A historian called Ellen Greene once wrote that “each era, each generation invents their own Sappho”. What’s she on about? Who is Sappho? Well that’s actually a really important question and I should probably cover that one first…
So Sappho!! What a gal. Sappho is a pretty early Greek author, who probably was writing some time around 600 BCE, and sadly not a lot survives of her work. What we do have however, is incredibly beautiful poetry, with a big focus on her love for different women. Because that’s right, she was a lesbian. Actually more like a lesbian squared, because she was from the island of Lesbos, and it’s because of Sappho from Lesbos that we use the term ‘lesbian’ in the modern day!! Think having one word coined after you is cool? Well Sappho has two – our word ‘Sapphic’ (everything related to women lovin women) is a direct reference to this ancient gay gal. She was generally considered one of the best writers out in antiquity, with Plato (y’know, that guy famous for knowing a lot??) calling her the tenth muse (who were basically goddesses of the arts). If you fancy a quick side bar I would really suggest looking up some of her poems if you’re not familiar because OH woW she is good.
So ancient poet, yes we’re all caught up. But what was Ellen Greene on about with the different Sappho’s? So since modern scholars have been talking about Sappho, they’ve also been throwing their own ideas onto her, and seeing what sticks. In the earliest translations of Sappho’s poetry, all of the pronouns in her poems were changed to hide any potential reference to her sexuality. Big Yikes. But then Victorians came about and were all like yes!! She talked about women!! But it was only because she TAUGHT them, it’s platonic love for her students !!! (pretty sure most modern teachers could discredit this theory right off the bat). After the Sappho Schoolmistress, scholarship generally agreed that she was a gal writing about her love for other gals, though you still get the odd scholar trying to fight against this and get a little more heteronormativity out there. But what we’re going to be talking about today is how an ancient poet found new relevance over 2500 years after her death. It’s Sappho, but in the sixties.
Let’s begin with the cultural climate of 1960s America. It’s the 60s! Sex, drugs and rock and roll!! Also featuring the less popular trio of widespread racism, sexism, and homophobia. What a time hey? This creates a pretty heady mix of different spheres of politics, which inspires a group of artists called the Beat Poets to establish an anti-establishment, pro-sex, pacifist society. Thanks to the previous popularity of the European romanticism movement, the Beat poets looked to Europe to inspire their countercultural poetry, and pretty soon found inspiration in the Classics! But unfortunately, they also found out how elitist Classics scholarship can be, so they tried to fight this with their own modern adaptations and imitations of Graeco-Roman scholarship about the highs and lows they were having right now. One of the famous poets called Ed Sanders shared with the rest of the Beat poets how important this kind of action was by showing how ancient Roman authors criticised the government and society through publicly performing their work – which was EXACTLY what the beat poets wanted to do.
And that’s where Sappho came in. See one of the biggest political movements of the moment was to do with feminism, and the fight for women to be seen as just as smart, capable, and worthy of respect as their male counterparts (crazy right?!). Even though the Beat poets considered themselves these super hip cool cats who were really down with liberal politics, just like in today's world, sometimes their political stance didn't match up with their actions. Most Beat poets were men, and a lot of those men didn't think women could write as well as they could. But hey! Here comes Sappho. One of the most famous of all the ancient poets and also (drum-roll please) a woman! Are you shocked??? A woman?? Who could write??? Well that's basically how the Beat poets responded too, but female poets used Sappho to prove that gender surprisingly didn't actually make a difference to literary capability, and that actually they could do it just as well as the boys.
Hand in hand with the feminist movement of the 60s came a reevaluation of how people thought about sexuality, especially the fight for freedom of female sexuality, and LGBT+ rights. And who better to celebrate lesbian love than the OG lesbian herself? Sappho emerges onto the scene again, this time as the champion of LGBT+ Beat authors, with poets celebrating the “girl-loving” Sappho, who was open about her sexuality. An underground lesbian organisation took this even further, naming themselves the “Daughters of Bilitis” after a fictional lover of Sappho’s, and using Sappho’s poetry and historical presence to create a sort of lesbian history for themselves. Their idea was that if they could show that lesbians existed in the past, they could pave their way for lesbians in the present time, and in the future. In fact, Sappho became so important to the organisation and to its members, that in their regular newsletter ‘The Ladder’, they had a column dedicated to Sappho’s poetry, and imagined her as an honorary member. Through this, Sappho rose to new levels of fame as a sixties lesbian icon, prompting the release of “Sappho was a Right-On Woman” – a.k.a. the first non-fiction book to talk about lesbians in a positive light.
But Sappho wasn’t just an icon to lesbians – she became celebrated as a figure of female sexuality as part of the second wave feminist movement of embracing sexual freedom for women. She famously shows up in one book by Ed Sanders where she appeared to him to teach him how to go down on women. Yep that’s right. She teaches him how to be better at oral sex. Honestly? An icon. See in the 1960s, there was a massive sexual revolution thanks to the creation of the morning after pill, and suddenly sex was way more popular, and way more talked about. Beat writers tried to celebrate this in their writing, with the ‘Sapphic Swinger’ motif being used to talk about how much Sappho loved having sex, and expressing her sexuality.
So we’ve heard about sixties sex, but what else was going on? How did Sappho fit in with the rest of society? Well alongside the Beat generations involvement with sexual equality, they were also openly anti-military. In the 1960s, America was deep in the Vietnam war, and the Beat poets were consistently protesting against this. Now this might seem like a weird political situation for our ancient poet to jump in on, but surprisingly Sappho also makes an appearance in the anti-Vietnam protests. See one of Sappho’s poems talks about the most beautiful thing in the world, where she says that:
“Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers, others call a fleet the most beautiful of sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s whatever you love best.” (Sappho, Fragment 16)
This was interpreted by a lot of Beat poets as being anti-military, instead being a peaceful celebration of love and beauty. Through the use of Sappho’s character, anti-Vietnam protesters fought for an idealised pacifist non-patriarchal society – basically just the best society they could imagine.
There wasn’t just political unrest due to military action however, civil unrest was also reaching new levels in the 60s, with the increased fight for civil rights and against institutionalised racism. See like we sometimes see in modern day feminism, the Beat poets and their feminist allies often were overwhelmingly white, and didn’t really think about fighting for the rights of people of colour. You can really see this by looking at a ‘statement of purpose’ that the Daughters of Bilitis (that lesbian group we mentioned earlier) released, where they said that:
“lesbians are ‘just like’ everyone else – that is… heterosexual, White American women”
See the problem? While trying to fight for lesbian rights, they were actively excluding any non-white members or citizens, and the celebration of Sappho became a big part of this. In response, Black lesbian Beatnik poets employed Sapphic imagery in order to challenge the subconscious racism of their community – often facing a backlash for adopting someone who ‘wasn’t their ancestor’. A Black poet called Harryette Mullen explored this by writing about Sappho through an old character of Sapphire – a racist caricature created by a white comedian. Through this, Mullen plays with the racial dynamics of the Beat poets – Sapphire, a negatively portrayed Black woman created by a white man, is transformed into Sappho, a white woman whose celebration caused the alienation of Black women. Sappho/Sapphire is used as a literary motif to highlight the racist views within the Beat poets, the LGBT+ community, and society as a whole.
So that's where we're gonna leave it for today. Over 2500 years after her death, Sappho was reborn in the 1960s, and was used to comment on contemporary ideas of sexuality, militarism, and race - not bad for an ancient poet hey? See Sappho is actually a really good example of why people still study the classics - even though they happened so long ago, they can remain a really important commentary on our own modern societies. Through looking at who we celebrate, and why we celebrate them, we can learn more about both their societies, and our own. That's a really cool and special part of learning about ancient authors - seeing that they can still be relevant today, and that people are just people, no matter what century they were living in.
Hope you enjoyed today's article!!!! Tune in soon for a How To Understand post on the Roman Republic, and a cool pop culture article that I am REALLY excited about!!! Stay kind, and stay political!