Story Summary: Sappho was the greatest poet the world had ever seen, breaking away to form her own style that none have been able to replicate, but what and who were the forces that battled for this woman's heart and mind?
Sappho's poems are archived at sacred-texts-dot-com
Chapter summary: The chapter in which we meet Sappho, her guards that she calls by the names of Achilles and Theseus, and they see a pale-white, golden-haired, blue-eyed stranger. We also meet her daughter, Cleïs, but we do no meet the head of the household, Cercylas.
Setting: Isle of Lesbos, circa 600 B.C.
Cast of Characters:
(Lady) Sappho: the tenth muse, poet
"Tri": Sappho's "companion"
Cleïs: Sappho's daughter, named after Sappho's mother
"Achilles" and "Theseus": Sappho's two ever-faithful Saxon guards
"Zeno": Sappho's Gallic "accountant"
Lady Melissa: third wife to General Pittacus, ruler of Lesbos
Aphrodite: silver-eyed Greek "goddess," object of Sappho's devotion
Apollo: red-eyed Greek "god," shines like the sun, Aphrodite's lover
A/N: Sappho and Cleïs are real historical figures; Cercylas, Sappho's husband, may have been created as fiction; and the other characters are my invention. This entire story is fictional: besides the names used, no claim of accuracy is made with regards to the events portrayed.
Story published in honor of femslashday-dot-com: July 18th, 2009.
It was outside the market in our capital city Mytilene that I first saw her.
I had taken to people watching this last year: the sea and the solitude of my mountain escapes, my muses, had left my pen still. Instead of giving into despair, I changed locations.
So today found me, as most every day found me, outside the market, with my guards and papyrus, watching people come and go. This particular day was like any other. The people of Lesbos were a mixed bunch, mostly composed of the the native Hellenists, but there were the Phoenicians, of course, ... and the Etruscans.
The Etruscans, or the Rasenna, as they called themselves, throwing off the more civilized Greek name for their own identity, or in more recent history, the Romans — whatever they were called or called themselves, they were little pigs of men. Ignorant, arrogant, and asinine: the only thing they did well was to fight and to shout and march in little squares, looking like a very deadly, stupid, box.
I kept this view to myself. I didn't need to be asked to do this, the government of Lesbos and the Etruscan cohort had a very delicate understanding, and they didn't need an exiled, heretical poet to start in with her stinging words to exacerbate the situation, and I didn't need to be taken outside of the town proper and be run through with Etruscan spears and the daggers of the House Mytilene running through me and the through the ones I loved. I had already been exiled to Sicily for my views and am now required to live here in the capital, and not in my home town of Eresos. I didn't need to give anyone a reason to eliminate my house for something I said or wrote.
'Keep you enemies close,' as the maxim went. It hurt me to think my own people saw me as an enemy, but I was grateful to be back, away from that Etruscan exile in that Etruscan town being forced to live with those uncivilized and haughty brutes, and that description was a compliment ... for their women.
But this woman, walking with the garrison, was not Etruscan. She didn't look like any race I knew. She didn't look human. She was taller than the soldiers marching in front of her, and where they were swarthy, she was the palest of whites.
It looked like she used much too much arsenic in her face paint.
But that wasn't her only startling feature: her hair reflected the sun in its own color. It blended the colors of straw and daisies.
And her eyes.
She was walking along, head down, behind the garrison, but then, as she was passing me, she looked up, and I saw her eyes. They weren't the deep brown color of the peoples of our part of the world. They weren't the impenetrable black of the peoples from the silk road further east.
They were the brightest of sapphire blue, the color of violets, the color of the southern-most seas.
I was looking into eyes the color that gave me my own name, Sappho, and I was transfixed by them.
"Valkyr," Achilles (really: Sven, but how could I possibly pronounce that?) my guard, towering to my left, whispered in awe.
"Nein: Engel," replied Theseus (really: Ottar), matter of factly.
The girl's attention shifted away from me and took in my guards towering over me, and she hissed. This seemed to please Achilles and Theseus no end: chuckles rumbled through their huge chests.
But this caught the Etruscans' attention, and they didn't look pleased. The last soldier turned around and started shouting at the girl in that growling, hissing, lowing noise they call their language. The girl was not cowed, however: she didn't even hide her disdain for him as he shouted up at her, trying to hurry her along, it appeared.
This did not assuage the guard. He went to strike her with the back of his right hand: a master hitting a slave. That's when I noticed the thin band around her neck: the slave collar.
But then the most amazing thing happened before my eyes. Instead of cringing, she looked him right in the eye and turned the other cheek, presenting her left cheek.
This was the ultimate act of defiance, of rebellion. He now no longer could strike her with the back of his hand, the punishment of a slave, but would have to punch her with his closed fist: a fight between equals. But her look didn't convey that she considered him an equal: as she looked down at him, the contempt in her eyes measured him as far, far beneath her.
The soldier screamed his rage, closed his fist to punch her, but a barked inquiry from the head of the garrison froze him in place. A soldier, it appeared to be their centurion because of the plume on his helmet, came into the tableau and asked a few questions. The guard who had almost assaulted the girl muttered some excuses, waving accusing toward her, but stopped talking at the centurion's stare.
The centurion glanced at the girl, said a few clipped words to the soldier who hung his head, and then turned on his heel and led his troops off toward the market, the girl in tow, eyes back toward the ground, but not at all humbled; she merely looked bored.
I went back to my papyrus. I hadn't written one word today. I hadn't written one word in a long time — a long time — but my head was full of thoughts.
The garrison marched past us again later that day, but the girl was not with them. Evening was approaching; it was time to head home. I started packing my writing materials and my blank pages.
"Achilles," I said as we were walking home.
"Yes, m'lady," he answered instantly. I could feel his eyes behind me constantly scanning the people around us.
"Tell Zeno that he'll be coming into the market with us tomorrow morning ... early."
I could just hear Achilles' eyes rolling as he grunted his acknowledgement.
"... And make sure he lays off the bottle tonight," I added, smirking.
"Ach, nein!" Achilles answered, and Theseus chuckled.
Zeno, my accountant, being Gallic, had a nearly impossible name to pronounce. It took me years to shush out his name using sounds which had no representation in the alphabet: Ssssssh-aah-rrr-lzz. 'Charles.' Why couldn't he have picked an easy to pronounce name, like my friend, Alcaeus, the poet? That's why I gave him the name of Zeno: both were good with numbers, right?
But, being Gallic, he loved his wine, he loved his women, and he loved his songs (which he sang at the top of his lungs at 3 a.m. in whichever watering hole he found himself ... too bad for the other one or two patrons that he couldn't hold a tune). Gauls. Well, if there was one thing he loved more, it was coinage, and he would squeeze the electrum until he heard helmeted Athena imprinted on the drachma screaming.
He, like every member of my House, was indispensable.
Early for him was 1 pm. Reveille at 6 am tomorrow would not work unless he got fair warning today. I had just given it.
We returned home in time for supper, and my heart leapt out of my chest when I saw my daughter come to sit by my side. But I hid the warmth of my affection as I greeted her as she sat.
"So, little Cleïs," she rolled her eyes, "how was your day?" I asked her, and I couldn't help kissing her forehead.
She pushed me away.
"Mother," she breathed out, "I'm not little any more; I'm almost of age!" She looked at me with exaspiration and affection.
I looked back at my little girl, almost thirteen. All grown up! I sighed to myself, because she was. She had grown up so quickly during our ten years of exile, in the later years taking care of me more than I took care of her. I swore I wouldn't do this to her, because I had done this for my own mother, who I named my daughter after, and had never really had time to be a child. And here was my own child, so unlike my mother, so steady and calm and self-possessed and mature, taking care of me, her mother.
The servants, all free men, brought out the food and wine, and I quizzed Cleïs over the meal, as was my routine.
"So," I asked, enjoying the taste of the shish taouk, "where did your studies lead you today?"
"Homer," she replied factually.
Ah! one of my muses! His descriptions were scintillating, and his invocation of the ...
"Mother?" Cleïs' question interrupted my thoughts.
"Yes, my daughter," looking down at her father's bronze hair and into my brown eyes.
She is such a beauty, taking the best traits from her father and from me.
"Is there anything more tedious than Homer going on and on about a stupid war over a girl? I mean, how stupid can men be? She can't have been that pretty, can she? And even if she was, so what? Go find another girl! What was the big deal?"
I looked at my daughter. I could never guess what would come out every time she opened her mouth. I could only guess it would be something shocking; I was usually right about that.
"Um, ..." I tried to start, but Cleïs was on a tear.
"His next poem better not be as disappointing. Please don't tell me it's about some stupid male not being able to find his way home for ten years! I mean, sure there's more than two islands in the Aegean Sea, which makes things hard for boys, I guess, but ten years? How stupid can a man be? Isn't he supposed to be coming home from a victory he lead? What would he tell his wife, 'Honey, I got lost when I took a short cut'? For ten years?"
I cleared my throat as I tried to cover my shock of hearing the Odyssey so described.
"Well, ..." I tried again.
"I mean, come on, Mother! What's the point of reading verse after verse of 'rose-fingered dawn' if the guy doesn't use it to figure out that, 'Hey, that way's East!' then what's the point? I mean, no duh!" Cleïs was very blunt sometimes. "I mean, gone for ten years? That's almost as bad as Fa-..." but the shocked look on my face stopped her. She gasped at her error.
Sometimes Cleïs was much, much too blunt, speaking before she realized what the impact of words would cause.
With as much control as I could muster, I rose from the table.
"Mother, I... I'm so sor-..." Cleïs began to rise from her seat.
My wave silenced her.
"Cleïs, stay, finish your supper," I whispered and turned to go.
Her mournful voice tried to pull me back, "Won't you stay with me, Mother?"
I didn't turn back. "It's okay," I said, "I'm not hungry, sweetheart. Don't stay up too late tonight, hm?"
I left to my chamber, passing Cercylas' bust, brushing my fingers against the handsome features of his face, and crawled into bed.
Some time later that night, I don't know how much later, Cleïs' hand was on my shoulder.
"Tuck me in?" she begged.
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
"Always," I responded firmly. This had been our routine from the beginning of my exile, and since Cercylas has been away in Andros, running the his family trade from his home city, it has been our routine ever since. It would probably been our routine until she found her own Cercylas. At least, I hoped it would. No matter how angry one became with the other, we always had this moment. Earlier in her life, I would read to her after I tucked her in. Nowadays I had to pull the book out of her protesting arms. If I didn't, she'd be up all night, reading.
After I tucked her in and kissed her forehead, she gave me that look with her big brown eyes.
"I'm sorry, Mother," she whispered up to me.
I smiled sadly in response and held her cheek in the palm of my hand for a moment.
I turned to go.
"Will Father ever come home?"
I was glad I was facing away from her, but I could tell from her voice she needed my eyes, so I turned back.
"Yes, sweetheart," I responded, believing my answer for her sake. "He'll come home someday." I didn't bother to clarify that he was already at his ancestral home on Andros now.
"Will he come tomorrow?" She asked without hope.
"I don't think so, sweetheart," I responded.
"Then when, Mother?"
I smiled at her and sighed. "I don't know, honey, but he'll come someday. The affairs of his business are very complex, ... he has to cross a lot of water, and he never was much of a sailor."
"Like that Odysseus, right?" she asked.
"Yes, like that Odysseus. Now sleep, sweetie." I said, and I blew out the candle.
Yes, Cercylas would come to us one day, even if the body of water he had to cross was the River Styx.
Mytilene became the capital city of the isle of Lesbos when Alcaeus, the poet (who some believe to be one of Sappho's lovers) led a successful revolt against Methymna. I posit that Sappho was sequestered here after returning from exile in Sicily.
Sven and Ottar are two veggie friends of Lyle, the kindly Viking in the Veggie Tales movie by that name. Achilles and Theseus were two ancient greek heroes (the work 'hero' is a greek word: it means 'a man').
The drachma was a coin of exchange in ancient Grecian times.
The River Styx is what separates the land of living from Hel. The boatsman, Charon, ferries across the souls separated from the dead to their destination. The cost of the trip is paid by the dead with the coin inserted into their mouth at death.