Diane Rayor: “Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.”
Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, a podcast where we investigate the truth and controversy surrounding Sappho, her life, the Isle of Lesbos, and her relevance today. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’re going to be talking about how we feel Sappho’s influence today.
LC: As we do each episode, we’re going to start with one of Sappho’s fragments, chosen by our resident poet, Alyse. Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear our own version of the poem as a song. Alyse, take it away.
Alyse Knorr: Hi y’all. Sure! So I’m going to read you Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s Fragment 4, and you should know that every–I’ll do a pause between each line. But every line has a bracket that’s open, like, before the line. So we’re missing the beginnings of each of these lines. And what you’re hearing is something that comes from either the middle or the end of each line. So it’s very, very fragmented. Okay, here we go: ” ]heart / ]absolutely / ]I can / ] / ]would be for me / ]to shine in answer / ]face / ] / ]having been stained / ]”
LC: Every time I hear it now, I actually hear you singing it, Alyse, when we’re doing the song today.
AK: Yeah, I should put out there that in my version of the song, I actually start at the end of the poem. Well, so I sing it out of order.
EB: With “face having been stained”?
LC: It’s very like 90s grunge. Yeah.
AK: Yeah, I was really going for like an Eddie Vedder, like–yeah, you know, like–
EB: I’m into it, I’m into it.
LC: So why did you choose this fragment for the episode, Alyse?
AK: Well, this is maybe, like, less of a super direct reason connecting this poem to this episode, but I just thought that it had this–I mean, it’s very fragmented, which is sort of how we receive Sappho today. And in today’s episode, we’re going to talk a lot about how we even have any of her work left. And sort of like how we’ve inherited her work across the millennium. But also there’s just some little cool things that feel sort of like Sappho talking to us from way, way back, like, “to shine in answer.” So it’s like today’s singer-songwriters and poets are kind of answering Sappho’s call for a lyric of love poetry and poetry of yearning and desire. So we kind of, today, are hearing those echoes or those answers. And also just that emphatic, ” ]heart / ]absolutely / ]I can.” It just feels like Sappho is saying, like, “Yeah, I can influence the entire history of songwriting and poetry.”
AK: Through my heart. Absolutely. So yeah, it just kind of sounded like a nice one to kind of tangentially, metaphorically relate to today’s content.
LC: Thank you so much, Alyse.
AK: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.
LC: So we’re gonna start today’s episode with our favorite translator, Diane Rayor.
EB: If Sappho were around now, what do you think the modern equivalent of Sappho would be, you know what I mean?
Diane Rayor: Well, we have to remember that all her poetry wasn’t meant to be written and read, it was all performed. So no matter how much it sounds like a letter, a diary, whatever it is, it was all meant to be performed out, right? And so there’s always the singer, the player, right? So, Sappho. And the song and the audience. And so it’s the three of them together, make that. And as a musician, you totally get that, right? And someone who was immensely popular in her time, and ever since, right? So, you know, I’m not up on these things. But you’d have to think of someone, you know, who is super popular, and she’s talking about her life, but connecting with everybody. And it makes it sound like a folk singer, right? Really intimate, but then it goes electric on a big stage.
AK: Taylor Swift? Taylor Swift!
EB: I’m like, Lady Gaga? Because I also like–
EB: –the persona aspect of it, I think, is interesting, because you could literally say, you know–some people are basically saying, right, “Sappho is Taylor Swift. Writes about her own personal experiences.” Other people are saying, “Oh, no Sappho is Lady Gaga.” Which–Lady Gaga also writes about her own personal experiences, but similar. Like it’s a–it’s something she puts on. It’s a show she puts on, rather than, like, just the intimate details of her life.
DR: It is a show, and I love the way you said that because it is totally a show, because it’s all also persuasion. Because if everybody already thought this, you don’t need to say it, right? You don’t need to argue it. And so, it’s a story, it’s a persuasion. And so when she puts her name in her songs, it’s saying, “Sappho says this,” right? Is that Sappho who goes home and feeds her daughter, or whatever else, right? No, that’s the performer, Sappho. And we know that some of her poems are in other voices, too, just like all the different lyric poets of her time and earlier and after, you know, they would have characters, too.
EB: I love that there’s this idea of Sappho is this ancient pop star. Like I want to see Sappho at a music festival.
LC: Like at the Coliseum.
LC: Like a big coliseum, outdoors.
EB: Yes, and Sappho’s just up rocking on the lyre.
LC: We warm up with the gladiators.
EB: Yes, yes. The national anthem…
LC: Does an electric lyre exist? That would be dope.
EB: That would be pretty cool. I bet you it does now. I mean, obviously it did not exist back then. But I feel like you could probably find someone who has made an electric lyre. When we’re talking about Sappho’s influence today, if you think about Sappho as a performer, as a musician, as this big, popular persona, I think it’s easier to wrap your head around the influence of Sappho. Dr. Ian Oliver, who teaches at Regis University, told us more about how we feel Sappho’s influence in today’s music and writing traditions.
Ian Oliver: She invented strumming chords on a guitar. So, I’m gonna say pretty much all of it, you know, all of it. She’s the one who got the pick, she wins. There’s really obvious stuff, like, you know, Pat Benatar just killing on the guitar. But then like, the ideas that Sappho was really sort of bringing in, things like, love is a battlefield, right? Love as spectacle. Love as something that exists. Oh god, what was it? Taylor Swift has this great SNL monologue where she is like standing in front of the stage and she’s like, “So I get nervous when I sing–I get nervous when I speak. I don’t really want to do a monologue, but I sing a lot. So I’m going to sing my monologue.” She says, like, “I’m not going to sing about this.” Of course, she does. Like that’s precisely what she’s doing. But, like, specifically, what she gets into–and this is why I’m bringing it up, I’m not just talking about SNL and Taylor Swift–the reason why she gets into it is, is she’s saying, like, “I’m not going to talk about my ex boyfriend, Joe, and how he ruined me and cheated on me like an asshole. That wouldn’t be appropriate in this monologue. And I’m not going to talk about the vampire I’m dating, because that wouldn’t be appropriate in the monologue. Hi, sweetie.” You know, like this idea of love as sort of in the middle of performance, as love as a spectacle, but love as sort of a battlefield, to get to Pat Benatar, but then also sort of this music and poetry as a very personal and public thing at the same time, which is essentially the opposite of what it was in Rome, right? In Rome, it’s this sort of, like, you can’t put the two of them together. Now, song, in many ways, is way more sapphic than it was at any point in between. The sort of struggles that you see in modern music, that’s exactly what Sappho was trying to do. She’s talking about herself in a very sort of public way.
EB: Ian. A man after my own heart. I love that he uses, first of all, the word “sapphic.” Like, our music is sapphic.
LC: Yeah, it is.
EB: Talking about, like, our modern era of pop music being so lyrical, like even if you think about jazz music, and you think about all those songs that are pulling on your heartstrings. And they’re, like, barely saying anything. It hooks, it repeats, repeats, repeats. Yet they’re saying something so meaningful.
EB: In the same way that Sappho’s fragments don’t have a lot of material, but you feel it so intensely.
LC: Yeah. I mean, some of our fragments are–
EB: It’s very cool.
LC: –so short, like the one we have today, and it’s still so meaningful, and really says a lot in a small amount of words.
EB: I love it.
LC: Yes, it’s so good. One of the things that we spoke to Ian about is how we sort of got from Sappho to now. So, how the story of her influence has played out over the last few millennia.
EB: Ian said there’s a lot that we simply don’t know.
IO: And it’s a really–sort of a thorny thread, especially because it sort of begins with Sappho in that murky period of orality that I was talking about. Like, Sappho is probably the only major Greek poet from that time–the only major feminine Greek poet at the time. But many of her contemporaries exist in exactly the same mode, right? So we’re talking about Archilochus, but also Homer and Hesiod, or probably the better sort of comparisons are Solon and Theognis, who are poets of her same time. The weird thing about all of those that I just mentioned is, though, that they’re oral, and it’s very likely that Sappho would have been transmitted orally as well. We live in–like she’s writing and composing in a sort of pre-literate world, which isn’t to say that the poetry that we get from her isn’t oral. I think Alcaeus, for example, is the same way, where it’s very clear that this was written down and sort of fossilized in a real way. But I think it’s worth mentioning that folks like Solon or like Theognis, and certainly Homer and Hesiod, those poetics were composed orally, literally just not even written down. They would stand up and recompose the poem every single time. And so that was kind of what was expected. And as a result, the sort of sharing of the poem, we’re not even really sure how it got from one place to the other.
LC: So this just reminds me of when I was younger, and maybe–you’re a little younger than me, Ellie, so I don’t know if you would have done this–but I remember I got my first, like, radio tape player and I used to play songs over and over again so that I would remember the lyrics.
LC: ‘Cause we couldn’t just Google it, it wasn’t like a thing that you could do. So you just have to, like, make your guesses at the words. So I guess that’s what they used to do. Just like, listen to it performed again and again, and like, “Oh, I picked up this one this time.”
EB: Were there any songs where you realized later you were singing the completely wrong words every time?
LC: I think that, for some reason–and maybe it’s because, like, I knew people with this name–but I think I thought that in “Bittersweet Symphony,” it was, “Jack and Shane, Jack and Shane,” not, “I could change, I could change.”
EB: Exactly. So that’s what happened with Sappho. Can you imagine if we never had the lyrics to “Bittersweet Symphony” written down, and you just were singing it to people.
LC: “Jack and Shane, Jack and Shane.”
EB: It would just keep going. I mean, that makes complete sense to me. It does. So Ian told us, just like it was Leesa’s best guess, you know, it’s historians best guess that her work was memorized by professional singers to perform as covers, and passed down that way.
LC: Yeah. There’s this famous story about how this Athenian statesman and poet, Solon, he heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho’s at a party. And he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. And when someone asked him why, he said, “So that I may learn it and die.” Which, like, wow. What a–
EB: No need to live after learning Sappho’s song.
LC: That’s it! That’s all I need.
EB: The pinnacle of your life.
LC: Done. So, yeah, you know, like our listeners, you know. They want to listen to this podcast so that they might die.
LC: Knowing the story of Sappho.
IO: The story about how Solon hears the story, the poem of Sappho, and says, “I could die.” That’s very likely how these poems would have been shared from one to the other. “Teach me that poem. Teach me how to recite that poem. Don’t show it to me, and I’ll memorize it,” right? It is much more of an oral culture that involves sort of the sympotic culture, the sort of negotiation.
EB: In the classical and Hellenistic periods after her death, as we’ve discussed in previous episodes, Sappho was received in comedies, especially, as a whore. But Ian told us that the comic playwright, Aristophanes, made fun of everybody, including Socrates. And, in fact, some of the things Aristophanes said about Socrates may have even led to his execution. Oops.
LC: Oops, indeed. Whoops, sorry, my guy. But kind of like many artists now, while she was getting insulted in some places, Sappho was also becoming more and more legendary as a poet, and was even revered as a goddess by others. Plato, for instance, called her “The Tenth Muse,” so I guess all publicity is good publicity.
IO: Already by the Hellenistic period, Sappho is either revered as a goddess or as, you know, a whore, a prostitute, or a profligate, at least, a courtesan, a non-good example for women. And so the issue ends up becoming that, like, there’s no space for her to be simply who she is. She’s either safe because she’s a goddess, and so she’s different from all other women. Or she’s safe because, well, she really just kind of sleeps around anyway.
EB: Things get even more complicated in the Roman period, because Ancient Rome is really different from Ancient Greece.
IO: And so, what ends up happening is after that Hellenistic period, there’s this migration of Sappho, at least, in our tradition, into the Roman tradition. And the problem with the Roman tradition is that it’s really different from the Greek tradition. The idea is basically we shift from a polis, sort of city-state culture, where every culture sort of runs its own thing. Every culture has its own sort of set of gender expectations, every culture has its own set of laws and rules, every culture has a different set of norms. And you can sort of see how with Lesbos and Mytilene, especially, there does seem to have been a very vivid, exciting culture there. Whereas in Athens, or maybe even more pronounced in Sparta, it’s a very different sort of culture. In Rome, everything becomes Roman. Everything, all the way across the whole, you know, Mediterranean, becomes Roman. And Rome is very focused, very focused on war, politics, and men being men for the sake of making babies, to make new warriors, to make new politicians. Stoicism and Epicureanism become the sort of ideal in which–I mean, this is a good example. Lucretius is an Epicurean poet, and he regularly engages sapphic poetry simply to demonstrate how torturous emotion is, how rough. He explicitly recalls poem 31, about how she’s tortured on the inside, and Epicureanism, and Lucretius sort of says, “See, you want that. Okay.” But, so the idea ends up becoming that, in the Roman world, the sapphic emotion and the sapphic imagery and the sapphic gender doesn’t quite fit. It doesn’t fit in a way that people sort of really understand.
EB: Surprise, surprise. A huge empire run by men–
LC: The patriarchy strikes again!
EB: –doesn’t want emotions. What? What? It’s sort of interesting though, right? Because we’ve learned that we keep seeing Sappho passed down and passed down. So even with you saying, Leesa, like, “All publicity is good publicity.” It actually is, in a weird way, good that they’re hating on Sappho, because we get to hear about her.
EB: Right? It’s just so crazy to me. This ancient game of telephone is constantly so fascinating to me.
LC: Absolutely. I also think we need to borrow, you know, the patriarchy jingle from Buffering the Vampire Slayer because, honestly, it comes up.
EB: The patriarchy!
LC: The patriarchy!
EB: Of course it does. When we talk about one of the first female poets in the Western tradition, patriarchy comes up. Why?
LC: Gee, I wonder why. That doesn’t mean that Sappho didn’t have, you know, a few fans in Ancient Rome. So Catullus, who we mentioned briefly in the last episode, was a Roman poet writing in the first century BCE. He admired Sappho a lot. He wrote a lot of poems inspired by her, including one really good one that riffs off Fragment 31 that we covered last episode. Ellie, I believe you have a copy of this poem. Would you read it for us?
EB: I do. I’m very excited to read this. So this is a literal translation of Catullus 51 by D.F.S. Thompson. Alright, here we go. “He seems to me to be equal to a god.” Sound familiar?
LC: It sounds very familiar so far.
EB: “He, if it is permissible, seems to surpass the gods / who sitting opposite again and again, watches / and hears you // sweetly laughing, which rips out / all senses from miserable me: for at the same moment I look upon you / Lesbia, nothing is left for me of my voice in my mouth // But my tongue grows thick / a thin flame runs down beneath my lens, with their own sound / my ears ring, my lights eyes are covered / by twin night. // Idleness is a troublesome thing for you Catullus: / in idleness you revel and delight too much; / idleness has destroyed both kings and / blesseds cities before.”
LC: Very influenced by Sappho, I would say. I wanted to sing it the whole time. You know, I was ready to riff with you on that.
LC: Our musical theater number.
EB: So I know we talked in other episodes about people inserting themselves into the gaps and not giving Sappho credit. But in this poem, Catullus is very, very clearly talking about Sappho, because he mentions “Lesbia.”
EB: Right? So that’s a clear call out to–
LC: Shoutout to Lesbia!
EB: Yeah, right! I love it. So people would have known that he was referencing Sappho with this poem. They just would have thought he was absolutely out of his mind, because why are you not working? Why are you not fighting? Why are you talking about feelings, Catullus?
LC: Yeah, absolutely.
EB: You can’t do that.
LC: And, like, he goes into this whole thing at the end about “idleness is a troublesome thing for you,” which like, really drinking the Kool Aid there of a capitalist society. I mean, it just feels like, you know, the same way we all beat ourselves up about not working hard enough, living here in America.
EB: To be fair, Rome feels very familiar to me. It’s okay to be idle and think about your feelings, Catullus.
LC: It’s okay. We’re all doing it right now.
EB: You don’t revel in delight too much.
LC: Yeah. So Catullus’s relationship to Sappho was complicated because of Roman culture. And Ian is going to talk a little bit more about that.
IO: Catullus exists in this Roman culture. And one of the challenges that happens with Catullus, on some level, it seems that he’s sort of appropriating Sappho, he’s taking her as his muse, “Lesbia,” his muse. But I think it’s really important to understand that what Catullus is doing is, on many levels, grappling with his own sense of frustration that Rome is a culture as I described it. A culture of patriarchy, a culture of warriors, a culture that has no space for love. There’s a major distinction between philos and eros in the Greek language, between these two different sort of types of love. In Latin, there’s really only one word for it–it’s amor, which almost certainly corresponds to philos because there is no such thing as a private world. We don’t talk about a private world in Rome, right? Like Rome is–whenever the private world enters the public world, that’s a scandal. And I think that Catullus is very much realizing that he doesn’t fit in that world, and that, as a result, his relationship with poetics is fraught. And so he’s frustrated and angry about his inability to take these ideas of love that Sappho expresses so effortlessly, and fit them into his world. And as a result, he makes his Lesbia a vile creature, something that he doesn’t understand and something that he reacts against and rails against. So his most famous poem probably is “Odi et amo,” “I hate and I love, and it tears me up inside, and I don’t know what I can do about it.” He’s caught between these two different worlds. And it’s very clear, though, all along the way that there’s so much going on under the surface with Catullus. And that he is truly an admirer of Sappho, like he really wants to understand Sappho. But his torture comes from the fact that he can’t understand Sappho, because his world doesn’t reflect hers. And so I think that that’s one of those things–at the same time as you can be–and I think, you know, Callimachus, Theocritus, these guys are impressive poets, but like they are very focused on the sort of scholarly joke. They’re very focused on the sort of dry poetry for the sake of creating poetry. Catullus is writing poetry–he’s receiving Sappho as a true muse, but one that he just can’t understand because she’s of a different culture, but also of a different gender. So yeah, it’s one of those things that–Catullus in the sort of Roman world, doesn’t know quite how to receive Sappho. But they try anyway, because she’s so good, you can’t ignore her.
LC: It really sounds a lot like what a lot of men struggle with now, in our society. You know, this idea of how they have to be, versus how they feel.
EB: Yeah, I feel–I really, truly feel for Catullus, this man who’s just so sensitive. He has so many emotions and feelings ,and he doesn’t fit in with this warlike society. You’re 100% correct. Another Roman poet who engaged with Sappho’s work is Ovid, a major Roman poet writing during the reign of Augustus, who we talked about a bit last episode. Ovid wrote a series of poems called the “Heroides” that take the form of letters from mythological characters and their lovers. One of his letters was from Sappho to Phaon, a Greek mythological character. Oh, we know Phaon.
EB: We have heard of Phaon many times.
LC: “A smelly public transport worker.”
EB: Yes. One of his letters was from Sappho to Phaon, a Greek mythological character who was a ferryman in Lesbos that Sappho fell in love with, according to legend.
EB: Ovid’s letter dramatizes the moment Sappho throws herself off a cliff, since Phaon won’t love her back.
LC: Of course that’s what happens. We all know. She found the right dick in the end. And while in some ways, this is a huge dig against Sappho, Ian told us that you can also read the “Heroides” as being Ovid’s commentary on toxic masculinity.
IO: Maybe through the influence of Catullus, maybe through the influence of Calvus, or many, many numbers of people who have received Sappho, Lucretius, etc. But for one way or the other, Propertius, Ovid, all the sort of Golden Age poets end up really sort of diving into this Sappho character, and they become sort of focused on amor, thus we get Ovid’s “Amores,” and all that kind of stuff. And we get, in Ovid especially, this sort of obsession with toxic masculinity, with how like men suck, and it’s like–and like this world in which every man has to be a manly man doesn’t fit his understanding of reality. And so that sort of torture is exactly what’s actually going on with the “Heroides 15,” where Sappho falls in love with Phaon, because she gave him, you know, like, “You seem like a good dude, Phaon. Here. Fall in love. Anyone who looks at you is going to fall in love.” But then she falls in love, and you can see it in the “Heroides 15” that she is a shell of her former self. Like she’s not who she once was because she’s trying to sort of capture this male type of love. And so it’s this really difficult understanding of, like–trying to understand Ovid is like trying to capture a wet snake, like it just doesn’t work, like it does not make any sense. So I think that it’s really important to understand the sort of Roman society there as one that is very much grappling with the disconnect between Greek culture and Roman culture, and specifically lesbian culture of Lesbos, but also of the Sappho-loving-women whole thing. It’s all really complicated, and they’re grappling with it, and they’re failing.
LC: This is just, every time I’m reading about the Romans, all I can think about is “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” and just how much he hates the Romans: “What have the Romans ever done for us!” Rome was so toxically masculine that the work of only a few women poets survived.
IO: There were female poets in Rome. But we only actually have one, which is Sulpicia, largely because it was considered shameful to put the inside out, to put the sort of private world into the public sphere, which is almost exactly what Sappho is doing. Like this idea of love as performance, or love as–the private as the public is, like, anathema to the Roman world, especially because, in order to be a poet, you have to be some degree of educated, you have to be some degree of literate. And so, in order to be that, you have to be a woman of fine standing. And in order to be a woman of fine standing, you have to be somebody’s wife. And in order to be somebody’s wife, you have to be good and rarely in public. And so we really only get one example of Sulpicia writing at about the same time. It seems that we get it primarily because her peers thought that it was so good that they shared it, but then it sort of falls out of usage. So her peers being Horace and Martial and Propertius and Ovid. And so they sort of championed her poetry and it survives in an anthology.
EB: We’re gonna take a quick break, and we’ll be right back after a word from some sponsors. After the Roman period, a lot of Sappho’s work that would have been written down at this point gets lost when ancient libraries are burned or sacked by barbarians, or simply fall into disrepair. Because books had to be handwritten and copied by monks, if the work wasn’t seen as valuable–like a homoerotic women’s poem, for instance–then there wouldn’t be as many copies in existence to begin with. And once the early medieval Christians started burning books, it was bad news for Sappho.
LC: It’s always the people in power who are choosing what comes down, right? It’s so frustrating.
EB: Surprise, yeah.
LC: And we have had some really fun conversations with our friends that shared history about library burnings, and I have a really fun library burning fact. The Yale–I think it’s the Yale University Library–they have a system in place so that if there’s a fire, they will take all of the oxygen out of the room and kill everybody inside to save the books.
EB: Oh my god!
LC: So I guess enter at your own risk. I mean, when you think about it, when we’re doing this podcast, you’re like, “Oh, it makes sense. But then, okay, well…”
EB: Yeah, you’re like, “Well, the books will probably–will definitely survive longer than these people. But oh my gosh!” That’s horrible. That is horrible. Wow, I did not know that. Yes, you’re right. That’s the first time you’ve said that to me, ’cause clearly I’m having a visceral reaction. Remind me never to go to the Yale Library.
LC: Yeah, I mean, I wonder if you have to sign something when you go in that’s like, “I acknowledge that I will die if there’s a fire.”
EB: No, that is insanity. But I guess if you’re, you know, if you’re a historian, the lines get blurred.
IO: We have manuscripts and we didn’t get any of the Sappho. There are a number of reasons why that could have been. One of them, and the most obvious one, and the one that sort of history most focuses on, is the potential for burning it as illicit. Burning it as some sort of corrupting influence. There’s lots of stories about–everybody points to Gregory, and Gregory–but the funny thing is, like, you know, he didn’t actually burn Greek texts, he burned Latin texts. But there was another Gregory, Nazianzus, somewhere in Cappadocia. He burned Greek texts back in Rome, right around 3 ACE, where he is, in a real way, sort of living in this world of new Christianity, condemning everything that’s not Christian. And so, in that way, Sappho–it’s possible that she could have fallen prey to that. So I’m not saying that she never did get burned. It’s definitely a possibility. And certainly as late as the 1500s there are stories about people burning books and things like that. But systematically destroyed in any real way, it’s hard to sort of say. Far more likely is that she just–sapphic poetry sort of fell out of favor in the world that existed. I mean, after the Augustan period, you don’t really see a whole lot of poetry circulating, except sort of like plaything poetry or, you know, trying to extol the divine in some way. So there’s not a whole lot of poetry that’s very popular. It’s much more in favor of oratory, but philosophy, histories, things like that. Biographies become very important. So people begin to sort of focus on Sappho as a person rather than as a poet. And as a result, her poetry just doesn’t get copied, you know. It’s not high on the priority list. And so it just doesn’t get copied. In addition to that, there’s things like the Aeolic dialect that she writes in would have been very unfamiliar to this sort of Greek world that–the Roman Greek world that primarily relies on Attic Greek, and anybody who’s actually sort of learned Attic Greek and then tried to read Sappho will know what I’m talking about. Because it’s, you know, it’s a completely different dialect. It’s like trying to understand somebody from Texas when you’re from Britain, it’s like really difficult. So this is the idea is that it is sort of a difficult text to get into. And then in addition to that, the world of the medieval world, and the world of this period from late Rome, late antiquity, into the early medieval period is one that’s almost entirely dominated by a male perspective. And for better or worse, Sappho is not really concerned about the male perspective. Like she’s not–that’s not what she’s writing for. And so as a result, people just aren’t that interested.
LC: Dun-na-na-na…the patriarchy! Sorry, I had to do it.
EB: We had to do it.
LC: So when did people start getting interested in Sappho again?
EB: During the Renaissance, in the 14th century, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, as we know him in English, got super interested in her work, and so did early humanists like him.
IO: It’s not until quite a bit later, where Petrarch and then all of his cronies, being like, “Oh, humanism. Let’s go! Let’s revive all these things!” That they started sort of saying, “Okay, she’s really good. We need to recognize that and share that.” But unfortunately, by that point, the textual tradition is so sort of fallen apart. So what they have instead is things like–we’ve talked a lot about papyri, but they don’t really have papyri. That’s something that happens later on. What they have instead is things like anthologies, people who sort of wrote down lots of poems so that they can share it with their kid, or they could share it with their students, something along those lines. People who collected poems to sort of show off how smart they are. And then also people who collected snippets of poetry, and a lot of Sappho comes from this actually, because she says something weird. She uses a weird word that nobody understands, and so they cite it. And that’s all you get, is this one little word. But it comes from a much larger text that is usually very boring. That’s basically what they have to go on, and that’s what Petrarch and his folks are using. But, their project–and this is really fascinating–their project is to rehabilitate women, because they believe that it is appropriate to get women back in the mix. That’s part of humanism, right? They believe–and some of them even argue–Boccaccio, I think–argues that women are the fairer sex, the better sex, and Sappho is their proof. Right? “Look, Sappho is the greatest poet of all time. She has to be good.” So what’s interesting, though, is that by the time that Sappho enters the medieval period, and by the time that Sappho sort of enters the sort of Petrarch world, Christianity has said, “Homoeroticism: not okay.” So in order to have Sappho accepted–essentially a feminist point, like to sort of make this point that women are potentially the greatest composers of all time, like they are so worthwhile, and we are doing ourselves a disservice to not pay attention to them. In order to do that, you have to sanitize the homoeroticism point.
EB: I guess plus one, to these men for, uh, not hating women, but–
LC: Very low bar.
EB: –But also, why you got to get rid of the gay?
LC: We covered a lot of that in our last episode. So let’s just skip ahead to the 19th and 20th centuries, and talk about how Sappho’s influence shows up in the work of modern and contemporary authors.
EB: We talked to Dr. Tracey Walters, an associate professor of literature and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, about how Sappho plays out in the work of several 19th and 20th century black women authors. The first person she talked about was Anna Julia Cooper, an American author, educator, speaker, sociologist, and black liberation activist born into slavery in 1858. Cooper eventually became the fourth African American woman to earn a PhD, and is often called the mother of black feminism due to her important book, “A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South.” She mentions Sappho a few times in this book, and Tracey explained to us why.
Tracey Walters: You have to think about the time, right? Put this in context, a woman like Anna Julia Cooper who wrote “A Voice from the South,” I believe in 1892. So she’s classically trained, and like many writers of the day, like many of the presidents of this nation, she references the Classics as a way to bring them into a contemporary time, to think about the greatness of these classical figures. And so she relates this woman to herself. Julia Cooper is a woman of African descent, but she sees Sappho as an intellectual, a woman who rose to prominence at a time when there were so few women–that time within the classical–who were named, and named in perpetuity. And so she aligned herself with Sappho, right? She’s appealing in this article, she’s appealing to her male peers to acknowledge the intellectual contribution of women. Cooper doesn’t often come from a position of grace. She kind of puts gender before race, strategically. So she’s speaking on behalf of all women in this particular case, and underscoring the contributions that women have to make in the intellectual landscape in the same way that Sappho did. And she’s saying, “Listen, we have examples of people who came way before us. And we look to Sappho by saying Sappho as opposed to some other random writer holds weight,” right? Because she is reaching back to–she’s saying, “Listen, there’s a tradition and this didn’t happen yesterday. This happened many, many, many years ago. They’re our foremothers, stand in the shadow of our foremothers.” And some of them happened to be part of the Greco-Roman tradition.
LC: Tracey also told us about how Pauline Hopkins, an African American novelist, playwright, historian, and editor, used the mythology around Sappho in her novel, “Contending Forces,” which explored the lives of African American families in post-Civil War society.
TW: Pauline Hopkins writes “Contending Forces” in 1910. And you could think about “Contending Forces” as a complementary narrative to Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” which was an emancipatory narrative written under the pseudonym Linda Brent. And I say that because in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” the whole point of the narrative is to bring awareness to the plight of women of African descent who were preyed upon by their white slave owners. And as a result, their sexuality was–it was violent, they were sexually assaulted. And as a result of that, black women were unable to adhere to Barbara Welter’s Cult of True Womanhood. And Claudia Tate expounds upon that for black women, by saying that black women were, in effect–well, because they were enslaved, and because they were forced to engage in sexual relationships with other slaves in order to produce offspring to labor for the slavemaster’s profits, and because they were routinely sexually assaulted by the slavemaster, they could not adhere to the standards of womanhood as white women. And so, in Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” she uses her emancipatory narrative to solicit the sympathy, empathy of white Northerners who are sympathetic sympathizers, who would use her treatise, if you will, as a way to, you know, further promote the abolitionist movement. Pauline Hopkins’s “Contending Forces” does the same thing. Her protagonist, Sappho Clark, also known as Mabelle Beaubean, is a young woman who was sexually assaulted. And she feels guilt and shame for what has happened to her, so she creates this whole new persona, as Sappho Clark. What’s ironic is, as I just said, because black women couldn’t adhere to the Cult of True Womanhood, they tried to find ways to articulate that, through the literature, and through their participation in the temperance movement. And these women really worked hard to establish their moral virtue. And so, for a long time, black women in society, in terms of how they presented themselves in society, as well as in the literature, they repress their sexuality, they became somewhat asexual. With “Contending Forces,” I was thinking about this today–Pauline Hopkins is being somewhat ironic, because she creates a character who is, on appearance–and much like Sappho’s having these dual personalities, right? Sappho of Lesbos, and there’s a kind of intense focus on sexuality and for good reasons, right? Which is liberating and what was considered salacious as you go through the different time periods, right, depending on who ruled. And liberating for others. And Sappho the intellectual, and Sappho the mentor and teacher, right. So she has all of these personalities and definitions and labels. And so, given that at this particular time, the turn of the century when black women are holding steadfast to this notion that they are moral and they are not sexually deviant in the way that society has portrayed them, you have a novel where somebody, Pauline Hopkins, chooses Sappho as the main of her heroine, for her character. So in one sense, she’s been ironic, right? Because this is a character. She’s a black woman at this particular time, a moment in history, who can’t express her sexuality, is not supposed to express her sexuality, given what’s happened to her. She’s doing everything that she can to hide this mask, this dark past. But then there are, you know, there are like three instances in the book, there are three parallels. So the first is, as I said, multiple personalities. She’s Sappho Clark, that’s an alias, right? Because it’s really Mabelle Beaubean. And she’s also a mentor of sorts. So she has this close relationship, which has been read by some scholars as more than a platonic relationship, but there’s some homoerotic language and there’s some tension between the characters, which points us to Sappho and her own dalliances with women. And then there’s also the mentoring, the kind of tutelage, that aspect of it as well, with this friend Dora that–it’s a fast friendship, there’s kind of a mentoring part to it. And then, kind of the expression of sexual desire, feminine desire. Again, here’s a black woman who’s pulled–you know, you don’t talk about sexuality. We talk about the church, and we talk about–you know, we don’t talk about the body, because talk about the body draws attention to our sexuality, and god knows we don’t want to do that, right?
EB: I love that Tracey talks about Sappho as this liberating character, right? Just to have the name of Sappho as this character is liberating and freeing for this person in the book. And I think, as we’ve talked about Sappho for however long we’ve been talking about her, we also can understand how liberating an association with a woman like Sappho can be.
LC: Yeah, it’s amazing.
EB: Tracey also told us more about how Hopkins used Sappho to get through to her audience.
TW: Hopkins’s readership would have understood what she was doing. Because if I’m a person who was reading Pauline Hopkins’s “Contending Forces” I will probably not–I don’t know this for sure, but probably wasn’t a working class person. It’s probably somebody who’s well read. You know, reading a novel is luxury. And so it would have been someone who was well read and somebody who understood the reference. And so they would have been thinking themselves, “Why would she pick this character? Why would she name a character Sappho? Of all the historical figures, why Sappho?” And so I would imagine that they were working this out in their own mind as well. And so, Hopkins is being crafty here. I think it’s something that people often miss when they read the book, because they’re focused primarily on this history of women who carry the shame and women who try to hide behind these other personas to kind of move on with their lives. But we see in the novel that Sappho Clark is always pulled back to her past. It’s interesting, too, thinking about the past, right? Sappho in the present as this character and what she represents and how she is perceived as this woman upstanding, again, the name. Now, it wasn’t uncommon for the descendants of slaves to inherit the names of Greek and Roman figures, even in Caribbean culture. Born and raised in the UK, but my parents are of Jamaican ancestry. My father and a lot of his siblings, their names are Roman. My father’s middle name is Augustus. Yeah, within the Caribbean, they have all these Roman names. Anyway, the naming–maybe it wasn’t called into question because it was common to have Roman names, or maybe Pauline Hopkins wants the audience to figure it out. Sappho, of all the names she could have chosen and because of what she represented, and because it’s such a–it’s so antithetical to what a black woman was supposed to be, right? And it’s all so antithetical to the character and how she presents herself. If Sappho Clark was really Mabelle Beaubean, meaning, if Sappho Clark could live in her truth, a woman who experience sexual assault, and a woman who had her own sexual desire, she could claim that, would be one thing. But that’s not how it presents in the novel, right? It’s kind of counter to that. So I think she’s being ironic.
LC: Tracey also had some really interesting things to say about Sappho, gender, and sexuality as it relates to the writing of women of color.
TW: Because the Classics, in some way, for black writers–the Classics are similar to science fiction. It’s a space of–not a space of equality, but it’s a space where people of African descent are not automatically inferior to anyone else, right? Because there were slaves of all backgrounds. But women–the question of gender remains the same. The question of gender remains the same in the Classics, right? And so in “Contending Forces,” Sappho Clark, when she finds real love, she’s not able to act on it freely, at first. I think the character’s name as well. She’s not able to act on it at first. But then she’s able to write these letters where she’s able to express how she feels. And you think that’s going back to Sappho again, right? That’s what the Classics give these writers. Not only are they able to connect, or racialize and gender, the Classics, but to connect to–they’re able to connect their lived experiences of women–and in this case, women of color–to those figures from antiquit. And sexuality is something that a lot of women of African descent are drawn to in particular, motherhood and sexuality in particular. Sappho, again, I’m going to maybe stretch it a little bit, but Sappho was a maternal figure, in a way, for some of these young mentees that she had. I mean, there was a maternal–she’s not often written about in that way as a maternal–or maybe she is these days. But as a maternal figure, I think that her tutelage of these–in her coterie of young people, I think there was a maternal relationship there too, and so–which links to sexuality in the body. I think that’s what the Classics give African American women in particular here, or black women. I think that’s what they give black women, the space and opportunities to write within a tradition where women can talk about their sexuality in ways that are, for their time, back then, unexpected. And that’s liberating for them.
LC: We love Sappho as an excuse to talk about sexuality.
EB: And an excuse to talk about science fiction. I mean, Leesa, you have a “Battlestar Galactica” podcast, but you know that the first interracial kiss on television was on “Star Trek.”
LC: Yeah, yeah. Super great, sci-fi leading the way.
LC: It always baffles me, so–but “Battlestar Galactica” was originally like a 1970s series, and then they remade in the early 2000s. And they recast a couple of the male characters as women, and there was quite a lot of outrage about it. I mean, I will say for “Battlestar Galactica,” the reimagined series, it is like quite, you know, good about gender. It’s not really super discussed. The same sort of like women and men sharing showers thing, like everybody’s called “sir” sort of stuff you get in a lot of sci-fi shows. But it always is wild when you’re on the forums and people are like, “A woman couldn’t do that.” I’m like, they are in space.
EB: They’re literally in space, you can do whatever you want, and that is very freeing.
LC: It’s the same thing with all the “Star Wars” hoo-ha, like, “Oh, you’ve got a woman,” and I’m like, “There’s aliens! They’re in a galaxy far, far away, and your biggest thing that you can’t understand is, like, that there’s a woman who’s powerful? Like, come on, guy. Come on.”
EB: Agreed. And here’s Tracey talking again about one more example of Sappho in modern African American literature.
TW: I mean, “The Color Purple,” so much emphasis is on Celie, as it should be, right? Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” But here you have–I mean Sappho of Lesbos was a woman before her time, a much admired woman, a controversial woman, you know, a woman that we come back to time and time again, more so than–I mean, I guess, you know, Venus, you know, the Amazons. I’m just trying to think of, you know, women and associating strength. Shug Avery likes Sappho. She has–so this is more towards–so obviously in the beginning of the first quarter of the book, when we’re first introduced to Shug Avery, she is this woman before our time, this avant garde woman, this charismatic performer, who holds court, much like Sappho does. And instead of an island, we have this small, you know, Mister’s property and the Juke Joint, right, within this small community, much like the Island of Lesbos. She holds court, and her admirers are both male and female. Now we know that the relationship that Celie has with Shug Avery is cultivated, right, because Shug Avery, much like Sappho, is teaching Celie to come into her womanhood, to validate herself, to claim her voice, to be present, to know that she matters, that she’s somebody, that kind of tutelage, right? That’s the sapphic, those are the sapphic references, to me. And then the obvious homoerotic relationship between the two that develops over time. And then that lasting friendship even after, you know, that relationship doesn’t, you know, doesn’t go any further. And they remain women in love, and that definition of love is platonic and homoerotic and beautiful and in the spirit of Sappho, to me. Toni Morrison wrote her dissertation, her master’s thesis on the classic. Alice Walker is within the same class, in terms of academically, right, when they both finished school, within, you know, maybe four or five years. So it comes down to training. She would have read the Classics, she knew who Sappho was. So whether it’s–I should say, consciously or unconsciously, we write about a character who’s homoerotic and a woman, it’s Sappho, I mean, no matter how you slice it. I mean, it’s Sappho.
LC: Ellie, I know you want to say it.
EB: We are all Sappho!
LC: We are.
EB: We are!
LC: It should be the tagline of this podcast.
EB: “Sweetbitter: we are all Sappho.” I do really love this comparison. Because, I mean, as we’re talking about it in this episode, this is all about Sappho’s influence today. And Tracey gave us so many great examples, but I feel like the fact that she said, “Any character who is homoerotically interested in women is Sappho.” That just completely expands your opportunities to say, “Okay, Sappho is every lesbian or queer or bisexual character on television.” I’m so here for that.
LC: I love it. I love it so much. What amazing insights. It’s been such a joy talking to Tracey and Ian and Diane, of course.
EB: Yes. And this is–I mean, this is why we started this podcast, I think, to begin with, too. Because Sappho isn’t just Sappho this old, ancient person. Sappho matters today. And so, I’m really excited that we got to get to this episode where we talk about why she matters today.
LC: I mean, what’s really interesting is that we’ve been so fortunate, for Women’s History Month, to be featured on Apple podcasts and on Pocket Casts and Stitcher. But Stitcher, they featured us as women in pop culture, which I thought was really cool. I’m like, “Yeah, Sappho’s pop culture. She’s like, pop culture circa, you know, fifth century BCE.”
LC: “But like, sure, cool, okay, we’ll take it.” So, you know, just keeping it relevant.
EB: Agreed. Sappho is a pop culture goddess.
EB: The Tenth Muse. While you’re waiting for our next episode, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths: So out of the blue, I got a request to write a one-woman show about Sappho for a quite well known TV actor. And I haven’t written anything before, so I demured and said, “No, this isn’t for me.” But the producer was incredibly persistent. And I’m extremely grateful, retrospectively, for her persistence. So, in four weeks, I had to write a one-woman show.
Jade Esteban Estrada: I always felt immense calm when I became Sappho. If I were to plop dead right now, I am so grateful for the privilege of being able to surrender my voice and my body and my creativity, so that she can come and live in me for a little while.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be back to our regular schedule, and released on the 8th of April. As always, stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for Fragment 4. This week, our resident poet, Alyse, has blessed us with a 90s power ballad.
EB: I’m so excited for it. Thank you, Alyse.
LC: I get this in my head all the time.
EB: As always, if you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. We’ve been getting a lot of really nice reviews lately, so thank you all for that. If you can support us on Patreon, we’re trying to gain enough Patreon supporters to release our season one songs as an album, which many of you have been asking for, so we want to get to 100 patrons for us to do that.
LC: Yes, we need money to work, money for our labor. Crazy concept, crazy concept. Thank you so much for our new patrons this week: Susan, Amanda, and Sarah. We’re very grateful for your support. As always, you can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Music by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. Special thanks to Diane Rayor, Ian Oliver, and Tracey Walters for sharing their knowledge with us today.
LC: You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website in the “About” section.
EB: And now, Fragment 4.