Sunday, February 23, 2014

Introducing: The First Lesbian, Sappho, and Her Love Poetry

Lesbian: a resident of Lesbos

Lesbian: a woman who is sexually attracted to another woman

How now brown cow? 

At what point, did the word, Lesbian, change from simply meaning a person from Lesbos  to its current reconstruction as a homosexual designation? The answer is simple: Sappho.

Sappho is one of the most influential poets of all time. The fact that she was born sometime in the 600s B.C.E. on a Greek territory island and was a woman makes her accomplishments as a poet even more impressive. Ancient Greece was not known as a particularly open-minded society, especially in the women-rights arena. Women basically had one purpose and that was the bearing of legitimate heirs. Beyond that, well, slaves and young men were far more useful for the rest of the day-to-day needs of the average Greek man.

So, how is it that a Greek woman managed to garner such influence and reputation as a poet?

Well, simply put, she was THAT good. She wrote lyrical poetry, a great deal of it centered on love and emotions. Although the bulk of her works are missing, lost to time, the few fragments which remain are still insightful into her genius. It also doesn't hurt, that the ancients from her time and on, also found this woman a masterful poet.

In their own words:
Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho's over the wine and, since he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why, he said: "So that I may learn it, then die."
So much so, that one Roman poet, Catullus, basically was translated from the Greek to the Latin.

But, what of the woman, herself? Is there anything, there, that suggests she was in fact a lover of women? How do we get from Lesbos, Sappho's birthplace, to Lesbian?

We know very little about Sappho, the woman. That which we do know about her family and early life, is gathered from ancient sources and her surviving works. So, as any of you poets know, that could be reality or metaphorically. But, here's what we got: her parents probably died while she was somewhere in her early twenties. She gave birth to a daughter. She had three brothers, though, she only really cared for the youngest. At some point, we know she was exiled from Lesbos and sent to Sicily - due to politics.

But?


Sappho wrote the majority of her verses on declarations of love - from either men or women, but most often to a woman. Since, as both writer and reader, Sappho was the voice of her poetry, she wrote homoerotic poems. Also, she seemed particularly comfortable in the presence of women, as contemporaries.
What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he of boys. For they said they loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her ..
Thus, it comes to light that Sappho herself made use of the Lesbian, resident, to one of Lesbian, homosexual attraction between women. This favorite poem of mine (echoed by Catullus):
He appears to me, that one, equal to the gods,
the man who, facing you,
is seated and, up close, that sweet voice of yours
he listens to

And how you laugh your charming laugh. Why it
makes my heart flutter within my breast,
because the moment I look at you, right then, for me,
to make any sound at all won’t work any more.

My tongue has a breakdown and a delicate
— all of a sudden — fire rushes under my skin.
With my eyes I see not a thing, and there is a roar
that my ears make.

Sweat pours down me and a trembling
seizes all of me; paler than grass
am I, and a little short of death
do I appear to me.
just puts it all perfectly... enjoy!