Sappho–Everyone's Favorite Lesbian Lesbian
Some male classicists do this thing where they try to be edgy by explaining that Sappho might not have actually liked women. I view this as a prime example of a prototypical privileged man being unable either to fathom a woman not attracted to men or to distinguish the regular violence committed against women (not just occasionally or even necessary physical, but subtly and continually): the denial of their identities, their humanity.
When most people think of ancient Greece, they think of Athens, that “golden city” of masculine Greek intellectualism and sensuality. And yet, for all of Athens’ learning, what has survived of eroticism in Athenian lyric poetry focuses almost exclusively on sexualizing one’s social inferiors. That is, it consists of adult men objectifying both women and young men—not that women were at all equal to young men, of course. Women were considered even worse than boys—that is, even more fickle, even flightier, even pettier, even more likely to cheat. Boys were humans-in-training, whereas women were less than human.
Gender roles were somewhat less rigid and oppressive outside of Athens, particularly on the island of Lesbos, whose women were known for their comparative liberation. Sappho was most definitely a Lesbian in this literal, historical sense. Her exact role in their society, however, and thus the role her poetry would have performed, is unknown. Was she a schoolmistress, praising her star pupils and preparing them for marriage? Was she singing about women from a male perspective for symposia*? Or was she…a Lesbian lesbian?
The first idea—that she was some sort of schoolmistress singing about her students may have been true (but that is contested), but it most certainly was not platonic. While some of her poetry is, in fact, entirely chaste, there is much were she explicitly invokes Aphrodite and Eros—the goddess and god of romantic love. Her poetry presents someone, of some gender, who likes women.
The second idea—that she was singing for men at drinking parties, may have been true, but it is impossible that she was singing exclusively from a male perspective, if she ever was at all. Contrast her lyrical treatment of women with that of her male contemporaries—there is no shaming of them, no judgement, no comparing them to boys. There is only ever awe, desire, heartbreak. She hurts to death over love, but unlike the men, never wants to force that love on anyone. Sappho was a phenomenally talented poet—that much is apparent. If she ever wanted to write lyrics that a man could relate to, she could have, but she didn’t. Furthermore, characters in her poetry address her by name, and the narrators discuss distinctly feminine occupations, implying that she may be the narrator throughout.
Even those who accept at least the appearance of the third idea—that Sappho liked women, may dredge up any difference between modern and classical culture to avoid definitively saying so. If she was not a lesbian because “modern sexual orientations didn’t exist back then,” then neither was she straight in our sense of the word and so this argument serves no function. If the “individual personality didn’t exist back then,” she is still viewing herself as part of the world that looks at women in awe—and she does this in a distinctly feminine fashion. If she was “using homoeroticism to prepare young girls for heterosexual unions,” she would have been doing a very poor job of it.
By writing so passionately about women, Sappho places herself in the physical world that views women as attractive, and she does this beyond just preparing girls for marriage. She speaks exclusively of love for women and for ungendered “youths.” Furthermore, in accordance with her femininity, she defies the masculine view of the world, in one poem even declaring love to be greater than the glories of war. In her poetry, she created a world of feminine sensuality that was unimaginable to the society at large, i.e. to men. To deny this world of hers, this world of women, is to deny her humanity, her creation of a life in a world where she was Other—was less than human.
And even in this different culture, this different time, she is still more than just part of a world of women—she is Sappho, the Poetess, the individual. The ancient Mediterraneans were, in fact, capable of distinguishing the individual. Even when you died and joined the horde of shades in the underworld, you still had enough individualism to care about your descendants bringing you glory. Ancient Greek literally had a whole grammatical voice dedicated to the individual: the middle—“action done for oneself,”** which Sappho makes use of in reference to her own actions. On top of this, her poems explicitly use her name and her brothers’ names in the text itself. For at least huge chunks of her extant poetry, she is truly writing as herself.
To strip Sappho of her queerness is to ignore her work, her femininity, her world, her humanity, in favor of disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing, or worse—out of outright misogyny and homophobia. Some classicists will say whatever they can, twist words and circumstances whichever way they can, all to avoid calling Sappho a lesbian, even while admitting that she must have thought women were beautiful, that she spoke of them lovingly and sensually, that she wanted to be around them. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…
*Decadent all-male dinner parties with dancers, musicians, philosophical talk, and a lot of good wine. Also, pretty boys.
**As opposed to active—“action done by,” or passive—“action done unto.”