Sappho was a woman from the Greek island of Lesbos who prolifically composed songs and poems during the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE. Her verses were greeted with great acclaim in ancient Greek and Roman circles, and she was considered to be rightfully ranked among the most talented poets to have ever lived in ancient Greece. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, enough of Sappho’s poems were still existent to fill nine volumes in the Library of Alexandria, possibly amounting to around 9,000 lines of poetry. Time, however, has ravaged Sappho’s work—of the nine volumes of her poems known to the ancients, only around 230 poetic fragments have survived to the modern day. As much of the biographical details about Sappho comes from these fragments, so too is her history fragmentary in nature, with legend, folklore and guesswork filling in the gaps.
Although our view of Sappho’s life is obscured, we can still make out a vague picture of her lifestyle and family. We know she was from an aristocratic clan on Lesbos, and although her existent poems rarely touch on politics, the clan that she belonged to was indeed involved in intrigue (for which they were banished from the island from time to time). Her father has been given many names over the years, but Skamandrios seems to be one of the most popular. As for Sappho’s mother, her name is thought to have been Kleïs. Sappho was not an only child—she had brothers. Charaxus, Larichos, and Eriguios were their names, and the first seemed to be the worrisome troublemaker of the family, as Sappho chastised Charaxus with verses about his adventures and dalliances. As for Sappho, herself, she became a leader of a female entourage in Lesbos. The nature of this group has been much debated: from Platonic poetry lessons, to scandalous orgies, and everything in-between—it has all been suggested, and each interpreter points to a vague fragment to support their view. Whatever the case, Sappho was undoubtedly a mentor figure to young women in Lesbos, teaching them song, dance, poetry and wisdom. On the other side of the argument, however, Sappho’s fragments leave ample evidence that the poet was sexually attracted to her female companions. Both interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and as Sappho lived in ancient Greece, she would not have been the only figure to be both a mentor and a lover to ancient Greek students.
Although Sappho is best known for her attraction to women, tales were recorded about her that hinted a husband and child might have been in her history. This very well could be true—as a marriage might have been a part of her mysterious and unknown early adulthood—but the scant evidence leading to this conclusion is often deemed inconclusive. A fragment attributed to Sappho does mention the poet having some sort of guardian-like compassion for a girl named Kleïs. Sappho describes this girl with a word that can translate to ‘daughter,’ ‘child,’ or ‘slave.’ Whether this person was Sappho’s daughter, a student, or an enslaved servant, the poet claimed in a short poem that she adored her, and that the girl reminded her of a flower, and then the fragment ends. Such is the difficulty of piecing together a biography through vague fragments without context. As for Sappho’s supposed husband, only the 10th-century Suda Lexicon from the imperial city of Constantinople recorded a name, and the name it proposed is not very believable. According to the Suda, Sappho was married to a certain Kerkylas of Andros. Although this information is presented matter-of-factly by the medieval encyclopedia, it is almost unanimously considered to be a dirty joke. ‘Kerkylas’ was a Greek word filled with phallic connotations, and Andros, although a real island, also means ‘of man.’ Therefore, while Kerkylas of Andros sounds like a perfectly good name at first glance, it could also be translated into much more bawdy titles, such as Dick of Man. Understandably, few scholars are convinced that Kerkylas was the husband of the famous Lesbian poet, Sappho.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (“Sappho and Alcaeus,” painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The Walters Art Museum).
- Sappho, Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments, translated and introduced by Aaron Poochigian. Penguin Classics, 2009.