From edition

Jena Woodhouse, ‘The Sapphic Mystique,’ A Review of Marguerite Johnson, Sappho.

Marguerite Johnson, Sappho. (Bristol Classical Press, 2007).

Who exactly was Sappho?

While sufficient data has yet to surface to provide a definitive answer to this question, Sappho, a lyric poet of Mytilene (Lesvos, which in Greek is spelt with ‘v’ not ‘b’) in the sixth century BCE, continues to exert an almost unprecedented fascination on the scholarly and popular imagination, in cultures far removed in place, time and language from the context in which she lived and practised her art. The enduring quality of Sappho’s personal mystique is unique among poets, inspiring the appellation ‘Tenth Muse’, attributed to Plato (13); and indeed very few women of antiquity can aspire to comparable renown in any context, one exception being Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemies to occupy the throne of Egypt, the subject of the only other title in the series to which this book belongs (Ancients in Action) yet devoted to a woman.     

The use of the singular in relation to Sappho’s perceived identity is, as Marguerite Johnson’s study suggests, somewhat at variance with the diversity in perception and reception of Sappho’s persona and oeuvre in the course of more than two and a half millennia. The chapter, ‘Sappho’s Lives’, offers a concise and incisive summary of notable versions of who and what Sappho was. On this point, Johnson cites Holt Parker:

 Every age creates its own Sappho. At the moment our own dominant image of Sappho is a private, and often explicitly Romantic/ romantic one. Sappho is a locus where, oddly enough, the prejudices of the past and the projection of the present become bedfellows. (Parker, cited in Johnson, 37)

Commenting on Parker’s point, Johnson concedes that ‘Obsession with biographical manufacture has indeed meant that there has been little attention paid to what was happening in the public world of sixth-century Lesbos.’ (38) Taking her cue from Parker and others, Johnson proceeds to examine what contemporary sources suggest that world entailed. Subsequent discussion of the extant poems and fragments under the rubrics ‘Songs for the Gods’; ‘Mythical Lyrics’; ‘Love of Women’, and ‘Marriage Hymns’ keep such parameters and particulars as are known of Sappho’s milieu firmly in view.

It is clear that early and near-contemporary references to Sappho’s work derived from a more extensive corpus of work (‘Nine Books’) than the poems and fragments available to present-day scholars, but another of the numerous gaps in our knowledge of this indisputably brilliant and charismatic poet pertains to how, why, and when the missing works were lost to posterity. Thus far, it has not been possible to establish the extent to which the fragmentary nature of her literary estate is the result of neglect, attrition, or (an) attempt(s) at wanton, wholesale destruction (29-30).

Sapphic studies were given a boost by the discovery, in 2005, of three previously unknown quotations from Sappho’s poems, in a document that had been used as part of a mummy cartonnage. One of the quotations was subsequently combined with a fragment found in 1922, resulting in the reconstruction of a complete poem (Poem 58), whose theme may be summarised by the line: ‘There is no way, being human, not to grow old’ (9-10). It is this poem that features in the introduction and conclusion of Johnson’s study, reminiscent of a garland encircling the work, but the four chapters devoted to a close, contextualised reading of poems and fragments by genre and mode elicits other characteristic themes, including eros, pothos, and himeros (erotic attraction, desire, yearning); feminine beauty and grace (charis), frequently associated with the beauties of nature; abandonment by the beloved; jealousy inspired by unreciprocated desire; friendship; relations between the gods and mortals; war (as metaphor); mythical themes; children; celebration and ritual, music and song. Scant as the surviving samples are, their richness is apparent not only thematically, but also in terms of generic elements and modes, which include incantations to the deities; supplications; hints of magic and the invoking of spells; epithalamia (marriage hymns); what have been described as cult songs; choral works and monodies. Even based on the scant evidence remaining, this list is not exhaustive. (See, e.g. Johnson, 143)

Apart from the consummate skill and beauty of Sappho’s craftswomanship, as extolled by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century BCE, whose inclusion of Sappho’s ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ in his commentary resulted in that poem’s preservation; and notwithstanding the many controversies generated around the poet’s persona and work by less appreciative critics, one of the highlights of Johnson’s exegesis of specific works is the way she demonstrates Sappho’s reworking and inversion of certain Homeric themes and motifs, as in the celebrated lyric known as fragment 16, which begins:

                 Some believe a team of cavalry, others infantry,

                 and still others a fleet of ships, to be the most beautiful

                 thing on the dark earth, but I believe it is

                 whatever a person loves.

Commenting on the form and content of this 20-line fragment, Johnson observes: ‘The inversion of the audience’s expectation that Paris should be the one striving to obtain “the most beautiful thing” (Helen), as opposed to “the most beautiful thing” striving to obtain another, constitutes the chief artistic conceit of fragment 16’ (66-68).

Elsewhere, in chapters 4 and 5 respectively, the author turns her attention to ‘the Sapphic gaze’ and ‘the Sapphic voice’, and, in this context, Sappho’s celebration of love between women, which prompts a consideration of the poet’s sexuality and sexual identity in relation to the conjectural socio-sexual norms of Mytilene in the Archaic period, when only in Sparta was erotic love between women reputedly condoned. The etymology and connotations of the word ‘Lesbian’, and ‘the cultural distinctions between the ancient and modern usages of the word’, predictably form part of this discussion (77-78).

Commenting on ‘the Sapphic gaze’ in relation to Greek folk superstition (which, incidentally, survives to this day), Johnson writes of ‘the image of eros entering an individual through the eyes … as a powerful expression of the immediacy and shock of passion, while also emphasising the impact of the sight of the object of desire or, as Sappho sings, the sight of “the most beautiful/thing on the dark earth” (fr. 16.2-3)’.

Again, citing fragment 16 (ll. 17-20):

                             I would prefer to gaze upon her

                             lovely walk and the glowing sparkle of her

                             face than all the chariots of the Lydians and their


 Johnson comments that ‘the “glowing sparkle” of Anactoria’s face …combined with [the image of] Anactoria’s gait renders Sappho’s gaze as intense, observant, specifically directed to create the impression of her as an intimate observer and an observer of intimate features’ (96-7). She continues:

The Sapphic gaze, so gracefully and also, at times, so unsettlingly, described within the lyrics of love, desire, eroticism and friendship, is a significant component of her response to women. This, combined with the evocation of sensual responses, those of aroma and touch, is the means through which the poet expresses her love of women in all its intricacies and multiplicities. (100-101)       

Chapter 6, ‘Debts to Sappho’ offers tantalising glimpses of poets who have been inspired by Sappho, from Catullus (82-4, 115-17, 122-4 and elsewhere) to the contemporary Greek-American Olga Broumas who, verbally and visually as well as thematically, emulates the fragmentary form in which Sappho’s work has come down to us (141-2). The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a resurgence in devotees of Sappho, including epigones whose modus vivendi and writings aspired to (sometimes literally) enshrine or evoke the spirit of their muse. The Victorians were particularly susceptible to Sapphic fantasies, as were certain Parisiennes, among them Natalie Barney (1876-1972) who, as Margaret Reynolds records:

 In her home … set about creating an island — the women’s island — in the modern city.  It was to be a nostalgic re-creation of Sappho’s ancient home, and a celebration of the modern woman: free, independent, sensually loving, self-sufficient. Colette … was seen sliding naked through the greenery. The Temple was lit up with candles and perfumed with incense. Poetry was read, music was played.  (Cited in Johnson, 131-2)

In terms of its scope, Marguerite Johnson’s Sappho succeeds admirably in illumining its subject. However, while the author’s translations of Sappho’s poems and fragments which illustrate the text read convincingly, gracefully, and indeed compellingly, it would have further enhanced the work’s comprehensiveness and optimised its interest and authority for specialised readers to have included Sappho’s cited works in the original language. This applies particularly to the most recently-discovered fragments, which may not be as widely available as those long familiar.

That being said, Johnson is at pains throughout to identify, transliterate and elucidate pivotal lexical items that convey subtleties and complex connotations.   

My only other quibble, and it is a very peripheral one indeed, has to do with the tentative analogy drawn between Sappho and the twentieth-century torch-singers of North America and Western Europe. (146-9) I must admit to feeling slightly uneasy with this conjectural extension of the Sappho mythology. While it is true that there are thematic affinities and adulation of the performers involved in both cases, the author’s own exploration of the religious, social, and ritualistic context in which Sappho lived and practised her art does not appear to have direct points of contact with the secular genre of the torch song (Gospel roots of some Black American exponents notwithstanding).  Furthermore, while all we reliably have of Sappho’s legacy is fragmentary versions of her words, without the musical or choral accompaniments, the lyrics are of such a calibre that they can inspire readers more than two and a half millennia after they were first composed. The torch-song repertoire has yet to pass such a test.

I personally see the torch-songs and their singers as having a greater affinity with the Greek-Asia Minor genre of the early twentieth century known as rembetika. The most renowned female exponents, the rembetisses, were on a par with the torch-singers, and their songs covered much of the same ground thematically and even stylistically. While the rembetika genre originated very close to Sappho’s island, on the adjacent Anatolian mainland, there is a disjunction in style, audience and social register which differentiates these songs from Sappho’s lyrics but identifies them to some extent with torch-songs.          

In this work on Sappho, Marguerite Johnson, who is a Lecturer in Classics at the University of Newle (NSW, ), has produced a stimulating and well-rounded study of her subject, replete with aptly-chosen detail, presented in an eminently readable style that sparkles with the gems of Sappho’s oeuvre without compromising the rigour of its scholarship.

What emerges from this multi-faceted account of the poet, her life, her times, and her work, is not so much a portrait of Sappho and her milieu as a powerful, palpable, yet inevitably elusive sense of the poet, her world, and her seemingly immortal legacy.



Holt Parker, ‘Sappho’s Public World’, in Ellen Greene, Women Poets in Ancient and Rome, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005, 3.

Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion. Vintage, 2001, 291.


 Jena Woodhouse’s latest publication is Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing (Ginninderra 2006), compiled and co-edited with Christina Houen. Other publications include two poetry collections, a children’s novella, and short fiction. Her work has received awards in all three genres. She has spent ten years in , and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing. Her narrative, Farming Ghosts, will be published by Ginninderra.







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