Born to an affluent family, and later married to a wealthy merchant, the poet known as Sappho was born sometime between 630 and 612 BC. Because of the wealth of her family, she was able to choose how she would spend her time here, and chose to do so studying the art and culture of the Ilse of Lesbos. During this time in our history, the Ilse of Lesbos was known as a cultural center, and many women were known to gather in groups, for both art and education’s sake.
There was a brief period during her lifetime, that Sappho would spend time in exile, due to the political interests and agenda of her family. She ventured to Sicily, where the residents considered her presence in the community an honor. By this time, Sappho was known as a poet who was held in high regard, and to celebrate her time there, a statue was erected in her likeness to honor her stay.
This was a time in history when much of the poetry being written was done so in the form of lyrics, which would be accompanied by the playing of the lyre when recited. Sappho not only wrote the lyrics, but composed the music as well. Through her efforts, what we today refer to as sapphic meter, would be perfected.
During this time in Greece, many of the poets were writing from the viewpoint of the gods and muses. Sappho would be one of the first poets to take their inspiration from within themselves, and to actually pen their works from the first person point of view.
The only poem that remains in what is thought to be its entirety is her “Hymn to Aphrodite”. There are thought to be, however, over 200 fragments of her works that have been unearthed and discovered.
Sappho was known for having an affinity for the young maidens who would come to her for education, and many of these discovered fragments are thought to be pieces of wedding songs that have been written in their honor. The term ‘lesbian’ is derived directly from the Isle of Lesbos, home to Sappho, and today, there are many organizations that have come to use her likeness or name to pay homage to one of the first recorded female poets. Much of her writing is believed to focus on relationships amongst woman, and points to a time in our history where these relationships were not only accepted, but also cherished and held in high regard.
HYMN TO APHRODITE
- HRONED in splendor, immortal Aphrodite!
- Child of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee
- Slay me not in this distress and anguish,
- Lady of beauty.
- Hither come as once before thou camest,
- When from afar thou heard’st my voice lamenting,
- Heard’st and camest, leaving thy glorious father’s Palace golden,
- Yoking thy chariot. Fair the doves that bore thee;
- Swift to the darksome earth their course directing,
- Waving their thick wings from the highest heaven
- Down through the ether.
- Quickly they came. Then thou, O blessed goddess,
- All in smiling wreathed thy face immortal,
- Bade me tell thee the cause of all my suffering,
- Why now I called thee;
- What for my maddened heart I most was longing.
- “Whom,” thou criest, “dost wish that sweet Persuasion
- Now win over and lead to thy love, my Sappho?
- Who is it wrongs thee?
- “For, though now he flies, he soon shall follow,
- Soon shall be giving gifts who now rejects them.
- Even though now he love not, soon shall he love thee
- Even though thou wouldst not.”
- Come then now, dear goddess, and release me
- From my anguish. All my heart’s desiring
- Grant thou now. Now too again as aforetime,
- Be thou my ally.
This English translation, by William Hyde Appleton, of ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ is reprinted from Greek Poets in English Verse. Ed. William Hyde Appleton. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1893.