History of Sappho

What We Know

Throughout history, some of the most controversial people have been artists. Be it a painter like Gustave Courbet with his Origin of the World in 1866, an author like Oscar Wilde with his The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, or a poet like Geoffrey Chaucer with his The Canterbury Tales in 1387, they are always pushing the envelope of what is acceptable in society. This piece will not focus on any of them, rather we will discuss another provocative poet – Sappho.

According to eyewear publishingSappho lived in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos from about 630 B.C.E. However, we are not certain about when she died. We do know she was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 and 595 B.C.E. as it is mentioned in an ancient inscription but, again, we don’t know why. As for her influence on music in poetry is a certainty.

While Sappho is shrouded in mystery, we do know is she was a musician that created lyric poetry to be sung to a lyre (hence the poetry style name). This is based on the painted depictions of her, commonly with a musical instrument. In fact, three musical inventions are credited to her by writers. the first is the plectron, which is an instrument used for picking the lyre. The second is the pektis, a specific type of lyre. Last is mixolydian mode or an emotion style of poem. It is uncertain how many poems or songs were created, but we do know all the music is lost. As far as the poems, we are still finding it.

Sappho’s work comes to us in pieces known as “fragments.” They are quite often found on papyrus and generally in very poor condition. That is to say in most cases the works located are either ripped in half, peppered with holes, or smaller than a stamp. This makes piecing together quite a difficult task. The works we find do not even have names assigned to them, they are simply referred to as “Fragment X” where the X is the number.


The largest, and therefore most complete, fragment we have located was found in 1232 near Oxyrhynchus, Egypt and first published in 1914 is named Fragment 44. The poem describes the wedding of Hector (a Trojan Prince and the greatest fighter in the Trojan War) and Andromache (daughter of Eetion and sister to Podes). With each new piece we find, the more it reveals who Sappho was, but at the same time, it creates more mystery.

With any luck, one day we will find that one piece that will reveal to us, through her poetry, who she was and perhaps the reason for her exile. Until then, we must cherish the pieces we have found and stand in awe of the beautiful words she has put on the papyrus for us to read. We can only hope the medium we use today will be much easier to recover should there ever be a reason to dig up our poems of today. A brilliant way to do his is by having your book published.