We call ourselves lesbians because of Sappho: the lyric poet, born on Lesbos, who loved women: whose fame was so great during her own lifetime and for centuries afterward that she was known as the Tenth Muse.
She perfected a form used for lyric verse that is still called sapphic meter. She was born sometime between 630 and 612 BCE: she may have died around 570 BCE.
But very little of her poetry remains to us, because she wrote so explicitly about sexual longing and love - the first Greek poet to do so - that most of it was destroyed in the Christian era.
And if she flees, soon will she follow,
And if she does not take gifts, she will give,
If she does not love, she will love
In the production Sappho... in 9 Fragments, Victoria Grove played both Sappho, exiled in a cave, mourning her lost story, and Atthis, a present-day actress who falls in love with another woman. Victoria has a lovely voice and her movements in the box of metal bars and ropes are elegant: and the language of the play is lovely. But I found it far from clear except from the context of the words when Grove was being Sappho and when she was being Atthis.
And yet - I went to see it because Sappho is one of the most important and most obscure figures in our lesbian history. The play has a strong fascination.
The piece attempts to break down the myths and legends which have surrounded the poet’s life for the last 2,000 years. It weaves together Sappho’s fragmented tale with a modern and also quite fragmented love story. Sappho (Victoria Grove) recounts all the highs and lows of her existence both while she was on earth and after her death. At the same time a heartbroken young actress Atthis tries to come to terms with discovering her sexuality and her infatuation with a successful older woman. Grove gives an utterly riveting performance in all of the roles.
Anakreon, a lyric poet born a few years after Sappho's probable death date, wrote what may be the earliest known complaint of man against lesbian:
Once again golden-haired Love strikes me with his purple ball and summons me to play with the girl in the fancy sandals; but she - she comes from Lesbos with its proud cities - finds fault with my hair because it is white, and gapes after another girl.
Although her sexual attraction towards women has been argued away by classical scholars in recent times, her contemporaries and other writers for centuries afterward who had access to all of her works, not the tiny fragments that have come down to us, knew Sappho was a lesbian.
But in silence my tongue is broken, a fine fire at once runs under my skin, with my eyes I see not one thing, my ears buzz,
Cold sweat covers me, trembling seizes my whole body, I am more moist than grass;
I seem to be little short of dying...
Sappho ...in 9 fragments by Jane Montgomery Griffiths.
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