Jack’s Naughty Bits: Sappho

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Jack's Naughty Bits

a Greek poet who lived over 600 years before the birth of Christ, is the most renowned
woman writer of antiquity. Her poems, extant now primarily in fragments, were among the
most accomplished of her day. These lyrics (so-called because she accompanied her recitals
with a lyre) made her famous in her lifetime — so much so that statues of her were erected, an
ancient Greek coin bore her face, and even two centuries after her death, Plato called her the
“tenth muse.”

Today Sappho is still recognized as one of the major contributors to the development of
first person voice in Greek verse. Hers is the voice of the individual, abandoning the standard
topic of feuds among the gods to address instead the barebones reality of visceral love and
longing, as when she writes “Once again, desire / — that loosener of limbs and bitterly sweet —
/ causes me to tremble. / You are irresistible.” The level of physicality in Sappho’s verse
suggests an advancement in Greek thinking: that it might not be Fate that dictates the course of
human life so much as the exigencies of the emotive self.

Yet Sappho’s modern fame is more a result of her association with lesbianism than her
role in the evolution of verse. The term “lesbian” is derived from the name of the Greek isle
Lesbos, where Sappho founded a school of women with whom she had sexual relations and to
whom she wrote much of her exquisite and sensual verse. Her predilection is summarized in the
eminently quotable lines “Beautiful girls, toward you / My thoughts will never change”; the
evidence that she acted on her predilection can be found in lines such as “With royal oils from
fresh flowers / You anointed yourself / And on soft beds fulfilled your longing / For me.”
Lesbian desire as explicit as this would not be articulated again for centuries.

The poem below is an invocation to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. It is beautiful and
symbolic, prefiguring the sensuality of the Song of Solomon and demonstrating why
Sappho’s name is still known to us today. For indeed she was justified when she wrote to one of
her lovers, “Believe me, in the future someone / Will remember us . . .”

* * *

From the poetic fragments of Sappho

(translated by Mary Barnard)

You know the place,

then leave Crete and come to us

waiting where the grove is pleasantest,

by precincts sacred to you;

incense smokes on the altar;

cold streams murmur through the

apple branches, a young

rose thicket shades the ground

and quivering leaves pour

down deep sleep;

in meadows where horses have grown sleek

among spring flowers, dill

scents the air. Queen! Cyprian!

Fill our gold cups with love

stirred into clear nectar.