Women in History II: Ancient Greek Poetess – Sappho

Sappho, Lyric poetess. 615-562 BC. Born in Greek Island of Lesvos. Roman copy. Hellenistic period. Istanbul Archaeoloical Museum, Tukey ©Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Sappho, Lyric poetess. 615-562 BC. Born in Greek Island of Lesvos. Roman copy. Hellenistic period. Istanbul Archaeoloical Museum, Tukey
©Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Turning to Ancient Greek civilisation we find a different expression of woman’s identity.

Sappho is an iconic figure, a Greek poetess from the Ancient World who has inspired and fascinated subsequent generations. Inevitably, it is partly through the testimony of men that we know of her greatness: Plato, for instance, heralds her genius. Much of Sappho’ s writing exists as fragments, with loose and differing translations, but a vivid, personal alternative to the better-known male poets is clear in the desire and sensuousness of her work. For example:

Pain penetrates

me drop

by drop

Sappho, fragment 58 (translated by Mary Barnard, thehypertexts.com)

As Aaron Poochigian makes clear in the Introduction to Sappho Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics, 2009), there are still many mysteries around the poetess, including her appearance which was invented for coins and other images many years later. However, as Poochigian informs us, Sappho is thought to have run a school involving the education of young women, been part of an aristocratic culture, and placed an emphasis on sensuous and personal expression in her poetic compositions for the lyre. An intriguing issue here is the way Sappho’s poetry has been interpreted from both secular and religious perspectives. Expanding on the interest of this debate, Poochigian suggests that Sappho’s work was concerned with the traditional deities of Ancient Greek culture, but displaced the focus on male authority and power. This textual support for a more female centred perspective is an interesting context for Sappho’s reputation as the poetess who expressed desire between women.


旧石器時代のパワーフルな女神像から、今週は古代ギリシャ時代に活躍した女流詩人、サッフォーへ。同時代の象徴的な存在として、後世の詩人を魅了し、影響を与えたサッフォーを、哲学者プラトンは天才と称えています。残された作品は断片に過ぎず、翻訳も様々ですが、個人的な内容を詠った、官能的で感性豊かな作風から彼女の生き生きとした、個性的な詩人像が浮かんできます。サフォーは学校を開設し、貴族階級の若い女性の教育に携わったと考えられています。