Sappho Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Little is known of Sappho’s (SAF-oh) life. The earliest historical documents—of doubtful authority—claim that she married a wealthy trader from Andros, and she speaks of a daughter in her poetry. Most of her life was spent at Mytilene, the principal city on the island of Lesbos. The popular tradition that she was not just a Lesbian (a person from Lesbos) but a lesbian (homosexual) appears to have developed much later; she was not linked with homoeroticism in the Hellenistic period. Sappho is one of the originators of the genre of monody, or solo song, short stanzaic poems sung by the poet to her own accompaniment on the lyre, apparently in her case to a small circle of women and girls, perhaps her students. Ancient authorities credit her with nine volumes of poetry, but only one complete poem and fragments of about a dozen others have survived. Her poems included several epithalamia, written to be performed at weddings, but most of her work appears to have been love poetry.


Sappho’s importance in her own era was as one of the earliest and most accomplished performers of monody, and even the few lines that have survived establish her profound poetic skill beyond any doubt. In modern times, her name serves as the symbol of a specifically female literary tradition.

Further Reading:

Bowra, C. Maurice. Greek Lyric Poetry: From Alcman to Simonides. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961. A classic review of seven Greek lyric poets stressing their historical development and critiquing important works. Offers...

(The entire section is 666 words.)