Sappho (SAF-oh), the most famous poetess of ancient Greece, a member of an aristocratic family in the city-state of Mytilene (miht-ih-LEE-nee) on the island of Lesbos, which is located in the Aegean Sea off the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). This poem of twenty-eight verses is in the form of a prayer addressed to the goddess Aphrodite. In it, Sappho pleads with the goddess not to overwhelm her with misery but to come to her, remove her anguish, fulfill her heart’s desire, and be her ally. The central portion of the poem reveals that the source of Sappho’s unhappiness is unrequited love: In particular, another woman has spurned her affection and erotic advances. As in the case of most personal poetry, the exact mixture of fact and fiction that Sappho compounded into this seemingly autobiographical description of her desires and experiences is impossible to determine.
Aphrodite (af-ruh-DI-tee), the Greek goddess of beauty and sexual love, whom the Romans identified with Venus. Sappho addresses her directly in the second person as a “weaver of wiles” who is “throned in splendor,” and she reminds the goddess that in the past she has responded to Sappho’s prayers by leaving the golden halls of her father Zeus (the ruler of the gods) and coming quickly to the assistance of her mortal suppliant. On such occasions, Aphrodite is further reminded, she smiled at Sappho and promised to transform the woman who had rejected her into her eager suitress. The poem creates the impression that Aphrodite is Sappho’s special patron and that a close bond exists between the two.
The anonymous woman
The anonymous woman, Sappho’s beloved, whose rejection of Sappho furnishes the occasion of the poem. Nothing else can be said about her, for Sappho offers not a word about her age, appearance, or social class, or the circumstances that brought them together.