poetry is Psappho.[23][24]

No reliable portrait of Sappho's physical appearance has survived; all extant representations, ancient and modern, are artists' conceptions.[25] In the Tithonus poem she describes her hair as now white but formerly melaina, i.e. black. A literary papyrus of the second century A.D. describes her as pantelos mikra, quite tiny.[26] Alcaeus possibly describes Sappho as "violet-haired",[27] which was a common Greek poetic way of describing dark hair.[28][29][30] Some scholars dismiss this tradition as unreliable.[31]

Sappho was said to have three brothers: Erigyius, Larichus, and Charaxus. According to Athenaeus, Sappho often praised Larichus for pouring wine in the town hall of Mytilene, an office held by boys of the best families.[33] This indication that Sappho was born into an aristocratic family is consistent with the sometimes rarefied environments that her verses record. One ancient tradition tells of a relation between Charaxus and the Egyptian courtesan Rhodopis. Herodotus, the oldest source of the story, reports that Charaxus ransomed Rhodopis for a large sum and that Sappho wrote a poem rebuking him for this.[g][35]

Sappho may have had a daughter named Cleïs, who is referred to in two fragments.[36] Not all scholars accept that Cleïs was Sappho's daughter. Fragment 132 describes Cleïs as "παῖς" (pais), which, as well as meaning "child", can also refer to the "youthful beloved in a male homosexual liaison".[37] It has been suggested that Cleïs was one of Sappho's younger lovers, rather than her daughter,[37] though Judith Hallett argues that the language used in fragment 132 suggests that Sappho was referring to Cleïs as her daughter.[38]

According to the Suda, Sappho was married to Kerkylas of Andros.[14] However, the name appears to have been invented by a comic poet: the name "Kerkylas" comes from the word "κέρκος" (kerkos), a possible meaning of which is "penis", and is not otherwise attested as a name,[39] while "Andros", as well as being the name of a Greek island, is a form of the Greek word "ἀνήρ" (aner), which means man.[18] Thus, the name may be a joke name, and as such could be rendered as "Dick Allcock from the Isle of Man".[39]

Sappho and her family were exiled from Lesbos to Syracuse, Sicily, around 600 BC.[13] The Parian Chronicle records Sappho going into exile some time between 604 and 591.[40] This may have been as a result of her family's involvement with the conflicts between political elites on Lesbos in this period,[41] the same reason for Sappho's contemporary Alcaeus' exile from Mytilene around the same time.[42] Later the exiles were allowed to return.

A tradition going back at least to Menander (Fr. 258 K) suggested that Sappho killed herself by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs for love of Phaon, a ferryman. This is regarded as unhistorical by modern scholars, perhaps invented by the comic poets or originating from a misreading of a first-person reference in a non-biographical poem.[32] The legend may have resulted in part from a desire to assert Sappho as heterosexual.[43]

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