Discover the Tenth Muse

Celebrating Women’s History month, we’re exploring female writers, authors, poets. We’ll start with one of the earliest known female poet and songwriter. A woman whose work was widely quoted and revered by her male successors. It is said that Plato called Sappho the tenth muse.

A bust of Sappho with her hair in tight curls around her face and two long loose curls draped over each shoulder.

We know little about her, but there are many legends and stories that claim to know details. Scholars disagree and sometimes facts put those stories in dispute.

Her Life

Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos in 620 BCE, to a wealthy, aristocratic family. Since Lesbos’s primary export was wine, it’s likely her family were vintners.

Women in Ancient Greece were bound by the customs and traditions of their city-states. So although some scholars believe she was a woman of leisure, her wealth did not protect her from the expectations of her family and society. We know through her poetry that she learned to play the lyre, and that she composed lyrics for single voices. Surviving fragments of her poetry refer to two brothers. She may have had a third brother.

She lived most of her life in her hometown of Mytilene on Lesbos.  

The Legend

Some scholars believe she married a wealthy man, Cercylas, a wealthy man from the island of Andros. Her poetry also mentioned a daughter. 

She may have run a school for unmarried women. Or she could be confused with another ancient Greek woman who ran such a school.

Several different tyrants ran Athens during Sappho’s lifetime. It is possible she lived in exile in Athens for a time. Exactly why and when is unclear. Speculation is that she may have gotten too political in her writing.

There is a legend that she leaped from the Leucadian rock to certain death in the sea because of her unrequited love of Phaon, a younger man and a sailor. Most critics today believe that story is simply a legend. Scholars believe she died in the year 579 b.c.e.

Photograph of the profile of "the Oxford Bust" of Sappho, the tenth muse. It has the head and torso coming from different statues, probably put together by a sculptor in the 1600s.
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Her Work

We don’t know who published her work. Nor do we know how long they published her work. We don’t know whether she refined an existent meter of poetry or she created her own. Today we call it a “Sapphic” stanza.

Her poems depart from the tradition of her time. They do not address the gods. Rather, her verses are personal, spoken from one person to another. They simple, direct, and convey the bittersweet difficulties of love. Read a sample.

Some say that Plato (born in 428 b.c.e.) called her the “Tenth muse,” though other scholars claim it is unlikely it was Plato. We know they admired her for centuries because coins and statutes and busts with her likeness and name survived to this day.  

Her Legacy

Based on ancient writings, scholars believe someone collected her work into nine volumes in the third century B.C. Scholars discovered her through quotations by other ancient authors. In 1898, scholars unearthed fragments of papyri with her poems on them. Archeologists discovered more scraps of her poetry in Egypt in 1914. 

The New Comedy was a style of Greek drama introduced in the middle of the third century BC. Where old comedy parodied public figures and included supernatural or heroic bits, New Comedy were not realistic plays but conveyed “the disillusioned spirit and moral ambiguity of the bourgeois class of this period.” The writers of the New Comedy portrayed Sappho as “overly promiscuous and lesbian.” They convinced Pope Gregory who burned all her works in 1073. (The term “lesbian” is derived from the island of her birth).

We’ve discovered only one intact poem traced to her. The French translation is below.

Photograph of the French translation of "an ode of Sapho." The only surviving poem attributed to the tenth muse.

The Tenth Muse

Not only is Sappho one of the earliest female writers known to us, her life is an example of how we can misjudge the bits and pieces of a life that survives the person.

If the scholars can’t agree, how can we think we got it right?

As my women in history posts often reflect, women’s contributions to history are often ignored or misconstrued. Would they have judged her work differently if she were male? If the New Comedy writers hadn’t satirized her, would we enjoy her lyrics today?

Her writing could reflect who she was or who she knew or what she saw in society. Scholars will jump to conclusions, but we will never know the truth about the tenth muse.

Image Credits

First Image is by G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Second Image is by Harrsch, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Last image is by Anonymous, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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