When looking across the Western literary canon, it quickly appears that writing is, in a sense, a man’s game. Take a list of recommended authors from before the era of political correctness, and one generally finds only a few women represented. To take a convenient example, Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s list of essential authors from the first appendix to How to Read a Book (which includes fiction and non-fiction) has only one female author, with Jane Austen standing alone to represent her entire sex. Now, that doesn’t particularly bother me; I don’t believe that we should grade on a curve so that we can include mediocrities like Maya Angelou or Rupi Kaur on “great authors” lists. There are, however, a handful of women who even a vile Reactionary like myself will gladly give credit to. Besides Austen, works by Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others all have a space on my bookshelf.
By far the longest-standing of all of these, though, is Sappho, widely respected among the ancient Greeks themselves and ever since. When discussing her poetry, though, we quickly run into two problems. First, a minor one, is that we don’t know much for certain about her. She’s hardly unique in this, as the lives of Homer and Hesiod are also largely mysterious. For Sappho, we know that she lived on Lesbos in the early Sixth Century B.C. There are also many stories about her that may or may not be true; translator Mary Barnard’s biographical note in her edition of Sappho’s poems lists some of these:
That she was born in Mitylene, or in Eresus on the same island;
That her birth date was about 612 B.C., or earlier, or later;
That her father’s name was Scamandronymous, or Eurygus, or Simon, or Eunominus, or Euarchus, or Ecrytus, or Semus;
That her mother’s name was Cleis;
That she married a merchant of Andros, named Cercolas, and had a daughter Cleis; or, contrariwise, that Cercolas is a fictitious name, and that Cleis was not her daughter;
That Sappho herself was a prostitute; that she was not;
That, maddened by her hopeless love for Phaon, a ferryman, she threw herself from the Leucadian cliffs […]; or, contrariwise, that she died at home in bed, tended by her daughter, Cleis […];
That the girls whose names are mentioned in the poems – Anactoria, Atthis, Gongyla, Hero, Timas – were her pupils, and participants with her in the religious exercises of kallichoron Mitylene (Mitylene of the beautiful dances); or, conversely, that they were no such thing.
How much of this is true? The name “Cercolas” is almost certainly fake, the prostitution charge can safely be discarded, and the story about Phaon is also unlikely. Some of this information came via Athenian comedians, which is like writing a biography of American presidents based on Saturday Night Live skits, others are possibly legendary accretions. There is a story that she was exiled to Syracuse, which is interesting because it would indicate an involvement in political life. Also, whether she was indeed a priestess, and what her relationship was to the other people mentioned in her work, does influence how we interpret some of her poems.…