By Debbie J Challis, on 31 January 2012
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology has celebrated LGBT History Month every year since 2008. It is a mark of interest in ideas about sexuality and Queer Studies around antiquity that our two events on Sappho and Antinous this year are fully booked (though there may be returns on the night – take your chances). UCL Equalities also runs a fantastic programme for Diversity Month at UCL and there is loads going on in Camden and Islington.
A few years ago I gave a talk on the reception of the ancient poet Sappho’s poems and this year Sophia Blackwell is doing her stand up performance Sappho in Sainsburys. It’s not as good as seeing Sophia perform live but Megan Price made a short film a few years ago – part of which she has put on You Tube for us to use. Guidance: It does contain references to sexual acts.
One of the rare facts about Sappho that we know with any certainty is that she was a poet. By the time of the Hellenistic period (c. second century BCE), the Alexandrian scholars had collected her remaining poems by metre in nine books and of these books we have 1 extant poem, several longer poems and about 200 fragments. We know that she composed and sang in the sixth century BCE and was probably born at Eresos on Lesbos in c.620 BCE. She was part of an aristocratic family and went into exile to Sicily for political reasons around 600 BCE. She had a daughter and was married, but to whom it is not certain. She had three brothers, one of whom traded in Naucratis in Egypt and, when not in exile, she lived most of her life at Mitylene, the main town of Lesbos. Lesbos was an important island for trade and agriculture throughout antiquity but there is very little evidence for life on the island in the 6th century, or ‘Archaic’ period, of Greece. She signed herself as Psappho.
This is what we know of her life – derived in part from her poems and in part from what biographers have written. We also know that she was lyric poet, that is she sang her poems to a lyre and composed choral odes. Her poetry is rich and full, as Virginia Woolf puts it in ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, of ‘constellations of adjectives’. It is also about love – mainly love for women – and invokes the fatal power of passion. Love in the Greek world was not a benign cuddly myth but a powerful force that wounded. She also wrote wedding songs and some poetry about her family. However, it was her expressive desire towards women that contributed to her ambiguous reputation, even in the ancient world, and various legends surrounding her were formed.
 Information from David A. Campbell (ed. and trans.) Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus (Harvard University Press: London, 1990), pp. x – xiii.
 Virginia Woolf, ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, Andrew McNeillie (ed.) The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Volume 4: 1925 – 1928 (London: Hogarth Press, 1994), pp. 38 – 53, p. 50. Originally published 1925.