Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sappho, Prudery & Sexism

History hasn't given us very many female voices to speak for themselves. Usually we have to hear about women from a male contemporary. We ought to pay special attention to the exceptions, therefore. Few voices are more exceptional than Sappho.

Sappho was a poet of the lyric age from the Isle of Lesbos. We know almost nothing about her biographically. There were no contemporaries who wrote about her. Most biographical information derived from later sources is very suspect as it relies mostly on the comedies who freely made up legends about her for entertainment. It would be like learning Scottish history from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Here's what we do know. She was a great poet. She composed hundreds and hundreds of poems, inventing her own style, and musical forms - even instruments to match her compositions. Later grammarians sorted her work into 9 volumes, each a different form of poetry. She was praised and revered by countless male poets who are better preserved. Plato called her the 10th muse. She was that good.

She was also a homosexual - or so it appears from her poems, many of which are very personal love poems written to women. From her name we get the adjective "sapphic" and from her example we have come to use the word "lesbian," meaning a person from the Isle of Lesbos, to mean a female homosexual. No one really knows the truth about her sexual activities, but it doesn't matter - her reputation is established.

And it is this reputation which led to her being trashed (or in later centuries - whitewashed) by prudish Christians. As early as 180 AD it was said of her that, "Sappho was a whorish woman, love-crazy, who sang about her own licentiousness." In 380 AD her writings were ordered burned in Constantinople, and at various times through history after that. From Savonarola to Pope Gregory VII Christians never got tired of pointing out how lewd her poetry was and tossing it into fires. Worse than the book-burnings though, was the slander which led to her being so unpopular that her works were passed over by monks transcribing ancient manuscripts until most of the copies of her poems simply disintegrated.

Because of this, of all of her work only fragments remain - about 70 lines of verse and only one complete poem. Most of this is reconstructed from where she is quoted by other writers. We have all but lost her voice.

Here is a really ugly truth about Christianity - for most of our history we have been deeply misogynist. The censoring of Sappho is a perfect example of how sex has been a tool used for the benefit of men and the subjugation of women. The problem with homosexuality is that it undermines the narrative men of authority have written which is that women are designed for submission and men for domination. When a man has sex with a man, or a woman with a woman, this power structure is destabilized. Sexual prudery serves these interests by reinforcing the status quo in which only heterosexual men have genuine sexual agency.

Sappho is disturbing because she has such potent sexual agency:
O Gongyla, my darling rose,
put on your milk-white gown. I want
you to come back quickly. For my
desire feeds on

your beauty. Each time I see your gown
I am made weak and happy. I too
blamed the Kyprian. Now I pray
she will not seek

revenge, but may she soon allow
you, Gongyla, to come to me
again: you whom of all women
I most desire.
So self assured is she, that she warmly celebrates the sexuality of others:
Bride, warm with rose-
colored love, brightest
ornament of the Paphian,
come to the bedroom now,
enter the bed and play
tenderly with your man.
May the Evening Star
lead you eagerly
to that instant when you
will gaze in wonder
before the silver throne
of Hera, queen of marriage.
It is my intuition that what the Church needs, in order to escape our morass of patriarchalism, is a hefty infusion of sapphic love - a love which breaks apart this infernal game of dominance and submission that we've been playing, and demonstrates confident sexual agency. Love which isn't either prudish or pornographic, but celebratory and frank.


Doug Hagler said...

Oh man, now you're going to get it.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

Hurrah for Sappho!

Iffa said...

Sex has been used as a tool for the dominance of men and subjugation of women in all religions. For example, in Islam, a man can have up to 4 wives at the same time, and theoretically speaking, he doesn't need the other wives' permission to marry another one. Women on the other hand, are supposed to guard their modesty, stay true to their one man and keep him satisfied. Imagine what wife number 1 feels when he brings in wife number 2! Although it is a rare practice now, many Arab muslims still have 2 - 3 wives each!