Sappho and Phaon, 1809, by Jacques-Louis David

In the painting we see the Ancient Greek poetess Sappho and her beloved, Phaon. Cupid, who holds out to Sappho a lyre (emblem of music and poetry), symbolizes the idea of love as a source of creative inspiration. On Sappho’s knees is a scroll with a Greek inscription, the first lines of her First Ode: dedicated to Phaon. The historically convincing depiction of Classical attire, shoes and details in the interior is combined with a sentimental, lyrical interpretation of loving harmony, revealed in the languid voluptuousness of the poses, and even such traditional metaphors for love as the pair of kissing doves and the two trees in the landscape.


Apulian Hydria with Phaon and the Women of Lesbos, 5th Century BC

The story of Phaon is an extremely rare one to find in vase painting, with only one example that can match the topic and composition of this piece. 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 mythology, 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, Phaon’s story is told by Ovid and Lucian. On this hydria Phaon is shown playing his lyre in company of a woman from Lesbos. The back of the vessel is lavishly decorated with palmettes.

A similar composition and topic is found on a hydria in the Archaeological Museum in Florence by the Painter of Midias.

anonymous asked:

Are there any translators of Sappho you recommend that don't heterosexualize her?

The only one I have is the 1903 French translation by Renée Vivien, who was a lesbian, and starts off her introduction saying she hasn’t found in Sappho’s writing a single tender feeling towards a man, and the ladies of Lesbos were the only ones she had feelings for, and her love of Phaon & suicide were obviously myths. Vivien wrote prose translations of the Greek text, then tried to ‘reconstruct’ the original poem (often turning a 1-line fragment into a 10-line poem.) So at times it’s more of an interpretation than a translation, but it’s not het. (French speakers can read it on the BnF website.)

I don’t know about English translators, does anyone have recommendations? There’s often a short biography of Sappho in the introduction, so maybe start with checking what they say about her life & death, or if they take her husband Smalldick from Man Island seriously.
I’ve only read fragments in English on tumblr - and can I just say, I always see the sentence “I spoke to you, Aphrodite, in a dream…” in English, which Renée Vivien translated in French as “I had sex with Aphrodite in a dream…”, wisely deciding that’s what Sappho meant.

anonymous asked:

I'm just currently a little confused about some information going around about Sappho? Some members of the lesbian community are saying that Sappho's bisexuality was fabricated by men as a way of erasing her lesbian identity and I'm just wondering if there are sources to support this or if it's just another case of biphobia?

Short Answer:

Here is the deal: No one knows the exact truth about Sappho.  What we have is fragments of poems and some very flattering words from the Alexandrians.  Besides having a ballpark of when she lived (600’s BC) and where (Lesbos), we know almost nothing about her. 

But that’s really not the point.  

Sappho wrote lyrical and romantic poetry about men and women because it was her job.  She got PAID for this, presumably.   We don’t know how she really felt about any of it.  It certainly seems like she cared about the people she wrote about, and maybe she did.  Or maybe she was just a really good writer.  

Our culture is full of generalizations about history and historical figures.   But it is only when Sappho is claimed as bisexual that people wring their hands about how we don’t know for sure.  Applying any label to a historical figure is technically dicey, but it is only the bi ones that have to prove it 100% beyond a shadow of a doubt.   The word lesbian, used to refer to women who are attracted to women, didn’t even exist in her time, but you don’t see people interrogating lesbians over historical inaccuracy. 

Longer Answer with Historical Context (or, Ellie finally gets some use out of her Classical Studies degree):

The context of Sappho’s relationships with women is kind of complicated. Sappho ran a  thiasos, a sort of informal finishing school for young unmarried women. Upper-class families would send their daughters to these academies for instruction in proper feminine behaviors, as well as music and poetry recital, before they transitioned into married life (Krstovic). Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was the patron deity of the thiasos, and Sappho frequently used symbols of Aphrodite -  flowers and garlands, perfumes, incense, and outdoor scenery – as part of her love poetry to the young women under her tutelage (“Sapphos”). Many of Sappho’s poems were actually marriage songs for these girls when they left to marry men.

Sappho’s thiasos may be considered the female counterpart to the male education system. In the Athenian Greek world, it was common for older men to take a younger boyfriend, and this was an important part of training the boy for his adult public life , providing him with connections he would need to operate in a democracy. In Plato’s Symposium, Pausanias (himself an older lover), describes the relationship in terms of education. “When the former (the older lover) has the power to contribute towards wisdom and distinction, and the latter (the younger beloved) needs to acquire education and accomplishment” (Klink p.196-197). So if you want to talk about cultural differences, and how you can’t apply modern definitions to people in history, there’s your first point: When we talk about Greek homosexuality or Sappho, we’re talking about pedophilia, not the adult relationships that define modern gay/lesbian, bisexual relationships.

So Sappho was probably writing to under-aged girls. Athenian Greek readers would have probably seen an echo of their own pedophilic system in Sappho’s poetry. Whether or not they respected it the same way they respected their own male system is debatable, and given that women had such a poor role in Athenian society, they probably didn’t. But they would have recognized it as the same system, even while believing it to be “inferior”.  Greek men saw female forms of the pedophilic system elsewhere. By 100 CE, Plutarch described Spartan women taking girls as lovers, as the explicit female counterpart to the male practice (Klinck 197). This may be late archaic Greek idealization of the past, but it introduces the idea that men would have been aware of women following similar homosexual practices. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes talks about women who love women and equates it to heterosexual love, in that both heterosexuality and lesbianism were inferior compared to male homosexuality. He treated lesbianism as a joke, but he is clearly drawing parallels between it and male homosexual practices of the time (Klinck, 196-197).

But for all her same-sex love poetry, Sappho didn’t seem to have a queer reputation until 100-200 CE, nearly 800 years after her death.  The earliest reference to Sappho’s sexuality doesn’t come until the second or third century CE, from a papyrus based off the earlier work of Chamaeleon. “She has been accused by some people of being licentious in her lifestyle and a woman-lover.” (Klinck, 194-195) “Woman-lover” is pretty clear, but take a minute to look at the word “licentious.” The verb is ataktos, meaning “not properly regulated,” “out of line,” or “unmanageable.” This word is important because it tells us about her sexual reputation.

By the Athenian period, women from Lesbos may have has a reputation for “unmanageable” sexuality, in much the same way the modern Western world stereotyped certain races and nations as more sexual. They may have especially had a reputation for oral sex, a more “slutty” act than ViP intercourse in the ancient world. In Wasps, a play by the Athenian comedian Aristophanes, the character Philocleon says he snatched up a flute-girl when she was going to “lesbianize” a man at the party, meaning she was going to perform oral sex with him (Klinck, 195). The effect is to equate the country with “unmanageable” sexuality. Other references to lesbian actions are less clearly oral, but definitely sexual in nature. The joke seemed to be that women from Lesbos were so sexual, they’d even do anything, even each other.

So Sappho’s reputation was one of “unmanageable” sexuality, whether she was writing homoerotic poetry about girls or lusting after younger men.  When people imply that Sappho’s male relationships were made up in order to make her seem “straight,” they are forgetting that those stories did nothing to improve her reputation, but just made it worst. In one of the most popular stories about Sappho’s love life, told by Ovid and comic poet Menander, Sappho falls in love with a beautiful young male sailor named  Phaon who will not have her. Finally in despair, she commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff into the sea. The point in making her fall in love with a man was never to make her seem safely straight. The point was to make a joke at her expense, about how she was so sexed up, that even as an ugly old woman she was throwing herself at young men who would never be interested in someone like her. Ovid and Menander weren’t saving her reputation; they were painting her as a slut. As 21st century bisexual women, the stereotype parallels seem obvious to us.

The later focus on Sappho’s licentiousness, either towards women or men, may also be the product of shifting sexual mores. After all, there are nearly 300 years between Sappho’s life in (circa 570BCE) and her appearance in Athenian comedies and philosophies circa 300BCE, and nearly 800 years before she is discussed in poetry treatises in (200 CE). Research Anne L. Klinck observes, “Attitudes towards sexuality changed in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and perhaps the poetry of female passion came to be regarded as unseemly” (196).

No one knows how Sappho’s poetry was originally published while she was still alive, but by the Era of Alexandrian scholarship in the second and third century BCE, her works were collected into a standard 9 volumes, none of which exists today, but we know that the whole first volume was made up of heterosexual marriage poetry, family, and religion. Because of her lustful reputation, her works were targeted for censorship first by Bishop Gregory Nazienzen of Constantinople in 380CE, and again in 1073 by Pope Gregory VII ( Krstovic). Most of Sappho’s work exists in fragments and scraps, and only one full poem still exists. Many of these came from Alexandrian textbooks of poetry and style, in which only short pieces were quoted as examples, because it was assumed the reader would have access to the full poems. These Alexandrian textbooks were not re-discovered until the renaissance. Other Sappho fragments come from 19th century discoveries of papyri scraps preserved in the Egyptian desert, and early 20th century discoveries of scraps used in the paper-mache liners of Egyptian of coffins (Krstovic), and more recently a lengthy portion of a poem about her brother was discovered on another  papyrus scrap (Romm).

In the 19th century, Sappho became a symbol for a growing movement of women-loving-women, even giving them her name. In the 19th century, women who loved women were frequently described as sapphic women, even if they also had relationships with men. The distinction between lesbians and bisexual women wasn’t nearly as important as our culture makes it out now. Later the sapphic movement took its name from Sappho’s homeland, the island of Lesbos. The association came about because of her love poetry written towards the young women she taught at her school.

But the ultimate question: did Sappho write love poetry to men? The answer: not many, but yes. . Because of  Sappho’s association with lesbians over the last few hundred years, modern writers tend to ignore her bisexuality. When discussing her supposed lesbianism, author’s will ignore evidence that she wrote of love between women and men, such as the epithalamia (marriage poetry), and many of the fragments are ambiguous, but clearly lack feminine endings. Some translators will purposely translate these ambiguous fragments with  feminine pronouns to imply a female love interest, even when those endings are not clear in the source material. When translating Sappho in her study of homoerotic elements, Klinck gives an example of a fragment that is frequently translated as the feminine participle when the actual word is optative, and another example of a fragment with a masculine ending that “may not be significant” (Klinck 201). Translators can sometimes be forgiven for this oversight – many of them are trying to strengthen the argument that Sappho really was as queer as her reputation – but it is not necessary to risk misinterpretation to do that.


If there is a conspiracy afoot to fake Sappho’s poems about men to erase her lesbianism, we’ve never heard of it.  But we have heard of a lot of lesbians whine that in honoring the full spectrum of what we DO know about Sappho, we’re taking something away from them.  This is bullshit and biphobia talking.

We may never know the exact truth, but what we do know looks pretty damn bisexual to us.

 - Ellie and Sarah

Works Cited

“Sappho.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

 Krstovic, Jelena. “Sappho: Overview.” Gay & Lesbian Biography. Ed. Michael J. Tyrkus and Michael Bronski. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997. Biography in Context. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

 Klinck, Anne L. “’Sleeping in the Bosom of a Tender Companion’: Homoerotic Attachments in Sappho” Journal of Homosexuality. 49.¾ (2005) :193-208. Database name. Web. 20 Feb 2014.

 Romm, James. “Scholars Discover New Poems from Ancient Greek Poetess Sappho.” The Daily Beast. 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

the myth of sappho and phaon is baffling. how did people look at sappho’s poems, where she talks almost exclusively about how much she loves girls, and conclude “she must have killed herself for the love of a man”?

When people imply that Sappho’s male relationships were made up in order to make her seem “straight,” they are forgetting that those stories did nothing to improve her reputation, but just made it worst. In one of the most popular stories about Sappho’s love life, told by Ovid and comic poet Menander, Sappho falls in love with a beautiful young male sailor named Phaon who will not have her. Finally in despair, she commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff into the sea. The point in making her fall in love with a man was never to make her seem safely straight. The point was to make a joke at her expense, about how she was so sexed up, that even as an ugly old woman she was throwing herself at young men who would never be interested in someone like her. Ovid and Menander weren’t saving her reputation; they were painting her as a slut. As 21st century bisexual women, the stereotype parallels seem obvious to us.

Phaon and Aphrodite.  According to legend, Phaon was an elderly ferryman on the island of Lesbos; when Aphrodite came to him in disguise and he rowed her to the shore of Asia Minor without pay, she rewarded him with an ointment that made him young and strikingly handsome.  Side A of an Attic red-figure calyx-krater, in the manner of the Meidias Painter; ca. 420-400 BCE.  Now in the Regional Archaeological Museum “Antonio Salinas,” Palermo.  Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Sappho Kissing Her Lyre. Jules-Élie Delaunay (French, 1828-1891). Oil on canvas. 

“Urged to the edge
By maddening desire,
I, too, shall fling myself
Imploring thee,
Apollo, lord and king!
Into the chill
Embraces of the sea,
Less cold than thine, O Phaon,
I shall fall—
Fall with the flutter of a wounded dove;
And I shall rise
Indifferent forever to love’s dream,
Or find below
The sea’s eternal voice,
Eternal peace.”
[Sappho, The Cliff of Leucas]

The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert


At last, while his companions one and all urged him to save himself as soon as possible from the indignities that threatened him, he bade them dig a grave in his presence, proportioned to the size of his own person, and at the same time bring water and wood for presently disposing of his body.As each of these things was done, he wept and said again and again: “What an artist the world is losing!”

While he hesitated, a letter was brought to Phaon by one of his couriers. Nero snatching it from his hand read that he had been pronounced a public enemy by the senate, and that they were seeking him to punish in the ancient fashion; and he asked what manner of punishment that was. When he learned that the criminal was stripped, fastened by the neck in a and then beaten to death with rods, in mortal terror he seized two daggers which he had brought with him, and then, after trying the point of each, put them up again, pleading that the fatal hour had not yet come. Now he would beg Sporus to begin to lament and wail, and now entreat someone to help him take his life by setting him the example; anon he reproached himself for his cowardice in such words as these: “To live is a scandal and a shame — this does not become Nero, does not become him — one should be resolute at such times — come, rouse thyself!” And now the horsemen were at hand who had orders to take him off alive. When he heard them, he quavered:

“Hark, now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed coursers!”

and drove a dagger into his throat, aided by Epaphroditus, his private secretary. He was all but dead when a centurion rushed in, and as he placed a cloak to the wound, pretending that he had come to aid him, Nero merely gasped: "Too late!” and “This is fidelity!”[…]

-Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Nero

Antonio Muñoz Degrain

Sappho (c. 1908-1909)

Museum of Fine Arts, Valencia, Spain

“A tradition going back at least to Menander (Fr. 258 K) suggested that Sappho killed herself by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs for love of Phaon, a ferryman. This is regarded as unhistorical by modern scholars, perhaps invented by the comic poets or originating from a misreading of a first-person reference in a non-biographical poem. The legend may have resulted in part from a desire to assert Sappho as heterosexual.” (+)


Women of Romanticism [5/10]Mary Robinson (1757-1800)

Major Works:


  • Poems (1775)
  • Captivity, A Poem and Celadon and Lydia, a Tale (1777)
  • Poems (Vol. 1, 1791 / Vol. 2, 1793)
  • London’s Summer Morning (1795)
  • Sappho and Phaon: In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets (1796)
  • Lyrical Tales (1800)


  • Vancenza; or, The Dangers of Credulity (1792)
  • The Widow; or, A Picture of Modern Times (1794)
  • Angelina; A Novel (1796)
  • Hubert de Sevrac, A Romance, of the Eighteenth Century (1796)
  • Walsingham: or, The Pupil of Nature, A Domestic Story (1797)
  • The False Friend; A Domestic Story (1799)
  • The Natural Daughter. With Portraits of the Leadenhead Family. A Novel (1799)
  • Jasper, A Fragment [published posthumously in Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself (1801)]


  • The Lucky Escape, A Comic Opera (Drury Lane, 1778)
  • Nobody: A Comedy in Two Acts (Drury Lane, 1794)
  • The Sicilian Lover: A Tragedy in Five Acts (never performed)

Socio-Political Texts

  • Impartial Reflections of the Present Situation of the Queen of France (1791)
  • A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799)


  • Robinson, Mary [and Maria Elizabeth Robinson]. Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself. With Some Posthumous Pieces. 4 vols. London, 1801.

    “O, let me seize thy pen sublime

    That paints, in melting dulcet rhyme,

    The glowing pow'r, the magic art,

    Th’ extatic raptures of the Heart;”

    – Mary Robinson, “Ode to the Muse”