104 Workshop Ten: Finding Sappho

  1. General Instructions & Checking-In (10 minutes)

    Total Workshop Time: 65 minutes

For this workshop, you’ll be organized in a Zoom Breakout Room with a group of approximately four students.  Once you have landed in your Breakout Room, please begin by reading over the workshop and checking-in with one another.  Please select a facilitator/time-keeper and a scribe, who will be especially prepared to report out the group’s findings.  Please also take notes for yourself, even if you are not the official scribe, and call the faculty in for support or guidance as needed.

For your check-in today, perhaps you’d like to connect around your aims for the semester and how you are feeling as we near the end of our work together.  What do you want or need to create a sense of closure for this course?

  1. Sappho’s (Auto) Biography & Iconic Status (55 minutes)

The first-person style of Sappho’s poetry, together with her unique status as a female poet, have led scholars, admirers, and critics to extract biographical details about Sappho’s life from her verses.  Working with your group, discuss the following questions about Sappho.


  1. What can you discern about Sappho’s personal history and her biography from her extant poetry? What does her poetry tell you about Sappho?  Note the numbers of the poems that provide biographical information as well as what exactly you infer about Sappho from each. Have a look at the newly-published poems (in our Pressbook here: “On Old Age” and the “Brothers Song” – note that in the two names in the “Brothers Song,” Charaxos and Larichos, are identified in other sources (P. Oxy 1800, Herodotus, Strabo) as Sappho’s brothers. (15 minutes)



  1. Are there poems within Sappho’s corpus that support the reading that Sappho was queer? Find and cite by number the poems that depict queer desire and/or love in Sappho’s poetry.  (10 minutes)

  1. John Winkler writes:

Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig in their Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary devote a full page to Sappho.  The page is blank.  Their silence is one response to Sappho’s lyrics, particularly refreshing in comparison to the relentless trivialization, the homophobic anxieties, and the sheer misogyny that have infected so many ancient and modern responses to her word.  As Mary Barnard … puts it:


I wanted to hear

Sappho’s laughter

and the speech of

her stringed shell.


What I heard was

whiskered mumble-

ment of grammarians:


Greek pterodactyls

and Victorian dodos.

(1990, 162)


Sappho is not the only lyric poet to write erotically and depict same-sex desire in her poetry.  Male archaic Greek poets did the same — same-sex desire (and descriptions of men acting on that desire) appear throughout male-authored poetry, yet Sappho’s sexuality looms so large in her after-life that it can obscure her poetry.  Looking back at your answers to questions one and two, did you come up with any solid, incontrovertible evidence about Sappho’s life or sexuality from her poetry?  What might be problematic about deriving Sappho’s biography from her poetry? (10 minutes)



  1. The fragmentary nature of Sappho’s poetry and our biographical information about her, have allowed for creative interpretations in academic, literary, and GLBTQ communities. Based on your reading of “Lesbians are from Lesbos: Sappho and Identity Construction in The Ladder,” why was Sappho such a salient icon for the Daughters of Bilitis? (10 minutes)






Works Cited

Winkler, John J. 1990. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge.


Gender & Sexuality in Ancient Greece Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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