Sappho & Science


It should not be as surprising as it seems that medical knowledge and practice is implicated in what is to be found in poetry.  In many ancient cultures poetry was the primary way of 'encapsulating' what in effect were prescriptions for how to live a healthy life.

By far the most important area of medicine implicated by Sappho's poetry is the study of sexual chemistry (hormones) and behavior.  My interest in this area dates back to a course I took at Tulane in 1974 from Dr. Arnold Gerall.  Though today the discipline most closely associated with this is neuroscience, it nevertheless also implicates psychology generally (Gerall was in the Psychology Department).

For Issues Related Primarily to Reproductive Theory and Associated Practices in Antiquity:

The Physician Luke, the Virgin Mary and the Poet Sappho (May 3, 2014)(this relates to the unique idea of 'virginity' in early Greek thought (it is a key concept for Sappho) and the two seed theory of human reproduction implicit in the story of Christ's conception)

Notes and references for The Physician Luke, the Virgin Mary and the Poet Sappho 

Before Misogyny Contaminated Theology (June 22, 2014)(this relates primarily to Plato's inexplicable departure from the sexual egalitarianism of Parmenides (for whom Socrates had an almost religious reverence) in favor of a misogynistic characterization of women as effectively an inferior species of humans relative to men)

Notes and references for Before Misogyny Contaminated Theology

The Mother of Socrates: Priestess, Pharmacist, Obstetrician (November 5, 2015)(this discusses the (a) 'medicinal' use of poetry, (b) practice of contraception and abortion and (c) two seed theory (Parmenides again) and matchmaking predicated on it that is arguably analogous to modern genetic counseling).

Artemis As Artemisia: Ancient Female Spirituality & Modern Medicine (November 29, 2015)(this discusses the possibility that Sappho intuitively understood Artemisia as having insect repellent properties that would make it likely to be useful as a contraceptive/abortifacient).

For Issues Related to Psychology:

Sappho's Prescription For A Healthy Heart  & the Taoist/Buddhist Concept of Forget (忘)(May 7, 2015)

Notes and References for Sappho's Prescription For A Healthy Heart

 Sappho, Frankincense & Female Spirituality (July 2, 2015) 

Notes and References for Sappho, Frankincense & Female Spirituality

Mathematics & Astronomy:

My interest in Sappho with respect to mathematics and astronomy as well as other scientific issues derives from growing up with a professor of physics for a father.  To learn a bit about him read my short essay: My Father, France, and Le Bataille des Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge)


Sappho was both a metrical virtuoso and must also have been a consummate choreographer.  Implicit in her ability to be both is a sophisticated level of mathematical ability that deserves more attention.  I have a short essay on her meters here: Sappho's Meters.

My interest in the history and philosophy of mathematics was greatly influenced by a wonderful Polish professor of the philosophy of science, Helena Eilstein.  Here is a post I wrote paying homage to her influence on me.


It is clear from several of her poems that Sappho was a bit of a night owl.  I wrote a short essay on this for Women in Astronomy: Sappho and the Origins of Ancient Greek Astronomy.

Observations she makes about the moon and stars are among the first such observations recorded in a Western language.  This hardly means she was an astronomer, but she appears to evince a knowledge (a) that the moon reflects sunlight and (b) of the identity of the morning and evening star.  The attribution of such knowledge to the Greeks has traditionally been dated later than Sappho's time by as much as a century.

It is impossible to know whether Sappho had a fully developed world view or cosmology but there is no reason to doubt that she viewed the world as spherical surrounded by one or more celestial spheres.  Here is a link to a video posted on youtube that is based on a program of the Planetarium of Milan that seems to me to accurately reflect ancient Greek/Roman cosmology.

Fragment 81 can be read allegorically in a manner that suggests a cosmology very similar to that of Parmenides that suggests at a minimum the two identified with the same religious/philosophical tradition.  


Sappho's many references to and/or descriptions of grass, flowers and trees do not make her a botanist, but  after you take a look at Sappho's Garden, a list of all the words she uses in those descriptions and references along with photographs of each, I think you will agree with me she had the potential to be one.