Works of the ancient poets have a unique ability to give us a glimpse into their culture. “He’s More Than a Hero to Me” by the Greek poet Sappho who lived somewhere between 630 B.C.E. and 570 B.C.E. is one of the few from her volumes of writing salvaged. She is one of the few well known female poets of her time, and wrote mostly lyric pieces likely meant to be part of a stage performance.
Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos into an aristocratic family. Her work has mostly been lost to history by the deterioration of the papyrus that she wrote on. Because of her fame during the ancient world and fragments of her volumes of poems, translators have interpreted a few of her lyrics. Some have tried to translate them according to modern meter and style, but there is a new interest in reviving the meter from which she wrote.
Sappho was also translated and referred to in other ancient writing by poets and philosophers of the time. One thing that is widely accepted is that her sexual preference was women. The term Lesbian actually means from Lesbos, but has been adopted for women who identify with Sappho because of their own sexual preference. “He is More Than a Hero” is a passionate piece written to one of the women she felt sexually drawn to, even in love with. The first line has been used as a title but it is difficult to know if it is a complete work.
The breaking of stanzas in this may be an attempt by the translator to put the lyric into the meter with the original line breaks. However, it is difficult to know how accurate these breaks may be.
He is more than a hero
he is a god in my eyes--
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you – he
The first four lines indicate why ‘He’ is important. Sappho says “he is more than a hero, he is a god in my eyes”, but the reason for this sentiment is in the next two lines. The next two lines reveal the target of her passion. The man of this poem is special only because of the woman at his side. To Sappho the subject of her love and passion could only be taken by a man worthy of being a god.
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
These lines continue this dedication. The emphasis is on the “sweet murmur of your voice…” The words are words of desire and passion (sweet, enticing).
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can't
The break of these stanzas is probably a mistake to some extent. Sappho may have meant the line to continue without interruption to the next line. In the above lines Sappho implies that her desire is sexual. The subject’s laughter makes her “heart beat fast.”
speak -- my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
The end of the second and all of the third line above are a part of the following three lines. Sappho is so taken by sexual tension that she can’t speak and continues on to write of a “thin flame…under my skin,” which is synonymous with saying “you make my blood hot with desire.”
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn't far from me
Finally Sappho’s sexual arousal is reaching a fever pitch. She’s shaking, sweating, and feels like she’s dying. This part almost sounds as if she’s having an orgasm. Reaching the peak of a sexual experience is often referred to as like dying.
This lyrical poem portrays the passionate person that Sappho was. She was not afraid to admit it in her writing or probably in front of others as a part of a song for the theatre. This lack of embarrassment which is evident in other of her works speaks of a society that is not bound by anyone else’s standards. Most of her biography is found through the writings of other people of ancient Greece, Egypt and even Rome of the time.
The Greeks were devoted to learning, athletics, music, theatre and the formation of democracy by the time Plato was in the picture. Sappho was highly regarded by Plato who wrote of her as the tenth muse nearly two hundred years later. The ancient Greeks gods were not limited to male figures, which belies that they totally subjugated women. Sappho’s love for same sex partners is well documented and that makes “He is more than a hero” important because we realize through our analysis that the “He” is not the target of her devotion and affection.