Sappho, the only woman of the ancient canon of the nine lyric poets, and “female Homer” according to one anonymous epigram, the “tenth muse” according to another attributed to Platon, is probably still the best known female author of antiquity. This shows how much her poetry was appreciated by later readers. However, due to the homoerotic nature of many of her songs, the tradition also made her a libidinous lover especially of women, a courtesan. She became the woman who died jumping off of the Leucadian cliffs because of the grief of unrequited love.
Nowadays most of her poetry is lost. The remainders are fragments of 200 songs, approximately 7% of all her poetry, most of them are only a few verses with many metrical and lexical problems. Thus, understanding and interpreting her poetry nowadays is a big problem. The biographical tradition, the literary reception, the little remainders of commentaries to her poetry, and some lemmata in ancient lexica – all seem to help with understanding her fragments. However, this help provided by the tradition is ambiguous. Very often this information is used to interpret the remainders of her poetry in ways that confirm the said piece of information itself, as if it were certain that the evidence contained in the texts of later authors originated from Sappho’s own poetry. It is important to remember that these texts were written decades after Sappho’s life and that these authors often had intentions of their own. It is difficult to say who of them actually used Sappho’s poetry when writing about her.
In order to use the information provided by the tradition, first of all one has to understand the tradition itself. Originally, Sappho was a local poet living on the island of Lesbos who wrote in the local dialect of her time, the Aeolian. However, her poetry became panhellenic heritage later on. The biographical tradition connects her with many parts of the known world from Sicily to Egypt. Hence, the aspect of locality appears to be of importance for the biographical tradition of Sappho, which made her the panhellenic poet that she became. In her own songs Sappho often describes the landscape of Lesbos in both a very personal and religious way, connecting the landscape itself with her experiences and tender feelings. The tradition recognizes this connection and also links her life to the landscapes of Greece: It is the cliffs of Leucadia where Sappho finds death when jumping into the cold Ionian Sea." This project therefore examines the biographical remainders, while also incorporating information provided by the reception, ancient lexica and commentaries. These remainders will be arranged if possible in single strings of tradition, showing their connections among each other and their importance for rendering Sappho as panhellenic poet.