Sapphic: What is the history of the word, and how is it linked to ancient Greece?

Stock image of two women kisses on an alley street

The word “sapphic” has been adopted by queer people and widely used to refer to lesbians, bisexual women, and other people who are attracted to women.

But what does the term actually mean? And what’s the history behind the word?

Sapphic is an umbrella term describing women who love women (WLW), which includes lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, trans women, non-binary people and more. Differing slightly from words like “lesbian” or “bisexual”, the term “sapphic” could encapsulate any women, of any orientation, who love women.

The identity “sapphic” even has its own flag – which shows two pink stripes on the top and bottom, symbolising love, with a lavender centre stripe. The centre stripe features a pair of violets, depicting the love between two women.

What is the history behind the term sapphic?

The word dates back to the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who lived on the isle of Lesbos (yes, Sappho is also the reason why lesbians are called lesbians) around the end of the seventh and start of the sixth century BCE.

Sappho was known for penning beautiful poems dedicated to her love for women, and is thought of as the first prominent lesbian artist, hence her hometown being adopted by linguists as the term to describe WLW.

Her poems have been loved by the WLW community since her time, with themes of desire and yearning relatable even thousands of years later.

“I cannot weave – slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a girl,” one of Sappho’s poems reads, with many translating this verse to align with the more modern, “too gay to function”.

According to the Brooklyn Museum, while Sappho was acclaimed during her lifetime, the church in the 4th century criticised her work for its lesbian imagery and destroyed it, with her poetry seeing a revival in the Renaissance.

So if you identify with the terms “lesbian” or “sapphic”, you have a 2,500-year-old Greek poet to thank!