Sappho, the Royal Alexandria Library, and Counterculture Archiving

By Jules Petersen, SMA Summer 2018 Intern

Some men say an army of horses and some men say an army on foot

and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing

on the black earth. But I say it is what you love.

– Sappho, Fragment 16, translated by Anne Carson

I have loved Sappho’s poetry for a long time, and I’ve been thinking about how the first time I really ached for LGBTQ history was when I read her fragments. Anne Carson writes, in If Not, Winter, that “Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp…” (xi, If Not, Winter) But that drama was only sadness to me. I wanted to read more of Sappho’s work, and as I learned more about LGBTQ history, knew there must have been other great queer artists, writers, scholars, and creators that history has ignored.

someone will remember us

I say

even in another time

– Sappho, Fragment 47, translated by Anne Carson

Remembering is an act. When we remember we are shoring up the affect of someone’s life. Who we have decided to write about in the history books tells one story, who we have left out tells another. How we choose to remember people, if at all, creates a narrative that influences the future.

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me—

sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in

– Sappho, Fragment 130, translated by Anne Carson

Those brief glimpses into another, strangely familiar world were so touching. If women were loving women thousands of years ago, and we had lost that knowledge, then what else were we missing? The desire for more knowledge haunted me. How many other epics, lyrics, and odes devoted to queer love have we missed? How many have crossed the earth, or maybe just a palm, and then dissolved? We will never know Sappho’s full body of work. And that is a loss to the world.

While working at the SMA, I learned about the origin of The Sexual Minorities Archives and the name changes it has undergone. It was originally named the New Alexandria Lesbian Library to honor the loss of the greatest library of all time, the Royal Library of Alexandria, which existed in Egypt in the 3rd century BCE. The Royal Library was a paragon of knowledge, it was unmatched in the amount of scrolls, information, and records it held. The library was special in that it existed during matriarchal times, it held complete Sappho’s works as well as proof of women’s work as mariners. It was founded by Alexander the Great, and was then under the direction of Ptolemy I Soter. The work of the Library was to archive the knowledge of the entire world, and there were many scholars working there whose entire task was to copy every single piece of parchment they could find. Horrifyingly, the Library was determined to be an act of heresy by rapidly spreading Christianity, and according to some sources the library was burned and ransacked at Pope Virgil’s command. There were several more fires that probably happened, as the specifics have been contested, but regardless, the outcome was the huge loss of priceless public knowledge.

The information from and about entire civilizations was lost. It was the largest library of its time and kind. Book-burning has been used as a tool of domination for centuries. The loss of records ensures a cultural and knowledge vacuum: people growing up lose that culture, they lose that legacy and the ability to know themselves in vital ways.

yes! radiant lyre speak to me

become a voice

– Sappho, Fragment 118, translated by Anne Carson

The gathering and maintenance of information, especially that of LGBTQ people, is important because it helps us see the truth in the face of lies that have been against us. We have always existed throughout the world, in wonderful and diverse forms and ways. There are so many gifts we have shared throughout history that deserve to be honored, that we can learn from today. I’ve been thinking a lot about how fear dissolves communities, and how often ignorance justifies fear. We have so much to learn from those who have gone before us. I’m learning that if we don’t work to keep our histories alive, knowledge falls through our hands like water—or is taken from us, to the detriment of all. Sharing information is as vital as storing it—history means nothing unless people use it.

One of my favorite poems is Rita Mae Brown’s Sappho’s Reply. I wove it into the spring newsletter, but I think it bears repeating. Writing about Sappho and learning about the Royal Alexandria LIbrary made me consider this poem in a different light. It is beautiful, sad and loving, but in the end it is only an assumption, a hope, a prayer. A desire spoken in the voice of someone we will never know.

My voice rings down through thousands of years

to coil around your body and give you strength,

you who have wept in direct sunlight,

who have hungered in invisible chains,

tremble to the cadence of my legacy:

an army of lovers shall not fail.

Working at the SMA, I think a lot about counterculture archiving, the preservation of information of oppressed groups, and the support and uplifting those communities deserve. What does normal or institutionally approved archiving accept, edit, and deliver as truth?

I see accounts in the SMA of tireless work for progress and growth, of grand love and passion to change communities, and of creation, care, and innovation. I’m tired of loss looming large. I want the full picture, the one where counterculture archiving holds history to the light and shows us a new way forward. What a gift it is to see someone’s entire life cataloged and shared, where there otherwise would be a space filled with rumor, enforced heterosexuality, and fear. I know now that archives should not be dispensaries of institutionally approved information, but a space where a community can learn together, where we can build each other up.

“Nowhere in history do we find a beginning, but always a continuation…How then shall we understand the end, if the beginning remains a mystery?” J.J. Bachofen, quoted in The First Sex

Jules Petersen is a third-year student at Hampshire College. They study communications, pedagogy, facilitation, and social theory. They like poetry, LGBTQ history, and cooking. They work with the Ethics and Common Good Project (ECG) and are interning at the Sexual Minorities Archives this summer through a social justice grant awarded through ECG.

Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 2002.

Davis, Elizabeth. The First Sex. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1971.

Haughton, Brian. “What Happened to the Great Library of Alexandria?” Ancient History Encyclopedia, February 1, 2011.