Eenmaal gestorven wacht je je graf:
vergetelheid is voorgoed het deel van haar
die de rozen uit Pieria niet plukken mag;
naamloos dool je rond,
ook in het huis van de dood -
vervluchtigd, onder vale lijken.
Vertaald door C.M.J. Sicking
Dood zal je zijn en begraven
En geen herinnering, geen heimwee
Rijst er later nog naar jou
Want jij plukte geen rozen van Piëria
Ongezien zelfs in de hel
Zul je van ons weggefladderd
Dolen onder duistere doden
Vertaald door Jan Gossink
Listen to this poem in Greek.
Voiced by: Irene Sluiter
This poem in 60 seconds
What makes a woman an ideal candidate for marriage? Sappho believed she had the answer. You need to be culturally educated to be desirable, or for you to be remembered at all. This teaching is something that she passed onto her students with this poem, in which she also demonstrated her own level of knowledge.
Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.
Lesbos ca. 630 - ca. 580 voor Christus
Sappho lived around 600 BC on the Greece island of Lesbos, which is known for its flourishing literary scene. This was primarily a man’s world as were most public affairs in ancient Greece. For instance, women were seldom allowed outside without the company of a male relative, and it was uncommon for women to have a career. This was also true for Sappho, who came from a well-off family and was probably married and had a daughter.
Teacher and poetes
Sappho is still a widely known poet, likely owing to her work as a tutor of young girls. This private tutoring was common and tutors were in fierce competition with one another. In her works, Sappho sometimes criticized her competitors and called their students stupid and uneducated. Sappho herself devoted a large amount of time to cultural upbringing, which involved the art of poetry. She presumably wrote about ten thousand lines in verse of which approximately six hundred fifty are still known today.
What's this poem about?
Anyone who wants to be remembered, must - according to the poem - pluck the 'roses of Pieria.' Piera is located at the foot of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece and the ‘house of the Gods’ in the words of the poet Homer (approx. 800 BC – approx. 750 BC). In Greek mythology, both Zeus and his daughters, the nine muses, could be found on Olympus. His daughters were the goddesses of song, comedy, dance, tragedy, historiography, flute-playing and other art forms. Many artists invoked them for inspiration.
Culture is important
In this poem, Sappho addresses someone who has not plucked the roses from the garden of these muses, or in other words, one who lacks a cultural education. She paints a gloomy picture of the future: No one will remember her, no one will desire her, and even in the underworld - 'the house of Hades' in the original Greek text - she will be invisible.
Might Sappho have been describing her own doom? She warns the lady in the poem that being forgotten after you die might be even worse than death itself.
Sappho helped young girls on the Greek island of Lesbos on their way to adulthood, and made sure they were ready for married life. According to the Greek philosopher Plutarch (approx. 46 - 120 AD), she addresses one of her students in this poem. The poem, which is also known as fragment 55, has clear educational purposes: anyone who wants to be remembered, needs to educate themselves.
Share your story
Does this poem hold a special place in your heart? For example, do you remember when you first read the poem? Or did you come across it someplace unexpected? Let us know at email@example.com! We would love to add your story to our website.
Sappho in Leiden
Photo Inge Harsten
Since 1996, this poem can be found on the corner of Volmolengracht / Oude Singel. It has been selected by the Leidse Classicist and professor Chris Sicking (1933 - 2000) who taught Greek at Leiden University from 1964 till 1999. Not only did he select this poem, he is also responsible for the Dutch translation. Bottom right, next to the small spider painted by Jan Willem Bruins sits the signature of Sicking: a horizontal letter S.
Across from this location, at the other side of the canal, stood the medieval nunneries Saint Maria and Saint Catherine. It is entirely possible that women went there to escape their husbands. This was exactly the opposite of Sappho’s efforts; she taught women how to be desirable wives. After Leidens Ontzet (1574), when Leiden turned protestant, the city council demolished all nunneries.
Sappho and female eroticism
Beauty and sexuality are two major themes in Sappho’s poetry which also describe her own feelings and experiences. This led to many philosophical debates about her sexuality and relationship between her and her proteges. It is not clear whether or not her poetry was intended as erotic or lesbian literature and if they indeed described the romances of Sappho and her intimate friends. Her poetry might also have been intended to educate future wives on their own body and sexuality. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the word ‘lesbian’ derives from the Greek Island of Lesbos, which is where Sappho lived.
Sappho as example
For a long time, Sappho was one of few poets who gave a glimpse of the female perception, which is why many male authors based their female characters on her work.
She slowly came, I knew her by the sign; And fair she was, but far more strange than fair; I knew her by the roses in her hair; Pierian, and she saluted mine; Lifting her pale hand in that gesture high; The deathless use to those that cannot die.
Taken from the poem “A dream of Sappho” by Rose O’Neill, of which the first stanza contains a reference to this poem.
Some say there are nine muses
But they ought to think it through
For look, there is Sappho of Lesbos
She is the tenth.
Translation: Natasja Oorthuis
- The word ‘lesbian’ originates from the Greek island of Lesbos, where Sappho lived and wrote poetry about sexuality among women.
- Sappho was exiled for a while, presumably due to the political standpoints of her husband and/or family. During that time of exile, she lived on the island of Sicily. However, her poetry bares no mention of this period in her life.
- Sappho was the first famous poetess in (ancient) Greece culture and the first of whose work survived throughout the ages. She was also the only poetess to be included in the canon of lyrical poetry, the only female among men. As a result, she became a great source of inspiration for many other poetesses to come.
Κατθάνοισα δὲ κείσεαι πότα, κωὐ μναμοσύνα σέθεν
ἔσσετ᾽ οὔτε τότ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ύ᾽στερον. οὐ γὰρ πεδέχεισ βρόδοων
τῶν ἐκ Πιερίασ ἀλλ᾽ ἀφάνησ κἠν᾽ ᾽Αῖδα δόμοισ
φοιτάσεισ πεδ᾽ ἀμαύρων νέκυων ἐκπεποταμένα.
You will die
You will die
and no one will remember you,
for you've had no share in the roses of Pieria,
but you will drift here and there, unseen,
in Hades' house, and flutter about
among the dark, not illustrious dead.
Translated by Barbara Hughes Fowler
When Death shall close those Eyes
When Death shall close those Eyes, imperious Dame!
Silence shall seize on thy inglorious Name.
For thy unletter'd Hand ne'er pluck'd the Rose,
Which on Pieria's Realms unhonour'd you shall go,
And herd amongst th'ignobler Ghosts below.
Whilst I on Wings of Fame shall rise elate,
And snatch a bright Eternity from Fate.
Translated by John Addison (1735)
This entry was written by Taalmuseum in collaboration with Geralde Langendijk. The translation into English is by Natasja Oorthuis. The following publications were consulted:
- Jan Goderis, Mooi omkranste Aphrodite die van Cyprus liefdes toverscepter zwaait; seksualiteit en erotiek in het antieke Hellas (Antwerpen, Apeldoorn 2007).
- Martin Hose, Kleine Griechische Literaturgeschichte: Von Homer bis zum Ende der Antike.
- E. J. Kenney & W. V. Clausen, The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Volume I; Greek literature, Part I; Early Greek Poetry
- Richard Rutherford, Classical Literature: a Concise History.
- Laura K. McClure, Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World: Readings and Sources
- Mieke de Vries, Negen aardse Muzen: Gender en de receptie van dichteressen in het oude Griekenland en Rome (Proefschrift)
- Ellen Greene, Reading Sappho: Contemporary approaches.
- Terry Castle, The Literature of Lesbianism: a Historical Anthology from Atriosto to Stonewall.
- Wikibooks de Griekse Mythologie.
- Jaap Moggre's Geschiedenis Index.