Gay and Lesbian People in History

Sappho winking
(c.600 BCE)

Immensely famous in the ancient world, Sappho was a lyric poet loved throughout the ages for the beauty of her writing. Her poems were collected into nine volumes in ancient libraries, but today only one complete poem survives. Then we have one sixteen-line fragment and the rest are bits, known mostly from later writers who quoted her work. In spite of this tragic loss, the intensity and power of her poetry can still be felt.




Fragment 31 V
He seems to me to be like the gods--
whatever man sits opposite you
and close by hears you
talking sweetly

And laughing charmingly, which
makes the heart within my breast take flight;
for the instant I look upon you, I cannot anymore
speak one word,

But in silence my tongue is broken, a fine
fire at once runs under my skin,
with my eyes I see not one thing, my ears

Cold sweat covers me, trembling
seizes my whole body, I am more moist than grass;
I seem to be little short
of dying...

But all must be ventured....

GayHeroes.comHow do we know Sappho was gay?

As this poem fragment clearly shows, Sappho felt more than mere friendship towards other women. (The original Greek makes it clear that the object of this poem is a woman.) Ancient writers over the centuries, who had more of her work to judge from, concluded that Sappho was a lesbian. Later scholars tried to pass off her love poems as wedding hymns containing traditional flattery of the bride ("more moist than grass"? I don't think so). Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of modern Turkey, from which we get the word lesbian.





What did Sappho look like?

I'll tell you exactly what Sappho looked like: we don't have the faintest idea. She lived over 2,500 years ago, and back then people didn't do portraits except of the gods. These beautiful busts (ahem!) were made many centuries after she lived.


Sappho was reported to have been married, but scholars became suspicious when they translated the name of her "husband" as something like "prick-boy". Apparently she had a daughter. She was also supposed to have hurled herself off a cliff into the sea (playing her poet's lyre all the while) out of unrequited love for some guy, but that's folklore.



Sappho's only surviving complete poem is this beautiful hymn beseeching Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of beauty and love) to help her win a reluctant lady.

Fragment 1 V (Hymn to Aphrodite)

O immortal Aphrodite of the many-colored throne,
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I beseech you,
do not overwhelm me in my heart
with anguish and pain, O Mistress,

Sappho VaseBut come hither, if ever at another time
hearing my cries from afar
you heeded them, and leaving the home of your father
came, yoking your golden

Chariot: beautiful,swift sparrows
drew you above the black earth
whirling their wings thick and fast,
from heaven's ether through mid-air.

Suddenly they had arrived; but you, O Blessed Lady,
with a smile upon your immortal face,
asked what I had suffered this time and
why I was calling this time

And what was I most wanting to happen for me
in my frenzied heart: "Whom again shall I persuade
to come back into friendship with you? Who,
O Sappho, does you injustice?

"For if indeed she flees, soon will she pursue,
and though she receives not your gifts, she will give them,
and if she loves not now, soon she will love,
even against her will."

Come to me now also, release me from
harsh cares; accomplish as many things as my heart desires
to accomplish; and you yourself
be my fellow soldier.


GayHeroes.comHere are some translations of more fragments of Sappho's poems. These fragments were unearthed from the sands of Egypt or discovered as strips of paper wrapping mummifed animals, so the beginnings and ends of the lines are lost. Still you can tell a lot from what remains.

For that girl, that beautiful girl; her dress's
clinging makes you shake when you see it,
And I laugh for joy.

Every lesbian should memorize that! It's short, and it would be SO COOL to be able to quote a fragment of Sappho, who felt the same way you do over 2,600 years ago!

Here's more:

...slick with slime...
...Pollyana is satisfied...
...shoots out...
Playing such music upon these strings
Wearing a dildo of leather...
Such a thing as this ... enviously
...twirls quivering expertly
...and has for a fragrance
...mysteries, orgies...
This randy madness I joyfully proclaim.

Is that great? In case you think I'm making it up, it's from a book of Greek poetry called Seven Greeks by Guy Davenport, page 94 & 95. He translates all of Sappho's work as well as that of six other ancient Greek poets.

Get a book, go to the library, -- get to know the glorious poetry of Sappho!



And what about you??? Sappho was one of the greatest poets of all time. Is the poetry of your life helping to make the world great? Fill out a HERO FORM and tell the world what you're up to. We'll post your story here at on our LEGENDS LIST for all to see. It's easy, it's fun, it's self-aggrandizing!
Fill out a HERO FORM! Don't MYTH your chance to be on the LEGENDS LIST! Click here to fill out a HERO FORM. Click here to check out the LEGENDS LIST.

Heroes, Myths, & Legends BookstoreThe only way to really get to know Sappho is to read about her! There are some great books about Sappho at your library.

of gay pop songs!

with tunes like "I Like Mike" and "Cryin' Over Brian"
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Jay Spears
Date Last Modified: 7/20/2009

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