Last time : 32) Niels Bukh (1880-1950) developed a form of gymnastics that was adopted by the Japanese military in which 33) Goh Mishima (1921-1989) served. Goh was a pseudonym adopted after the death of his friend 34) Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), who encouraged him to pursue more sado-masochistic representation in his art, the “sado” being named after 35) the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), whose ancestors were Lords of Lesbos, the island home of 36) Sappho (6th-7th century BC).
Sappho was a lyric
poet, one of the first female poets whose name is known to us. Most of her life
has been reconstructed through her poems, some of which are considered to be
During ancient times and
during the Roman period Sappho’s reputation as a poet was high. The “Dark Ages”
lost much of the knowledge and literature of the ancient world after the fall
of the Roman Empire, and the Eastern Byzantine empire decided to drop the study
of Sappho from their academies. Consequently, very little of her work was
copied out and distributed, leaving the few fragments that remain from ancient
Greece. Sappho’s popularity re-emerged after the redistribution of ancient
texts during the Renaissance of the 14th century. Even then, it was
her use of grammar that was more important than her poetry.
Sappho’s poetry describes
love for both men and women, and it is the references to the latter which led
to 19th century writers to adapt her name and that of Lesbos as
poetic named for female same-sex desire.
As a lyric poet, as
opposed to a heroic epic poet in the manner of Homer, Sappho is regarded as the
first romantic poet in history. In several of her poems she uses the wedding
ceremony as a theme. In the article I posted at the beginning of May about the hawthorn
I mentioned how the plant was sacred to Hymenaios, the god of the wedding
ceremony. I also mentioned that Sappho provided the first written reference to
Hymenaios and weddings.
In another of Sappho’s wedding-related
poems she includes the popular notion in Ancient Greece that when a couple
marry they become “as gods”, acknowledging the heroic tradition in poetry by
praising the bridegroom for his bravery in battle with terminology found in
Homer’s Trojan epics. Classical scholars have ascribed an identity to Sappho’s
anonymous bridegroom based on these phrases she used, and that person is 37) Achilles, the legendary Greek hero
of the Trojan War.
Achilles has his own
links with Lesbos. Bring only a few miles from the fabled Troy it’s no surprise
that it finds its way into the Trojan stories. Traditional belief on Lesbos
says that it was Achilles who took the island from the Phrygians for the
Greeks. Some of the women were taken as slaves, including Briseis with whom
Achilles was particularly taken with.
But before all that
Achilles displayed some transvestite/lesbian behaviour of his own.
As a youth Achilles was
sent by his mother to live at the court of the king of Skyros to avoid being
called up to fight in the Trojan War. To further her plan she disguised
Achilles as girl. In fact, the ancient poems say that Achilles learnt how to
talk and walk like a woman and was so good that he fooled everyone for several
However, Achilles fell in
love with the king’s daughter, Deidamia. Still disguised as a woman Achilles
suggested they shared companionship in the bed at night, justifying it by
saying that other women do it so why don’t they. The princess was still unaware
of his true gender and it gives the incident a lesbian flavour. His romantic
words as recorded in the surviving poems are reminiscent of those written by
the only ancient poet who gave desire a female voice, 36) Sappho, which indicates the writer knew of her work.
Achilles then reveals his
true gender to Deidamia and they continue with the pretence for several more
years – they have two children before another Greek hero, Odysseus, arrives and
“outs” Achilles as a man. Achilles then has no choice but to go off to the
During the war Achilles
forms an equally loving and deep relationship with someone else, a fellow
soldier, 38) Patroclus. I’ve often commented on the same-sex coupling in the
ancient gymnasiums where both Achilles and Patroclus would have trained. What
seems to be more than just the traditional coupling in this case is the fact
that both men are apparently of the same age and display strong emotional bonds
contrary to the man-youth norm. By the time they were fighting in the Trojan
War both were expected to have formed relationships with younger men, but they
hadn’t. The reaction of Achilles to the death of Patroclus is a strong
indication of their love, whichever form it took.
The “lesbian” episode on
Achilles and Deidamia leads us back to Lesbos and Sappho. Around 600 BC Sappho
was exiled from Lesbos after a political coup. What is ironic is that during
the later Roman and Byzantine periods the island became neglected and was used
as a place where politicians were exiled to. It was not the place to be seen.
Not, that is, until 1354
when a Genoese freebooter came to the aid of Emperor John V who had been
“retired” to Lesbos by his deposer. Having helped John to regain his throne the
freebooter was rewarded by having the emperor’s sister in marriage and being
made Lord of Lesbos. The new lord regenerated the island back to the centre of
trade and commerce it once was. His direct descendant was 35) the Marquis de Sade.
Emperor John V was one of
the lucky ones. He was exiled returned and died of old age. Other emperors were
assassinated, as happened to 39) Emperor
Mikhael III (840-867).