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Sappho and the origin of the word "lesbian"

How a Greek poet and the island where she was born over 2.500 years ago coined the term.

Sappho is the name of a famous Greek poet who was born in the seventh century BC on the beautiful island of Lesbos. Very little in her biography can be taken for granted with the exception of her birthplace in Mitilene (the capital of Lesbos) and the fact that she founded a singing and dancing school for women. She called it House of the Muses servants’ and depending on the source that we use, it was either a dissipated house of debauchery or a cultured and respectable place to educate girls in poetic arts, music and dance.

From her poems, it is not hard to deduce that she had several love affairs with some of the girls in the house (although she also had relationship with men). It was not a common term during Sappho’s life but with time, the love affair between two women was called ‘lesbian love’ precisely because Lesbos was her homeland.

Honestly, I wish I were dead.

Weeping many tears, she left me and said,

“Alas, how terribly we suffer, Sappho.

I really leave you against my will.”

And I answered: “Farewell, go and remember me.

You know how we cared for you.

If not, I would remind you

...of our wonderful times.

For by my side you put on

many wreaths of roses

and garlands of flowers

around your soft neck.

And with precious and royal perfume

you anointed yourself.

On soft beds you satisfied your passion.

And there was no dance,

no holy place

from which we were absent.”

(Sapphic fragments)

Unfortunately, only a tenth of her work has been preserved. In the year 1073, Pope Gregory VII ordered that all her poems had to be burned as they were considered to be immoral and full of sin.

In my eyes he matches the gods, that man who

sits there facing you--any man whatever--

listening from close by to the sweetness of your

voice as you talk, the

sweetness of your laughter: yes, that--I swear it--

sets the heart to shaking inside my breast, since

once I look at you for a moment, I can't

speak any longer,

but my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a

subtle fire races inside my skin, my

eyes can't see a thing and a whirring whistle

thrums at my hearing,

cold sweat covers me and a trembling takes

ahold of me all over: I'm greener than the

grass is and appear to myself to be little

short of dying.

(The Poetry of Sappho. Translated by Jim Powell)

Certainly, it would be unfair to reduce Sappho to her lesbian (or bisexual) condition. Her importance as a poet goes beyond that, her poems had an enormous influence on other classical authors. Even Plato, who by the way was not a great fan of poetry, considered her to be the tenth muse.

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