An Ancient Greek lyric poetess, born in Eresos on the island of Lesbos. Sappho (/'sæfo/; Attic Greek Sapf, Aeolic Greek pf ) was an Ancient Greek poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the list of nine lyric poets. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life. The bulk of her poetry, which was well-known and greatly admired throughout antiquity, has been lost, but her immense reputation has endured through surviving fragments.
No contemporary historical sources exist for Sappho's life—only her poetry. While it is natural to suppose some commonality of experience between Sappho's poetic persona and the historical Sappho, scholars have rejected a biographical reading of the poetry and have cast grave doubts on the reliability of the later biographical traditions from which all more detailed accounts derive.
Sappho is believed to have been the daughter of Scamander and Cleïs and to have had three brothers. She was married (Attic comedy says to a wealthy merchant, but that is apocryphal), the name of her husband being in dispute. Some translators have interpreted a poem about a girl named Cleïs as being evidence that she had a daughter by that name. It was a common practice of the time to name daughters after grandmothers, so there is some basis for this interpretation. But the actual Aeolic word pais was more often used to indicate a slave or any young girl, rather than a daughter. In order to avoid misrepresenting the unknowable status of young Cleïs, translator Diane Rayor and others, such as David Campbell, chose to use the more neutral word "child" in their versions of the poem.
Sappho was born into an aristocratic family, which is reflected in the sophistication of her language and the sometimes rarified environments which her verses record. References to dances, festivals, religious rites, military fleets, parading armies, generals, and ladies of the ancient courts abound in her writings. She speaks of time spent in Lydia, one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries of that time. More specifically, Sappho speaks of her friends and happy times among the ladies of Sardis, capital of Lydia, once the home of Croesus and near the gold-rich lands of King Midas.
A violent coup on Lesbos, following a rebellion led by Pittacus, toppled the ruling families from power. For many years, Sappho and other members of the aristocracy, including fellow poet Alcaeus, were exiled. Her poetry speaks bitterly of the mistreatment she suffered during those years. Much of her exile was spent in Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Upon hearing that the famous Sappho would be coming to their city, the people of Syracuse built a statue of her as a form of welcome. Much later, in 581 BC, when Pittacus was no longer in power, she was able to return to her homeland.
Because some of her love poems were addressed to women, she has long been considered to have had homosexual inclinations. The word lesbian itself is derived from the name of the island of Lesbos from which she came. (Her name is also the origin of its much rarer synonym sapphic.) The narrators of many of her poems do in fact speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various women, but descriptions of actual physical acts between women are few and subject to debate. Whether these poems are meant to be autobiographical is not known, although elements of other parts of Sappho's life do make appearances in her work, and it would be compatible with her style to have these intimate encounters expressed poetically, as well.
During the Victorian era, it became the fashion to describe Sappho as the head-mistress of a girls' finishing school. As Page DuBois (among many other experts) points out, this attempt at making Sappho understandable and palatable to the genteel classes of Great Britain was based more on conservative sensibilities than evidence. In fact, there are no references to teaching, students, academies, or tutors in any of Sappho's admittedly scant collection of surviving works. Nonetheless, the notion that Sappho was in charge of some sort of academy persists.
Plato called Sappho The Tenth Muse, and the rest of the ancient critics agreed. She was one of the canonical nine lyric poets of archaic Greece, which meant that her works were studied by all those wishing to claim that they were properly educated. Older critics sometimes alleged that she led an aesthetic movement away from typical themes of gods to the themes of individual human experiences and emotions, but it is now considered more likely that her work belongs in a long tradition of lyric poetry, and is simply among the first lyric poetry to have been recorded in writing.
During Sappho's lifetime, and in much of Greek poetry thereafter, rhythmic patterns of sound were designed by alternating stresses within and between lines. The stresses were the alternating sounds of long and short vowels but the definitions of "long" or "short" are different from the definitions taught in American schools. The pronunciation of Aeolic Greek, like the other Greek dialects, included a tonal quality, as well. This gave a natural melody to the verses. Sappho's poetry is impossible to be rendered with a sound analogous to the original in an English translation but many have tried.
Like all early lyric poetry, Sappho's works were composed to be either sung or recited to music, in particular to the accompaniment of the lyre. Her extant poetry is in the form of monody, which means that it was designed to be sung by a single voice rather than by a choir. Plutarch credited Sappho with creating the Mixolydian mode of musical composition, which uses a descending scale of notes from b to B. She also developed what is now called the Sapphic stanza as a form of metrical poetry.
With less certainty, she may have invented the plectrum, or pick, which is used to strum the strings of the lyre. Prior to the development of the plectrum, the strings of the lyre were plucked by the fingers. The word which is generally understood to refer to the plectrum is olisbos, but its derivation is uncertain and other meanings have been proposed, thus the uncertainty of it being the specific invention of Sappho. It does appear, however, that she made great use of the plectrum at a time when others were content to pluck the strings.