Five Fascinating Facts about Sappho

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Although only a small amount of her poetry has survived, the ancient Greek poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BC) has had a posthumous literary reputation. She has become an icon for lyric poets, and, of course, a symbol for homosexual love between women.

Sappho is an important poet because she stands at the beginning of the lyric tradition in poetry: a tradition so named because Sappho’s compositions were originally accompanied by music, played on the lyre. Sappho is also the reason we talk of ‘lesbian’ relationships between women, because of the homoerotic strain in her poems and because she hailed, of course, from the Greek island of Lesbos.

Here are five of the most fascinating and curious facts about the life and work of Sappho.

1. Sappho has been credited with inventing the plectrum.

An Athenian vase dating from the sixth century BC shows Sappho holding a lyre, which she is plucking with a small device that is recognisable as the forerunner to the modern plectrum.

Did she invent it? Historians are unsure, but it appears that Sappho was using a plectrum to pluck the strings at a time when everyone else was happy to pluck the strings of the lyre.

2. Hardly any of Sappho’s work survives.

Sappho is known to have written some nine volumes of poetry, but very little of her work was preserved. Some have blamed this on the activities of the medieval Church, which sought to suppress works which were pagan and, what’s more, often probably quite sexy. Sappho is, after all, the poet who inspired the word ‘lesbian’ for a woman who loves other women; Sappho’s home was on the island of Lesbos.

3. Some of the poems that did survive the ravages of the Middle Ages did so for curious reasons.

One scholar took the trouble to copy out one of Sappho’s poems because he admired Sappho’s use of vowels. Another of her poems was discovered because it had been scribbled down on an ancient broken clay pot.

The only fully intact, substantial poem by Sappho which we have appears in Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime, but even here there are numerous problems, not least Longinus’ inaccuracy when quoting other poets elsewhere in his essay. He may well have been misquoting Sappho too!

4. Much of what we do have was only dug up in the last hundred or so years.

Around the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, a series of excavations of a rubbish-dump in the city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, about 100 miles south of Cairo, led to the inadvertent discovery of some papyrus scrolls.

They contained, among other things, a fair bit of long-lost poetry by the lyric poet Sappho. We are still finding her poetry: two more fragments came to light in 2004 and 2012.

5. Despite the paucity of her work (or at least that which has survived), Sappho has been praised in the highest terms by later poets.

‘The female Homer’ is one of the many sobriquets for her; Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne went one better, thinking her superior to Homer or, indeed, Shakespeare. Plato called her ‘the tenth Muse’. Not bad for someone whose work mostly survives only as fragments.

If you enjoyed this Sappho trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

2 thoughts on “Five Fascinating Facts about Sappho”

  1. Thanks for this post. The fragments that survive beg for more to be discovered.

    Is it possible that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 concerns Sappho? You mention Plato’s nomination of Sappho as the 10th muse. Shakespeare nominates the addressee of his poem as the 10th muse. Perhaps Sappho’s most enduring legacy is the Sapphic verse form consisting of stanzas of 4 lines; the first three have 11 syllables and the fourth only 5. This form was taken up by many classical Roman poets and throughout the Renaissance. Every schoolboy in Elizabethan England was taught Horace’s Ode 1.22 which begins Integer vitae scelerisque purus… This uses the Sapphic stanza form. Intriguingly, for someone like me who is interested in numbers in Shakspeare, the number of syllables in the Sapphic stanza is 38, which might make it a pleasing choice of number for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 (which is also about numbers – below).

    How can my muse want subject to invent,
    While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
    Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
    For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
    O! give thy self the thanks, if aught in me
    Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
    For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
    When thou thy self dost give invention light?
    Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
    Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
    And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
    Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
    If my slight muse do please these curious days,
    The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.


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