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History Behind: "Lesbian" Origin of the Word, What does it Mean? - Etymology

More than 2,500 years ago, one of ancient Greece’s most celebrated popstars and erotic poets enraptured listeners.

In one legend, a prominent Athenian heard his nephew singing one of their songs and enjoyed it so much that he asked the boy to teach it to him.

“So that I may learn it and die,” he said. So, who was this revered figure? Her name was Sappho. She lived on the Greek island of Lesbos around 600 BCE. Like other singer-songwriters of the time, she sang while playing the lyre, a stringed instrument from which the term “lyrics” is derived. But Sappho lyrics offered a uniquely intimate perspective on love, passion, and longing.

She’s the first on record to combine the words “bitter” and “sweet,” for instance, to describe at once the thrills and devastations of romance.

Sappho was an aristocrat thought to have married a man, though none of her surviving work mentions him. It does reference other family as well as festivals, colorful clothing, and growing old.

But Sappho is best known for her lyrics about homoerotic desire for women. In one song, as her female companion departs tearfully, Sappho says, “let me remind you. the lovely times we shared.”

She describes flower garlands, perfumes, “and,” she says, “on soft beds. you quenched your desire.” In another, she describes a friend in a distant city, “Pacing far away, her gentle heart devoured by powerful desire, she remembers slender Atthis.”

The word “Lesbian” means someone from Lesbos, but, because of Sappho, it now also describes a woman who’s gay. In ancient Greece, the norm was for everyone to marry and have children. While men were usually permitted to have homosexual relationships based on their status, women weren’t.

But it appears that, on Lesbos at this time, aristocratic women generally had more freedom. Yet the details of Sappho’s life remain mysterious, partially because only fragments of her poetry survive.

In ancient times, however, so much of it persisted that it seemed it would last forever. Admirers performed Sappho cover songs and committed her poetry to papyrus, parchment, and pottery.

Three centuries after Sappho’s death, a Greek author declared that her words would endure “as long as ships sail from the Nile.”

Another century later, the Library of Alexandria housed nine scrolls of her work, numbering over 10,000 lines. But natural forces eroded the collection. And monks, tasked with preserving ancient writing, likely neglected or destroyed her work.

One 2nd century Christian leader called Sappho “a whore who sang about her own licentiousness.” Later, a Pope and Archbishop ordered her poetry burned. Almost all of it had vanished by the Middle Ages.

Then, about a century ago, people began rediscovering Sappho’s poetry in locations like an ancient Egyptian garbage dump.

Now, we have around 700 lines, representing less than 10% of Sappho’s total known work. We only have one complete poem of hers. About a dozen others are substantial, but most are mere fragments.

New pieces of Sappho’s songs probably will be found. Some may already be sitting in museum archives, to be revealed when technology allows scholars to read through scrolls too fragile to unroll.

What we are currently left with is an incomplete record and many historical rumors. Ovid insisted that Sappho fell in love with a ferryman and, upon being rejected, leapt from a cliff to her death.

Another tale asserts that she ran a girls’ school and those mentioned in her poems were merely students for whom she felt platonic affection. Current consensus is that these stories, which ridicule Sappho or deny her work’s homoeroticism, are probably all untrue artifacts of misogyny and homophobia.

Despite the distortions of the intervening millennia, Sappho’s words reach across time and resonate today. More than 2,000 years ago, she wrote: “I say someone in another time will remember us”

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