(Simeon Solomon)
in ,


Sappho of Lesbos: Mythic foremother of lesbian women

He grabbed my ponytail and slammed on the car brakes before I could buckle my seatbelt. His hand on the back of my head propelled my face into the dash of the truck with a sickening crunch.

I broke up with him that night…

Then he brought me sweet words of promises of better days and…

I went back to him. I went back over five times until I walked away for good…

Shortly after, I kissed a girl for the first time.

There was something gentle and innocent that happened between the two of us as we kissed each other’s lips lightly. My innocence in never having kissed a girl before and her gentle guidance made for an exhilarating and liberating experience.

My experience was never really understood in my mind until I discovered poetry by Sappho of the Isle Lesbos.

While she was a poet of Ancient Greece, c. 620-570 BCE, not much is known or recorded about her historically. What historians do know about her is derived very much by the poems she had written and those that have survived. Sappho’s poems searched, probed and caressed the longing that lovers feel when they enter a relationship.

Her poems speak to the idea of being completely free in your own feelings and desires and those that you find in a relationship. She explored sensuality, sexuality and the liberation those gave to people who chose love as a relatable desire. The following is a fragment of one of her poems that survived the test of time.

…and your enticing laughter—
that indeed has stirred up the heart in my breast.
For whenever I look at you even briefly
I can no longer say a single thing,

but my tongue is frozen in silence;
instantly a delicate flame runs beneath my skin;
with my eyes I see nothing;
my ears make a whirring noise.

A cold sweat covers me,
trembling seizes my body,
and I am greener than grass.
Lacking but little of death do I seem.

Haven’t we all been there at some point in the relationships we strive for? Our lover stirring something inside us that we once believed lost. Whether between man and woman, woman and woman, or man and man, this feeling of complete loss of control is utterly exhilarating. This journey we call love often leaves us breathless, as Sappho states in her work, a notion still very real today.

Some of her work goes beyond soft words of tenderness and breathlessness from a lovers laugh or touch. There are fragments of poetry that have survived that question that skillfulness of men when it came to a woman’s sexuality. Passages, if read correctly, tether on wordy pornography. The below passage reads,

…like a sweet-apple
turning red
on the tip
of the topmost branch.
Forgotten by pickers.

Not forgotten—
they couldn’t reach it.

Fragments such as this begin to question women’s sexuality in regards to the male’s (the “pickers”) insensitivity to the clitoral sensitivity and importance. Sappho’s work did not shy away from the sexual beings that humans are. It embraced it. Due to her poetry and lyrics on not only a woman’s desire and sexuality and the role of men, but more importantly, a woman’s desire and sexuality for other women, her name has survived history.

Her name, “Sappho”, has lent itself to the forming of words such as “sapphic” and “sapphistry”. Both began to crest the meaning of women loving other women. “Sapphic” and “sapphistry” both were used before the word “lesbian” took presence in the 1800’s and moulded into the definition we know today during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Today, some of Sappho’s lyrical poetry has survived and still causes controversy within the academic world. Questions still linger of who she was and how she would define herself. Her work is relatable and her name lives on.

Her teachings of love and embracing one’s identity will be a timeless gift to history and women.

Written by Rachel Wicksall

Rachel Wicksall is a freelance author from the state of Michigan in the United States. Wicksall studied history at Central Michigan University and explores the feminist theory and liberating females in history. With those topics, she also studies gender inequality throughout history and how it relates to today’s world.

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