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How Did Sappho Become a Lesbian?

Tuesday, January 18, 2022 - 08:00

An interesting article that tackles the association of Sappho, Lesbos, and female homosexuality from a different angle.

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Full citation: 

Gilhuly, Kate. 2015. “Lesbians are Not from Lesbos” in Blondell, Ruby & Kirk Ormand (eds). Ancient Sex: New Essays. The Ohio State University Press, Columbus. ISBN 978-0-8142-1283-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of essays on sex and gender in classical Greece and Rome that looks through a post-Foucaultian lens. The introduction focuses almost exclusively on the subject of men, though the editors justifiably argue that the collection is “remarkable for the attention it pays to female sexuality” in that three of the seven papers concern women. (I’ll be covering only two of those three papers, as the third makes up a chapter of Boehringer 2021 and has been covered previously.)

Gilhuly, Kate “Lesbians are Not from Lesbos”

This paper looks at the evolution of how the word “lesbian”, originally simply a geographic/ethnic identifier meaning “person from the island of Lesbos” came to pick up a separate meaning of “female homosexual.”

Gilhuly begins with a (very brief) discussion of the abstract uses of locational and geographic language, how geographic signifiers very often acquire secondary meanings rooted in some association with the place (e.g., “Spartan accommodations”), and how classical Greek writers were highly prone to developing these sorts of metonymic geographic shorthands.

The common modern assumption is that the geographic and sexual semantics of “lesbian” are linked via Lesbos’s most famous resident, the poet Sappho, whose poetry expressing eros between women was well-known in antiquity. A close look at the chronology of the sexual sense begins to cast doubt on this as the primary causal link. Evidence for the depiction of Sappho as “a specific kind of woman who loved women” does not appear until centuries after her lifetime. And in the earliest known reference to an association of Lesbos with women who love women, in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, there is no reference to Sappho as an example. But if not through Sappho, how did this association arise?

Gilhuly maps out a long, gradual development of sexual associations for people from Lesbos that eventually gave rise to “the lesbian” in the modern sense of the word, but passed through a number of rather different associations before that point. I’ll hit the highlights of this tour. Gilhuly particularly notes that influence of Athenian depictions of “New Music” and how it was personified in comic drama, as well as the general use of sexual language to represent and manipulate social power dynamics, rather than referring to actual sexual practices. It was this, in combination with the evolving pop culture image of Sappho that gave rise to the association of Lesbos with a specific sexual orientation. Within this, the image of the courtesan, though not directly linked to Sappho or to female homosexuality, becomes a locus for exploring and articulating “non-wifely” activities.

Greek sources, beginning as early as Homer, frame Lesbos as being represented by its female resources and by the beauty of its women. [Note: I’d want to dig deeper into the Homer example, because the context is offering a gift of women enslaved during war. What other geographic-associated gifts are being given? Is Lesbos unique in providing women as opposed to something else? How are other gifts of enslaved women presented and described?]

It was common in Athenian comic theater to identify character types by their geographic origin, including particular sexual specialties. It was in this context that the “erotic reputation” of Lesbos in Greek literature was created. Turning a geographic name into a verb indicating some activity relating to sex was common and must be understood as the context for Lesbos to be treated in this way. Thus “to Corinthize” meant to traffic in prostitutes, “to Phoenicize” means to perform cunnilingus, to “Sybarize” is to be a volupturary. Not all such verbs were sexual. “To act like an Egyptian” is to do criminal acts, “to act like a Cretan” is to lie. [Note: Thus the logical paradox attributed to the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, when he proclaimed “All Cretans are liars,” but being one himself, must therefore be lying.]

Such “ethnic verbs” would have multiple meanings all associated with the culture in question. For example, “to Spartanize” could mean to be a pederast, to break promises, or to love money. The verb “to Lesbianize” is defined by one author as meaning “to do shameful things” while other sources are interpreted as identifying those things specifically as performing fellatio. (This interpretation becomes explicit in post-classical times.)

There is a detailed discussion of the various texts that are interpreted in this fashion. They involve innuendo and word-play, especially alliteration with other words beginning in “L” including various those relating to lapping and licking. [Note: This sort of sound-symbolism can be cross-linguistic. The association of the mouth-part used to form an L (the tongue) with other things done with that part occurs in multiple unrelated languages, similarly the sound N and concepts related to the nose or to smelling.] But the classical sources don’t clearly support a conclusion that “to Lesbianize” only meant fellatio. Other contexts suggest a sense of sexual initiative, behavior that was considered shameless, and an association with the mouth. Many of the examples have a heterosexual context.

But there is also a non-sexual use of “to Lesbianize” in classical Greek, which means “to make music according to the style of Lesbos” suggesting the Aeolic style associated with poets such as Alcaeus and Sappho. In 5th century Athenian drama, this musical style was adapted into an innovative “New Music” which provoked politicized reactions, as when Plato critized it as frenzied, chaotic, and lawless intended to provoke pleasure in the listener, and prone to inspiring the average person to think he could judge good versus bad performance. [Note: I’m definitely getting a “Kids these days! Their music is just noise!” sort of vibe.] Greek musical theory classified certain modes as “masculine” or “feminine”, and criticism of the New Music included accusations that it was effeminate and self-indulgent. Thus the association of New Music, and the musical sense of “to Lesbianize”, with the criticism of New Music as feminine and lacking control all contributed to the pop culture stereotype of “the Lesbian”.

This group of associations appears in the plays of Aristophanes, where the musical styles are associated with luring a man into a sybaritic life that includes hanging out at symposia, composing drinking songs in the style of Alcaeus and Sappho, among other things. When the man takes off from the symposium with a female flute player (auletris), he tells her he has rescued her from having to “lesbianize the symposiasts”. This is the sort of ambiguous, multi-layered wordplay that both suggests a sexual meaning and indicates that it is not the only meaning: “lesbianize” could mean either to play music in the (disapproved) Lesbian mode for the drinkers, or to provide them with (oral?) sexual services.

Other similar examples of “lesbianize” in more specifically musical contexts are discussed. But this is only one of the multiple strands that construct a sexual “identity” for Lesbians (geographic) in antiquity.

Both in Aristophanes The Frogs and in a more obscure work, Cherion by Pherecrates, “Music” is personified as a sexualized and abused woman, in order to critique what the author depicts as the degradation and decline of musical and poetic standards. The personified Mousike complains of an array of geographically personified abusers who “stuffed me full of wiggles…and undresses me and loosens me up with his eleven notes.” These abusers of music are all identified as belonging to the Athenian and East Greek (explicitly including Lesbos) musical innovators. The character of Mousike, in addition to her status as an allegorical figure, is framed as a courtesan-like woman, thus again bringing together the motifs of courtesans, music, and geography and the idea of the debasement of musical traditions—the same motifs expressed in the musical sense of the verb “lesbianize.” This intersection was created and developed on the Athenian (comic) stage and merged with the sexual sense of “lesbianize” but in a heterosexual context. Although the musical meaning of “lesbianize” does connect, in part, to the poet Sappho, the sexual sense—at this point in the development of the meaning-cluster—does not. Yet we now have a loosely heterogeneous cluster of concepts focused around the geographic idea of Lesbos and embodied in the idea of the courtesan that includes innovative (and allegedly debased) musical styles, and assertive/transgressive female sexuality (that may also be associated with debased acts such as performing oral sex). Within this context an association is created that links Sappho as muse and Sappho as courtesan.

In the early sources that mention Sappho, Gilhuly argues that she is not linked personally with homoeroticism, despite the homerotic themes in her poetry. (In a footnote, Gilhuly notes that her analysis is concerned only with literary representations, and that there are Sappho-related images on ceramics in a similar era that suggest an association with a female pederastic image and a tradition of women-only symposia among courtesans (heteirai) which may reflect a part of the tradition that was not included in literature.) She is also set up in contrast and opposition to the image of the heteira, as in a passage by Herodotus concerning Sappho’s brother and his relationship with a famous hetaira Rhodopis, where Sappho mocks her brother in verse for his devotion. It is in contexts such as this that “Sappho as lyric poet in a community of women” becomes “Sappho as adjunct to heterosexual relations of men with courtesans” with a resulting “contamination” of her reputation. This context then drives the development of “Sappho as fetishized object of male desire, depicted as promiscuous and courtesan-adjacent.” This version was so in conflict with Sappho-the-poet that some traditions felt the need to spit the historic Sappho into two different people in order to accommodate it.

Gihuly introduces the self-mocking poem by Anacreon, introduced in the text as sometimes being thought to have Sappho as its subject, in which the poet-persona is struck by Eros to love a girl “from well-built Lesbos” who scorns him because his hair is white and “gapes after another” instead, where “another is grammatically feminine and ambiguous between “another [head of hair]” or “another [person who is female].” Gilhuly downplays the homoerotic reading, feeling that it requires a conceptual leap to attributing a homoerotic reputation to all residents of Lesbos at an era when this is not otherwise in evidence. [Note: But if the commentary by Athenaeus is correct that Anacreon was visualizing Sappho as the girl in his poem, then there is no need for this leap, only an acceptance that Sappho herself was understood as having homoerotic potential.] The style of the poem clearly evokes Sappho’s style and imagery. But if Sappho is indeed the girl in the poem, then the text and the commentary surrounding it that comments on other poets who “loved Sappho” frames her as the object of male erotic desire, regardless of her own feelings. This, in turn, contributed to the motif of Sappho as icon of insatiable (heterosexual) desire with multiple (male) partners, culminating in the legend of Phaon and the leap off the Leucadian rock. (Though some version of this story attribute it to the “other” Sappho, the courtesan.) Gilhuly sees this as an understandable resolution of the difficulty ancient male scholars had in envisioning a female poet, associated with erotic discourse, as being an active subject unless she could be assimilated to heteronormativity by making her a courtesan.

Roman literature carried over some of these images of Sappho and Lesbos while introducing new ones. Gilhuly catalogs them without introducing an overall framework.

Catullus and other poets such as Horace acknowledged Sappho as a poetic predecessor but seem to have difficulty with her femaleness, either assimilating her to their poetic love object (as with Catullus’s Lesbia) or framing her as necessarily masculine (because only men can be great poets) as in Horace’s “mascula Sappho.” Gilhuly connects Horace’s epithet with a Roman image of female homosexuals as “masculine women linked to a Greek past” (as per Hallett 1989). [Note: But see Boehringer 2021 who argues against this supposed “masculine tribade” concept in Roman texts.]

On the sexual side, as in Ovid’s Heroides, the homoerotic content of Sappho’s poetry is acknowledged but over-written by a heterosexual conversion (Phaon). Ovid’s transformation of Sappho’s image was derived from themes in Greek comedy, but integrated the various motifs into a rejection of same-sex love between women.

Overall these Roman interpretations are not coherent with each other, but treat Sappho (her identity, not her work) as source material that can be reinterpreted imaginatively. [Note: Ovid, in particular, had a massive effect on how Sappho’s personal life was envisioned in later centuries.]

As a summary, Gilhuly posits that the image of the courtesan provides the bridge between the evolving representations of Sappho and the evolving image of “lesbian” as a sexual category. Although, in the context of the courtesan, that “lesbian” category is homosexual.

Both as a real social category and as a literary character, the courtesan could do and say things that a “respectable” woman could not. In particular, it was socially acceptable to depict her both as the object and subject of erotic desire, as well as depicting her as given to excess both in behavior and dress. (Within a cultural context where virtue was equated with moderation and self-control.) Gilhuly hypothesizes that this behavioral freedom was an essential context for the “invention” of female homosexuality, particularly her freedom to be a sexual initiator. But this invention/association did not occur within the cultural context when the courtesan/hetaira was a living tradition, but only later when she had become a symbolic subject.

As a fixture of the symposium, the courtesan was solidly associated with the world of poetry and philosophy. She could participate in male-coded activities within the symposium and was associated with erotic discussions. These associations are seen in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans (although these are rhetorical exercises, not an attempt to represent the actual lives and concerns of courtesans). Dialogue 5 (the one concerning Megilla/Megillus) is, of course, the focus of this part of the article. In this dialogue, the courtesan and the woman from Lesbos are distinct characters. The courtesan Leaina relates her experiences with a rich woman from Lesbos who is “terribly manly,” who has a female partner she calls her wife, and who initiates an erotic encounter with Leaina. Leaina’s conversation partner, another courtesan, suggests that Megilla might be a hetairistria (see Plato’s Symposium). The dialogue is littered with philosophical allusions, evoking the overlapping worlds of the courtesan and philosopher, even when the overt topic is a sexual encounter. One particular sexual reputation of Lesbos is directly commented on: that there are “man-faced” women there who avoid sex with men and prefer women.

Although Sappho is not an overt topic of the dialogue, Gilhuly sees her reflected presence in the work, not only in the geographic origin of Megilla/Megillus, but in traditions linking Sappho to courtesans. [Note: I find this particular point a bit weak. As evidence regarding part of the sexual reputation of Lesbos, yes, but whether it connects directly to Sappho within this specific context? Less clear.]

Gilhuly’s final point is that she believes we’re asking the wrong question in seeking what the literary evidence can tell us about the historic Sappho and about erotic practices on the island of Lesbos. And that we should instead be asking how that literary evidence created the popular image of Sappho as homosexual, and the idea of “lesbian” as a sexual category.

[Note: I think there’s a significant point made here. The historic label/category of “lesbian” as referring to erotic relations between women is a clear and solid reality, regardless of what women may or may not have been doing on Lesbos in the 5th century BCE. And the association of Sappho with female homosexuality is also a clear historic fact. Neither of those facts is undermined or erased by picking apart the exact historic path by which those meanings evolved.]

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