An “awkward” moment of Sapho’s heritage that lasts?

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“Greek-American Paul Thymou [centre], resident of the Aegean island of Lesbos, holds a banner and Dimitris Lambru [left], who brought the case to the court Photo: AFP/GETTY ” from the aricle of the newspaper “Telegraph”

A 10-minutes-length documentary titled “Lesbians vs Lesbians” . In the year of 2008, a duet of islanders have taken to the court the president of ΟΛΚΕ [Homosexual Lesvian Community of Greece], Evangelia Vlami because of using the name “lesbian” to refer to sexual identity. The court decided to let both of the lesbians use this term. Though, Dimitris Lambru says that will continue this case to the European Court of Human Rights for the right of geographical identity.

In an article by the anthropologist Venetia Kantsa, I found the following note that allows as to have a summarized history of the term “lesbian”.

“According to Lardinois, in “Lesbian Sapho and Sapho of Lesvos”, the use of the noun lesbianism to suggest women’s homosexuality dates back to 1870. The British were late to adopt the term compared to the French, who had used it since 1842, and the Dutch, who had started to use it soon after 1847. Hallet argues that sapphism and sapphic officially appeared in the English language only in the 1890s, when British medical authorities used them to label what they judged to be psychopathlogical behavior (“Sapho and Her Social Context”, 451-52). Sapphism first appears in Billing’s National Medical Dictionary of 1890 to denote same-sex relations between women. The terms lesbian and lesbianism have different histories. Their roots are in the Attic comedy of the fifth century B.C., when the verb lesbi[a]zein [to act like one from Lesvos]was used to denote fellatio performed by females. Only in 1890 was the temr lesbian endowed with a medical sense and related to same-sex relations between women.”

Kantsa, Venetia. “‘Certain Places Have Different Energy’: Spatial Transformations in Eresos, Lesvos.” GLQ 8.1 (2002): 35-55.

The documentary was held by Journeyman Pictures and produced by ABC Australia. It constantly rotates between two main stereotypes “Ancient Greece” and “Balkan Greece”. The musical background adds to those rotations. For example, the film begins with the view of the sea, a music right from Olympus “the mountain of the Gods” and the narration of the poet of the 6th century B.C. Sapho and the various sculptures of her that are placed around Lesvos. This “ancient” sense changes immediately when the music turns balkan and we are transfered outside of the court in Athens, full of journalists and protesters.

“In the fertile hills of central Lesbos, the publisher Dimitris Lambrou nurtures his Lesbian vines — the exact variety of grape favoured by the ancient Lesbians.  
As a scholar of the classics, he remains fiercely protective of a history and identity that goes back at least 2,800 years.”

What Vatsikopulos narrates while we watch Mr. Lambru take care of his vienyard.
Album: Sapho de Mytilene by Angelique Ionatos & Nena Venetsanou Song: Mite mi meli
poems of Sapho sang in either ancient greek or modern trasnlated by Odysseas Elytis.

As I got informed by Kantsa’s scientific article, the sexual orientation of Sapho used to be a taboo among her translators. So, they used to use masculin gender and not femenin when she was revealing her love to a woman. Only a lot later this changed. Moreover, it refers to the lesbians that started to visit the village of Eressos in the ’70s because of the origin of Sapho that is considered the first feminist among lesbian comunities.

Mr Lambrou notes in the documentary that lesbians are asking for rights and he isn’t against them. He has no problem them marrying in Lesvos and coming for vaccation. The problem is that they “stole” the name from Lesbians. Other people that are asked in the documentary comment that lesbian women feel ashamed to be considered as lesbians. There is a woman that is both Lesbian and Lesbian and states proud for both of her identities!

Kantsa summarizes the lesbian’s presence in Eressos form the 70’s till the 00’s and the local’s reaction. In this sum up we can follow up how the locals vision transformed by the affect of tourism. Her work is based on narrations of lesbian women. Some of them note moments of violence against them in the beginnings. Communication and the economical aspect balanced the situation. Nowadays, there are many lesbians living in Eressos half the year and few the whole year round. Moreover, there is a Woman Festival during the Sepember in the Skala Eressos.

I found a pretty interesting novel by Thomas Korovinis published in a lesbian electronic newspaper. It narrates the meeting of two lesbians with the first couple of lesbians in the port of Mytilene back in the ’70’s. He says that it is a true story. Then, the anchorage of the ship ‘Sapho” that connected Piraeus with Mytilene used to be rare and natives were watching as a spectacle what new the ship has brought in the island. Once, when two girls- obviously foreigners- were trying to communicate with two old ladies asking which is the road to Eressos – the origin of Sapho. They couldn’t understand each other till a man that spoke french showed up and helped them manage the way to Eressos. Then e started explaining to the old ladies that these women love women and that they are called lesbians. The old ladies note “gusto’ts ti s’mel” that could be translated as “they do what they like, why to care” and that from now on there will be to types of lesbians.

” -Τούτες οι νεαρές, λοιπόν, συνηθίζουν να συνέρχονται εις ερωτικήν, συναισθηματικήν και σαρκικήν επικοινωνίαν. – Δηλαδή, όπως κάνει ο άντρας με τη γ’ ναίκα; ρώτησε η Ελένη. -Μάλιστα. -Μαρή, άκ’ σες, Μερσούδα, α πα, πα, παγαίνεν η μια με τ’ ν’ άλλη! -Ε, μαρή, γούστο τ’ς, τι σε μέλλ’; Αφού δε γκαστρώνονται, ας παγαίνεν. Τ’ μαμή πλερώνεν’, για τα γεννητούρια; Και δε με λες, ρε άθρωπε, πως τις λεν τούτες; -Τούτες τις λεν λεσβίες. -Αμ, τι λες, μωρό μ; Αμα είναι τούτες λεσβίες, τότε εμείς τι είμαστε; Λεσβίες είμαστε και μεις. Απ’ τ’ Λέσβο δεν είμαστι; Αμ, τι είμαστι; -Εσείς, κυράδες μου, είστε Λέσβιες. -Αμ’ τι μας λες; λεσβίες τ ‘ς λένε τούτες, Λεσβίες είμαστε κι εμείς. Κι έτσι, να μην έχει κανείς παράπονου. Θα’ χουμι δυο λογιώ Λεσβίες.”

A photogaph of the exhibition in the village of Eressos the summer of 2009 about “Brides of Eressos 1900-1950”

Almost a year after the court there was a photographic exhibition in the village of Eressos runned by a collector of old photographs. The theme was “Brides of Eressos: 1900-1950”. The collectionist comments that the brides don’t laugh in their wedding photos. Although, as I can see, there’s none laughing in the photo.


  1. Emma Crouch

    It is interesting – when did smiling in photographs become a thing, and why was it not before?
    We seem to have repeating themes when looking at most situations – what is ‘rightfully’ mine, what has been ‘stolen’, who gets to claim heritage – what does language erase, and how important is identity to language and sense of self.

    1. Argyro Daskalaki Well, it is not a sciientific article, but it rises some possible answers on your question on laughing. I suppose that laughing could have different interpretations throughout the history. What amaze me in these kind of questions and ethnography is that norms for us here and now could be extremely weird for others, somewhere and somewhen.

      My question on laughing in the specific photograph was: Why did the author mention that the bride isn’t laughing, since none is laughing? What did he think when he note that? Which were his intentions?

      When it comes to the identity issue and as @vibeke mentioned above,your comments rise a connection between belonging and owning. There is a “need” of belonging and this is expressed in concrete “materials” as a geographically determined area, a language, and a History. What happens though when you are not the only “owner”? Then historical thinking comes to rearrange this “need” and question when and under what circumstances that “need” was cosntructed.

      Thank you Emma and Vibeke for your reflections on my assignment.

  2. Argyro Daskalaki

    Vibeke, the words’ similarity depends on the following.

    The words Lesbian and Lesbian in greek are not the same in the case of describing a female person. Since the greek language is accented the lesbians by sexual orientation are pronounced as Λεσβίες (Le-SVI-es) with the accent in the second syllabe, while the lesbians by geographical orientation are accented in the first syllabe Λέσβιες (LE-svi-es). The words are similar when used as adjectives describing objects λεσβιακός, -η, -ο (lesviakos, -i, -o).

  3. Astrid Birgitta Cyrus

    So interesting that there is this difference , when spoken…so the feud was then about how somebody could mistake the one Lesbian from the other, when written about? I loved the answer from the two old ladies, thats the spirit,…if only more people could learn from them:)

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