Sensual Sappho

National Archaeological Museum, Naples
Portrait of a young woman often identified as Sappho; fresco, Pompeii, first century CE

In about 300 BC, a doctor was summoned to diagnose the illness afflicting Antiochus, crown prince of the Seleucid empire in Syria. The young man’s symptoms included a faltering voice, burning sensations, a racing pulse, fainting, and pallor. In his biography of Antiochus’ father, Seleucus I, Plutarch reports that the symptoms manifested themselves only when Antiochus’ young stepmother Stratonice was in the room. The doctor was therefore able to diagnose the youth’s malady as an infatuation with her. The cause of the illness was clearly erotic, because the symptoms were “as described by Sappho.” The solution was simple: Antiochus’ father divorced Stratonice and let his son marry her instead.

Plutarch’s story invites us to wonder if the relationship between Sappho and erotic symptoms is entirely straightforward. Did Antiochus and his doctor learn to describe the sensations he was experiencing from their knowledge of Sappho’s already “classic” love poetry? Did art shape life? Or are such sensations the universal experience of erotically fixated individuals, which would mean that lived experience had been recorded with uncanny realism in Sappho’s art?

Sappho has probably had more words written about her in proportion to her own surviving output than any other writer. A couple of complete poems and about two hundred fragments are all that remain of the nine substantial books, in diverse genres and meters, that she produced on her home island of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean around 600 BC. Her poems could be consulted, complete, in the ancient libraries, including the famous one at Egyptian Alexandria. But they did not survive the millennium between the triumph of Christianity and the frantic export to the West of Greek manuscripts from Constantinople before it fell in 1453. Some Renaissance scholars believed that in the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII had all the manuscripts of Sappho burned as dangerously salacious.

Yet Sappho, for all the meagerness of her extant poetry, is a founder in many more respects than in teaching us what love feels like. She is the first female poet and “learned woman” known to antiquity and to the “Western” literary tradition. Said to have been entitled “the tenth Muse” by Plato, she was the only woman whom ancient scholars included in the canon of significant lyric poets. Nor is it only her poems that have mattered: her life and loves have inspired plays, operas, and novels, skillfully documented in Margaret Reynolds’s The Sappho Companion (2001). Until the nineteenth century, these biographical narratives mostly derived from Ovid’s fictional letter in his Heroides, addressed by a suicidal heterosexual Sappho to her male lover Phaon. Although this tradition reached its acme in Charles Gounod’s spectacular 1851 opera Sapho, it is still going strong—as in Erica Jong’s raunchy novel Sappho’s Leap (2003).

The change in attitudes toward…

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