08 July 2017
The Mystery of Sappho
This weekend is part of the Pride Festival in London, which made us reflect on Sappho. Sappho was one of the first known female poets, and the first woman known to write poems in Greek. Very few fragments of her work survive, and it has sometimes been suggested that they were suppressed on account of her sexuality: but to what extent is that really true?
Here at the British Library we have a real connection to Sappho. The earliest extant records describe her as a woman from the island of Lesbos, who lived and worked in the 7th century BCE. She is believed to have composed over 10,000 lines of lyrical poetry and to have invented a special type of musical verse that still bears her name. This extraordinary legacy meant she was very highly esteemed in Antiquity: some even regarded her as the 'tenth muse'. Despite this long-standing fame, most of Sappho's poems are lost. Only a couple of fragments and some other lines survive; one of those precious fragments is preserved at the British Library (Papyrus 739), and is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But what was the cause of this devastating loss?
Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, 3rd century CE, Papyrus 739
There has been much speculation as to why a fraction of Sappho's poetry survives. Some have suggested this can be attributed to Sappho’s sexuality. Sappho wrote several love poems apparently about other women. An early and very short biography found on a papyrus from the 3rd century was one of the earliest surviving sources to mention her as a 'woman-lover', although the writer claimed that this was only an 'accusation'. 16th-century humanist scholars claimed that 4th-century Greek and Latin Church authorities had arranged for the systematic destruction of Sappho’s poems as a result. Her sexuality is also one of the primary features for which she is remembered today: the modern terms 'Lesbian' and 'sapphic' are references to Sappho, and her name was adopted by a gay rights magazine (on show in the British Library's current exhibition, Gay UK).
Miniature of Sappho and her companions, from a Dutch translation of Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cité des Dames, Bruges, 1475, Add MS 20698, f. 73r
Sappho's famous love life is only a part of her complicated life story and the later reception of her work. Despite 16th-century claims, Sappho and her work remained admired in the Middle Ages, even as much of her poetry was also lost. Her poetic fragments were quoted by Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the 4th-century churchmen who allegedly opposed her writings. Later, the loss of Sappho's poems was painfully lamented by the 12th-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes. In the 14th century, Boccacio and Christine de Pizan still celebrated Sappho as a woman of incomparable beauty and erudition in both natural sciences and poetry.
Several scholars now think there is a simpler explanation for the failure of medieval copyists' failure to preserve Sappho's poetry — they couldn't understand it! She wrote in an ancient and old-fashioned Greek which was not widely understood in the early Middle Ages. This is not to say that later writers approved of her affairs. The 3rd-century BCE biography frames the first stories about her attraction to women as rumours, while later Christian writers used the example of Sappho to argue against pagan lasciviousness. In other cases, Sappho was not always understood to be a homosexual by later writers. She was regularly portrayed in Athenian comedies as a voracious heterosexual, and there were other stories about her love affairs with men: some of them speak about her marriage and possibly even record the name of her daughter, while a later anecdote claims she committed suicide because of a young man called Phaon.
The British Library has a unique 3rd-century CE fragment that lets us go beyond these layers of later tradition and leads us back to one of Sappho’s original works (Papyrus 739). This papyrus, found in Egypt, preserves a poetic fragment in Sappho’s characteristic metre which was proved to come from the lost first volume of her collected poetry. She prays for her brother’s return from Egypt 'with many supplications, that he may come here steering his ship unharmed and find us women safe and sound.' Surrendering to fate, she goes on 'and the rest, let’s entrust it all to the gods, for calm suddenly follows great storms.'
The entry for Sapphos’ brother Charaxos in a 15th century copy of a Byzantine encyclopedia (suidas), Add MS 11893, f. 359v
In the last couple of years, several new fragments of Sappho’s poems discovered. Some of them even complement the British Library’s fragmentary papyrus, creating an almost complete poem. So, after almost 3000 years of 'great storms' of controversy in Sappho’s posthumous reputation, there might now be some calm to regain more of the lost poetry of this iconic female writer.
Girl with a lyre of the sort Sappho may have played, from the Theodore Psalter (Constantinople, 1066), Add MS 19352, f. 191r
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval