A student post from Isabel Ferrari, Hunterian MuSE volunteer.
Introduction by Hunterian Education Manager, Ruth Fletcher.
This student post comes from one of the student volunteers from a newly established project team: LGBTQ online at The Hunterian (working title), through which we hope to reveal LGBTQ+ stories from the Hunterian collections that are there but are hard to find. Anyone interested in finding out more about this project or volunteering to help us should email Ruth Fletcher.
Isabel Ferrari is a 4th year student of English, Comparative Literature and History of Art and has been a Hunterian MuSE volunteer for over 2 years.
Julia Procula Coin: a mid-second century bronze coin struck for Julia Procula,
depicting the Greek poetess Sappho of Lesbos on the reverse. (GLAHM:42313)
Sappho is renowned for her lyric poetry, often passionately describing her love for women. Despite the fact she has always been and still is recognised as an LGBTQ+ icon, to the point of having originated terms such as “sapphic” and “lesbian”, her poetry needs to be looked at in context as a product of her time and circumstances. As well as being ‘lyrical’ in both the sense of being accompanied by music and being an expression of the author’s personal feelings, Sappho’s poetry contained social teachings. She ran a school for young women, educating them in the ‘feminine’ arts before they married. This included weaving, keeping the house, singing and composing poetry. Sappho’s school is thought to have been one of the most prestigious at the time.
Relationships with the pupils and between the pupils were very common, as they also served to initiate young women into adulthood and sexuality. Sappho’s poems display this in the teachings emerging from them, especially about love: she talks about the immortalising power of poetry, the suffering of being unrequited, the sweetness of remembering one’s time with their lover at the moment of their departure. Not returning someone’s love is depicted as an injustice, and the goddess Aphrodite is often invoked to right these wrongs.
While teaching is an undeniable motivation behind her writing, this does not take away from the uniquely powerful expressions of love the poems contain and that have stirred a feeling of sympathy and recognition in Sappho’s readers all throughout history. She not only finds universally relatable expressions of emotion, but she also employs the archaic language in innovative ways, unparalleled at the time in terms of lyric expression. This powerfully emotional tone makes it clear her poetry was born from authentic feelings of love and tenderness. As a result, Sappho has remained a symbol of love throughout the ages, even beyond the scope of LGBTQ+ subculture, as is proven not only by her lasting popularity but also by objects such as this coin, celebrating the poet and her work.
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