Sappho, from a red-figure vase
Sappho is the only woman from ancient Greece whose writing has survived, although she is not the earliest woman writer; that honor goes to Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon, in Mesopotamia. Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos in the 600s BC.
Sappho seems to have come from a fairly wealthy family, and she may have run a sort of school for girls in their teens, just before they got married. She wrote short poems about how beautiful the girls were, and about how beautiful nature was, and about love. Most of these poems unfortunately survive only in pieces, where some of the words are missing.
One of Sappho's poems goes like this:
A troop of horse, the crowded ranks of marchers,
A noble fleet - some think these of everything on earth
Most beautiful. For me nothing else comes close
To my beloved.
To understand this is for all most simple,
For in this same way, gazing much on mortal perfection
And knowing already what life could give her,
Paris chose fair Helen.
He, the betrayer of Troy's honor.
She didn't think about her adored child or parent,
But yielded to love, and forced by her passion,
she dared Fate in exile.
So quickly is bent the will of that woman
so that things near and dear seem like nothing.
So might you fail, my Anactoria,
If she were with you.
She whose gentle footsteps and radiant face
Hold the power to charm - more than a vision
Of chariots and the mail-clad battalions
Of Lydia's army.
So must we learn in that in a world like this
Man can never reach his greatest desire,
[But must pray for what good fortune Fate holdeth,
(Adapted from Edwin Marion Cox )
There is nothing in any of the poems that clearly says whether Sappho was gay or not, though it is her poems that have given the name "lesbian" to gay women today (after the island she was from, Lesbos).
To find out more about Sappho, check out these books from Amazon.com or from your library:
Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition (Oxford Profiles) by Rosalie F. Baker and Charles F. Baker (reprinted 1997). Short biographies of many famous Greeks including Sappho, for kids.
Sappho, by Jane Snyder (2001). For high school students. This biography assumes that Sappho was a lesbian, but also covers other aspects of her life and her poetry.
Outrageous Women of Ancient Times, by Vicki León (1997). For middle schoolers. Lively accounts of strong women from Africa, Asia, and Europe in ancient times.
Sappho: A New Translation, by Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard (1986). The poems themselves, translated into English.
Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches, edited by Ellen Greene (1999). A selection of recent essays about Sappho and her poetry.