She is the reason we have the word “Lesbian”.
Sappho of Lesbos is one of the most notorious poets who ever lived and it is not unreasonable to say that she invented the language of love.
But much as we might like to tout her as a same-sex icon and prop her on the rainbow throne, the only actual cohesive love stories we have about Sappho are about her relationships with men. Her most famous lover is Phaon.
If I were a storyteller from antiquity or a cheap Hollywood screen-guru, the next thing I would say is that I am about to tell you how it really happened, the true story of Sappho and Phaon. As it is, I am unfortunately too much of an academic for that. So instead, I will simply say that this is my version.
Sappho got into some trouble in her youth. She got wrapped up in a rebellion against Pittacus, who was tyrant of Lesbos, probably because she was taken with fellow-poet Alcaius, who was one of the ringleaders. When the rebellion failed, they all fled to Lydia, on the West Coast of Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. There, Sappho was eventually found by her parents (one of them, anyway—sources seem to agree that one parent died, but don’t agree which one) who forced her into a marriage with a man named Cercylas of Andros. It seems quite certain this name was a fabrication of later times, as it literally translates to “Prick from the Isle of Man”.
On the crossing back from Lydia, though, Sappho met a man named Phaon. He was not of noble birth like she was, in fact he was the lowly ferryman driving her boat, and he was old, much older than she, but the kindest man she had ever met. When her husband took her away with him to Syracuse across the Mediterranean and made her bear him a daughter (named Cleïs after Sappho’s own mother), Sappho never forgot the kindness that Phaon had showed her. Then one day, when her marriage was in its tarnished middle years, a young man—a very young man—came to her town and started to flirt with her. He introduced himself as Phaon.
“But how could that be?”
Well, he explained that he had ferried Aphrodite herself across the strait while she was disguised as an old woman and she had rewarded his legendary kindness by granting him a second youth. So now, as a young man again, he had decided to use this gift to the fullest and seek out that young woman who had stolen his heart all those years ago.
At first, Sappho thought having Aphrodite’s gift bestowed on him might have washed away all of Phaon’s kindness, but upon contrasting his behavior with that of her husband, she decided to allow herself to be seduced—though the seduction was not without its surprises.
Finally, Cercylas did catch his wife in the act with this other man, this significantly younger man. Enraged, Cercylas drew his sword and ran the boy through—only to discover that it wasn’t a boy. As it turns out, Phaon had actually died and his granddaughter Cydro had assumed his identity in order to seek out the beautiful lady from that day.
So in the end, it turns out that wasn’t a man at all for the love of whom Sappho flung herself from the white cliffs. So now, let them both rest in rainbows at last.
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