Imagine that two millenia or so in the future, literary experts attempt to collect the glories of our literature. Most of our paper writings have crumbled into dust or used for kindling; all our digital files are long gone or indecipherable. English is a dead language and many of the cultural references are a complete puzzle to them. They have a strange jumble of popular and high literature: one partial summary of of the episodes of a saga called 'Star Trek', a fragment of an archive of fan fiction about a warrior princess named Xena, some quotes from various authors extracted from anthologies written three hundred years from now, and a few cryptic bits of poetry from somebody named Shakespeare, who was apparently very highly regarded, and wrote in an archaic dialect: specifically, one complete sonnet, a couple of soliloquies and a few random lines from his plays. Now try to psychoanalyze Shakespeare from those fragments. This is about where we stand vis-a-vis Sappho.
The poet Sappho lived in the sixth century B.C. on the island of Lesbos, which is situated in the Northeastern Aegean. We do not know the exact date of her birth or death, but it has been suggested that she was alive from about 610 B.C to 570 B.C. Her family is known to have been wealthy merchants; Lesbos in the sixth century B.C. was very prosperous. That she lived a life of luxury, and loved beatiful clothes and ornaments is clear from several allusions in the fragments. In addition, it is known that women of Lesbos at this time were exceptionally liberated and moved freely in social and religious circles. Lesbos was the center of a flourishing school of lyric poetry. Some of the other Lesbian poets of this period were Terpander and Alcaeus, and there were several other women poets.
Sappho was born in either Eresus or Mytilene, but lived most of her life in Mytiline. Herodotus, who wrote about 150 years after Sappho's death, said that her fathers name was Scamandronymous. We know that she had three brothers, named Charaxus, Larichus, and Eurygius. From Athenaeus we learn that Larichus had the post of cup-bearer at Mytilene, which was an honorary office only open to the aristocracy. It is therefore assumed that Sappho and her family were of the upper class. Charaxus as a merchant who exported the renowned wine of Lesbos to Naucratis in Egypt. He was reputed to have married a wealthy Egyptian woman named Doricha, who is mentioned in Herodotus. Nothing is known of her third brother.
Aside from writing a large amount of exquisite poems, it is difficult to tell what Sappho's actual occupation was (as the late William Everson noted, poetry is a vocation, not to be confused with one's occupation). There is evidence in several of the poems that Sappho may have been part of a circle of women who were priestesses of the goddess Aphrodite, which in that time and place may have implied ritual prostitution. In another poem she boasts of having trained a champion runner (#68). One of the commentators says that she invented a particular kind of garment, the chlamys. In yet another (#87), her daughter (or perhaps Sappho speaking to her mother), complains that she can't focus on her weaving because she's, to put it bluntly, horny. Priestess? Sacred Whore? Athlete? Fashion designer? Weaver? Sappho may have been any or all of these at some point in her life. We simply don't know.
There are no contemporary portraits of Sappho; it is said that she was short and dark. After her death she was portrayed on coins, medallions, vases and in statuary. There were two famous statues of Sappho in antiquity, both which have disappeared.
Sappho was exiled for a time in Sicily; this is the only event in her life for which there is actual documentary evidence. An inscription cut in a block of marble and found at Paros, now in the British Museum, gives a chronology of events from the sixteenth to the third century B.C. The chronology states that Sappho fled from Lesbos to Sicily when Aristocles ruled the Athenians. The reason was some sort of political upheaval in Lesbos.
It is said that she flung herself off of the Leucadian promontory over unrequited love for a beautiful boatman named Phaon. This is completely unsubstantiated (if not out of character). This myth formed the basis for several romantic poems about her as late as the Renaisannce.
Sappho the poet was an innovator. At the time poetry was principally used in ceremonial contexts, and to extoll the deeds of brave soldiers. Sappho had the audacity to use the first person in poetry and to discuss deep human emotions, particularly the erotic, in ways that had never been approached by anyone before her. As for the military angle, in one of the longer fragments (#3) she says: "Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me it is my beloved."
In the ancient world she was considered to be on an equal footing with Homer, acclaimed as the 'tenth muse'. Her poetry was collected three hundred years after her death at Alexandria in nine books. Some of her poems were known to be hundreds of lines long.
Today, only a few scraps of her poetry survive, only three of them consisting of more than one verse (the longest being seven verses of four lines), a handful of four line and two line fragments, and the rest just phrases or short quotes. Most of the fragments are second- or third-hand quotes from other texts. Some small fragments were found (in the early twentieth century) wrapped around mummies in Egypt; essentially recycled papyrus. These have been identified only because of Sappho's distinctive literary style.
Sappho's books were burned by Christians in the year 380 A.D. at the instigation of Pope Gregory Nazianzen. Another book burning in the year 1073 A.D. by Pope Gregory VII may have wiped out any remaining trace of her works. It should be remembered that in antiquity books were copied by hand and comparatively rare. There may have only been a few copies of her complete works. The bonfires of the Church destroyed many things, but among the most tragic of their victims were the poems of Sappho.
The reason that the Church wanted Sappho's works eradicated is not certain, but it probably had something to do with the subject matter of her poems. From the surviving fragments, we know Sappho wrote splendid hymns in praise of the Pagan Goddesses, particularly Aphrodite, and love poetry of great sophistication, passion and deep understanding of the human heart. This at least is apparent even from the few fragments we have. Such subjects were anathema to the bigots of the Dark Ages.
The matter of her sexual orientation did not become controversial until much later, during the nineteenth and twentieth century. It was not an issue for her contemporaries; it was not even an issue in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, when her poetry started to emerge from obscurity.
It should be emphasised that we have few clues about her sexual orientation. Moreover, we are still unclear what same-sex romantic or erotic love between women may have implied in Sappho's culture. What we do know is that there was not widespread fear and persecution of homosexuals in antiquity. Even during the middle ages, same-sex unions occured and were not disapproved of by the Church. This is not why Sappho's poems were burned. If anything, it was her (possibly exaggerated) reputation for promiscuity which brought her reproach in the early Christian era.
It was only during the Victorian era that Sappho's sexual preference per se, rather than her poetry, became a focus of interest. Since there is no actual explicit 'lesbian' sexual content in her poems, in the late 19th Century the French Decadant novelist Pierre Louys decided to invent some. Louys claimed that he had discovered the poems of an ancient Lesbian poetess named 'Bilitis', a contemporary of Sappho. Louys published free-verse 'translations' of her works complete with scholarly apparatus. The Bilitis poems provided all the juicy details that were missing from the Sappho corpus (or at least as much as Louys could imply in a book published at the time). Conspicuously missing were the original texts of Bilitis' poems, which is understandable, since our spotty information on the Aoelic dialect which Bilitis would have spoken would make them hard to forge.
The Bilitis hoax (which, although purely a male fantasy, has literary merits in its own right) took Europe by storm. In time, Bilitis became confused with Sappho in popular culture to the point where it is impossible to tell the two apart. Sappho was a popular subject for moody decadent painters at the turn of the 20th century. Today the adjective 'Sapphic' conjures up images of lesbian sex, rather than its original meaning of a specific classical Greek poetic form. Bilitis was even made into an atrocious soft-euro-porn movie in the 1970s starring the nymphet Sylvia Crystal, with cinematography by the fashion photographer David Hamilton (albeit with little connection to the Louys book other than some voice-overs). Popular culture to this day employs Sappho and ancient Greece as a codeword for homosexuality. Ironically, the beforementioned Xena television drama, with its ambiguous portrayal of a relationship between two women,--possibly by accident, considering how it made a hash of ancient mythology and history--somewhat reflected the fluid nature of Hellenic sexual identity.
The truth of the matter is that Sappho was probably bisexual, not lesbian in the sense of the word today, i.e. exclusively attracted to women. Moreover, nobody made a big deal about it for nearly 2,500 years after she was dead.
The best and most cited evidence is her powerful Hymn to Aphrodite (#1), the longest fragment of Sappho's still in existence. In this poem, Sappho prays to Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, to sway the heart of an unnamed woman, to whom Sappho proclaims an unrequited erotic attraction ("what I, in my hearts madness, most desire"). Aphrodite promises Sappho that her beloved will soon turn around and offer her gifts, rather than the other way around, and will love her (Sappho), "however reluctant". In other poems she addresses female lovers, lovers of lovers, ex-lovers, and other women by name: Anactoria, Atthis, Andromeda, Mnasidika, Eranna. These are such short fragments, however, it is hard to infer anything. For all we know, they could be characters in a fictional setting.
There is also textual evidence that Sappho had a heterosexual side as well. In one fragment, we learn that Sappho had a daughter Cleis (#82) "like a golden flower", she longs for her lost virginity in several others (e.g. #104), and in yet another (#72) she addresses a younger, male lover: "For if thou lovest us, choose another and a younger spouse; for I will not endure to live with thee, old woman with young man". None of this conclusively proves anything, either, since homosexual women can obviously lose their virginity and have children. We also have no idea what the context of the last quote is.
We do not have any historical record of Sappho having an extended relationship with a woman, or explicit poetry of hers which depicts 'lesbian' sexuality. If you come to her expecting to find woman to woman erotica, you will be missing the point. The reputation of Sappho in the twentieth century based on her supposed exclusive preference for women is a self-perpetuating myth which has completely obscured the real value of her work: some of the most hauntingly beautiful and evocative poetry that has ever been written. Even some of the shortest fragments meet the test of 'true poetry' that Robert Graves proposed: they make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
What is clear is that Sappho had a passionate romantic and erotic life which was integrated with her devotion to the Goddess Aphrodite. If today it is scandalous that her concept of love transcended gender, that is only a contemporary prejudice.