On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, weaving wiles–I beg you
not to subdue my spirit, Queen,
with pain or sorrow
but come–if ever before
having heard my voice from far away
you listened, and leaving your father’s
golden home you came
in your chariot yoked with swift, lovely
sparrows bringing you over the dark earth
thick-feathered wings swirling down
from the sky through mid-air
arriving quickly–you, Blessed One,
with a smile on your unaging face
asking again what have I suffered
and why am I calling again
and in my wild heart what did I most wish
to happen to me: “Again whom must I persuade
back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?
For if she flees, soon she’ll pursue,
she doesn’t accept gifts, but she’ll give,
if not now loving, soon she’ll love
even against her will.”
Come to me now again, release me from
this pain, everything my spirit longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally.
Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite”. Translation by Diane Rayor.
Let me just say, I adore Sappho.
This is the only complete poem of hers to survive since its writing around 600 BCE. The Library of Alexandria back then possessed a collection of her works, in nine volumes. Several tragedies befell the library, and a lot of Antiquity’s works were lost, which I could rant about for days, but I won’t. Most of Sappho’s poems now exist only in broken paragraphs, sentences, and sometimes only a few words put together. She wrote lyric poems (more properly songs; meant to be accompanied by a lyre) in a form now called ‘sapphic’ meter. She was known as one of the great poets, in her own time and much later. Plato had this to say about her:
Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.
Of course I hardly need mention that Sappho’s name and home have been immortalized in reference to her love for fellow women. However, there’s a lot of myths about her that obscure the truth. She was probably bisexual, as she wrote about the love for both sexes. Her social circle consisted of women and men who were also involved in poetry and music, but there’s no indication that she led a school of lesbian women, or any such later notions. 800 years after Sappho lived, one Maximus of Tyre said this about her:
“What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he of boys. For they said they loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her.”
So, even if she was bisexual, she had perhaps come to be remembered more as leaning lesbian. Still, the words “lesbian” and “sapphic” didn’t have their current meaning until the 19th century.
You can’t really talk about Sappho without mentioning Alcaeus of course. He was her contemporary, writing and performing similar works in overlapping circles. They were considered the best of their time, known throughout the Greek world. Her performance, along with a female choir, during one local festival seems to have prompted Alcaeus’s description of her which I’ve used as this post’s title. (Maximus of Tyre also described her as “small and dark”, no doubt owing to all those delicious Mediterranean rays she soaked up on that island). Now, I doubt she actually had violet hair — Greek color concepts varied a lot from present-day English-world concepts. For instance, the sea was sometimes described as “wine-colored”.
Okay, I’m getting off topic now, so I’ll stop here, with one of my favorite paintings: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “Sappho and Alcaeus”. (Click to enlarge)