From fragmentary sources, a classicist reconstructs the life and times of the poet Plato called the 10th Muse.
Biographical facts about Sappho “are few and often subject to dispute,” acknowledges Freeman (Classics/Luther Coll.; Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek Myths, 2012, etc.), and of nine scrolls of her poetry once housed in the ancient Library of Alexandria, only a few poems remain, some represented by a single word. Since a biography is impossible, the author looks to literary, artistic, and archaeological sources to investigate women’s experiences on the island of Lesbos in the late seventh to early sixth centuries B.C.E. The result is an authoritative, insightful narrative that looks at childhood, marriage, motherhood, sexuality, religion, and death to speculate about the realities of Sappho’s life. Freeman is certain that Sappho was married, “since the single life was simply not a viable option, especially for a woman” and since weddings emerged as a theme in her poetry. She was a mother, with a beloved daughter, Cleis, with whom she apparently lived in her old age. Beyond these deductions, Freeman offers surprising details about marriage customs (brides, for example, were usually at least 15 years younger than husbands), beliefs about conception and pregnancy (“women were simply incubators for men,” contributing nothing to conception), and women’s religious practices. Among hundreds of deities, the goddess Demeter was singled out for women’s worship, a practice, the author remarks, that “naturally aroused the discomfort of men accustomed to keeping women in their place.” Sexuality was a fluid concept in ancient Greece, with no word for “homosexual,” and male same-sex relationships were tolerated more than lesbian relationships. From her descriptions of erotic love, Freeman concludes that Sappho preferred women. Appended to the biography are the author’s translations of nearly 200 pieces.
“I long for and seek after,” one fragment reads, serving well as an epigraph for this evocative book about a mysterious ancient literary figure.