For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday I have decided to keep the Poetry Week theme by focusing on the ancient poetess Sappho! It is from her name that we get the word sapphic to refer to lesbian sexuality. The island on which she lived was called Lesbos, which is also where we get the word, lesbian!
She is best known for her lyric poetry, which was written to be sung while accompanied by music. This is like a precursor to the Welsh bards of the Middle Ages, and the traveling troubadours who would learn poetry by heart to sing it at royal courts! Sappho was so regarded by her peers that during her life she was given nicknames like the 10th Muse. Like the Silent Films of yesteryear, most of Sappho’s poetry is now lost, or only known in fragmentary forms. The only poem that is known to be fully complete is her “Ode to Aphrodite.”
Sappho is a largely enigmatic figure due to us knowing very little about her life. It is known that she would have come from a wealthy family in Lesbos, but her parentage is uncertain. She was a prolific poetess, likely composing around 10,000 lines of poetry in her lifetime. She was even amongst the canon of Nine Lyric Poets that were the most highly esteemed of Hellenistic Alexandria.
The end of her life is not known with any certainty. It is known that she was exiled to Sicily around 600 B.C. Some theorize that she may have continued her work while in exile until at least 570 B.C. According to a popular legend, her life ended when she committed suicide by jumping off of the Leucadian Cliffs due to her love for the ferryman Phaon!
At the end of the day, the enigma of Sappho’s life is part of what makes her such a fascinating figure of the ancient world. She is one of the most important female poets in history and many of the subsequent female writers owe a debt of gratitude to Sappho for her trailblazing life! Reading her poetry is perhaps the best way to learn about this incredible woman. I hope you have enjoyed this short Poetry Week Femme Fatale Friday. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Sappho (1877) by Charles Mengin (1853–1933). One tradition claims that Sappho committed suicide by jumping off the Leucadian cliff. I found the image on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho#/media/File:1877_Charles_Mengin_-_Sappho.jpg.