Much of what we think we know about Sappho is apocryphal, conjecture, invented, or wrong, maybe even her name. (Sappho calls herself Psappho.) Yet somehow we feel we know her, that she is speaking directly to us across chasms of time, language, geography, and alphabets. And this is only from one, perhaps two, complete poems and a smattering of fragments from the nine-scroll corpus known in antiquity.
What we can reasonably say is that she was born on the island of Lesbos and flourished around 600 b.c., that she composed in the Aeolic dialect, that she probably had a daughter named Cleis—and thus, by deduction, a mother named Cleis, since (then as now) Greeks named grandchildren after their grandparents. She was a musician as well as a poet—her poems should properly be regarded as lyrics—and she was considered by the ancients to be the inventor of the plectrum—roughly, a guitar pick—and the Mixolydian mode. (It’s as if she invented the blues note.) Her poems are often addressed longingly to young women.