You may not have heard of Sappho. You may not even have heard of the term “sapphic love”, a word/term whose origins go back to Sappho. But you certainly have heard of it’s synonym: lesbian. Sappho was a Greek poet, born on the Isle of Lesbos, from which the word Lesbian is derived. She was known as one of the great lyric poets of all time, making her mark on history through her art, unlike so many of the women on this list who did so through violence. Sappho stood out both on this list and in the world for her creativity, intelligence, and belief in love in an ancient world where death ran so rampant, where often times strength and savagery were required merely to survive the day. While some women on this list made their mark by at violence, Sappho made her mark by being great without violence. We don’t know a lot about her, but here’s some of what we do know, and some of what we believe.
Sappho was born on the Isle of Lesbos sometime around 615 BC. Some historians believe as early as 630, others as late as 610 BC. She grew up and spent the majority of her life in her hometown of Mytilene, with the only known break a period of banishment to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594 BC. During this exile, she must have made quite an impression as Cicero recorded that a statue of her stood in Syracuse. Eventually she returned to Mytilene where she lived out the rest of her days until she died around 570 BC. Some historians believe she was married to a rich man named Cercylas, with whom she had a daughter named Cleis (named after Sappho’s mother). Others point to evidence that she wasn’t wed to Cercylas, and still others believe that she died throwing herself off a cliff, heart-broken by a young lover, while still other stories have her living out her days as a carefree lover of people, until she died at an old age.
The truth is, not a lot is known about Sappho for certain. There is no biographical tale of her life, and so the majority we know about her is from her poetry, which is mostly famous for it’s references to homosexual love, due to the stigma attached to it in this day and age. When it comes to poetry however, she was more than the romance novel equivalent of her day, she was a gifted lyric poet. This meant that she wrote words intended to be sung by one person while another plays the lyre. Her poetry was about love, bright things, flowers, dancing, the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, and happiness in general. Unfortunately the bulk of even that was lost throughout the ages, with only a few pieces surviving the test of time. Beyond her penned words, Sappho left imprinted on the writing community her style of writing, dubbed the “sapphic stanza”, a form of Aeolic verse the manner in which Sappho wrote a significant portion of her work. Whether it is a style of writing, a common term, or even a major motion picture, Sappho certainly left her mark on the world, even more than 2,500 years after her death, one truly deserving of a place on this list.