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Edition #1
Origins and Birth

Zsófi Lázár (LGBTQIA+)
Edited by Elizabeth Rose

Sapphic Origins: Sappho of Lesbos as an example of Queer Cultural Memory

Reading Sappho is a little like travelling through time - it fascinates and sends you reeling. Particularly for queer readers, Sappho’s work has continued to be a source of comfort, connection and inspiration millenia after she lived. The openness with which she expresses her desires is heart-wrenching, and has cemented her relevance to all - from her shining contemporaries like Plato and Horace, to the queer and feminist movements of today.

Born in Classical Greece, Sappho played a highly influential role in queer history as the origin of the terms “sapphic” and “lesbian”, due to the romantic nature of her work relating to women, and her upbringing on the Isle of Lesbos. Sappho’s poetry invokes fatal depths of passion that speak to the reader, as well as dealing with feelings of alienation. Though the Classical era held a generally tolerant view towards same-sex relationships, there was far less definition around romantic relationships between women than men. In addition to her expression of true vulnerability, enabled by her female-centred writing environment, Sappho serves as a compelling and powerful symbol that many queer and lesbian readers identify with due to the strength of these feelings in her work.

Though her work once encompassed 10,000 poetic lines, only 650 fragments remain in good condition today - this can mostly be explained by the death of the dialect she wrote in (McDaniel, 2019). Though it is rumoured that early Christians burned her work owing to its ‘sapphic’ character, such claims are unsubstantiated and unknowable to us.

Despite this relative paucity of surviving work, her fragment “Number 31” provides a great example of the depths of her poetry and feeling that she evokes, as well as the different characters of Sappho - both as “the Woman” and “the Man”. The lines describe Sappho watching her beloved interacting with a man; there is a feeling of being outside and looking inwards, and yet feeling an overwhelming desire throughout the poem. This isolation and yearning is one that is particularly identifiable with queer and sapphic people, as put on them by our heteronormative society. This poem allows them to identify similarities between themselves and Sappho, and relieve them of that sense of isolation through connection, centuries after she lived.

Sappho has also suffered persistent erasure of her own sexual identity - for example, though this poem clearly indicates romantic feelings towards a woman, she is often heterosexualised by scholars (Mills, 2016). This traditionally happens through an invented husband, Kerkylas, a character first introduced by Suda; though Sappho has also been pictured with other men and has even been said to have committed suicide over one. Though her being with a man would not negate her queerness, her supposed husband's name translated to "Penis, from Men's Island." This is not particularly compelling evidence of his existence.

The terms deriving from her and her work, “sapphic” and “lesbian”, were first conceived of to deliver negative judgement on women in the nineteenth century. Though the first reference to “sapphism” arose around 1500 to describe Sappho’s poetic metre and style. However, the mainstream modern sense of the words, referring to attraction between women, started growing in popularity in the late 1800s, after the discovery of some of Sappho’s lost papyrus manuscripts (McCann, 2021). Since “bisexual” wasn’t commonly used or recognized until the 1950s, it’s not clear whether this new sense of “sapphic” originally included all women who loved women, or only those who exclusively loved women. Either way, though writers tried to platonicise her relationships with women in her work to make her more palatable for the nineteenth century audience, their efforts to promote her work were still overshadowed by her sexual identity. In addition, though “Lesbianism” also originated around this time and was popularised in the 1970s and 1980s, these terms can have different meanings and associations.

“Sapphic” can sometimes be used as an umbrella term; it is seen as both inclusive and exclusive, without resorting to ideas like “non-men” that centre on the excluded persons. It positions a concept — love and attraction amongst a profusion of diverse genders and sexualities — as the standard instead of as an outlier. It can also potentially avoid some of the ambiguity of other labels. While “lesbian” increasingly encompasses some nonbinary identities, it is still widely assumed to default to “women attracted to women”, not one or more individuals who may not identify as such. There is nothing that can connect “all queer women, and some nonbinary people, who are attracted to other women and/or some nonbinary people” with such efficiency as “sapphic”.

For reasons such as this, in terms of conceptual, emotional and linguistic relevance, Sappho can definitively be considered a powerful symbol for the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Not only did she give voice to the essentially voiceless generation of Classical Greek women in a way that prompted Plato to call her the “tenth muse”, her voice persisted through millenia as a symbol to unite behind and identify with for modern queer women.

Her legacy as a feminist icon and prolific queer symbol has can be seen in art all over the world, such as “Sappho and Erinna in the Garden of Mytelene” by Simeon Solomon, and “Sappho” by Gustav Klimt. She has been used as a relatable and rallying figure for organisations that have fought for equality and love for decades. Finally, her poems provide a timeless and unifying sense of community across the millennia for queer people, especially queer women and femme presenting people - allowing them to feel validated and connected across time through her art. Her words connect experience across the centuries, and are both reassuring and rallying in their timelessness. It allows them to connect with this remarkable woman, and feel that they’ve existed all along.

“He seems like the gods’ equal, that man, who

ever he is, who takes his seat so close

across from you, and listens raptly to

your lilting voice

and lovely laughter, which, as it wafts by,

sets the heart in my ribcage fluttering;

as soon as I glance at you a moment, I

can’t say a thing,

and my tongue stiffens into silence, thin

flames underneath my skin prickle and spark,

a rush of blood booms in my ears, and then

my eyes go dark,

and sweat pours coldly over me, and all

my body shakes, suddenly sallower

than summer grass, and death, I fear and feel,

is very near.”

- Sappho, Number 31


McDaniel, S. (2019). Did Christians Really Burn Sappho’s Poetry? [online] Tales of Times
Forgotten. Available at: poetry/&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1639600048511000&usg=AOvVaw3zeyfNs9H83pZjJ6uGihgN [Accessed 15 Dec. 2021].

Mills, L. (2016). Making Queer History. [online] Making Queer History. Available at:

McCann, C. (2021). Why “Sapphic” Is Back In Style. [online] Autostraddle. Available at: [Accessed 15 Dec. 2021].

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