Given modern perceptions of Sappho it is, I am sure, going to seem at a minimum counterintuitive that early Christians would have had an interest in Sappho. The issue is not helped by the fact that a story about Saint Gregory of Nazianzus ordering the burning of Sappho’s poetry has been frequently repeated both in print and online. There is no basis for it in any reliable historical source. Mention is first made of it in the Renaissance, possibly as the result of confusing attitudes and policies of later times with those of Gregory’s time. Whatever the explanation, it is ironic any credence was given to such a story, for not only was Gregory very interested in Sappho in particular, but he was also a keen advocate for appreciating the relevance to Christianity of art and literature generally. A prominent figure in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Gregory is not well known to ‘Western’ Christianity, especially among English speaking Christians. An excellent place to familiarize yourself with him is a brief talk given by John McGuckin, who is a priest, poet and scholar at Columbia University, available on youtube here.
There are a variety of possible explanations for Gregory’s interest in Sappho that relate to both his personal circumstances as well as how Sappho had been received within the Judaeo-Christian tradition in ancient times. It is worth noting that Gregory was from what is today a region of Turkey occupied by Hittites in very ancient times. That happens to be an area that Sappho may have had some cultural connection with, for modern linguistic analysis suggests that her name, which does not mean anything in Greek, derives from Hittite or a related ancient Turkish language. What did ‘Sappho’ mean in Hittite? ‘Holy one.’ I am basing this on an article by Edwin Brown that is available online here for those who want more granularity. Continue reading “Sappho & Early Christianity by Stuart Dean”