Sappho, the Shining Star

Anton Bierl

In the glistening light of the midday sun, Skamandro(nymo)s shows some resplendent apples to his young daughter Sappho (c. 630–570 BC) in a grove on the island of Lesbos. But when she was only six years old, her mother Kleis had to raise Sappho and her three brothers Charaxos, Larichos, and Eurygios by herself, after her husband’s early death. Consequently, she moved from Eresos to her relatives in the capital city Mytilene.

A map of Ancient Greece and the spread of political power during Sappho’s lifetime; Lesbos is circled in yellow.

Nowadays, this beautiful island just off Turkey is almost exclusively associated with the miserable hygienic and humanitarian conditions of refugee camps. The mainland seems so close that it appears to be within swimming range, which leads some refugees to set off from the coast of Turkey towards Lesbos in rubber boats. Long before these human catastrophes, however, the name Lesbos was first and foremost identified with the fascination of Lesbian love, leading many to believe that the island got its name on account of a high percentage of women practising homosexuality there. In actuality, the term ‘Lesbian’ was only coined in the philhellenic but also prudish 19th century. Sappho probably surrounded herself with a group of noble girls shortly after 600 BC. Within that circle, they did explore homoerotic inclinations, which is why the island’s name later denoted erotic love between women.

Unfortunately, most of Sappho’s poetry is lost for ever, and that portion which survives largely does so on fragmentary papyri; this fragment contains the end of the 30th and final poem of Sappho’s first book of poems (2nd cent. AD copy, P. Oxy. 1231, fr. 56, Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Life on Lesbos

Just like the people living in the innovative Greek poleis (city-states) along the coast of Asia Minor, the population of Lesbos was oriented towards nearby Lydia and far away Anatolia. Money was invented in Lydia, widely known to be rich in gold, just one generation before Sappho was born. The impact of this revolutionary cultural event is still underestimated. Suddenly, completely new trading possibilities emerged owing to the new accumulation of riches and luxury. At the same time, lively trade as well as a surge of innovation in all fields developed. As a centuries-old cultural contact zone, the coast of Asia Minor thus became a fertile melting pot for new inventions and ideas.

Thales and Anaximander, the founding figures of the Presocratic philosophers, are at this time active in Miletus. The term philosophy has not even been born yet. However, people are pondering the creation of the world, its beginnings, and the laws of nature. Due to trade, new commercial bases are established at the delta of the Nile and other places in the Mediterranean. These developments on the mainland are reflected in Lesbos, which has apparently long been regarded as a traditional, rather backwards island on the Aeolian fringe. Traditions are being called into question. Well-established kingdoms are replaced by aspiring aristocrats and emerging nouveaux riches everywhere.[1] In Lesbos, Melanchros overthrows the Penthilids around the year 609 BC. As a result, civil unrest continually breaks out between the various powerful aristocratic factions.

Bust of ‘Sappho of Eresos’, Roman copy of a Greek original (Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy).

At this time, Sappho is a young woman. The poet Alcaeus, Sappho’s contemporary male counterpart, is directly involved with his clan’s political aspirations. In the songs he performs before his hetaireia (company of aristocratic peers), we witness how he loses out in the struggle for power despite his coalitions and political manouevrings. Sappho belongs to the hetaireia of the Cleonactids. Their leading figure is Myrsilus, whose very name evinces connections to Lydia.[2] He maintains the upper hand by surprisingly entering an alliance with Pittacus. After Myrsilus’ death, Pittacus – who is considered one of the Seven Sages and who, as an aisymnetes (ruler chosen by the people) appointed by the polis, is concerned with balance – becomes the sole ruler. To consolidate his power, he marries into the old royal family and advocates an austerity policy against the Cleonactids, causing some of the family members, including Sappho, to be sent into exile.

From about 603 to 595 BC, Sappho apparently stays in Sicily. For the purposes of his reconciliation policy, however, Pittacus soon recalls the Cleonactids back to Mytilene. Thus, after the fall of the traditional kingship, a fierce power struggle over the island’s leadership and its fundamental lifestyle erupts among the aristocracy.

Sappho, Gustav Klimt, 1888/90 (Vienna Museum, Austria).

The ideology of beauty and the lifestyle of Sappho’s clan

Traditionally oriented clans, which were fighting to regain their lost isolation and austerity, were opposed by more ‘progressive’ aristocratic groups. Among them, the Cleonactids are worth mentioning, to whom Sappho also belongs: they continue to open themselves up to Lydia and its economic enticements. Furthermore, the Cleonactids rely on active trade, the traffic of goods, and cultural exchange. They propagate and identify with luxury, elegance, and wealth. In addition, they embrace new, extravagant fashions and cultivate innovative, and mostly oriental trends in art, music, and culture.

In other respects, Lesbos as it was during Sappho’s lifetime represents a typical Mediterranean traditional society. Within such a patriarchal order, life is strictly separated by gender. Following the rigid allocation of roles, the man is put in charge of public tasks. He is active in the agora, in the council, and in the public assembly. At the same time, the male citizens engage in conversation, song, and casual discourse over wine during the symposium, discussing politics, life, morality, customs, and religion. Women are only admitted there as hetairai, that is, as courtesans, flute girls, and dancers for entertainment and sexual pleasure. Otherwise, women usually fulfil their assigned role in the oikos (household), at the loom, and as stewards of the property.

First and foremost, a woman has to be beautiful. Her life goal in this traditional society is marriage, that is, a lucrative and status-appropriate alliance with a wealthy family. A woman has little say in public, and most certainly none in politics. Religious duties, however, are an important exception. Thus a woman can become a priestess or perform in parades, processions, or choruses for the polis.

An Attic red-figure hydria depicting girls dancing, c. 430 BC, attributed to the Phiale Painter (found in Capua, Campania, Italy, and now in the British Museum, London).

Sappho’s political role and her circle

But how did Sappho come to have such great public impact? On the one hand, it should be noted that, as a member of one of the most powerful aristocratic families, she already held a special status. Due to her outstanding musical-poetic talent, which won her ready acceptance as the only woman into the circle of the nine canonical lyricists, and owing to her aristocratic self-conception, Sappho subsequently succeeded in obtaining further freedoms for herself.

On the other hand, the Cleonactids apparently made use of Sappho’s talent, which she was first able to show in maidens’ choruses, for their ideological and political goals. Probably not long after her return from exile in Sicily she founded her girls’ circle, which included aristocratic maidens from other nearby islands as well as the mainland. In the course of a comprehensive education, Sappho introduced these girls to aesthetic values as was done in a choral community. In such a traditional society, this is achieved through myths, rites, music, dance, cosmetics, experiences of nature, religious and festive customs, and above all through the perfection of the body. The goal is to become beautiful in a comprehensive sense – beauty (kallos), refined elegance (abrosyna), grace (charis), and tender sensuality (charis and abrosyna) all represent the special values of Sappho’s clan of the Cleonactids.

An Attic red-figure hydria depicting a woman reading among her attendants, c. 450BC (found in Kimissalla, Rhodes, and now in the British Museum, London).

As if as a motto, the statement of fragment 16 – “the most beautiful thing… is whatsoever a person loves” – could well capture this aristocratic ideology. The homoerotic love between the leader Sappho and selected girls on the one hand, and among themselves on the other hand, obviously serves the purpose of this educative goal. In this way, as well as through ritual practice and sacred shared experiences, the aesthetic sensuality of the group is further heightened. In Greek culture, isolation and living for a time with a group of young people that is segregated by gender, are a particularly fruitful cultural adaptation of the earlier traditional initiation customs frequently cultivated in Indo-European tribes.

The goal of the educational process, in the broadest sense, is preparation for adulthood. In the case of girls, the traditional goal is marriage, which marks their ceremonious departure from the group. In early Greek culture, the chorus (choros) is the social site of comprehensive education in singing and dancing. Sappho’s performance exemplifies this multimedia choreia, even if she often only sings a single song. All five senses are activated simultaneously, and the language sometimes reflects moments of synesthesia. A good example is fragment 2,[3] where the visual, the acoustic, the olfactory, and the tactile are stimulated in a sacred space, all symbolizing eroticism[4] (here and elsewhere I provide German and English translations of Sappho’s Greek):

(..ανοθεν κατιου[σ]- )  (1ª)

†δευρυμμεκρητε̣σιπ̣[ ̣. ]ρ̣[    ]|.† ναῦον  (1)

ἄγνον ὄππ̣[αι   ]| χάριεν μὲν ἄλσος

μαλί[αν],| β̣ῶμοι δʼ ἔ<ν>ι θυμιάμε-

        νοι [λι]| β̣ανώτω<ι>·

ἐν δ’ ὔδωρ ψῦχρο⌊ν⌋ κελάδει δι’ ὔσδων  (5)

μαλίνων,| βρόδοισι δὲ παῖς ὀ χῶρος

ἐσκί|αστ’, αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων|

       κῶμα †καταγ̣ριον·

ἐν δὲ λείμων| ἰπ̣π̣όβοτος τέθαλε

†τω̣ τ . . . (.)ριν|νοις† ἄνθεσιν, αἰ <δ’> ἄηται  (10)

μέλλι|χα πν[έο]ισιν [

       [                        ]

ἔνθα δὴ σὺ †συ.αν†| ἔλοισα Κύπρι

χρυσίαισιν ἐν κυ|λίκεσσιν ἄβρως

<ὀ>μ<με>μεί|χμενον θαλίαισι| νέκταρ  (15)


(Aus dem Himmel herabkommend …  (1ª)

hierher zu mir aus Kreta)1 (komm zu diesem) Tempel,(1)

dem heiligen, wo ein anmutiger Hain steht

von Apfelbäumen, zudem Altäre sind da, die schwelend qualmen

       vom Weihrauch;

drinnen kühles Wasser rauscht zwischen Zweigen  (5)

der Apfelbäume, und von Rosen ist der ganze Ort

beschattet: beim Säuseln der Blätter

       ergreift3 einen der Schlummerzustand der totalen Verzauberung.

Drinnen ferner eine Wiese, Pferde weidend, steht in Blüte

mit Frühlingsblumen, und Lüftchen  (10)

wehen honigsüß.

       [                ]

Hier nun nimm du […],4 Kypris,

in goldenen Bechern elegant

mit Festfreuden vermischten Nektar   (15)

       einschenkend …[5]

1 δεῦρύ {μ}μ᾽ ἐ<κ> Κρήτας Theander.

2 ναῦον Lobel, ̣ἔναυ<λ>ον (›Heiligtum‹) Pfeiffer; προσίκανέ ποτ᾽ ἔλθ᾽ ἔναυλον

Ferrari; der Befehl des Hymnos kletikos ›komme‹ (ἔλθ᾽) fehlt sonst.

3 κατάγρει (›ergreift‹) Risch, κατάρρει nach Hermogenes, korrigiert zu

κατέρρει (-η) (›fließt herunter‹) Sitzler.

4 στέμ<ματα> ἔλοισα (›Kränze nehmend‹) Norsa.

Hither to me from Crete to this holy temple, where is your delightful grove of apple-trees, and altars smoking with incense; therein cold water babbles through apple-branches, and the whole place is shadowed by roses, and from the shimmering leaves the sleep of enchantment comes down; therein too a meadow, where horses graze, blossoms with spring flowers, and the winds blow gently…; there, Cypris, take… and pour gracefully into golden cups nectar that is mingled with our festivities. (transl. Campbell)

Sappho and Erinna in a garden at Mytilene, Simeon Solomon, 1864 (Tate Britain, London).

Sappho’s special status

Sappho’s poetry frequently deals with erotic situations using metonymies (“a change of name”, a figure of speech where a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with it) in a symbolic way. The goddess of love, to whom Sappho herself is mimetically oriented and with whom she cultivates a special relationship, stands supreme over all.

Sappho consistently presents herself as Aphrodite’s alter ego. A good example for this is the famous fragment 1:

Ποι⌋κιλόθρο⌊ν’ ἀθανάτ’ Ἀφρόδιτα,

παῖ⌋ Δ⌊ί⌋ος δολ⌊όπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,

μή μ’⌋ ἄσαισι ⌊μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,

         πότν⌋ια, θῦ⌊μον,

ἀλλ⌋ὰ τυίδ’ ἔλ⌊θ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα  (5)

τὰ⌋ς ἔμας αὔ⌊δας ἀίοισα πήλοι

ἔκ⌋λυες, πάτρο⌊ς δὲ δόμον λίποισα

         χ⌋ρύσιον ἦλθ⌊ες

ἄρ⌋μ’ ὐπασδε⌊ύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον

ὤ⌋κεες στροῦ⌊θοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας  (10)

πύ⌋κνα δίν⌊νεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνω͜ αἴθε-

         ρο⌋ς διὰ μέσσω·

αἶ⌋ψα δ’ ἐξίκο⌊ντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,

μειδιαί⌊σαισ’ ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι

ἤ⌋ρε’ ὄττ⌊ι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι  (15)

         δη⌋ὖτε κ⌊άλ⌋η⌊μμι

κ⌋ὤττι ⌊μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι

μ⌋αινόλαι ⌊θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω

. ⌋.σάγην ⌊ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ’, ὦ

         Ψά⌋πφ’, ⌊ἀδίκησι;  (20)

κα⌋ὶ γ⌊ὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,

αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,

αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει

         κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον  (25)

ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι

θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ’ αὔτα

         σύμμαχος ἔσσο.        

Buntblumiggewirkte, unsterbliche Aphrodite,

Mädchen des Zeus, Listenflechtende, ich flehe dich an,

bezwinge mir nicht mit Ekeldrangsal und quälendem Kummer,

       Herrin, mein Gemüt,

sondern hierher komme, wenn du schon irgendein andermal  (5)

meine Stimme vernommen hast und mich aus der Ferne

hörtest und, sowie du des Vaters goldenen Palast verlassen hast,

       gekommen bist

nach dem Anspannen des Wagens; schöne Spatzen zogen dich,

die flinken, über die schwarze Erde  (10)

mit heftigem Flügelschlag vom Himmel herab

       mitten durch die Lüfte.

Plötzlich trafen sie ein. Du aber, o Glückselige,

lachtest mit unsterblichem Antlitz mich an

und fragtest, was ich jetzt schon wieder erlitten habe und warum  (15)

       ich jetzt schon wieder rufe                                                                             

und nach was ich so sehr verlange, dass es geschehe,

mit liebeswahnsinnigem Sinn. “Wen soll ich denn jetzt schon wieder überreden,

dir in deine Liebe zu führen? Wer tut dir, meine

       Psappho, Unrecht?  (20)

Auch nämlich wenn sie flieht, wird sie dich schnell verfolgen,

wenn sie keine Geschenke annimmt, wird sie vielmehr sogar welche geben,

wenn sie nicht liebt, wird sie schnell lieben,

       auch gegen ihren Willen.”

Komm zu mir auch jetzt, erlöse mich von den schweren  (25)

Sorgen, dann, was mir zu erfüllen

der Sinn brennend verlangt, erfülle, und du selbst

       sei mir Kampfgenossin.

You with pattern-woven flowers, immortal Aphrodite, wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I entreat you: do not overpower my heart, mistress, with ache and anguish, but come here, if ever in the past you heard my voice from afar and acquiesced and came, leaving your father’s golden house, with chariot yoked: beautiful swift sparrows whirring fast-beating wings brought you above the dark earth down from heaven through the mid-air, and soon they arrived; and you, blessed one, with a smile on your immortal face asked what was the matter with me this time and why I was calling this time and what in my maddened heart I most wished to happen for myself: ‘Whom am I to persuade this time to lead you back to her love? Who wrongs you, Sappho? If she runs away, soon she shall pursue; if she does not accept gifts, why, she shall give them instead; and if she does not love, soon she shall love even against her will.’ Come to me now again and deliver me from oppressive anxieties; fulfil all that my heart longs to fulfil, and you yourself be my fellow-fighter. (trans. after Campbell)

Sappho, Amanda Brewster Sewell, 1891 (exhibited in 1893 at the Palace of Fine Arts, Chicago, IL, USA).

In a process of self-empowerment, she stylizes herself as a powerful master, the charismatic leader of a group that is constantly reassembling itself. Renegades are defamed, competitors who form rival female circles around them are ridiculed and dishonored. Her lyric performance enables Sappho to acquire glamor, grace, and charm within an erotic realm, which she simultaneously transfers to her female group. Contrary to popular belief, this love is not limited to the homoerotic realm, but is all-encompassing. It ranges from theoeroticism (love of the gods) to heteroeroticism (love of the other sex) and even paneroticism (love of everything). In some ways, Sappho stages a world in a temporary state of culturally refined “hetairization”. Tellingly, some sources identified a hetaira of the same name Sappho, separate from the noble poetess, as they no longer clearly understood these ideas. As a member of the high aristocracy, Sappho was certainly not a hetaira, even if some researchers have recently proposed this theory. Instead, her eroticism conveys power, dynamism, appeal, elegance, and aesthetic refinement.

The goal of performance and its internal addressees is to become beautiful, elegant, and attractive in the most comprehensive sense; this need not be limited to attractiveness to other aristocratic men for the purpose of a lucrative marriage. At the same time, love is cosmically exalted. The splendor associated with it is reflected in the radiant light of the sun, as the highest manifestation of this whole ideology.

The death of Sappho, Ernst Stückelberg, 1897 (Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland).

This final exaltation of Eros is reflected in the mythical tale of Sappho’s death, which, in fact, probably befalls her rather less spectacularly around 570 BC. According to this story, Sappho, out of desperate love and longing for the miraculously rejuvenated Phaon – the personified ‘man of radiance’ and the embodiment of the solar aspect of erotic idealization[6] – threw herself from the Leucadian Rock into the Ionian Sea towards the setting sun. The underlying concept, which most aptly sums up her entire ideology of love and beauty, is found in the credits of fragment 58 (lines 25–6 = 58d.3–4):

⌊ἔγω δὲ φίλημμ’ ἀβροσύναν,⌋            ] τοῦτο καί μοι

τὸ λά⌊μπρον ἔρος ὠελίω καὶ τὸ κά⌋λον λέ⌊λ⌋ογχε.


Aber ich liebe die glänzende Eleganz, (und ihr wisst?) dies, und

mir hat die Liebe zur Sonne das Leuchtende und das Schöne zuteilwerden lassen.


But I love shining elegance, and you knew this, and

love of the sun has allowed me to share in its radiance and beauty.[7]

This message is not just female erotomaniac spleen that Sappho reveals in a kind of “girls’ boarding school” or in her sacred thiasos (society), as was assumed in the past. Rather, Sappho’s doings are politics by other means. As we have seen, her poetry propagates these very values and the ideology of abrosyna – elegance, luxury, and beauty – as well as the orientation towards Lydia, which the Cleonactids represent in the civil war of aristocratic factions. These elite girls internalize these refined aesthetic values in this society of Muses and Aphrodite as a result of their comprehensive education – an education that appeals to the body as well as all the senses, and is based on a traditional choros. They thus distinguish themselves from competing circles of women who represent other aristocratic clubs. Moreover, the girls in the Sapphic circle portray the wide network of aristocratic contacts that the Cleonactids maintain in the region, on the nearby islands, and on the opposite mainland.

Sappho thus channels her clan’s values as well as their ideology: she does aristocratic politics within the female domain. In doing so, she must by no means be understood as merely the extension of the male hetaireia. Rather, Sappho attains stardom owing to her emphatic projection of glamor. In this way, she creates tremendous freedom for herself as a strong woman, which persona, similar to her homo- and panerotic love, is never perceived as problematic due to her aristocratic status. Since love is expressed so comprehensively and phrased so commonly, the texts probably soon found their way into the male symposium and other male performance contexts even in Sappho’s time, before later entering the public polis-wide festivals in Athens.

An Attic red-figure kalathos depicting Sappho alongside Alcaeus, c. 470 BC (found in Akragas, Siciliy, and now in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany).

Sappho, mother of philosophy

Finally, this strong woman ought also to be appreciated as an early philosopher – indeed as a founding figure of genuine orginality in this nascent field. Within the intellectual context of Ionia, Sappho is influenced by the driving questions of the Presocratics. The extent to which Sappho bears similarities to Socrates is made clear to us by the ancient orator and Middle Platonist Maximus of Tyre (2.19) from the late 2nd century AD. Among other things, he mentions their teachings of love for the greater good, the formation of a circle of disciples, opposing rival groups, rebuke and parenesis, and the exhortation to virtue.

Both Sappho and Socrates understood love as madness (as emphasized in Plato’s Phaedrus 244a–257b, especially at 249d–257b). Only the idea of beauty has an earthly equivalent. At the sight of a beautiful person, the viewer’s soul is completely shaken. The soul trapped in the body is reminded of what it once saw in the celestial and eternal place – the idea of the beautiful. The beautiful body perceived with the eyes can again serve as a medium to open up to something higher, to the idea of Beauty itself. The visual impression throws the suddenly affected soul, which longed intensely for the long-absent idea, into total confusion, agony and pain, all of which manifest themselves physically and psychologically.

Compare with this the famous fragment 31 by Sappho, which Plato drew upon for his purposes:

Φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν

ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι

ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-

            σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν  (5)

καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·

ὠς γὰρ <ἔς> σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώνη-

            σ’ οὐδὲν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

ἀλλὰ †ϰαμ† μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε†, λέπτον

δ’ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,  (10)

ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδὲν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιβρόμ-

            μεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

†έκαδε† μ’ ἴδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ

παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτ⌞έρα δὲ π⌟οίας

ἔμμι, τεθ⌞νάκην δ’ ὀ⌟λίγω ’πιδε⌞ύης  (15)

          φα⌟ίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔτ̣[αι.

ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον, ἐπεὶ †καὶ πένητα†

Es scheint mir jener gleich den Göttern

zu sein, der Mann, der gegenüber dir

sitzt und aus direkter Nähe, wie du süß die Stimme

       ertönen lässt, dir zuhört,

und wie du begehrenswert lachst: das hat mir ja  (5)

das Herz in der Brust zusammenzucken lassen:

denn sobald ich auf dich blicke, nur kurz,

       bringe ich unmöglich noch einen Ton hervor,

sondern die Zunge ist gebrochen, ein leichtes

Feuer augenblicklich läuft unter der Haut,  (10)

mit den Augen sehe ich rein gar nichts, es sau-

     sen die Ohren,

hinab läuft der Schweiß, ein Zittern

packt mich am ganzen Leib, grüner als Gras

bin ich, und fast schon tot  (15)

       erscheine ich mir selbst.

Aber alles kann man ertragen, da auch einen Armen…

He appears to me, that one, equal to the gods, the man who sits opposite you and listens nearby to your sweet voice and lovely laughter. Truly that sets my heart trembling in my breast. For when I look at you for a moment, then it is no longer possible for me to speak; my tongue has snapped, at once a subtle fire has stolen beneath my flesh, I see nothing with my eyes, my ears hum, sweat pours from me, a trembling seizes me all over, I am greener than grass, and a little short of death do I appear to me. But all can be endured, since… even a poor man… (transl. after Campbell).

Sappho and Alcaeus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1881 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA).

Much of what Sappho conveys seems to bear a Platonic quality, although in her day the word “philosophy” (φιλοσοφία) had not yet been coined. Especially in the Symposium and Phaedrus, Plato clearly recurs to the conception of love among the lyric poets. Much of what Diotima teaches Socrates in the Symposium is based on Sappho’s teachings of love, which she clearly construes as a “discourse of absence” (Roland Barthes), as fragment 16 shows.[8] By drawing on her own experiences, Sappho develops a comprehensive, anthropologically, and socio-politically grounded theory of love in her work. In doing so, she draws primarily on the institution of the chorus of girls and young men as the traditional social site where education (paideia) was performatively acted out in the transition to adulthood.

In a proto-philosophic manner, Sappho expands aesthetic approaches of traditional choral culture to a theory of the beautiful, which is related both to desire for someone or something and to erotic radiance. Sappho associates the highest principle with the sun, from which the greatest radiance emanates, and which Plato later relates to the idea of the Good in his analogies of the sun and of the divided line (Republic 504a–511e)[9] and in the allegory of the cave (Republic 514a–521b).

These philosophical features further manifest themselves in Sappho’s habit of condensing the essence of a particular thing or value, and defining it in an abstract manner. Furthermore, she is capable of justifying and validating the result she reaches before her audience. In doing so, she sets herself apart from conventional value judgments, drawing instead on evidence from myth, which tales were generally accepted, or on evidence from everyday life. A prime example of this argumentative procedure is fragment 16:

[ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων

οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπ[ὶ] γᾶν μέλαι[ν]αν

[ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-

            τω τις ἔραται·

 [πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι  (5)

[π]άντι τ[ο]ῦ̣τ’, ἀ γὰρ πόλυ περσκέθοισα

κ̣άλ̣λο̣ς̣ [ἀνθ]ρ̣ώπων Ἐλένα [τ]ὸ̣ν ἄνδρα

            τ̣ον̣ [  ̣  ̣  ̣άρ]ι̣στον

κ̣αλλ[ίποι]σ’ ἔβα ’ς Τροΐαν πλέοι̣σα

κωὐδ[ὲ πα]ῖδος οὐδὲ φίλων τοκήων  (10)

π̣ά[μπαν] ἐμνάσθη, ἀλλὰ παράγ̣αγ̣’ αὔταν

            [  ̣]`̣[  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣]σαν

 [  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣γν]αμπτον γὰρ [  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣] ν̣όημμα

[  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣]  ̣  ̣  ̣κούφως τ[  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣  ̣] ν̣οήσηι  ̣

[  ̣  ̣]μ̣ε̣ νῦν Ἀνακτορί[ας] ὀνέμναι-  (15)

            [σ᾿ οὐ] παρεοίσας,

 [τᾶ]ς κε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα

κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω

ἢ τὰ Λύδων ἄρματα κἀν ὄπλοισι

             πεσδομ]άχεντας.  (20)

Die einen sagen: ein Heer von Reitern, die anderen: von Fußsoldaten,

andere wiederum: von Schiffen sei auf der schwarzen Erde

das Schönste – ich aber: das,

       wonach sich einer in Liebe sehnt!

Und es ist ganz einfach, dies verständlich zu machen  (5)

für jeden: Denn sie, die weithin übertraf

an Schönheit die Menschen, Helena, den Mann,

       den allerbesten,

verlassend ging sie fort nach Troia segelnd,

und weder ihres Kindes noch ihrer (lieben) Eltern  (10)

hat sie überhaupt gedacht, sondern es verführte sie,

       (nicht ?) wider Willen1

(Kypris); biegsam nämlich ist der Menschen Sinn,

… und leicht … denkt2

… hat jetzt mich an Anaktoria erinnert,  (15)

       die nicht hier ist.

Von der möchte ich lieber den liebreizenden Gang

und das glänzende Leuchten ihres Antlitzes sehen

als der Lyder Streitwagen und in Waffen

                        Fußkämpfer.  (20)

1 οὐκ ἐθέλοι]σαν Kamerbeek; σ]̣ώ[φρον᾽ ἔοι]σαν (›als keusch seiende‹) West;

Κύπρις ἔραι]σαν (›Kypris, die liebende‹) Hunt. Auch Κύπρις ἔκοι]σαν (›die

freiwillige‹), οὐκ ἀέκοι[σαν (›die nicht unfreiwillige, ganz und gar willige‹). S. Voigt.

2 Aber: ἄγν]αμπτον (Schubart) γὰρ [ἔχει] ̣νόημμα (›denn unbeugsam ist der

Sinn‹) Di Benedetto (so nun von P. CG z. T. bestätigt); ἄγν]αμπτον γὰρ [ὔμως]

ν̣όημμα / [δάμνα]̣τ̣α̣ι κούφως τ[άκερ᾽ ὠς] ̣νοήση̣ι· (›denn den unbeugsamen

Sinn bezwingt sie dennoch, da sie Zärtlich-Schmelzendes denkt‹) West.

Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves. It is perfectly easy to make this understood by everyone: for she who far surpassed mankind in beauty, Helen, left her most noble husband and went sailing off to Troy with no thought at all for her child or dear parents, but (love) led her astray… lightly… (and she?) has reminded me now of Anactoria who is not here; I would rather see her lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed infantry… impossible to happen… mankind… but to pray to share… unexpectedly. (trans. Campbell)

Sappho holding a letter to Phaon, Claude Ramey, 1801 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

In such a preamble, a series of traditional attempts at defining and appraising the most beautiful is surpassed by a maximum value put forward by the lyrical ‘I’ and expressed in very general terms – “but I say it is whatsoever a person loves”. The ‘I’ then tries to make this sentence understandable to everyone, man or woman. Helen, demonstrably the most beautiful woman – the woman who herself acquired agency in love and transgressed the social norms in madness – serves as proof. Finally, a girl is evoked in memory: the ‘I’ perceived Anactoria’s dancing as particularly beautiful when she danced along with the chorus. Precisely because she has left the circle and because the desire is all the greater due to her absence, Anactoria is more beautiful than the objects of the male world from which Sappho previously set herself apart.

At the same time, in Sappho, as later in Socrates’ philosophical enquiries, there is a proto-philosophical change of perspective from explaining nature and the world to studying human beings, a topic which is also of interest to the lyricists and intellectuals of the time. Sappho’s songs revolve around the ethical problems of life and the proper way to live it. She triggers an attitude of reflection, introspection, and thoughtful profundity, which leads into the further philosophical work of the Presocratics, Socrates, and Plato. Regarded through the lens of the hitherto accepted worldview, especially the dominant male discourse in the Homeric tradition, Sappho sets new standards and explores perspectives that support and far transcend the ideology of her own clan.

Archaic Greece, whose culture is supposedly shaped merely by “old white men”, thus boasts in Sappho a remarkable female voice, in which Anatolian and indigenous substrates of a Mediterranean culture merge with Greek discourses. By her self-empowerment she acquires a powerful and special position, which at the same time has a universal and wide-ranging effect on all people. As a pioneer of total eroticism, she accordingly enters into a tradition that is still alive today, precisely because the fragmentary state of her work – of the approximately 10,000 verses that the Alexandrians edited in eight or nine books, very little of her poetry has survived – enables us to read so much into the many gaps of the fragmentary text. The fascination around this extraordinary woman endures – and doubtless will for as long as Greek literature is read.

Anton Bierl is Professor for Greek Literature at the University of Basel, Switzerland. He was Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies from 2005 to 2011. His research interests include Homeric epic, drama, song and performance culture, the ancient novel, Greek myth and religion. He has recently published a new edition Sappho: Lieder Griechisch/Deutsch (Text, German Translation, Introduction, and Commentary) (Reclam, Stuttgart, 2021).

This text was generously translated from German by Petra Saner, also of the University of Basel.


1 See K. Raaflaub, “The Newest Sappho and Archaic Greek-Near Eastern Interactions,” in A. Bierl and A. Lardinois (eds.), The Newest Sappho (P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 14) (Brill, Leiden 2016, 127–47), available open-access online here; on the invention of the money and its influence on the Greek mind as well as the Presocratic philosophy, see R. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind. Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge UP, 2004).
2 See, e.g., A. Dale, “Alcaeus on the Career of Myrsilos: Greeks, Lydians and Luwians at the East Aegean-West Anatolian Interface,” JHS 131 (2011) 15–24.
3 The Greek text, here and elsewhere, is given after Voigt, with slight changes.  I cite it and the German translation from my recent edition: Sappho: Lieder Griechisch/Deutsch (Text, German Translation, Introduction, and Commentary) (Reclam, Stuttgart, 2021).
4 See A. Bierl, “Griechische Literatur – ein Musterfall von ‘Literatur und Religion’ (mit einer Interpretation von Sapphos Fragment 2 Voigt),” in W. Braungart, J. Jacob, J.-H. Tück (eds.), Literatur / Religion. Bilanz und Perspektiven eines interdisziplinären Forschungsgebietes (Metzler, Stuttgart, 2019) 29–56.
5 This translation into German, along with the others in this article, are my own.
6 See Sappho fr. 211 V.; Palaephatus 48; Menander, fr. 258 Körte-Thierfelder = fr. 1 Arnott; Strabo 10.2.9.
7 My translations into German and English.
8 See further A. Bierl, “‘Ich aber (sage), das Schönste ist, was einer liebt!’ Eine pragmatische Deutung von Sappho Fr. 16 LP/V,” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 74 (2003) 91–124 (a later version of which can downloaded here).
9 For the analogy of the sun see 507b–509c, and for that of the divided line, 509d–511e.