All the way from 7th Century BC, meet Sappho, an ancient Greek lyric poetess, residing for much of her life on the island of Lesbos, which was a cultural centre at the time. The daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, Sappho led an eventful
life, which included both fame and infamy. She was exiled to Sicily for a time, probably for political activities, where she was treated as an honourable guest and had a statue erected in her name. She was later hailed by the Alexandrians, who listed her as one of nine significant lyric poets. Although not the case with the poem featured here, the beloved subject of much of her poetry was women.
It seems to me (to borrow a phrase) that the Ancient Greeks knew a lot about the erotic life. They valued beauty in architecture, and the arts held a central place in Grecian cultural life, with tragic and comic theatre festivals held over several days. They were a sexually liberal culture too, with an acceptance of homo-eroticism and same-sex love. Then there was their love of wine and feasting! Two schools of thought that resolved around pleasure as a central focus had both philosophers and strong followings in Ancient Greece – Epicureanism and Hedonism. I could certainly entertain living in those times – at least if I was born into the wealthy classes!
It fascinated me to discover this about Sappho – that she was ” one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally.” (1) In our highly individualised culture, it may be hard to understand this as significant. But the Ancient Greeks would have had a very different understanding of the individual, placing more emphasis on the function of politics, society and the family. Up until that point most lyric poetry (composed in a certain metre to be accompanied by the lyre) was about the exploits of the Gods. Sappho was part of a “new wave” of Greek lyrists who moved from writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual.
Sappho (Fragment) – (c. mid C7th BC) in Erotica: An anthology of Women’s Writing, Pandora Press, 1991 (p.51)
It seems to me that man is equal to the gods,
that is, whoever sits opposite you
and, drawing nearer, savours, as you speak
the sweetness of your voice
and the thrill of your laugh, which have so stirred the heart
in my own breast, that whenever I catch
sight of you, even if for a moment,
then my voice deserts me
and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire
suddenly races underneath my skin,
my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle like
the whirling of a top
and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over
my whole body, I am greener than grass
at such times, I seem to be no more than
a step away from death …
Most of her work exists only in fragments, but recent archeological discoveries may change that. I am struck by the sensuality of her writing, conveying the intensity of desire through unique metaphors. The poem above is featured in an extensive anthology of women’s erotica, and this is what editor Margaret Reynolds has to say of Sappho and her poetic sisters through history:
“Admitting lust, confessing need, they break the custom of women’s silence and rend the assumption of women’s innocence. They know their desire. They also know how to get what they want.” (2)
My kind of women!
2. Erotica: An anthology of Women’s Writing, Pandora Press, 1991 p.51