LGBTQIA+ History Month: Literature, Love and Lesbos

13/02/2023

Orla McAndrew (She/Her) examines the forgotten life and legacy of Ancient Greek Poet Sappho

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Image by Image via Simon Maage on Unsplash

By Orla McAndrew

This February marks the 18th year of the UK’s annual LGBTQIA+ history month. It was founded in the UK by the charity School’s OUT shortly after the abol- ishment of Section 28 in 2003. Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally pro- mote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Although this Act was abolished many years ago, what has been left in its wake is a gap in most people’s knowledge about the LGBTQIA+ community and its rich history. This lack of represenation is not only be damaging for LGBTQIA+ rights, but also for the sense of worth and belonging for those in the community themselves.

During a recent conversation with a friend I found myself unsure of what I knew about my identity. In particular, where did we get the word lesbian? I’ve had my own personal journey with my sexuality and deciding what label felt like me. Labels of course, aren’t eve- rything and not everyone needs one, but for me, I needed one. Which is why coming out as a lesbian was so life changing. Therefore, when I was asked about the origins of lesbianism, and origins of the word lesbian, it was embar- rassing not knowing the answer. So I took to Google, and Google took me to my girl Sappho.

Sappho (spelt Psappho in her native Aeolic dialect), was estimated to be born in around 620 BC and was from the Is- land of Lesbos. Not much is known about her early life apart from the fact that she had brothers who are referenced in some of her work. Although many women in ancient Greece were expected to marry and live in accordance with customs of their city, it is believed that Sappho’s wealth made it easier for her to live as she pleased. Not only that, women were held in high esteem in Lesbos, which allowed Sappho to focus on her writing... and she wrote a lot! Her work was incredibly popular, she was known as the ‘Poetess’ just as Homer was known as the ‘Poet’. Furthermore, Plato regarded her as the ‘tenth muse’. She was a beloved lyric poet. However, the content of her work may be surprising for a woman of that time, because she wrote about the love she felt for other women — around 10,000 lines of it (sadly only 650 survive today). Fragment 38 is possibly her most famous piece of work, in which she writes about the physical pain of love and longing. The mere presence of the one she loves sends her into a crisis which is something I think we can all relate to.

Some believe that Sappho established her own boarding school to help the young girls of Lesbos study eloquence in order to elevate their future prospects for marriage. Although this also, could have been done by her protégé Damophilia, that is the joy when looking back at the ancient times — the air of mystery. It is Sappho’s place of birth Lesbos that links with the word lesbian. In fact lesbian once meant “one from Lesbos” but because of her fame and the content of her work, lesbian changed to mean “a woman who prefers her own sex”. The modern day meaning we all know today!

Another Greek poet Anacreon writting after Sappho, wrote about the women of Les- bos, “not that girl - she’s the other kind, / one from Lesbos. Disdainfully, / nose turned up at my silver hair, / she makes eyes at the ladies.” This piece of work shows how well known the women of Lesbos became for their love for other women, and the openness with which hat love was expressed.

This openness is refreshing, especially when there are other periods in history where women have been forced to hide their love for another. The diaries of Anne Lister were written in code to hide her relation- ships with other women. Even today, TV shows that depict lesbian relationships such as First Kill (2022)Gentleman Jack(2019-2022)Warrior Nun(2020-2022) and many more often end up cancelled after one or two seasons, erasing any form of lesbian representation. The type of representation that Sappho herself championed.

It was that lack of representation which made coming out so much harder for me. I grew up on a steady diet of Disney princess films, then rom-coms and Say Yes to the Dress. A steady diet that without my notice, ingrained a hetreonormative ideal within my brain. It was this that was the pattern of thinking that was the hardest and most emotionally challenging to undo.

Why then do we not learn anything about Sappho? Her legacy is indeed out there, it just takes great searching to find it. It is believed that her work was first written down in Lesbos, either during her lifetime or after, as her work would have been performed out loud, accom- panied by a Lyre. It was then Athenian book publishers who produced copies of lesbian po- etry. Following this Alexandrian scholars pub- lished an edition of Sappho’s poetry. According to legend, in 1073 Pope Gregory VII ordered that all of Sappho’s work be burnt in Rome and Constantinople. Although it was unlikely to be on the direct orders of the Pope, Sappho’s work was destroyed by the church because of its content. Content which was deemed to be dangerous to women and to society as a whole. Even after those who came across her work or later records of it tried to explain away her feelings and relationships as strong female friendships or that she wasn’t really a lesbian.

This is a huge loss to both history and the LGBTQIA+ community, his- tory’s potential first lesbian silenced by men in power because they were afraid of something they couldn’t understand. Not understanding something is a feeling I believe is shared by many people in the LGBTQIA+ community. I think I always knew I was a les- bian, I just needed time to let go of the idealised image I had of my future and in a strange way I needed to grieve that, before I was ready to come out. However, that fear and unwillingness to understand is something that is wholly inex- cusable, and unfortunately still prevalent today. Which is why knowing about Sappho, her work and her life is so important.

Sappho changed the meaning of the word lesbian and also gave us the word Sapphic! Sapphic has two meanings, the first being (fairly obvious), in relation to the poetess Sappho. The second is not used as commonly and differs from lesbian. Sapphic is used as an umbrella term that includes lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, trans femmes, mascs, nonbinary folks and cis women. Sapphic like many identities can mean different things to different people. However, it is known to be more of an intention towards attraction, attraction that is not focused on a specific gender identity and more about the personality of a potential partner. The term Sapphic started being used in the late 1800s af- ter a few scrolls of her poems were discovered, however at this time it only referred to women who love other women. In the 1950s the term Sapphic grew in popularity, and as thetime progressed the meaning began to change. Nowadays with the help of TikTok, and the LGBTQIA+ community online, Sapphic has once again gained popularity.

I often refer to Sappho as ‘my girl sappho’, and during my research for this piece, that sentiment has grown even stronger. Sappho has turned from a woman shrouded in the mystery of the past to a woman who feels real and modern. Her words jump off the page with such strength of emotions that it is almost impossible to feel as if you don’t know her. Sappho is an icon, in ancient Greece she had statues and coins in her honour.

Most recently pieces of her work were discovered in 2004 and 2014 to huge fanfare and celebration. The discovery of these fragments means that there is still hope that we can uncover more of her work, especially as she grows in popularity.

The best and only way that seems appropriate to end this piece is with the words of Sappho herself, fragment 31 (translated by Mariangela Labate). So enjoy this piece about love and loss, about the devastating impact hiding love can have on a person.

He seems very similar to the gods That man who sits in front of you And listens to you speaking
And smiles softly;

And suddenly my heart throbs. When I glance at you,
I can no longer speak,
My tongue is broken and

A subtle flame is creeping into my skin, My eyes can see nothing more,
My ears are buzzing,
Drops of sweat are oozing,

My whole body is trembling.
I become greener than grass
And I feel as if I were dead
But everything must be tolerated, because

... a poor man....



This LGBTQ+ history month let us remember and celebrate Sappho for everything she has done and everything her legacy continues to give us. Who knows, maybe in a few years more fragments of her work will be found, but for now let’s enjoy the ones that we are lucky to still have.