ἰόπλοκ᾽ ἄγνα μελλιχόμειδε Σάπφοι
(Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho.)
"What else was the love of the Lesbian woman except Socrates' art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love each in their own way, she that of women, he that of men. For they say that both loved many and were captivated by all things beautiful."
Maximus of Tyre
There are many Sapphos in modern Greece. It’s a girl’s name, like Mandy or Joan. (Lots of Xenas too). But for lesbians, the name Sappho means something different.
The Sappho was an artistic phenomenon, a lover of women, a poetess, a songstress. She was the Tenth Muse (dubbed by Socrates) who inadvertently gave us our name. We are lesbians because of a woman born around 630 B.C.E. on the island of Lesbos in the ancient city of Eressos.
That ancient city no longer remains. From a glorious heyday, it gradually declined, as did most of the classical world, and was finally seen off by Barbary slavers.
Today there is the village of Eressos, where I live. A small homely place of 3000 souls swelling to 10,000 at the height of summer when tourists flock to Skala Eressos (the beach bit of town 2 km away).
Skala Eressos is the site of the ancient city where Sappho was born. It was a thriving metropolis where the ships enroute to decimate Troy dropped by for provisions.
Archaeology pops up here all the time, whether you’re digging your roses or building a goat shed. Once, I was walking down the street and found this
underway. It felt weird looking into the remains of these ancient streets and houses. I could imagine how cramped and smoky and bustling it all must have been. It made me marvel that Sappho actually lived in one of those holes. Now, I'm not saying that she was a hobbit; there's obviously twelve feet of modern times piled up over her birthplace, and I bet she lived in the posh side of town.
Sappho didn’t hang around. Prodigies seldom do. She spent a lot of her time in Mytilene, which is still the capitol of Lesbos, where she ran an art school for young women, sort of like the Fame academy, only with lyres not lycra.
So, what do we know about her work? Well, luckily hundreds of fragments of her work still exist. I know fragments doesn't sound too promising, but considering you're talking about 600 B.C.E., this is a blessing.
"Standing by my bed in gold sandals Dawn that very moment awoke me."
Sappho's existing poetry is so fragmented, and therefore open to interpretation. I, for instance, do not read this as an ode to morning, as many classical scholars tend to. Rather, I am inclined to see Dawn as her girlfriend waking her up with a nice cup of tea. (Keeper). But then I’m a dreamer not a scholar.
Follow me down the ancient roads of Lesbos (or Lesvos) as we discover more about Sappho together over my next few blogs.