Poet Sappho, the Isle of Lesbos, and sex tourism in the ancient world
The sexual proclivities of ancient Greece is almost as mythologized as their legendary heroes. In fact, the entire Greek pantheon of gods is renowned for its hedonistic sexual antics and exploits. But are we letting exciting myth cloud reality? The truth and ancient history of the Island of Lesbos, long associated with lesbianism, may be very different than most assume. In a new BBC documentary and article, the island is said to have been the location of a busy sex trade – for men!
In Greek myth there are tales of Zeus transforming himself into swans and bulls and rays of golden light to impregnate women. Tiresias, the Theban who’d been both a man and a woman, was blinded by Hera for saying women enjoy sex more than men, causing Hera to lose a bet with Zeus (Zeus gave Tiresias the powers of a seer and an extra-long life to compensate). (Hera in a rage also changed one of Zeus’ paramoors Io into a cow and had a gadfly chase her around the world; Zeus eventually rescued her.) And what about poor Dionysus? Did those crazy Maenad women of his really tear him apart every single year in a frenzy? Chaste Artemis in the pool bathing with her maidens went wild with rage when Actaeon saw her nude, turned him into a deer, and his own hounds hunted him down and killed him. And let us not forget Apollo and Pan and others chasing around young nymphs who were so unwilling that they changed themselves into trees and reeds to escape the unpredictable results of being with a god.
Zeus changes into a bull and steals away Europa. Public Domain
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By reputation ancient Greeks embraced homosexuality, both male and female, but one particular place famous for lesbian trysts, Lesbos, was actually an island where women known for their beauty served a sex trade of men on vacation. In a surprising turn, Lesbos was reportedly the ancient sex tourism capital of the Aegean—for men. Now comes a new BBC documentary that says Lesbos was the ancient equivalent of modern-day Magaluf, a city on Spain’s Mallorca Island notorious for sex tourism, heavy drinking and debauchery.
Map of Lesbos by Giacomo Franco (1597). Public Domain
Presumably the women of Lesbos who weren’t involved in the sex trade, i.e. non-prostitutes, didn’t gang up to rob drunken tourists from the ancient world as has been happening in Magaluf in recent years, according to this article about another BBC documentary.
The Greek Reporter says that the women of Lesbos could not be resisted—but not because of brute force and superior numbers ganging up on hapless inebriates—but because they were so beautiful.
“A young woman is shown with a pen (stylus) that is used to inscribe writing on the wax tablets she is holding. The net in her hair is made of golden threads and was in fashion during the Neronian period. One of the best-known and best-loved paintings, commonly called "Sappho", actually portrays a girl of Pompeian high society, richly dressed with a golden hairnet and large earrings of gold.” Detail of a Roman fresco, so-called "Sappho", ca. year 50, fourth style fresco; from Pompeii. Public Domain
“Lesbos had a very particular reputation for producing very beautiful women. They really were supposed to be the sexiest people in the entire Greek world,” Edith Hall of King’s College in London says in the show, which will air May 4 on BBC Four. “In the Ancient Greek world, the word lesbian actually meant a woman performing an intimate sex act on a man.”
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The most famous person who ever lived on Lesbos was the poet Sappho, a woman who celebrated the island’s beautiful women. Very little is known about this artist who lived circa 630 B.C , but her poetry captivates readers 2,000 years after it was written. She is often defined as a lyrist as her writings were intended to be performed accompanied by the lyre. Further, she was an innovator, as she was one of the first poets to write in the first person, making the experience personal and individual. Her works have now become synonymous with female love.
Sappho (left) and her companions listen rapturously as the poet Alcaeus plays a "kithara". Public Domain
The BBC sent a team to investigate the island of Lesbos’ sexual history and this enigmatic woman. Most of Sappho’s poetry is lost, but some remains, including this poem, translated by Mary Barnard:
I have not heard a word from her
Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept
a great deal; she said to me, "This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."
I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love
"If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared
"all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck
"myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them
"while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song..."
Further research into the historic cultural realities and practices of sexuality may change how we perceive the ancient world, but all windows into the past must be opened to get a truer look at the past.
Sappho and her lyre. Public Domain
Featured image: Actaeon Surprising Diana (Artemis) in the bath, by Titian. Public Domain
By Mark Miller