Bilitis said she knew Sappho, truly one of the greatest lesbian love poets who ever existed. She claimed to be a contemporary, a confidant of Sappho. And she wrote some of the most lurid lesbian poetry yet written.
All of this was quite scandalous in 19th century Paris, a city known for accommodating lovers.
You see, the world only had fragments of Sappho’s work, just enough to tease its collective imagination. Then here came a full book full of erotic lesbian love poems, and oh my! what a scandal.
I scoured the pages of “The Songs of Bilitis” to find one that I might publish here, one that might give you a taste of the flavor of the Bilitis poems. Here is one:
Carefully, with one hand, she opened her tunic and tendered me her breasts, warm and sweet, just as one offers the goddess a pair of living turtle-doves.
“Love them well,” she said to me, “I love them so! They are little darlings, little children. I busy myself with them when I am alone. I play with them; I pleasure them.
“I flush them with milk. I powder them with flowers. I dry them with my fine-spun hair, soft to their little nipples. I caress them and I shiver. I couch them in soft wool.
“Since I shall never have a child, be their nursling, oh! my love, and since they are so distant from my mouth, kiss them, sweet, for me.”
Many of these poems deal with children or nymph like creatures. Some are fairly innocuous. Virtually none of them deal with a sincere Love as you and I know it. They lack imagery or creativity. They are, simply put, written for the sake of sensation.
Enter the Real Bilitis
All of this was challenge enough to Sappho’s reputation. But then the truth came out.
Not only were these poems a fake, but the “translator” was a man! Honest. This is nothing more than a male fantasy wrapped in a lesbian love poet’s influence.
The “translator” hoax-ster was one Michael Louys. He did it rather cleverly, actually. He incorporated quotes from Sappho’s poetry into his own. And he even developed a list of phony “references”, which no one bothered to check for quite some time.
The Cultural Significance of Bilitis
The name “Bilitis” has crept into lesbian lexicon almost accidentally. In the mid 1950’s the Daughters of Bilitis (“DOB”) was formed in San Francisco. It was originally conceived as a social club for lesbians who wanted to avoid the bar scene, and has evolved into a nationwide social activist group that helps lesbians, both legally and socially. The organization’s leaders chose that name to remain obscure, since the lesbian choice was illegal in most of the U.S. The DOB became an active force in gay rights throughout the country in the latter half of the 20th century.
There is a French movie titled “Bilitis” about a teenage girl exploring her sexual options while on summer vacation. Here is the haunting theme from that movie, sung by the incomparable Sarah Brightman. It is on her album “Time To Say Goodby”.
There is also a Los Angeles actors’ group that has created the story of the hoax in a very sensual, sexy presentation.
The tale of Bilitis is lurid, and one I suspect that movie makers and writers will latch onto even more in the coming decade. It is unfortunate that the name became so closely linked to that of Sappho, for Sappho herself was an amazing lyrical lesbian love poet.