When we think of Ancient Greece, we have an infinity of masculine names: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Epicurus, etc. Whether in politics, philosophy, mathematics or literature, the truth is that there are few female names that stand out; and not only in Greece, but throughout our history. Among all these male names, one appears that shines with its own light: Sappho of Lesbos.
Sappho of Mytilene, Sappho of Lesbos or, sometimes, simply Sappho… Different variations for a single woman, a woman whose poetry has arrived fragmented, silenced by time. As soon as we know facts about his life, all we know about it are no more than suppositions drawn from his verses.
The poetry of Safo is a totally feminine poetry, where everything related to the manly is banished. The force, the rudeness, the attitudes most associated with man have no place in his verses. We keep only a tiny part of all his production, but Sappho’s poetry is so important that he even names a type of verse and verse: the sapphic verse and the sapphic verse.
Homosexuality, femininity, poetry and silence … His poetry is still silenced today, both by time and in the classroom. And it is that there is barely any talk of Sappho and his poems are not recited. Silence has marked the poetry of this woman whose life is still wrapped in mystery, idyllic and hypothetical, because we know very little for sure.
“In anger, nothing is better than silence.”
We have proof of the great importance of Sappho already in Ancient Greece, as it was included in the list of the nine lyric poets. That is, the list of poets considered canon, those authors worthy of study and whose work should be imitated. His influence was such that Plato came to catalog it as the tenth muse.
Sappho lived most of his life on the Greek island of Lesbos between the seventh and sixth centuries BC. It has also been said that he spent a short period in Sicily. Belonging to the aristocracy, it seems that he founded a school or circle of women known as “The House of the Muses”. Other women belonging to the aristocracy attended this school, prepared for marriage, but also learned poetry, made garlands, etc.
Some have identified a certain religious component in “The House of the Muses” linked to the cult of the goddess Aphrodite. The poetry of Sappho is closely linked to this goddess, we have the poem Oda a Aphrodite. This school can be compared, in a certain way, to the Platonic Academy, but being exclusively for women. Besides the nuptial odes, they composed another class of poems, studied dance, art, etc.
Unlike other nuclei that prepared young girls for marriage, at Safo’s school, motherhood was not celebrated, but love was celebrated. Women were not only relegated to conceiving children, but they tried to approach beauty, to the pleasure of love. All this will be reflected in his poetry, something that contrasts with male poetry, aimed at heroes and wars.
The poetry of Sappho is characterized by perfection, for being intimate and sentimental, in clear opposition to the male epic poetry. In a militarized society, Sappho rescues love, the feminine, moves away from politics and envelops us with great sensuality. Although in its poetry the political thing does not take place, one thinks that it had certain political implication, supporting the aristocracy against the democracy (understood in the context of the time, not in the present one). This rebellious attitude would be the one that supposedly sent her into exile in Sicily.
In his verses, we see that Sappho maintained relationships with some of his students, but it is said that he also had men and that he even had a daughter. Unlike what would happen centuries later, in his period were not so condemned homosexual relations. We can see in Safo a revolutionary, because she moved away from what dictated the epic poetry of the time and was true to herself, with an intimate, erotic and sensitive poetry.
Sappho modified the Aeolian verse and was the precursor of what is now known as Sapphic verse and sapphic verse. The sapphic verse is composed of four verses: three sapphic hendecasyllables and one pentasyllable. According to the DRAE, the Sapphic verse is: “in Greek and Latin poetry, verse composed of eleven syllables distributed in five feet”. Safo not only revolutionized the theme of poetry, but was also innovative in its form.
With the rise of Christianity and, mainly, during the Middle Ages, many of Sappho’s verses were lost, burned or forbidden. Despite the silence imposed, Safo survived and some later authors such as Petrarca, Byron or Leopardi made sure that his figure did not fall into oblivion. It is not by chance either that Catullus chose Lesbia as a name for his beloved, in clear allusion to the island of Lesbos.
The sapphic love
We know several beloved in his poetry, but especially Atthi, to whom he dedicated several verses. The poem The Goodbye to Atthi narrates Sappho’s suffering when Atthi is sent to marry a man. This love is also reciprocated and both feel pain when having to separate. Love in Sappho is not unreal, it is not a contemplation as it is with many male authors, but it is linked to his own person.
In Ode to Aphrodite, Sappho proposes a new revolution: it speaks of jealousy, of desire, of sadness… This kind of feeling was not treated in Ancient Greece and was relegated to the divine. The explanation for these feelings never comes from the earthly for the Greeks. However, Sappho goes further and fuses the earthly with the divine. In the poem, she begs Aphrodite to help her, she is in love with a woman who does not pay any attention to her, bemoans and asks for help.
When we talk about lesbian love or sapphic love we are alluding to the Sappho of Lesbos itself and, hence, its meaning of “love between two women”. Love was one of the germs of his poetry, and also the reason for his silence. This love was a pure, individual, elevated feeling, worthy of the most cultured poetry. Unlike what will be understood in later centuries, sapphic love was not low, was not vulgar or purely sexual, but refined. Thus, these women from “The House of the Muses” were aristocrats.
A figure so tender, so simple in its language, capable of mixing the earthly with the divine, could not have an abrupt end. For this reason, his death has been mythified and surely far from reality. Ovid and many other Greek and Latin poets spread a false legend about the death of Sappho. Sappho was in love with Faon and, in his desperate passion for him, commits suicide by throwing himself into the sea from a Leucade rock.
This image so mythical and so romantic contrasts with one of the last poems that have been able to reconstruct from Sappho’s own. A poem in which he talks about old age and the passage of time, in which he reflects on the youth of his students the aging of his own body. Undoubtedly, Safo is a figure that, far from being silenced, deserves to be recited, celebrated and vindicated as a woman who, already in antiquity, managed to live as she wanted, enjoy love, poetry and the company of her students .
“Your pretty sparrows came down from heaven,
through the airs agitated by the precipitate beat of its wings “.