Phaon was a boatman of Mitylene in Lesbos. He was old and ugly when Aphrodite came to his boat. She put on the guise of a crone. Phaon ferried her over to Asia Minor and accepted no payment for doing so. In return, she gave him a box of ointment. When he rubbed it on himself, he became young and beautiful. Many were captivated by his beauty.

According to a tradition first mentioned by Menander, Sappho fell in love with him. He lay with her but soon grew to resent her and devalue her. Sappho was so distraught with his rejection that she threw herself into the sea under the superstition that she would be either cured of her love, or drowned. She was drowned. Aelian says that Phaon was killed by a man whom he was cuckolding.

Aside from Aelian, this Phaon’s story is told by Ovid and Lucian.


Not forced to fall for hideous Phaon,
nor to drift dreamlike from
a Victorian cliff, pursued by visions
of slender limbs, peach-soft hair,
dewy violets clustered
in an unwilling lap, not exiled
on a distant island for writing
smartly about love, not called amoral
nor forgotten, not murdered
by a jealous lover, nor weakened
from drink, did not make an incision
in the veins, never murdered
in a…

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