1. Love on Lesbos
Sappho is the first female writer known to Western civilisation - one of the very few female voices speaking to us from antiquity. Although her name is synonymous with lesbian desire, when Sappho was writing on the Greek island of Lesbos 2,600 years ago, its inhabitants were more renowned for their expertise in the arts of the courtesan.
Sappho's reputation has long been shrouded in myth and legend, often shifting to reflect society's changing attitudes towards gender and sexuality. But over the last century, with further discoveries of her work, we've come to understand the fundamental role she played in shaping the language of love and desire we still use today.
2. Behind the myth
The facts we have revealing Sappho's life are scarce – like many of her poems, they have been lost to the passage of time.
We know she was born on the Greek Island of Lesbos around 600 BC and belonged to a wealthy aristocratic family. Some ancient texts reference a daughter and husband, although we can't be sure they existed. Some scholars believe she wrote her poems for women and girls belonging to the cult of Aphrodite, which would have celebrated female milestones like puberty, marriage and childbirth.
In later life, it seems her family were exiled to the Italian island of Sicily. Following her death, a story surfaced claiming she killed herself after a man called Phaon rejected her. However, that story has been discredited by scholars.
She was celebrated in her own lifetime – while Homer was referred to as 'The Poet', Sappho was called 'The Poetess'. Her poetry lined the shelves of ancient libraries for centuries. But through the intervening years, the completed works were lost. All that remains are a handful of completed poems and hundreds of fragments – parts of her poetry transcribed onto scraps of ancient papyrus.
Despite so little of her work surviving, she continues to be a source of fascination for scholars and artists. Today, the woman celebrated by Plato as the 'Tenth Muse ' lends her name to a specific poetic form, called Sapphic verse, and is credited with originating some of our most familiar romantic ideas and phrases, such as the 'bittersweet' nature of love and its power to 'sting' like a bee.
3. The language of love
Click on the labels below to reveal how Sappho shaped the way we talk about desire and sex.
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5. Love notes
Click to uncover how these artists have been inspired by Sappho's work and legacy.