|Small Greek Island The Origin of the Word 'Lesbian'|
Speaking of lesbians, did you know that the word lesbian comes from the name of an island in Greece, namely the island of Lesbos. Lesbos is also the island where the woman known as the poet was born, named Sappho. 650-600 BC was a politically charged time for the small island, so much so that Sappho was exiled to Italy twice in his life due to conflicts with the island's political elite. He was born into wealth and privilege, which you can feel as you read his poetry which drips with feelings of luxury, even in tragedy.
Sappho dedicates her life to creating and sharing poetry that is meant to be sung. A lute contains his poetic reading, which his girlfriend Gongyla may have played. The themes of the poems are often full of passion, love, and longing for other women. The worship of his favorite goddess, Aphrodite, also makes many appearances in his poetry. Fellow Greek academics such as Solon and Plato admired Sappho's poetry. Plato often referred to Sappho as the "tenth Muse" after the nine eternal inspirations in Greek Mythology. Forced narratives about heterosexuality have plagued Sappho's existence. As the cause of death is unknown, other poets claim that Sappho jumped off a rocky cliff, committing suicide after her feelings for a boatman were not reciprocated.
The legend most likely resulted in part from a desire to assert Sappho as heterosexual, a narrative that is much more comfortable for traditional poets to tell. This theory has also been widely rejected by historians today and as far back as Greek writers in 64 BC. Menander (the man who started the suicide rumors) most likely mocks romantic love by having a woman known for her lesbian love poetry kill herself because of a man. Interestingly, Artemisia I of Caria (c. 480 BC), another famous woman, is also said to have committed suicide by throwing herself into the sea from the same place.
The story of Artemisia's suicide has also been discredited.
In the end, Sappho lives today in legend and language.
The terms sapphic (related to lesbian, lesbianism) and lesbian come from the Lesbian poet himself and the island he was born on. His poems had such a great influence on today's poets, that the term 'sapphire stanza' was coined to describe a verse form of poetry that spans four lines. His work teaches us about vulnerability, longing, and love. Since then, the island of Lesbos has become a kind of place of pilgrimage for women who adhere to same-sex attraction, or lesbians. In fact, every year there is an international women's festival held in honor of Sappho.