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The Residents of Lesbos: The Construction of Female Desire in Ancient Greek Poetry

The poetry of Sappho, one of the best-known female poets in Ancient Greece, and how she used the tools of other male poets and the ways women were allowed to express themselves, in her poems

Published onDec 01, 2022
The Residents of Lesbos: The Construction of Female Desire in Ancient Greek Poetry

A Woman’s World

The world of men and women in Greece during the 6th century BCE was very divided. In Athens, all male citizens were able to participate in the Assembly, while female citizens were supposed to keep their names out of the public forum and stay out of the spotlight as much as possible so that they could instead mind the household of their husbands. Part of this separation of men and women was due to the fears of the eros, or desire, of young women. Men feared that their wives liked sexual gratification so much that they would threaten the legitimacy of their children as Athenian citizens if they were not separated from men.1 The connection between a husband and a wife did not involve emotional intimacy, as women were supposed to listen to the direction of their husbands, along with providing their husbands with male children and an orderly home. Marriage was seen as an economic-political necessity that allowed for the wealth and property of a family to be passed on through the generations and for citizens to be passed down, through the marriages of Athenian citizens to each other.2

Due to the separation of male and female social spheres, there was also a separation between the male and female poetic tradition. This was because of the level of separation between men and women in Greek society. Most of the works that remain intact were composed by male authors, and we do not know if the writings of women have been lost or if not many were being composed. One of the few female poets that survived the Archiac age is Sappho from the island of Lebos, who was often referred to as the Tenth Muse by other ancient Greek authors. Her exceptionalism enabled the men who wrote about her works to separate the poetry from Sappho herself. Sappho expresses desire for other women in many of her works, which was ignored much as possible by ancient scholars, despite their praises of her works as a whole. Some of these scholars defended Sappho against unjust accusations of sleeping with other women.3

Because many of the sources we have about relationships between women were written by men, Sappho’s work is important for understanding how desire between women was conceived of by women, who existed in the social spheres where this desire was felt.

The Construction of Eros in Hymn to Aphrodite and Beyond: Love Songs

Eros, or the feeling of desire, was seen as an important part of a successful marriage, so important that the goddess Aphrodite was honored during a marriage ceremony.4 Because of the tight control over the eros of women, there were only a few socially acceptable places for it to be expressed, such as in the context of religion. Goddesses such as Hera and Artemis were worshiped by female priestesses because of the connection these goddesses had to virginity and fertility.5 The sexuality of young women was also honored through maiden songs. These songs were mostly written by male poets, such as the Spartan poet Alcman, and allowed young women to express erotic feelings before marriage. The poems were written in the first person, and describe attraction to other women in erotic terms similar to how eros was expressed by male poets.6 Some of these songs were performed at religious festivals that were meant to honor female goddesses, such as Hera, through declarations of affection for each other.7

Sappho’s only surviving poem, known as the “Hymn to Aphrodite,” depicts the narrator entreating the goddess of love aiding her in pursuit of a lover, using language that resembles how warriors ask the goddess Athena for help in battle. It also allows Aphrodite to seem like a close member of Sappho’s inner circle, which differs from the dangerous

but kindly goddess that she is depicted as in the works of Homer and Hesiod.8 This is a 2002 translation of that poem:

“Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains
O lady, my heart

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s
golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through midair–

They arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out
and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, are you wrong?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
Be my ally.”9

The aid that Sappho is asking from Aphrodite is not only reminiscent of a warrior’s plea in battle, but it also shows the sexual love and desire that Sappho feels for another woman. Aphrodite is connected with the physical nature of love, or eros, so she is mentioned many times in the Homeric epics when sexual desire is being discussed.10 Sappho’s desire is expressed as a supplication to a goddess of sexual love, which frames her pursuit of this woman as one driven by eros. This supplication connects desire to the worship of the gods, which made it a more acceptable way for a woman to express her sexual desire.

Sappho also mentions that she hopes that the woman that she loves will eventually return her affection. This reciprocation would make the relationship between the two parties less asymmetrical, which was very uncommon in traditional relationship structures during this period. A husband was the official guardian or Kurios of his wife and had control over her, dowry, despite the dowry technically being the property of the wife.11 The age difference that existed between a married man and his wife was so great that these relationships were almost always asymmetrical.12 Many relationships between two men were also asymmetrical, with an older man helping to educate the younger one about how to be the best citizen of his city-state. The older man is known as the lover and the young man is known as the beloved.13 It is unknown if these kinds of asymmetric relationships existed between women, partially because most of the works that we have come from men. However, one of the possible implications of Sappho’s poem is that she hopes to one day have a symmetrical relationship, one where both parties have equal roles.

The focus on a female religious figure and the focus on the equality of the relationship contrasts with other expressions of eros and love that are found in poetry written by men. However, the focus on eros in some of Sappho’s works is similar to the way that it is portrayed in other kinds of poetry. Eros is often described as something that strikes a person without their consent. The person has to go on a sort of quest to win the target of their desires and then lose interest in everything else besides their potential lover. The expression of eros in lyric poetry during the Archaic period was a combination of the uncontrollability of desire and the loneliness that follows unrequited desire.14 In the “Ode to Aphrodite,” we can see Sappho struggling with the unequal nature of her eros, which is driven by her “crazy heart” and “hard care.” The language that is being used to express eros between women was depicted in a similar way to how it was depicted between men and how it was depicted in maiden songs.

Sappho: The Tenth Muse and the Original Lesbian

Sappho’s literary merit was praised by many writers after her, who were quick to dismiss the attraction towards women in her poems as lies against a poet equal to Homer. Despite the language that is used in the poems, there is no evidence that Sappho ever participated in a sexual relationship with a woman, and she was known to be married and have a child. It is even said that she was driven to jump off a cliff because of her desire for a young man named Phaeon.15 It is very hard to know how much of this was made up by writers after Sappho, in an attempt to ignore the homosexual desire in her poetry. Sappho may have loved men or may have just been given in marriage to her husband by her father, like many Greek women. She may have had sexual desire, but the ways that desire for women are described has resonated with generations of women struggling with their sexualities. Many women who love other women have used the words Lesbian, Sapphic, or Sappist to describe themselves and their sexualities, because Sappho gave language to these feelings, and allowed them to use language that is not negative or pathologizing towards these women. Sappho’s importance in the ancient world, both as a literary figure and as a goddess of the arts, has allowed her word to inspire future generations of women to come to terms with some of their desires, and feel comfortable with a specific identity: a resident of the island of Lebos.

Works Cited

Boehringer, Sandra. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Abingdon, Oxon ; Routledge, 2021.

Boehringer, Sandra, Stefano Caciagli, and Anne Stevens. “The Age of Love: Gender and Erotic Reciprocity in Archaic Greece.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 42 (2015): 24–51.

Hallett, Judith P. “Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality.” Signs 4, no. 3 (1979): 447–64.

Marcovich, Miroslav. “From Ishtar to Aphrodite.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 30, no. 2 (1996): 43–59.

Pritchard, David M. “The Position of Attic Women in Democratic Athens.” Greece & Rome 61, no. 2 (2014): 174–93.

Sappho. “Hymn to Aphrodite.” In If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson, First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Skinner, Marilyn B. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Ancient Cultures. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

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