Born about 630 B.C on the Greek island of Lesbos, Sappho was one of the most prominent and recognized poets of ancient Greece. Her work contains themes of marriage, love, sexuality, and most notably, lesbianism between young girls. The word “lesbian” is actually derived from Lesbos, her homeland. Many find surprising that a woman in ancient Greece could be able to achieve muse status writing works of high eroticism; additionally, if she, a woman, became so widespread, then how come she is one of the only ones? Well, much of Sappho’s work remains lost; all of what we can gather from her life is taken from the fragments of her recovered poetry, and comments made by critics and historians. Athenaeus, a Greek rhetorician, wrote that Sappho often praised Larichus (her youngest brother) for pouring wine in the town hall of Mytilene, an office held by boys of the best families; this would indicate that Sappho was born in aristocracy, making it easier for her to become recognized by the masses, and winning priority over the common people.
Despite being well known for her homoerotic work, Sappho wrote about men as well, as seen in the following fragment of a recovered poem.
Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and
laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
I can say nothing,
but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.
And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
Shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.
Analyzing the poem, it becomes evident that it is a narration of sex: “Like the very gods in my sight is he who sits where he can look in your eyes”. The speaker becomes speechless, her voice dies, and she feels helpless, but “underneath [her] skin the tenuous flame suffuses.” She starts breaking sweat in the last stanza, and suddenly, she feels death coming towards her. The imagery of death is what the French call “La petite morte”, the short spiritual, transcendent, and life-draining moment that comes with orgasm. Sappho’s metaphor of the man as a god adds to the transcendental meaning of her climax.