Portrayal of Women in Sappho’s Poetry

396 words | 2 page(s)

Sappho, like her contemporaries, wrote about the degradations of time on a person’s health and appearance, the wealth of gold versus the wealth of virtue, and the joys and tribulations of love. She does, however, share one concern that her contemporaries do not. In the poetry of Sappho, she uses positive words about both the internal and external beauty and virtue of women, which is in striking contrast to her contemporaries, who seldom have anything positive to say about the character of the female sex, while focusing solely on female outward beauty.

Reading Greek poetry written by men, a reader will see characterizations of women that range from neutral to negative. Semonides says that life is made terrible by a “hag” (Semonides, On Matrimony). Susarion describes women as a necessary inconvenience, because they are “pests” (Susarion). These characterizations make it clear that women in Greek society, at least as revealed through its poetry, are viewed as potential shrews who make the lives of the men around them unbearable. The only real positive thing to be said about women is that they can be outwardly beautiful.

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Sappho’s view of women is quite different. When she does describe feminine appearance, it is to note that the most beautiful women do not need jewelry to enhance their looks, just nature. “the girl whose hair is yellower / than torchlight need wear no / colorful ribbons from Sardis– / but a garland of fresh flowers” (Sappho). There are none of the stereotypes of haggish women in her poetry that can be found in that of her contemporaries. Her poetry enhances the images of female beauty rather than making it secondary to the “hagging” noted in male poetry of the time. Also, she notes that appearances in and of themselves can be deceiving. She writes that in contrast to a handsome man who will stay handsome, “A good man will soon take on beauty” (Sappho, Appearances). This means that for Sappho, beauty is more than skin deep. In order to be beautiful, a person must be as pleasant on the inside as they are outside.

For Sappho, women are not to be ridiculed or degraded. They are not hags or pests, and their internal beauty is as important as their external. In her writing, women are multilayered and multifaceted. According to her contemporaries, women are remarkably single-dimensional, either beautiful or pesting hags.

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