Who's Who Ancient Greece: The Arts

Sappho of Mytilini (Lesvos) (640-568 BC)
Poet - the tenth Muse

sapphoRegarded as the most famous female lyric poet of ancient Greece (and even likened to Homer), Sappho was born is Eressos, on the western end of the large North Aegean island of Mytilini/Lesvos.

She was contemporary with Pittakos (above), one of the Seven Sages of antiquity, as well as of the poets Alkaeus and Stisikhoros, though more so with, Alkaeus, with whom she had a close friendship.

Born into an aristocratic family of the island, she married a wealthy merchant from the island of Naxos, and had a daughter, whom she praised in one of her poems.

During a period of political strife on the island (603-595 BC), she travelled to Syracuse, in Sicily; around five years after her return to her home she founded a school of music and poetry for girls and women, with classes in music, poetry, dance, and manners.

This school was a radical enterprise, given the times, during which women were generally without such opportunites for education. She was much adored by her charges, though no one knows for sure whether the assertion that she was a lesbian has any real basis in fact (despite modern pilgrimages by lesbians from all over the world to her place of birth!).

Such rumors existed even during Sappho's time, which surfaced in some comedies, especially in Athens, and had a mocking tone. Her poetry was often erotic, but with a tenderness matched by no other ancient Greek writer.

She also wrote prayers and hymns to the gods, and wedding songs, her writing in general known for its liveliness, passion, intensity of emotion, and eroticism. Some 650 verses of hers have survived, from a work ten to twenty percent larger; her work was divided into nine books, but according to meter rather than subject matter, this by the Alexandrine grammarians.

She was a much loved poet, whom the ancient Greeks called 'the nightingale of Lesvos,' much as some Greek singers of older music in more recent times, have had their voices likened to that of the 'aidhoni' (nightingale).

She was also called 'the tenth Muse' and 'sister to the Graces'. Some two centuries later the inhabitants of Syracuse (in Magna Graecia, in southern Italy), erected a statue to honor her.