SAPPHO: THE TENTH MUSE
In the Anthologia Palantia, Plato is credited with saying: “Some say the muses are nine - how careless - behold, Sappho of Lesbos is the tenth”. In a similar vein, a poem attributed to Dioscorides hails Sappho with an invokation that says “greetings to you lady, as to the gods; for we still have your immortal daughters, your songs”. Famously too, the great statesman Solon, a contemporary of Sappho, is said to have heard a boy singing one of her songs, and asked him to teach it to him, so that he might learn it and die.
Who was this womyn who could garner such divine-like praise? Sappho lived in approximately 600 BCE, on the Aegean isle of Lesbos. Born in the coastal town of Eressos, her mother’s name was Kleis, a name she later gave to her daughter, while her father was named Skamandronymos. She also appears to have had three brothers called Erigyins, Charaxos (who was actually mentioned by Herodotus, in his Histories), and Larichos, who held office in local Mytilene government. Such was the extent of her families’ involvement in politics that at one stage Sappho had to seek temporary refuge on the island of Sicily.
Her name, in the original Greek, was Psappho, but we know her today by the Latinized version of her name. It appears to have meant, or to have been synonymous with, lapis lazuli, a stone of some magickal significance. Lapis is commonly associated with water, the primordial element of creation, and with the Goddess. In Egypt, it was known as the Stone of Truth and was sacred the goddess of fate Maat, while in China it was considered to be one of the Seven Precious Things. Importantly, too, the Sumerian goddess of death and the underworld, Erishkigal, slept naked in a vast palace of lapis lazuli. In the early translations of the Bible into English, the word sappur was mistranslated as sapphire, but originally this word meant holy-blood. This sappur referred, not to the stone we know today as the sapphire, but to the lapis lazuli, as a symbol of the blueblood of the Dark Goddess, and of Her protection of matrilineal inheritance. As lapis lazuli, then, Sappho was an incarnation of the goddess, and an embodiment of the wise blood that permeates all life, and all beauty and allows poetry to be written, and the songs of the kozmos to be sung.
There are no exact representations of Sappho from her time period, so we have no idea what she looked like. There are, however, a number of busts attributed as her from later period in Greek history. The earliest known rendition of Sappho is an annotated picture on a Grecian vase from the sixth century BCE. She is shown wearing traditional Greek dress, and holding lyre; though it has seven strings, Sappho was famous for inventing a 21-string lyre.
The general consensus is that Sappho founded or became the head of a school of learning and religion. Her poetry refers to a close circle of friends and associates, that she describes as hetairai, literally mean companions. This word, though, has sexual connotations, because in Athens, a similar word referred to the male, and female, prostitutes that would attend the meetings of older Greek men. It is known that Greek education was pederastic, in that older men would teach young boys through a personal and often sexual relationship. We can suggest then, that Sappho employed a similar practice at her school for girls, hence the use of the word hetairai to describe her friends and pupils. It is important to point out that there was nothing exploitive or abusive in the type of relationship, and it is only its lack of social context that would make emulation in today’s world ill advised. This form of sexual teaching also bears out one of the scientific theories for the presence of a gay-gene in the make-up of humanity. It has been argued that a gay-gene provides people who are able to teach and assist young people, unencumbered as they can be with families of their own; although it is, of course, erroneous to suggest that every homosexual does not have children, or a desire to have a family.
It is also vitally important to clarify that the ancient practice of the prostitute did not carry the same double-standard stigma that it does in the modern world. Often prostitutes in the ancient world were sacred prostitutes, who lived within the precincts of the temples, and were honoured for their vital role in society. In fact, the modern derogatory word whore was originally a sacred title for a priestess of a goddess, derived from the word horae; just as other slang words were originally sacred, such as bitch, cunt, or even old wives’ tale. It is only in today’s world based on patriarchy that the once sacred office of the prostitute could be degraded and criminalized, while the buyers and abusers of this ancient, and still sacred, art-form often have the law on their male, and thoroughly patriarchal, side.
The exact nature of Sappho’s school is not a recorded one; in fact it relies more on common record than any historical one. However, there is an account by a male compatriot of Sappho, Alcaeus, in which he describes a religious and seemingly sexual festival. He tells of how he lived in a remote area of Lesbos during a time of political turmoil, where, in a sacred area, Lesbian women walk about trailing their gowns and being judged for their beauty, while the wondrous sound of the women’s sacred cry every year echoes all around”.
Alcaeus, who elsewhere addressed Sappho as “0 weaver of violets, holy, sweet-smiling Sappho,” appears to have witnessed a festival of some importance, in which the part played by womyn was paramount. We can also tenuously deduce an almost lesbian aspect in the beauty competition, where it seems to be have been judged by women of Lesbos, and not by men.
Lesbos, even it would seem, in Sappho’s day, was regarded as an island on which lesbianism was widespread. Originally, before Sappho grew to her legendary stature, lesbianism was known as tribadism, while lesbians were referred to as tribads. Aside from Lesbos, the island of Leucas was also regarded as a lesbian retreat, as the very first illustrated book of tribadic sexual positions, in Greece, if not the entire world, was reputed to have been written by a Leucadian womyn, Philsenis. Also Plutarch, the historian and commentator, echoed the Athenian belief that tribadism was more common in rival Sparta, and mentioned that “at Sparta love was held in such honour that even the most respectable women became infatuated with girls”.
Certainly, the lesbian elements in Sappho’s poetry are proof of the presence of lesbianism or tribadism, in ancient Greece, and further, of Sappho’s own sexuality. This however, as we shall see, has not hindered attempts at hiding and removing this central element in her work. However, the briefest perusal of her poetry in its unadulterated state will quickly confirm, not only her sexuality, but also her celebration of it.
From her poetry, we know that Sappho had, as her lover, a beautiful womyn called Anaktoria. She left Sappho, becoming now far distant, and so Sappho was left with only memories of her pleasing, graceful movement, and the radiant splendour of her face. The only other lover of Sappho that is mentioned by name is a womyn in Lucians satirical “Dialogi lieretricil” called Leaina. She is described as being loved by the rich woman from Lesbos, and that they shared a home doing heaven knows what with each other.“ This story is highly apocryphal though, and of course satirical, and so nothing great need be read into it.
The clearest example of Sappho’s passion and depth of love occurs in Fragment 31, where she speaks to a womyn she is madly, but apparently unrequitedly, in love with. She speaks of the she feels towards anyone who is able to sit near to her, and to hear her delightful voice and seductive laugh. And then describes how:
Even when I glimpse you for a moment
My tongue is stilled as speech deserts me
While a delicate fire is beneath my skin -
My eyes cannot see, then,
When I hear only a whirling sound
As I shivering, sweat
Because all of me trembles;
I become as moist as grass
And nearer to death...
But all must be ventured...
This is without doubt the finest example of lesbian desire ever put to paper. It is also a poem that illustrates just how patriarchy will seek to reinterpret and blatantly misrepresent anything that challenges its preconceived view of the world, Despite the obvious emotion that Sappho expresses towards the poem’s object, it was common up until only recently to describe the poem as a wedding song, with the bride and groom being the couple Sappho watches; this is regardless of the fact that there are no hints of affection between the man and the womyn. In another gross misinterpretation, the object of Sappho’s affection is taken to be the man, who because of his “natural superiority as a man”, is making her question her homosexuality; the fantasy of every red-blooded and homosexually- threatened man. This interpretation has often been compounded by the misreading of Sappho’a reference to being “more moist than grass” as the less erotic “greener than grass”.
The reason for this misreading, other than that it fits the jealousy scenario, is that it is sexually explicit in such a way to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who prefers to think of women as desire-less. It can be read as either the vaginal moisture that occurs in arousal, or as Germaine Greer argues, the kind of ecstatic and maenadial liquefaction that is characteristic of the uninhibited female libido. “Sappho’s poem presents pretty well the state of mind-body that causes twelve-year old teenyboppers to liquefy all over the chairs at pop-concerts, to sob and scream and wet themselves... Though the wholesale liquefaction by love-sick females is well known to pop-concert promoters, who have to undertake to re-cover the seats after rock concerts, it is not discussed in polite society... The spectacle of uninhibited female libido is terrifying. Greer does not suggest, however, that Sappho remained in a state of perpetual adolescence, but that this element of female sexuality was more familiar to the ancient Greeks than it is to us now. So “if it was accepted as a part of female sexuality, the capacity for incontinent emotional riot may well have endured into maturity”.
THE FRAGMENTS OF SAPPHO
As we have already seen, Sappho’s family had an important role in the local politics, which were fraught with turmoil and rivalry and were obviously of some financial worth. Sappho herself, however, does not appear to have held much interest in either money, or politics, and says as much in Fragment 16:
For Some - horsemen; for others - infantry;
For some others - it is ships which are, on this black earth,
Visibly constant in their beauty. But for me,
It is that which you desire.
To all, it is easy to make this completely understood
For Helen - she who greatly surpassed other mortals in beauty –
Left her most noble man and sailed forth to Troy
Forgetting her beloved parents and her daughter
Because the goddess led her away.
Which makes me to see again Anaktoria now far distant;
For I would rather behold her pleasing, graceful movement
And the radiant splendour of her face
Than your Lydian chariots and foot-soldiers in full armour.
What poetry we have by Sappho comes only in fragments much as this one above. She is said to have composed enough material to fill nine books. Greek scholars, working in Alexandria, Egypt, during the Hellenistic period collated this body of work. The first book had all her songs based on four line stanzas; known as the Sapphic stanza now, such is Sappho’s fame. And we also know that the ninth book contained all of her songs, such as those for weddings, that were not based on the Sapphic stanza. All up, it has been calculated that the nine books contained 6,300 lines of poetry, approximately 300 songs. Unfortunately, along with many of the great works of the ancient world, Sappho's nine books were destroyed by the Church, which with good reason deemed them obscene. Tatian, the 2nd century Christian writer, for example, called Sappho a “love-crazy female fornicator who even sings about her own licentiousness” Pope Gregory VII, in the 11th century, is said to have personally ordered that Sappho’s work be burned. But besides her homosexuality, the Church had another reason for destroying the works of Sappho, and that was her uninhibited love and celebration of the goddess Aphrodite. It must be remembered that this goddess was more powerful, and more of a threat to Christianity, than the diminutive and patriarchal title of goddess of love would suggest.
Because of this wilful destruction, most of Sappho’s poetry then, was retained only in the often inaccurate, quotes of historians; until the early 1800s, when fragments of papyrus and manuscript used in the wrapping of mummies of the Hellenistic era were found in Egypt. These fragments although often in a tattered and dog-eared state, contained many missing pieces of poems for which there had previously only been quotations or single line excerpts. But of the original nine volumes, all we have left today is 200 often- incomplete fragments. The loss of these works was aptly expressed by the modern American writer Willa Carter, who said: “If of all the lost richness we could have one master restored to us, one of all the philosophers and poets, the choice of the world would be for the lost nine books of Sappho.”
SAPPHO AND APHRODITE
The only complete song of Sappho that we now have is her Hymn to Aphrodite. There is a kind of magic in this because Sappho’s relationship with the goddess was a remarkable one. Whereas the gods, in a conventional framework, were in a position of power that had to be entreated, Sappho’s use of her stanza-form, and her love-like relationship, brought them, or rather the goddess, closer. Her style of writing poetry, in contradistinction to what had gone before, embraced the personal, it celebrated the pain and emotions of being human, and then spoke to the gods. This style was ascending in nature, whereas previous styles had been written from the viewpoint of the gods, (condescending to humankind. Sappho’s prose is a form of magick, then, and her works are keys to unlocking god-forms, and the kozmos, with just the utterance of a few words.
The Aphrodite that Sappho knew and loved was not the familiar image we see in the paintings of Sandro Botticelli (despite his undeniable skills, he was dealing, in this instance, with stereotypes) or even the ephemeral goddess she became to Athenian Greece. Instead, she was an all-powerful, and originally matriarchal, form of the goddess. Her power was one of unabashed and unfettered female sexuality, and lust, not the romanticized and saccharine concepts that she is now associated with, and also continues to be every time the word “Venus” is used in a stereotypical and dismissive fashion.
She was a goddess who fell in love with the youth Adonis, but when Persephone, goddess of the underworld, also fell in love with him, it was decided that he would stay one-third of each year by himself, another with Persephone, and the other with Aphrodite. Consequently, he would be gored to death, every year, by a boar sent by Aphrodite. This emulates a myth cycle found throughout Europe and the Middle East in such goddess-consort duos as Cybele and Attis, Ishtar and Tammuz, and Inanna and Dumuzi. This cycle also finds a northern application, where the dying god was Balder, and the queen of the underworld was Hela. If we recall the chthonic imagery associated with Sappho’s name of lapis lazuli, as found particularly in the Sumerian Erishkigal, and the Egyptian Maat, we are able to argue that Sappho can be understood, in a manner of speaking, as the dark, and chthonic, aspect of Aphrodite.
Further, if we consider the frequent motifs of absence, loss, and departure in her poetry, and replace Adonis with Anaktoria, we can see Sappho as providing an esoteric, lesbian, form of the ancient mysteries. Perhaps it was something like this that was taught at her school on Lesbos, in a combination of matters sexual, religious, and magickal.
We have seen hints of a connection between Sappho and the dark goddess that move her importance even beyond that of lyrical poet and lesbian icon. Her name relates to the blueblood of the goddess, and to the lapis lazuli that is used to decorate the halls of many underworld goddesses (including Erishkigal, Maat, and Hela). We have also just seen that there was more to Aphrodite (the goddess who appears most consistently in Sappho’s poems), than just a simple goddess of love. What then are we to make of this suggestion of some greater significance, of some mystery taught at Sappho’s school on Lesbos?
It has been suggested that Sappho was not one particular womyn, but rather a title for a particular kind of high priestess. This would not be without precedent in the ancient world. For example, the many Marys in the new testament point to a group of priestesses, who were dedicated to the dark goddess (the name Mary being the same as Maya-Maia, one of the Hindu-Greek names for the dark goddess), and who were behind the sacrifice of her mortal consort, Jesus; who is the same as Attis, Tammuz, and Adonis. Whether we wish to accept the premise that Sappho was not one womyn, which some may argue is a move to belittle her (just as it has been argued that the goddess was divided into many aspects as a way to disempower her; in itself a matter of opinion), the idea that she was the priestess of a mystery religion is still valid.
In at least two of her poems, Sappho uses ritual description as a metaphor, employing a similar scene of young womyn around an altar. The first tells of an altar of love:
And their feet move
rhythmically, as tender
feet of Cretan girls danced once around an
altar of love, crushing
a circle in the soft
smooth flowering grass
The second poem is even more evocative in its imagery, with everything that suggests the twilight world of the dark goddess, which is entered through ritual:
In the spring twilight
the full moon is shining:
Girls take their places
as though around an altar
Considering the hints of the death of the sacrificial king that we have already seen implied by the Sappho-goddess matrix, it is no great leap to suggest that the rites on Lesbos were somehow related to this. There is a suggestion of this in Sappho’s poetry, where she talks of an unnamed consort who is lost to someone called Rosy-cheeks. This Rosy-cheeks has often been thought, in accordance with the heterosexual context so frequently applied to her work, to be some rival of Sappho, when actually the name was a title of the death goddess. The consort who was lost to Rosy-cheeks was, therefore, the sacrificial king of that year, whose passing was ritually mourned through poetry and song. The song for the sacrificial king is found in almost all instances of this ritual: the prophet Ezekial famously refers to the wailing laments for Tammuz made by the womyn of Jerusalem (the wailing or howling was called alalu by the Babylonians, and houloi by the Greeks).
One classical myth of the sacrificed king shows a direct association between this rite and the island of Lesbos. The semi-divine poet Orpheus was the lover of the nymph Eurydyke (universal dyke), who was in reality, a form of the dark goddess as matron of fate and justice, like Hela and the Egyptian Maat. Several tales are told of him, but the one that concerns is that of his death, where, after his loss of Eurydyke, he wandered through the wilds of Thrace, carrying only his lyre which he played constantly. A band of Maenads came upon him, and the frenzied womyn tore him to pieces, and cast his head into the river Hebrus. The river carried it along until it came to rest on the shores of Lesbos, completely undamaged by the journey, and still singing. The Muses found the head and buried it in the sanctuary of the island. Orpheus’s lyre was also kept as a holy relic in the temple on Lesbos, and was considered taboo and not to be touched. When Neanthus, the son of the Tyrant of Lesbos, once played it, he was torn to pieces by a pack of dogs; whether they were real dogs, or the priestesses of Lesbos, the sacrifice to the goddess is again unclear.
Sappho, then, was the goddess-priestess of the blueblood of the goddess and the blue lapis lazuli of her underworld, who sent the sacrificial king on his way to Persephone-Eurydyke. She was the guardian of the gateway between this world and the next, and so it is significant that in depictions of her, she is often portrayed goddess-like, seated or standing near two columns. Columns and pillars were an innovation on the archaic cave, which represented the vulva of the goddess, the passageway between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Pillars also played an important part in the sacrifice of the king, being the structure on which he was so often killed. The cross of Jesus is the best example, while others are the Djed pillar of Osiris, the world tree of Odin and Attis, while even the scarecrow placed in fields to protect crops is an echo of this tradition.
SAPPHO'S JOURNEY THROUGH HERSTORY AND HISTORY
Sappho underwent a form of apotheosis, as she became not just a poet, but a muse. We can see the beginnings of this in Plato’s remark about her being the tenth muse, but with the passage of time her goddess-like status became all the more pointed, as her life became the stuff of legends, while the facts became less relevant. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is no different from say the evolution of the real-life Iron Age figure of Odin into a god, or a similar process that lead to the creation of a Jewish messiah, known today as Jesus. An idea of the mythological characteristics that would become attributed to Sappho can be seen in the work of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). In De Claris Nulierbus: Concerning Famous Women, he gives a description of Sappho that has little reliance on facts, but instead illustrates her growth into a goddess:
"The poetess Sappho was a girl from the city of Mytilene in the island of Lesbos. No other fact has reached us about her origins. But if we examine her work, we will see that she was born of honourable and noble parents, for no vile soul could have desired to write poetry, nor could a plebian one have written it as she did. Although it is not known when she flourished, she nevertheless had so fine a talent that in the flower of youth and beauty she was not satisfied with writing solely in prose, but, spurred by the great fervour of her soul and mind with diligent study she ascended the slopes of Parnassus and on that high summit with happy daring joined the Muses, who did not nod in disapproval. Wandering through the laurel grove, she arrived at the cave of Apollo, bathed in the waters of Castalia, and took up Phoebus’s plectrum. As the sacred nymphs danced, this girl did not hesitate to strike the strings of the cithara and bring forth melody. All these things seem very difficult even for well-educated men. Why say more? Through her eagerness she reached such heights that her verses, which according to ancient testimony were very famous, are still brilliant in our own day. A bronze statue was erected and consecrated to her name, and she was included among the famous poets. Certainly neither the crown of kings, the papal tiara, nor the conqueror’s laurel is more splendid than her glory."
But with this evolution into legend, Sappho became successively recast -both celebrated and vilified- and her life and love was retold to spare patriarchal sensitivities. By the Roman age, Sappho had been relegated to mere heterosexuality, and attributed an obsession with a young boy known as Phaon. When her affections were spurned, according to this tale, she leapt to her death off the White Rocks of Leukas. It is relevant to note that this plot device is still a favourite one of modern filmmakers, who have a tendency to kill their homosexual characters with alarming frequency. The story of Phaon is widely regarded as apocryphal, since the mythical Phaon appears in other similar legends. In one incident he was the lover of Aphrodite; while Aphrodite was herself said to have leapt from the White Rocks of Leukas for the love of a young man, in this case the golden youth Adonis. Another invented male may be person given as Sappho’s one-time husband, Kerkylas of Andrea. It has been noted that his name is similar to the Greek word for penis, kerkos, while his home, Andros, alludes to the Greek word for man, suggesting that the name is a pun, that he was “Dicky-Boy from the Isle of Man’. Alternatively, this may suggest that the father of Sappho’ a daughter Cleis may have metaphorically been just a penis, or more literally, a donator of sperm; a practice that is certainly not without parallel in some modern lesbian relationships.
But the Roman’s conversion of her sexuality was not the last attempt to remould Sappho into a respectable figure for patriarchy. After a period of absence, Sappho reappeared during the Renaissance as an aristocratic and learned matronly figure, albeit virginal, and with not a trace of her lesbianism. In 1584, the French court historian Andre Thevet compiled his True Portraits of Illustrious Men, which included biographies of Homer (some mean feat, considering the lack of information on the poet’s history) and Sappho Lesbienne. He vehemently denied any links between the Sappho he wanted to portray as a predictably married, and “honourable” poet, and the other Sappho, of whom Thevet said “the horror of whose crime it rather behoves me to suppress than to mention here’. Because Thevet favoured censoring Sappho, it was not until 17th century France that the greatest revisions, of both her life, and her work, occurred. As in modern society, the heterosexual male, of which the system of patriarchy is an embodiment, is both titillated and threatened by lesbianism. On the one hand, the video of two heterosexual women acting in a lesbian way is sure to be on heavy rotation at the video store. But on the other hand, genuine lesbian women, who may not fits preconceived image of either lesbians or women in general, pose a threat to the patriarchy’s control over matters sexual. Lesbianism is the greatest threat to patriarchy because it, in the mind of patriarchy, suggests that 1) women are, indeed, sexual beings, and 2) they do not need the penile protrusions of men to satisfy them, emotionally, or sexually. And so, it was this double standard of fascination and dread that was at the core of French translations of Sappho’s work. Separate editions were produced for men and women, the male editions featured enough of Sappho’s erotic work to titillate the intended male audience, while the editions for womyn, made to be read in parlours, were free from any sexual suggestions. After all, French manhood would not wish to expose their women to something that could quite likely make them redundant.
By Victorian times, Sappho had been elevated to a state of Marian purity, in which being as moist as grass, and her other sexual metaphors were either expunged or explained away. One of the most popular explanations for Sappho’s use of highly affectionate language was that, as a headmistress of a girl’s school on Lesbos, her songs were merely chaste send-offs sung to her pupils as they left to be married. Even with a trite explanation like that, one is still left intrigued by the level of affection between a, supposedly, mere teacher and pupil.
At the same time though, the Romanticist movement of Byron, Shelley, and Dante and Christina Rossetti embraced Sappho, but it could be argued, for all the wrong reasons. Instead of celebrating her depth of love and devotion, they embraced the scandalous aspect of Sappho, along with her mythical self-destructiveness, as characterized by the Phaon myth. However, a sense of the respect Sappho eventually gained can be found in a description of her by one of the great Victorian poets, the pagan-inclined, and viciously anti-Christian, Algernon Charles Swinburne: Judging even from the mutilated fragments fallen within our reach from the broken altar of her sacrifice of song, I for one have always agreed with all Grecian tradition in thinking Sappho to be beyond all question and comparison the Very greatest poet that ever lived. Aeschylus is the greatest poet who was also a prophet; Shakespeare is the best dramatist who was also a poet, but Sappho is simply nothing less - as she certainly is nothing more - than the greatest poet who ever was at all. Such was Swinburne’s love for Sappho that in the sublimely titled Anactoria, he used her as the voice that rails against a certain Hebraic god:
Him would I reach, him smite, him desecrate,
Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath, And mix his immortality with death.
While the words placed in Sappho's mouth by Swinburne may have been harsher than those the Lesbian poet usually used, it would not be the last time that she would speak through, and to other poets from her place deep in the past.
EVEN LATER SOMEONE WILL REMEMBER US
So wrote Sappho in Fragment 147. V., and this prediction, against all the odds, did indeed come true. The influence of Sappho on modern writers has been remarkable. Her honesty, love and sheer talent has echoed down through the centuries and still touches people in the most profound ways. Within mgickal circles, the Order of Nine Angles produced the cassette work SAPPHO: fragments, a musical rendition of the most striking of the Sappho fragments. It fused ancient Greek music with modern nuances, producing a profound and moving interpretation of Sappho's poetry, and allowing the emotions behind the text to be experienced as if it was Sappho herself who was singing them. The music was complemented by its literary partner, with new translations of the poetry by David Myatt, and five colour paintings by Christos Beest, representing phrases from the fragments. These were complemented yet further by a performance at the Gwent College of Art (by Sister Lianna, Christos Beest, and Wulfran Hall) in which the fragment images were projected onto a screen, as the music was played through an amplified-system; the audience response was reported to have been positive but low-key.
The recurring sense of unrequited love, and of emotional desolation, in Sappho’s poetry is not unlike the isolation experienced by many womyn, and homosexuals, in the earlier part of this century. And it is this sentiment that is expressed in the poetry and the art of several of Sappho’s modern literary descendants.
One of the most prominent was Amy Lowell, an eccentric womyn who scandalized Boston society by amongst other things, smoking large black cigars. Born in 1874 to one of Boston’s most distinguished families, she was not afforded the formal education that her brothers received, but made up for it with her own acumen and perspicacity. Lowell was an important proponent of Imagism, the modernist poetry movement so named by Ezra Pound; though in her time, her reputation was greater than that of Pound. Imagism was typified by short, precise poems, influenced by the Japanese form of haiku, and so the poetry of Sappho had much in common with it. Lowell compiled one of the major representations of Imagist work, a three-volume anthology, Some Imagist Poets, and also gave enthusiastic lectures on modern poetry. Like Sappho, though, she suffered the slights of patriarchy because of her lesbianism, along with her weight, demeanour, and other matters irrelevant to her ability to compose excellent poetry; the jealous Ezra Pound, who never got on well with Lowell, even took to referring to Imagism as Amy-gism.
Her affinity with Sappho can be seen in one of her non-Imagist poems, The Sisters, in which she celebrated her feminine literary heritage (which, along with Sappho, included Elizabeth Barret Browning and Emily Dickinson). The most compelling segment says:
There’s Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho.
I know a slender thing about her:
That loving, she was like a burning birch-tree
All tall and glittering fire,
and that she wrote
Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,
A frozen blaze before it broke and fell.
Ah, me! I wish I could have talked to Sapho,
Surprised her reticences by flinging mine
Into the wind. This tossing off of garments
Which cloud the soul is none too easy doing
With us today. But still I think with Sapho
One might accomplish it, were she in the mood
To bare her loveliness of words and tell
The reasons, as she possibly conceived them
Of why they are so lovely. Just to know
How she came at them, just to watch
The crisp sea sunshine playing on her hair
And listen, thinking, all the while ‘twas she
Who spoke and that we two were sisters
Of a strange isolated little family.
Like many of the lesbian poets that were to follow her, Lowell seemed able to channel the spirit of Sappho through her poetry, and some of her imagery seems to come straight from the lyre of the tenth muse.
Your shadow is sunlight on a plate of silver;
Your footsteps; the seeding place of lilies;
Your hands moving, a chime of bells
across a windless air...
I drink your lips,
I eat the whiteness of your hands and feet.
My mouth is open,
As a new jar I am empty and open.
Like white water are you who fill the cup of my mouth,
Like a brook of water thronged with lilies.
from: In Excelsis
Red and trembling with blood
Heart’s blood for your drinking
To fill your mouth with love
And the bitter-sweat taste of a soul.
I know not what to do:
my mind is divided.
When one considers Ada Dwyer, Lowell’s lover of ten years, it is understandable how she was able to write of such unadulterated, and all-consuming love and desire. The beautiful young actress was, unquestionably, Anaktoria to Amy Lowell’s Sappho.
Yet another womyn involved with Imagism, and in fact engaged to Ezra Pound at one time, was the bisexual Hilda Doolittle, or H.D, as she was often known. Born in 1886, H.D, like many homosexuals of her time (both male and female) married out of convenience, but she left her husband, the Imagist Richard Aldington, after the birth of her daughter, Frances Perdita, in 1919. (Frances was named after Frances Gregg a womyn H.D had had a brief affair with]. After a leaving her husband, H.D lived for much of her life with the writer Winifred Ellerman, who preferred to be called Bryher, and who too had married out of convenience; twice in fact, but both times never consummated. Bryher supported H.D and Frances, even going to the extent of adopting the young girl as her own, while she also financed H.D’s travels to the USA, Egypt, and most importantly, Greece.
H.D’s admiration for Sappho can be summed up in an excerpt from her essay The Wise Sappho: “I think of the words of Sappho as these colours (red, scarlet, gold), or states rather transcending colour yet containing (as great heat the compass of the spectrum) all colour. And perhaps the most obvious is this rose colour, merging to richer shades of scarlet, purple, or Phoenician purple”
Using the Sappho fragments, H.D. published a collection of poems called Heliodora, in which a line of Sappho’s was expanded upon to form a complete poem, as if Sappho herself had penned it. An example, taken from Fragment 36, begins with Sappho’s:
Which was then elaborated upon, explored, and further developed, by H.D.:
I know not what to do,
my mind is reft:
is song’s gift best?
is love’s gift loveliest?
I know not what to do,
now sleep has pressed
weight on your eyelids...
In another of her poems, Moonrise, H.D revisits some of Sappho’s familiar imagery, in what appears to be an invokation of a hunting lunar goddess much like Artemis (who, with Aphrodite, was the most important goddess on Lesbos):
Will you glimmer on the sea:
will you fling your spear-head
on the shore?
what note shall we pitch?
we have a song,
on the bank we share our arrows;
the loosed string tells our note:
bring her swifty to our song.
She is great,
we measure her by the pine trees.
Other important lesbian poets drew upon the rich heritage provided by Sappho. Renee Vivien, (1877-1909) made the first French translation of the Sappho fragments, taking them from the original Greek, which she had learnt specifically for that purpose. In an autobiographical novel, the heroine Vally (modelled upon Vivien’s real life lover, Natalie Barney) expresses Vivien’s admiration for Sappho: “the only woman poet whose immortality equals that of statues is Psappha [Sappho], who didn’t deign to notice masculine existence. She celebrated the sweet speech and the adorable smile of Atthis, and not the muscled torso of the imaginary Phaon.”
Renee Vivien’s devotion to Sappho became a central tenant of her work. Many of her titles reflect, the influence of Sappho (Toward Lesbos, Sappho Lives Again, and Landing at Mytilene), while in her poem Like This Would I Speak, Sappho became apotheosized as a goddess of lesbian love.
Sappho, her restless fingers on the sleeping lyre,
Will marvel at the beauty of my lover...
Sappho will shower us, in her fervent breath,
With the odes whose melodies charmed Mytilene.
And we will prepare the flowers and the flames
We who have loved her in a century less beautiful.
Sappho will serve us, amid the gold and silk
Of soft cushions, nectar mixed with joy.
She will show us, in her graceful manner,
The Lesbian orchard that opens to the sea..
Another modern era poet who could claim descent from Sappho was the Prussian born Mary Madeleine, or Baroness Von Puttkamer (a title she received when at 19, she married General Heinrich Georg Ludwig Freiherr (Baron) von Puttkamer). She was born in 1581, in Eydtkuhnen, East Prussia, and at the age of 15 and 16, began writing a unique form of lyrical, sensual and fiercely erotic poetry and prose. Much of this early work of short stories and novellas was published in the 1900 collection that made her name, Auf Kypros (On Cyprus). Her work that followed included In Seligkeit und Sunden (In Bliss and Sin, 1905), Katzen (Cats, 1910), Krabben (Crabs, 1910), Die rote Rose Leidenschaft (The Red Rose called Passion, 1912), Die drei Nachte (The Three Nights), Pantherkatzchen (Panther Kitten, 1915) and Taumel (Ecstasy, 1920). Much like the poems of Sappho, Madeleine’s work created a paradox for critics, who could not deny her talent as a poet, and her skill in rhyming skill, and use of brightly coloured imagery, but still described her highly sensual work as "shameless", "lascivious," “lewd”, and "lecherous."
Mary Madeleine also used Sappho as a source of lesbian-inspiration. In Foiled Sleep, she revisits the emotions Sappho experienced upon hearing “that seductive laugh, that makes the heart beneath ‘my breasts to tremble”.
Ah me! I cannot sleep at night;
And when I shut my eyes, forsooth,
I cannot banish from my sight
The vision of her slender youth.
She stands before me lover-wise,
Her naked beauty fair and slim,
She smiles upon me, and her eyes
With over fierce desire grows dim.
Slowly she leans to me. I meet
The passion of her gaze anew,
And then her laughter, clear and sweet,
Thrills all the hollow silence through.
O, siren, with the mocking tongue!
O beauty, lily-sweet and white!
I see her, slim and fair and young.
And ah! I cannot sleep tonight.
Finally, a poet who could almost claim direct descent from Sappho, Olga Broumas (born 1949), born on the island of Syros, one of the Greek Cyclades, expresses Sappho’s sentiments in the most explicit style yet. Her celebration of lesbian desire echoes that of Sappho, but with a sense of pride that overrides the feeling of isolation that both the Lesbian poet, and her lesbian descendants, frequently expressed:
in silver the tongue-like forms
that curve round a throat
an arm-pit, the upper
thigh, whose Significance stirs in me
like a curvi form alphabet
to consist of vowels, beginning with 0,
the 0-mega, horseshoe, the cave of sound.
What tiny fragments
survive, mangled into our language.
Broumas often makes use of themes and images from Greek mythology, and, like Sappho, uses them as metaphors for her own situations. She reinterpreted the story of the rape of Leda by Zeus into a tale of lesbian desire by changing the sex of the swan (the form Zeus assumed). But most remarkably, while reviewing notes she had made on Sappho, Broumas found a two-verse epigraph that she assumed must have been from one of Sappho’s fragments. But it is not from any of them. It seems instead that Sappho took the opportunity to write yet more, through her modern inheritors. Perhaps one day, when more fragments are found, this will be among them:
She who loves roses must be patient
and not cry out when she is pierced by thorns.
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A COLLECTION OF SAPPHO'S POETRY