How did Sappho shape the way we talk about love and sex?

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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.

The Poetess

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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4. Making an icon

From the literati to lesbian devotees, Sappho has come to represent different things to many different people. Click through the gallery to discover the making of a modern icon.

Sappho was read exclusively by scholars in the 16th Century. Very little of her work survived and the fragments which did were not available to the illiterate wider public. She was first and foremost an artist, revered by the intellectual elite.

Getty Images

In the 18th Century, as women began to push for more rights, Sappho’s life eclipsed her work. Cast as a 'fallen women' by the male establishment, she was often pictured committing suicide after falling prey to dangerous female passions.

Getty Images

In the 19th Century, a Romantic Sappho took centre stage. Poets such as Lord Byron and Baudelaire drew inspiration from her work's emotional intensity. But she was often pictured as a sultry vamp, enslaved to uncontrollable desires.

Bridgeman

The 19th Century also saw the rise of Sappho as a gay icon. ‘Lesbian' was used to refer to same-sex desire between women, derived from Sappho's home of Lesbos. Yet her desires for women were decried as ‘unnatural' in conservative quarters of society.

© Tate, London 2015

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden

At the end of the century, a hoard of Sappho's poems was discovered in the Egyptian desert. Academics began translating and studying the fragments. A new influential version of her poetry appeared in English 1885 and her work found a wider audience.

Papyrus fragments

Bridgeman Images

In the 20th Century, Sappho's works were more widely taught than ever, fostering a renewed appreciation of her talents. In popular culture, she represented sexual liberation and became a figurehead for both lesbian and feminist communities.

Sappho Magazine

Glasgow Women's Library

5. Love notes

Click to uncover how these artists have been inspired by Sappho's work and legacy.

Jeanette Winterson

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Jeanette Winterson

This English writer made Sappho a central character in her novel Art & Lies, exploring the poet’s legacy from a feminist perspective.

Christina Rosetti

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Christina Rosetti

The Victorian poet wrote poems in the voice of Sappho, dramatising her suicidal leap.

Anne Carson

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Anne Carson

The Canadian poet and classicist has written poetry inspired by Sappho's work, as well as producing a volume of translation.

Ezra Pound

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Ezra Pound

Modernist poet Ezra Pound responded to the fragmentary nature of Sappho's surviving work, borrowing the form for his own poems.