The Slut, the Priestess, and/or the Poet

sappho painting

Sappho holding a lyre, by Charles-August Mengin, 1877.

A recent article in The New Yorker, How Gay was Sappho?” re-examines two questions about the famous poet of antiquity:

1. Was her poetry really “personal,” as opposed to something like the Iliad, which clearly was created for public performance?

2. Although she lived on the island of Lesbos, was she really a small-l lesbian? In ancient times, apparently, Lesbos was allegedly famed for a different sexual practice.

But then Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies—about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works. (“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration. Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage. The last is a particularly loaded issue, given that, for many readers and scholars, Sappho has been a feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both. “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.

Every so often a new scrap of her poetry turns up — a recent such discovery sparked this article. Isn’t there a complete scroll of her poems buried somewhere in a jar or a collapsed villa, waiting to be found?

Twenty-seven hundred years later, we still collect her fragments and yearn for more.