Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #143 Snyder 1997 Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho

Full citation: 

Snyder, Jane McIntosh. 1997. Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-09994-0

Publication summary: 

A detailed but reader-friendly look at the meaning and context of Sappho’s poems.

* * *

This is a study, not so much of Sappho the person, but of her lyrics, particularly an interpretation of them in the context of homoerotic desire. The book takes a detailed look at all the poems and fragments known at the time of publication, both in the original Greek and with a closely annotated translation apparatus. It takes a philological approach influenced by women’s studies and gay and lesbian studies. The book does not assume a familiarity with ancient languages but embraces those that do have that familiarity.

Introduction: A Woman-Centered Perspective on Sappho

Snyder reads the poems within a framework of emotional and erotic bonds between women without debating the question “was Sappho a lesbian?” in the sexual sense. Setting sexuality aside, it’s clear that the world of Sappho’s poetry was a predominantly female one. But this was not a “feminist” or “lesbian” context as modern people would understand it.

The presentation of the poetry includes the original Greek, a transliteration, a literal translation, and a discussion of the interpretation. The text is very accessible to non-scholars and those with no familiarity with ancient Greek.

The majority of Sappho’s surviving body of work was not available to pre-modern readers. For context: Sappho flourished ca. 600 BCE. The primary sources for her poetry are quotations by ancient grammarians and literary critics (from around the 1st to 2nd century CE). Her work was still being copied on papyrus documents as late as the 3rd century CE, as we know from the Oxyrhynchus fragments. Some 6th century parchment sources turned up in 1902 and other fragments have been discovered in the 20th century.

Greek scholars in Alexandria, Egypt collected all of Sappho’s work, and references to this collection suggest that her total body of work may have been around 6000 lines, representing perhaps 300 individual songs. Of this, we have one complete song, substantial parts of a dozen others, and for the rest, mostly fragments.

Chapter 1: Sappho and Aphrodite

Aphrodite, goddess of love, is a significant presence in Sappho’s poetry, either as the subject or addressee of the poems, including being the addressee of the only complete song. The theme of this (Ode to Aphrodite) is a petition to assist the speaker (named explicitly as Sappho) in winning back the friendship and love of an unnamed woman There are continuing themes of how one is helpless when experiencing erotic desire, and begging the goddess for help in realizing/fulfilling that desire.

[Note: In Early Modern texts touching on the potential for same-sex erotics, Aphrodite is often depicted as the champion of heterosexual love in opposition to same-sex love, but there is no such assumption here.] Some 18-19th century translators subverted this framing by substituting male pronouns for the unnamed object of Sappho’s desire in the poem. But in general Sappho’s work is significant in that there are named female voices appearing as both subject and object.

The chapter concludes with a presentation and discussion of other fragments referring to Aphrodite. This will be the format of all the chapters: a discussion of the theme as depicted in the more substantial fragments, then a catalog of other relevant items.

Chapter 2: The Construction of Desire

This section focuses on how the experience of desire is described. Snyder notes that this has been downplayed, especially by 19th century German scholarship, which framed Sappho’s work as “chaste”. One extensive fragment (31v “He seems a god to me”) is the hardest to wave away in this context. It consists of a vivid description of Sappho’s physical response to seeing the beloved woman. Given that some of Sappho’s poems appear to be wedding hymns, some scholars have tried to interpret this poem as such, with the passing mention of a man in the opening assumed to be the groom of the beloved woman. This “wedding hymn” interpretation dates primarily to the early 20th century, when scholars were trying to protect Sappho’s literary reputation against what they consider the slur of homosexuality.

The remainder of the chapter looks at other textual examples of both the experience of desire and the attributes expected to stimulate it.

Chapter 3: Eros and Reminiscence

These fragments have themes of memory, especially fragments 96v and 94v. They use the framing of memories of the beloved to provoke desire or a summoning up of memories to sustain the speaker during separation from the beloved.

Chapter 4: Sappho’s Challenge to the Homeric Inheritance

Certain of Sappho’s poems show connections with Homeric verse, but are they an imitation, a challenge, or a commentary? An example is the reference to Helen of Troy in fragment 16v in a positive context as a woman who pursued her own desires (as opposed to being seen as a source of discord and disaster). Other references to Helen appear in the context of a wedding. There is a suggestion that this might be a wedding song, but if so it would seem inauspicious.

Chapter 5: The Aesthetics of Sapphic Eros

There is repeated use of the word “poikilia” (variegated, multi-colored, glittering). Also references to the “Charites” (Graces)--Radiance, Joy, Bloom--as embodiments of beauty and a source of desire.

Chapter 6: Other Themes

This is a mixed bag of the other identifiable themes in Sappho’s work that aren’t as frequent as those in the preceding chapters. Prayers (including the Hymn to Aphrodite), Marriage Songs (with clear references to weddings, prise of a bride, references to grooms. Activities of everyday live (weaving, pastoralism, proverbs). Miscellaneous mythological motifs.

Epilogue: Sappho and Modern American Women Poets

A discussion of Sappho’s inspiration of and influence on others, specifically on modern American women poets. Also, Sappho as a fictional figure (see, e.g., Joan DeJean 1989 to be covered in the next entry).


These contain the complete catalog of the poetry, with transcriptions, translations, and discussion.

Time period: 
Event / person: 

Add new comment