Sappho: a strong and modern female voice

Posted on: 28 March 2019 by Kian Goodsell in 2019 posts

painting of Sappho
'In the Days of Sappho' by John William Godward

For Women's History Month, ancient history student Kian Goodsell explores the work of Greek poet, Sappho.

"When I first began studying Ancient History, the biggest misconception I had was believing that the ancient world had no relevance in today’s world, but oh was I wrong! When looking at ancient sources, it’s apparent that a substantial amount of the content is dominated by men with very little acknowledgement of the woman’s perspective.

The understanding of Sappho’s works in the modern age establishes something unique, something phenomenal that turns our perception of the ancient world on its head. Arguably, her most notable work is fragment 31. The poem is written in observation of a heterosexual couple witnessed in the street, with a particular interest in the woman. The poem opens with a focus on the male and comparing him to 'the gods'; however, the rest of the poem is dominated with her desire for the woman, illustrating brutal imagery of how her longing is intoxicating and exacerbating her mental well-being.

The prominence of her works today demonstrates some of the earliest forms of lesbian poetry. Now, this may not feel very monumental when understanding how fluid sexuality was within the ancient world, but in Sappho this emerges for the first time through the female gaze. That’s not to suggest that her works are only pivotal because of her sexual orientation, but they do hold strong significance for being the first of their kind.

Many questions emerge around Sappho’s character. Being so highly educated and regarded by her male counterparts, how did she establish such a high standing in a world that was built to envision the man as superior?

Her cause of death also provides an interesting narrative. She is thought to have taken her own life after not having her love reciprocated by the youthful Phaon. What contributed to the taking of her own life? Was it impulsive? But, then, this also brings us to the questions raised over the character of Phaon himself. Despite our knowledge of him as male, to what extent can this be contested? Significant losses of ancient texts throughout the centuries mean that there can never be one definitive answer which adds to the charm and enigma of the ancient world!

Yet, in my investigations, I have begun to wonder what would happen if we discovered that Sappho was in fact male posing as female, would our appreciation of the works become less valuable? Or would this make ancient attitudes towards gender look even more progressive and modern?

Studying Sappho has critically engaged my thinking on how aspects of the ancient world have remained relevant and have influenced contemporary society. The incorporation of gender identity and femininity into her works continues to intrigue my personal interest in the subject and has broadened my thinking, encouraging me to look further into ancient societies and their thoughts on such issues. At the end of the day, differences between the ancient and contemporary world do not seem to be as great as once thought."

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