Throwback Thursday: Sappho & the purple headband

This week’s Throwback Thursday post is about the Greek poet, Sappho, and a gift she couldn't give.

Few facts exist about the woman who we now refer to as ‘the first woman poet’, ‘tenth muse’ and slightly-misinterpreted icon of lesbianism.

We do know that she was a native of the Greek island of Lesbos, located a few miles from the Turkish coast. We know that she lived on the island during the late seventh and early sixth century B.C but did spend time in Sicily as a political exile. It is believed she married and had at least one daughter, Cleis.

Her lyric poetry survives on fragments of papyrus. One poem, addressed to daughter Cleis, caught my eye.

Dr. Philip Freeman, Harvard classicist and author of the excellent Searching For Sappho, kindly gave me permission to reproduce his translation:

For my mother used to say

That when she was young it was

A great ornament if someone had her hair

Bound in a purple headband.

But for a girl whose hair

is yellower than a flaming torch…

Crowns adorned with

blooming flowers…

Recently a decorated headband

…from Sardis


But for you, Cleis, I have no beautiful headband

Nor do I know how to get one.


In this fragment, Sappho remembers her mother’s words that when she was a girl, there was no finer adornment than a purple headband. For fair-haired girls, flowers were the perfect ornamentation.

However, more is conveyed in this poem than just mother-daughter style advice.

It is a sad and nostalgic poem; not only is Sappho unable to give her own daughter  a headband, we get the impression of Sappho as a displaced figure, separated from the people and places able to supply such a thing. Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, was a busy centre for trade would have been the obvious shopping destination for Sappho but she seems unable to get there. Perhaps this is a poem created in exile. 

The idea of separation is compounded through her reminiscences. She is separated from her mother by time. 

Though I've talked about separation, it's connection which has kept Sappho's legacy alive. Sappho’s work survives because she can describe human experience in such a way that a modern reader can identify immediately. For example, she describes love as a ‘loosener of limbs’  and  ‘a subtle/fire races beneath my skin./ I see nothing with my eyes/ and my ears hum’. She felt it as we feel it.

The shared experiences don’t stop there. Extensive googling proves that beautiful purple headbands are just as hard to come by today as 2600 years ago.  I challenge you to find one. It doesn’t even need to come from Sardis (modern-day Turkey).

And I agree with Sappho's mother, flower crowns are the perfect ornamentation and are much easier to come by.

The index picture I’ve used with this blog was kindly provided by Bee from The Honeycomb. Bee makes the most beautiful silk floral crowns by hand. Evidence below! 

Philip Freeman's Searching for Sappho is out in the U.S and will be released in the UK on the 11th March. I picked it up during my recent trip to America and I'm so glad I did. It is a fantastic read for anyone interested in literature, history, women's studies or classics.