The Muse Project—She Who Desires

“Erato, because she makes those who are instructed by her men who are desired and worthy to be loved.” 

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 7. 1 (Greek historian C1st B.C.)

Erato is the Muse of lyric poetry, which is poetry that is sung accompanied by a lyre. Her name possibly means “desired” or “lovely,” and she is usually shown holding a lyre. According to the Orphic Hymns, she charms the sight. One of the most famous lyric poets is Sappho.

Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos in the latter part of the seventh century, BC to a wealthy, aristocratic family. She had two or maybe three brothers, a husband, and a daughter. She was exiled to Sicily for some time in her adult life but returned to Lesbos to die an old woman. And little beyond that can be confirmed. Where once there were nine scrolls in the ancient Library of Alexandria, today there are only around 200 fragments of her poetry left with very few that are close to being complete. Most of her fame comes from those who claimed she was great, including Plato. He wrote, “Some people say there are nine Muses—how foolish! See here now, Sappho of Lesbos is the tenth.” Scholars in Hellenistic Alexandria named her as one of nine lyric poets worth studying.

Deathless Aphrodite on your dazzling throne,

child of Zeus, weaver of snares, I pray to you,

do not, with anguish and pain, O Lady,

                break my heart.

Sappho fragment 1

But there were also those, men who could not deal with a woman having so much talent, who turned to slander, calling her a prostitute, immoral, or ugly, and in the 17th century she was given a new label: lesbian, a word that went on to describe any woman who loved another woman. Homosexual women were also called Sapphics.

While the Greeks’ ideas of sexual orientation were more fluid than in our time (though that is changing, thank the Gods!), they were not without their rules of behavior or condemnation for those who strayed from them. In their highly patriarchal society Greek men had the most latitude in their sexuality, especially among the upper class.

“Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.” Demosthenes, Against Neaera, 59, 122

Pederasty was often depicted on Greek pottery.

For a man the only context when sex was considered breaking society’s norms was with another man’s wife. Men also had intimate relationships with other men, usually between grown men and adolescent boys, a practice called pederasty. In Ancient Greek there is no word for “homosexual,” and yet our word is using the Greek homo, meaning “same.”

Sex between men after both were adults and sex between women was frowned upon, but there is evidence that there were sexual relations between men of the same age and between women. The best evidence we have for sexual relations (or desire, anyway) between women is from Sappho. We are certain that some of her poetry was describing romantic and sexual feelings for another woman because of the gendered endings in Greek words.

My heart

begins to flutter in my chest.

When I look at you even for a moment

                I can no longer speak.

My tongue fails and a subtle

fire races beneath my skin,

I see nothing with my eyes

                and my ear hum.

Sweat pours from me and a trembling

seizes my whole body.

Sappho fragment 31

We are approaching Beltane, a very lusty holiday, when fertility symbols like maypoles and eggs abound. There are many fertility deities we can honor at this time: Celtic Brigid and Cernunnos; Germanic Eostre, Freyr, and Freya; Irish Dagda; Roman Bacchus, Fascinus, and Pertuda; and Greek Dionysus and Pan, along with the Muse Erato. Perhaps this year you may consider reading (aloud to your beloved) some Sappho or other love poetry. Or let the Muse Erato inspire you to write your own!

Some say an army of horsemen, others a host of infantry,

others a fleet of ships is the most beautiful thing

on the black earth. But I say

                it’s whatever you love.

I would rather see her lovely walk

and her bright sparkling face

than the chariots of the Lydians

                or infantry in arms.

Sappho fragment 16
The Muse Erato with Eros

Erato,

honey-tongued goddess, persuasive one,

beloved of lovers, wrapped in myrtle and roses,

companion of Eros,

you know of longing and devotion, of the flame that

                burns within us.

Yours are the words that warm our hearts and our

                loins,

That stir our desires, that turn us from thought to

                action.

Erato, goddess, child of Olympos, I honor you.

To the Muses I, Hester Butler-Ehle

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