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Sappho’s poetry which unravels a woman’s true feelings for another woman, was deeply appreciated in its time, but erased from history.
Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos, Greece, in the 6th century B.C. The word ‘lesbian’ is derived from ‘Lesbos,’ the island which became famous because of Sappho’s poetry. ‘Lesbian’ means the most famous woman from ‘Lesbos,’ that is Sappho.
Some of her poems reveal profound expression of love of a woman for another woman. Also, through her woman-centered narratives, we can recognize intense emotions a woman can express simultaneously, for both men as well as women.
Thus, her poetry demonstrates for social norms that don’t bind a woman, her thinking and imagination.
Sappho reiterated that a woman can express her heartfelt desires explicitly, just like a man. Ideas by different researchers have revealed that though Sappho must have written about ten thousand poetic lines, only 650 lines are available at the moment in bits and pieces. A poem titled ‘Ode to Aphrodite‘ is the only poem which is complete and the rest of her poems (probably about 70) are jumbled lines and single words.
Similarly, if we revisit Greek literary tradition, we get ample references that talk of Sappho’s popularity in her times. Though there were hardly any women voices in the Greek society, Sappho made her strong presence felt through her poems. Though the society expected a man and a woman to have a conjugal relationship, there were no restrictions on same sex alliances either.
Sappho’s poetry which unravels a woman’s true feelings for another woman, was accepted as a natural phenomenon. Women readers, especially, identified themselves in her poems and celebrated her by writing the poems on porcelain, shared it with their loved ones, danced and sang with other women. As a testament to her popularity, statues were erected in her honour and her name and images were imprinted on coins.
Although, Plato claimed that, ‘an ideal state has no place for poetry,’ he appreciated Sappho’s works and described her as the ‘Tenth Muse.’ Aristotle commended her, saying, ‘Sappho deserves respect, though she is a woman.’ The Greeks in general compared her works to legendary Homer and called her, a ‘female Homer.’ Yet, it is surprising to see Sappho almost erased from the pages of the great Greek tradition, unlike her male counterparts.
According to some accounts, after Christianity became popular in the 2nd century AD, Pope Gregory ordered that the copies of Sappho’s poems be burnt, as they expressed same-sex love. It was considered against the religion. Another possible reason could be that as Sappho wrote her poems in the ‘Aeolic’ Greek dialect, which is difficult to translate, the following generations lost interest in them.
However, after a long period of oblivion, Sappho found her place in the mainstream literature in 20th century, when gay and lesbian people began to fight for their rights across the globe. For them, Sappho appeared highly relevant and so did her poems. Her poems were translated, popularized and widely read as a part of the movement. Besides, the LGBTQIA+ community started flocking to Lesbos, where once Sappho lived, to celebrate their identity.
Though there are no authentic sources to reveal Sappho’s life journey, some evidences suggest that she ran a girls’ school in Lesbos. It is also said that wealthy parents of the island, sent their girls to her school to get trained in rhetoric. During those times, songs were composed to perform with musical instruments, in public ceremonies. Similarly, Sappho learnt to play the lyre and sang her songs to the community.
Coming back to Sappho’s poetry, she wrote elaborately on the theme of a woman’s romantic interests. In her poems, we meet a woman who is intensely attracted to another woman. As a result, Sappho was labelled as lesbian, in the later periods, although there was no direct evidence to say so.
However, one thing we can say is that, in her poetry, there is an image of the woman’s world view, which is beyond the imagination of a man. Strikingly, though a woman’s body and her feelings are celebrated in her poetry, the physical manifestation of love does not lead to the sexual act.
Here, expression of love is important, not the lustful action. Critics appreciate her narrative techniques and creative style. She invented a new meter, better known by her name, ‘Sapphic Meter’ for her poetry.
To demonstrate how intensely Sappho expressed her feeling as a woman, for both men and women, some of her lines are quoted:
“You came and I was longing for you. You cooled a heart that burned with desire.”
“Once again love drives me on, that loosener of limbs, bittersweet creature against which nothing can be done.”
“In the crooks of your body, I find my religion.”
“Stand and face me, my love, and scatter the grace in your eyes.”
Lastly, it is quite astonishing and refreshing to know that a woman poet expressed her sensations of love so vividly and freely without any social constraints 2500 years ago.
Image source: An image from Pexels
First published here.
Dr. Jyothi, Assistant Professor of English, Tumkur University. Has been a teacher of English and also soft skills trainer, with special interest in writing poems, articles, short stories and translation both in Kannada and English. read more...
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