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Sappho's Mythic Models: Figuring Lesbian Desire through Heterosexual Paradigms

Rachel Lesser

Gettysburg College

Sandra Boehringer has identified the story of Kallisto and Artemis as an early Greek mythical acknowledgement of female homoeroticism, and the unique female counterpart to the multiple myths that represent male pederasty (Boehringer 2007: 71–88). Sappho, however, does not mention Kallisto in her surviving fragments; she may sing of Artemis’ virginity in a hymnic fragment, but its Sapphic authorship has always been uncertain and continues to be contested (Boychenko 2017). While Sappho does not, then, to our knowledge, draw on any homoerotic female mythic models, she does invoke many “heterosexual” mythic characters. This paper shows how Sappho manipulates “heterosexual” mythic models to represent her homoerotic experience, and it considers the significance of which mythical figures Sappho chooses to invoke, and which she does not, for her self-representation and her figuration of lesbian desire in her surviving fragments.

We are able to observe Sappho clearly comparing her poetic persona to mythic models in two poems, fr. 16 and the Tithonos poem (fr. 58). In fragment 16, Sappho invokes Helen as a desiring subject and paradigm for how desire determines valuation and motivates action (Winkler 1990; DuBois 1995), and then asserts her own desire for Anaktoria. Thus she implicitly sets herself as a female desiring subject in parallel with Helen, and she makes that analogy closer by not mentioning, and therefore eliding, the male object of Helen’s desire, Paris. In the Tithonos poem, Sappho, lamenting her inevitable aging, cites the paradigm of Tithonos, who grows old despite being the object of the goddess Eos’ desire. Now Sappho, by taking on the ambiguously masculine role of a mortal man desired by a goddess (Stehle 1995), figures herself—even when no longer youthful—as a female’s love object. In both cases, Sappho chooses to evoke heterosexual relationships that are characterized by impermanence, which is a recurring theme in her depiction of her love affairs and those of the women in her circle (frr. 94, 96, 131). And she does not choose desiring males as her mythic alter-egos.

In other fragments, Sappho names a variety of mythical mortal women who seem to fall into two categories: they are either eroticized young women (Helen, Hermione, Andromache, Medea), or else (usually bereaved) mothers (Niobe, the daughter of Pandion, Leda). With the possible exception of Hermione, the erotic myths that she chooses feature women whose heterosexual relationships, while famous for the intensity of their love, ultimately break apart. Despite the wide-spread 7th century popularity of the Odysseus and the Cyclops episode as evidenced by vase painting (Snodgrass 1998: 89–100), Sappho does not appear to engage with the Odyssey myth or Odyssean females—most significantly, with Penelope, whose relationship with Odysseus is defined by its permanence.

If there is any mythic space that seems to repeatedly draw Sappho, it is the Trojan War story. Many scholars have argued that Sappho responds directly to the Iliad in her poetry, including in her narration of Hektor and Andromache’s wedding in fr. 44 (Rissman 1983, Schrenk 1994, Rosenmeyer 1997). Although Sappho only names Andromache in thatepithalamium, I suggest that Sappho draws on the Homeric Andromache’s anguished desiring subjectivity in her representation of desire in fragments 16 and 31. Sappho’s rejection of the masculine desire for armies in fr. 16 may draw on Andromache’s vain attempt in Iliad 6 to derail Hektor’s desire to rejoin his comrades-in-arms and achieve martial glory. Moreover, I argue that Sappho’s erotic subjectivity in Fragment 31, rather than referencing the Nausicaa scene in the Odyssey (Winkler 1990) or Menelaos’ attitude toward Helen (D’Angour 2013), is inspired by Andromache’s reaction to Hektor’s death in Iliad 22.

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Lesbianism Before Sexuality

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