The Queen of Lesbos – Poetess Sappho l THE HISTORY OF SEX


Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless
Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you: Don’t–I beg you, Lady–with pains and torments Crush down my spirit! The Greek poetess Sappho was a passionate
soul, and nobody worshipped women as much as she. And that’s why her life and work
have been discussed for centuries —with particular attention paid to her sexuality. Kaliméra, fellow poets. My name’s guy,
and welcome to It’s History. Today’s meeting is on the Mediterranean island of Lesbos. I’ll get straight to the point. When we’re
talking about Sappho, we know very little for certain. There is some information about
her life and work, but the problem is that all of this was only recorded in later legends. Sappho holds the title of the most important
female lyricist of the classical age. She probably came from an old aristocratic family
and lived sometime between 630 and 570 BC on the island of Lesbos in the South Aegean.
In her youth, she learned to play the lyre, similar in appearance to a small harp and
a common instrument in antiquity. She also composed songs. We presume that she was married, and that her husband died at some point. She might have had a daughter. You’ll notice
that these are far from hard facts… Lesbos was, in those days, a cultural centre,
and life there was very liberal. Women were highly prized and esteemed. Sappho could probably
live as she wanted. She moved in a circle of girls and young women. Modern commentators
suggest she was a teacher, but there is no proof for this. The women could have been
friends, pupils, or members of a cult honouring Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Even in ancient times, the wildest rumours circulated about Sappho’s life, work and sexual orientation. She was, by all accounts,
petite and dark, with an insatiable appetite for sex. The poet Plato, on the other hand,
described her rather more ambigously as “beautiful”. Sappho was something of a poster girl. Even
during her lifetime, she commanded a lot of attention So was Sappho as horrible as the night, or
as beautiful as Aphrodite? We’ll never know, but everyone agreed back then on one thing for sure: she was one lyrical lady. People built statues in her honour, and Plato called
her the “tenth muse”. Aristoteles reported that Sappho was revered, “although she was a woman”. And centuries later, in 1798,the German writer Friedrich Schlegel mused: “If we had the complete works of Sappho, it is quite possible that we would never recall
Homer.” Sappho’s poetry was exceptional. Her work included religious hymns, wedding songs and love songs. These were collected in nine books, and were regarded as the part of the great canon of antiquity. Sappho’s poetry has the status of high art, and served as an inspiration to other poets. Most celebrated were Sappho’s
expressive power and clear language. The poetess even developed a completely new lyrical metre, the Sapphic stanza, which was adopted by other poets. It’s hard to believe that only 200 fragments
of Sappho’s poetry remain, an estimated seven-hundredth of her complete works. A pathetic four poems have been reconstructed to this day To achieve this, researchers evaluated
references and quotes from other authors, and analysed fragments of papyri. The last
poem was discovered in 2014, and caused a mild sensation. It was named “Poem for a
Brother”, as it addresses Sappho’s brother. Much more exciting than any brother are, however,
the women to whom Sappho sings in her poems, and whose beauty she celebrates. Her words
ooze intimacy and passion. It might seem that a woman who writes to another woman, “I
burn and desire: I burn away for you”, is a clear-cut lesbian. But it’s not that simple. The only contemporary
source on Sappho’s life is her poems. Most modern academics advise against reading her
writings autobiographically. It might well be that Sappho’s poems were intended to
be read out loud, to an audience that could have been entirely male. Perhaps she wrote
about a range of topics, but only the fragments regarding the women remain. Sappho’s sexual orientation is anything
but clear. There is even the legend that, as a result of unrequited love with a ferryman, she jumped from a cliff. It’s probable, though, that this story was an invention to
present Sappho as a heterosexual. Truth be told, she was older when she died. We know
that because, in one of her poems, she complains of greying hair and creaky knees. Whether she was a homosexual or not, the term
“lesbian” dates back to Sappho’s erotic poetry. The expression, “doing it like the ladies of Lesbos” actually had nothing to do with homosexuality back in ancient times.
No, the Greeks used the expression solely to refer to blow jobs, which was something the inhabitants of Lesbos quite clearly could get their head around. The first clear link
between female homosexuality and the island of Lesbos comes form the second century AD.
In 17th century France, the labels “lesbian” and “Sapphist” turned up for the first time. In 1787, a German lexicographer mentioned lesbian love. By the mid-nineteenth century,
dictionaries included the term too. Whether Sappho was a lesbian is neither here
nor there. We know that, in later Greek history, her poetry was frowned upon. Expressing sensations
with the passion and commitment of Sappho was seen as immoral. But it wasn’t just
the later Greeks who had problems with Sappho’s poetry. The early church banned it. One theologian
wrote that Sappho was a “sex-hungry whore, singing about her own sluttishness”. In
the Victorian age, it was all the rage to portray Sappho as the leader of a sort of seminary. These were all attempts to find an innocent explanation for Sappho’s preference
for young women. Lesbos is a particular hot-spot for lesbian
women today and for all those who want to be open about their sexuality. The inhabitants
of Lesbos are not entirely happy about this. In 2008, some of them even instituted proceedings
against Greece’s homosexual community. They wanted to prevent them from using the term
“lesbian” in their name, saying that the inhabitants of the island were the only permissible “Lesbians”, and that this sense of the word had nothing to do with sexual orientations. The proceedings were thrown out, and we will probably never again think of this Greek island in the Aegian when we hear the word “lesbian” spoken. But if you want to learn more about Greece’s sexual backstory, click up here to see our video on Sex in Antiquity. And if you’re interested in what Sappho’s
poetry is all about, be sure to check out our Facebook page, where we’ve posted one
of her poems. What do you think? Is Sappho’s lesbian legacy as important as some people say? And should the inhabitants of Lesbos have the right to free their home from homosexuality? Leave comments and questions in the section below, and don’t forget to subscribe to It’s History for more where this came from. My name’s Guy, thanks for popping by, and see you next time.

Comments 57

  • South Agais? SOUTH?

  • very interesting episode! I particularly appreciate the nuanced and respectful tone taken here, as the truth is so much more fascinating than mere lurid conjecture. The poems, music, and art lost to both antiquity as well as to later religious and sexual intolerance is a senseless one indeed. Oh, and I particularly enjoyed the ''Girlhelm'' scream you guys slipped in where you mentioned the legend regarding her death, nice touch…

  • I like it when Guy talks dirty

  • 4:46 goddamnit made me cough up my soup on that one…

  • "heads around"

    Guy. Nooooo guy. Puhleeze guy.

  • Thinking that Sappho was a lesbian because she wrote about lesbian love sounds to me like thinking Bob Marley and Johnny Cash were violent dudes because they wrote songs about shooting people.

  • scuse me again … Lesbos means BlowJob in ancient Greek …. wow ! bring me as much as lesbos as you can find LOL

  • Wow, an episode on the history of sex that explores person/idea out of the heteronormative tradition? Way to go, It's History! This is your best season so far!

    As for Guy's question, I think the topic of Sappho's lesbianism is important only in the context that her supposed-lesbian life and work has served as an inspiration for millenia for other queer peoples. She was and still is an inspiration – a muse – for those wanting to live and love in non-heterosexual or socially scripted ways.

  • Learned a lot today, thanks!

  • I'm going to be showing these videos to my on staff Greek historian for review (my mom): https://youtu.be/QwBlNTKrnYI

  • "wrap there heads around it" if you know what i mean. you dirty pervs XD ejejejejeee

  • Great episode guys. I'm loving the new season.

  • As a lesbian greek, Sappho's works make me feel proud of my heritage and gives me a person to identify in antiquity. I really wish we had more than a handful of her poems. I blame the church for destroying this history but we may never really know what happened to them.

  • You guys should talk about Napoleon

  • Is she a lesbian?

  • The uncertainty around the topic of this episode in both intriguing and frustrating.

  • I wish this channel was more like it's sister channel: The Great War. This channel is WAY too laid back.

  • outtakes sure to be interesting on this series.

  • I think it's worth mentioning that contemporary conceptions of sexuality don't retroactively apply so neatly. Young spartan boys would be taught how to fight by a mentor, who'd also engage in sexual activities with them. A bit of buggery wasn't all too uncommon in Ancient Rome, if you go by graffiti scrawlings. But it would be wrong to liken this to contemporary LGBT culture – in Rome and Sparta, procreation was a duty. In Rome, it was illegal for free men to 'catch' ('gay' sex was only allowed if you were pitching, and the receiver was a not a free man).

    Basically, the lines and demarcations of gender and sexuality were all totally different. It's almost as if they're just arbitrary social constructs. I'm almost certain this'd have been the case on ancient Lesbos too. Sappho might have appreciated womens beauty, might have had sex with women, and might also have had a husband or a child. None of this validates or invalidates her association with contemporary lesbianism, though.

  • knowledge is ironic though I feel enlightened I will feel my self cringe and act ignorant to be blissful that when people label Lesbian it wasn't what it actually meant originally lol

  • the anchor is so irritatable

  • if you're doing a series on the history of sexuality you should probably at least read you know…The History of Sexuality and perhaps not use terms like "definite sexuality".

    I think the fact that most of Sappho's surviving work is fragments actually makes her much more interesting. The confidence and and sudden outbursts of emotion and violence remind me more of Marinetti, Mayakovsky, and Mina Loy rather than other Hellenic poets. It also makes it interesting to willfully or aleatorically combine various fragments into new poems, like Esa Pekka Salonen does in the (musical) piece "Five Images After Sappho".

    Unfortunately, most translated anthologies try to fill in the gaps to varying degrees instead of preserving the fragments. Anne Carson's "If Not, Winter" being the notable exception where the original structure is generally maintained and the decay produces such interesting poems as:

    so
    ]
    ]
    ]
    ]
    ]
    Go [
    so we may see [
    ]
    lady
    of gold arms [
    ]
    ]
    doom
    ]

    (fragment 6)

  • "that her husband died at some point"
    was there any doubt? or are there historians that argue for the immortal widower of her.

  • Hello friends. It seems that the portrait in the beginning is not from Sappho, but from the Roman poet Sulpicia. Anyway, thanks for the video.

  • 5:00 dinner tonight

  • anyone been recommended sex scene 2012?

  • hello. i'm sappho. same soul

  • #ThingsToDoWithATimeMachine

  • so they are the ones in the bible of the city of SODOM in the bible that GOD wanted to destroy because of their perverted ways

  • Really Lebos?

  • Me (as a lesbian): I'm moving to that island!

  • I thought the title meant Queen of Lesbos in the other sense

  • Sigh. Just found out about this channel. Instantly a controversial topic in the modern times. It is good people have a sexual orientation, at the same time, its diversity might lead to disunion. Off course it is only a MIGHT. Still, just concerned. Mystic is open about this new orientation. There is just this fear though. Feminism and Masculanity has somewhat divided the world. Now this? :/

  • B.K. Laughton is a prime example of ideology with his 'sexuality is a social construct' feminist nonsense. When my Stockholm University English literature professor told me I was 'wrong to believe in hormones because they are a tool of patriarchy used to prove the differences and superiority of men over women', I was speechless. Talk about reality denial! What is true is that there are more bi sexuals than is commonly acknowledged and culture will play a role in how that is seen or accepted.

  • Because of her
    Every guy in this world can express this stage in his life
    Let your hormones begin and watch scissoring till your dick will explode

  • People forget history is super sexy

    If you build it they will come porn should have historical reanactments and alot of art peices im sick of the mundane

  • Does this mean she was a Vagitarian!

  • Sappo is ovrrrated

  • poor lesbains, the lesbains should be ashamed!

  • Sexuallity is beutiful

  • Lesbians: WE DON'T WANT MEN!!!

    Each owns suitcase of dildos.

  • Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
    Rumoresque senum severiorum
    Omnes unius aestimemus assis!
    Soles occidere et redire possunt:
    Nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
    Nox est perpetua una dormienda.
    Da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
    Dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
    Deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum,
    Dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
    Conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
    Aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
    Cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

    Gaius Valerius Catullus

  • So thats where the slang phrase "lesbo" comes from, huh.

  • Everything's always about sex, isn't it?

  • She could be bi two you know

  • Poet-ess is unnecessary imo

  • Sappho wrote poems for women, and then again Sappho killed herself by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs for the love of Phaon, a ferryman. She was not a lesbian!

  • The OG Lesbian

  • Sappho is lesbian queen, the protector of wlw

  • Lol. Her husband "Kerkylos of Andros" aka Dick from Man Island was totally real..

  • "Her husband died at some point." Wow…are you sure about that?

  • The bow-tie isn't working for me.

  • “Doing it like the ladies of lesbos had nothing to do with homosexuality”
    Me: oh yeah, makes sense. It’s probably some tradition that doesn’t have anything to do with sex.

    “It meant giving blowjobs instead”
    Me: spits out cereal

  • It is such a deep shame that art, literature, and who knows what and how many other creations/discoveries in human history have been shun or destroyed becaude they came from women.

  • I am from the village that Sappho born…

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