Wednesday, 12 March 2008


ἰόπλοκ᾽ ἄγνα μελλιχόμειδε Σάπφοι
Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho.

I love bumming around Eressos whenever I can get away for a few weeks. Eressos is a small village on the Greek island Lesvos (or Lesbos). It was not always a small village, once it was a mighty city on a par with Troy for commercial and strategic importance. (We've all seen the film so it must be true). Actually it is, and you can visit the ruins of Troy in Turkey.

I myself visit the ruins of Eressos everytime I go to the shops or the beach. For Eressos has another claim to fame, it was the birthplace of Sappho, the foremost lyrical poet of her time. A genius, hailed by Plato as the Tenth Muse. Today coins are dug up with her face on them. Lauded and respected by her peers, history has repeatedly embraced and barraged her over the years. Artistic phenomenon, lover of women, a sophisticated talent in words and music, studied by classic scholars to this very day.

And so, I look into the most recent excavations and marvel that Sappho actually lived in one of those holes. Now, I'm not saying that she was a Hobbit, there's obviously twelve feet of modern times piled up over her birthplace, else there'd be no need for excavation. A gentle scraping would do.

Truth is she spent a lot of her time in Mitylene, which is still the capitol of Lesvos, where she ran a School for Girls, sort of like the Fame Academy. (We've all seen the film so it must be true). And as these were politically unstable times, she was also exiled to Sicily for about ten years. There was once a statue of her in Syracuse, to mark her visit. Trust me, she was massive in her lifetime.
So what do we know about her work? Well, luckily hundreds of fragments of her work exist. I know fragments doesn't sound too promising, but considering you're talking about 630BC, this is a blessing.

"Standing by my bed in gold sandals Dawn that very moment awoke me."

As Sappho's existing poetry is so fragmented, and therefore open to interpretation. I, for instance, do not read this is an ode to morning, as many classical scholars tend to. Rather, I am inclined to see Dawn as her girlfriend waking her up with a nice cup of tea. (Keeper).
Of all that is written about her by scholars who, after a lifetime of study, probably know more than me I prefer to look back for the truth of Sappho's life. To the words of Maximus of Tyre, who wrote the following, which to my ear rings true in its simple acceptance of fact.

"What else was the love of the Lesbian woman except Socrates' art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love each in their own way, she that of women, he that of men. For they say that both loved many and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to the Lesbian."

All of the above may contain errors, my advice is don't copy and paste it into your thesis.


Cate said...

I do love that witchy vision of Sappho! May Lethboth long nurture your inner muse, Gill -- your books will do the big S proud.

Not much to say really... said...

Why thanky C. I hope so too, it's the twenty string lyre has me worried. Wonder if an Irish whistle would substitute?