Hymn to Aphrodite | Study Guide


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Sappho | Biography


Early Life

Sappho of Lesbos was born around 620 BCE and is one of the only published female poets from ancient Greece. Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos to a wealthy family where women were held in high esteem. She is described in other early writings as having dark hair and a dark complexion. What scholars know for certain about her early life is that she was raised as an aristocrat and was gifted on the musical instrument the lyre. She wrote poetry and composed songs for the lyre which is an instrument closely resembling the guitar.

Domestic Life

Sappho was married although scholars do not know when. Her husband Cercylas was a wealthy man who was originally from the Greek Island of Andros. Sappho gave birth to a daughter and named her Cleis after her mother. There is scant mention of Sappho's husband, and most scholars believe he must have passed away shortly after Cleis was born.

Scholars still debate whether Sappho was a lesbian or not. Some of her remaining fragments of writing such as Fragment 16 and Fragment 31 depict love for a woman, but there is no direct evidence that she was lesbian.

Sappho the Radical Rock Star

Sappho's flamboyant personality made her poetry popular with the masses much like a modern-day rock star. As a result her image shows up on ancient vases, coins, and even Roman art from many decades later. Sappho was much in demand as a performer, and her songs and poetry were performed long after her death. She was known to have referred to her poetry as her "immortal daughters" and it is clear she named them well as her work continues to be studied 2,000 years later.

Sappho had followers who were composed mostly of girls and women who accompanied her when she performed and sometimes joined her in the performances. Her way of composing poetry was so unique that it was copied by other performers and termed "Sapphic" style. This term endures to this day. Her performances were often elaborate affairs with lavish decorations, food, and attire. Most of her performances were for the wealthy, and they spared no expense enticing her to play for them. Sappho accompanied her poetry with her lyre.

Sappho's celebrity did not make her immune to censure. Twice she was exiled from Lesbos and had to live in Sicily because of her political views and her outspoken nature. She pushed for a republic that included expanded roles for women. This did not make her popular with certain male politicians. However, Sappho was popular with the people. Many statues were erected in her name. She produced nine volumes of poetry. Only fragments remain with one exception. That exception is "Hymn to Aphrodite." It is the only poem that has survived intact.

The Death of Sappho

Sappho is known only through the praises of others who lived during her time such as Plato the philosopher (c. 428 BCE–c. 348 BCE) and Solon (c. 630 BCE–c. 560 BCE) the father of Athenian democracy. Plato called Sappho the "tenth muse." This is a significant title as muses were part of mythology and were credited for giving rise to artists' creative inspiration. No one knows for sure how Sappho died. The year of her death (570 BCE) is well-recorded but little else is known. Rumors developed about her death years later stating that she threw herself off the cliffs on the island of Lefkada because she was heartbroken over the rejection she received from a ferryman named Phaon. Historians have discarded this and believe she most likely lived a long life and died of natural causes. The impact her work had during her time speaks to her talent and fame.

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