Beauty & The Beast: A Legacy Of Sappho’s Influence On Ancient Medicine, Literature & Philosophy

One of the most fascinating aspects of assessing the possible influence of Sappho on a range of disciplines with which she is not typically associated, including medicine and philosophy, relates to a poem that today is generally interpreted as providing a detailed description of sexual arousal and orgasm (S.31). The influence it had in antiquity was substantial, attested by imitations and/or literary echoes of it, beginning possibly as early as Plato’s Phaedrus. In addition to the literary and philosophical influence of S.31, it is today generally agreed that there is strong evidence that S.31 was interpreted by Greek physicians as an endorsement of the importance of orgasm to health (of both men and women).

None of this received much attention in modern times until the late 20th century, when a convergence of factors, including the increasing number of women involved in studying Classical history, allowed for accurate translations and candid assessments of the relevant texts. Because of the long neglect of the study of Sappho in the broader context that the influence of S.31 requires, there are many implications that have yet to be explored because few people are even aware of the evidence (including recent discoveries of more of her poetry in 2004 and again in 2014) that justifies such exploration. There is evidence, for example, that Greek women were exclusively in charge of the practice of family medicine at around the time of Sappho and roughly a century thereafter. Granting such authority to women has no precedent or parallel (though recent developments in neuroscience validates doing so). The fact that the practice of medicine by Greek women seems to have related in part to a mature appreciation of sexuality’s relevance to physical and spiritual (metaphysical) well being is especially striking compared even to modern standards.

A Case Study In The Influence Of Sappho

There is one text by Apuleius (a second century CE North African Roman) where the influence of S.31 can be detected with respect to medicine (his Apology (a legal brief)) that is especially significant because it can also be related to another work by him that was inspired in part by Plato’s Phaedrus and is thus philosophical: the Cupid and Psyche episode in his Metamorphoses (hereafter “C&P” — the inspiration for a much later French folktale that is the basis for Beauty and the Beast). In addition, the evidence suggests that both works reflect the involvement to some degree of a woman, his wife: Pudentilla. The implications of this are difficult to overstate. It allows for inferences to be made that relate to developments back to Sappho and even earlier in medicine, literature and philosophy (understood in the broad sense to include what is today known as theology and psychology). It also arguably mandates a fresh assessment of the influence — as well as neglect — of C&P itself over the nearly two millennia since its composition. Such influence and neglect relate to a range of issues that include, but are not limited to, women’s rights and respect for — rather than denigration of — sexuality.

The Sympathetic Literary Portrait Of Pudentilla: A Rarity In Ancient Literature

The evidence for Pudentilla (whose name is formed from the Latin verb that means, inter alia, “to be modest”) in general is unusually strong compared to that for most other ancient women, most of whom are little more than names to us. Furthermore, it is unusually sympathetic compared to the misogynistic caricatures that typify how women were portrayed in ancient literature. Based on Apuleius’s own statements (that there is good reason to believe are substantially accurate), she was, when he met her, a wealthy widow in her early 40s, perhaps as much as ten years older than he was, if not more. Furthermore, because he quotes from a letter she wrote in Greek, it is apparent that she was very well educated. In addition, she took an active role in managing the property she controlled directly or on behalf of her three adult children — indeed, the management of that property led to the lawsuit to which the Apology relates.

Among other things, Apuleius needed to defend the legitimacy of his marriage to Pudentilla from the accusation made by some of her relatives that it was effectively a fraud that he had somehow induced her into entering into using some form of magic. As part of his argument he cites information that only Pudentilla could have provided him and who would surely have needed to approve of the exact wording he used in describing it in the Apology. The information relates to the fact that Pudentilla was advised by her physicians to remarry in order to keep her healthier than she otherwise had been. The advice is consistent with what is known of the influence of S.31 on ancient Greek medicine (although it is at a minimum problematic to generalize from what is known of the practice of medicine at around the time of Sappho to how it was practiced where and when Pudentilla lived).

Here is a translation of the passage (from Section 69 of the Apology):

. . . she [Pudentilla] resolved that she wouldn’t remain a widow any longer. She might be able to bear the tedium of solitude, but she was unable to endure her bodily suffering. A woman of blessed chastity, after so many years of widowhood without fault or gossip, languishing without conjugal care and made ill [saucia] by the long inactivity of her organs — the insides of her uterus were damaged — she was exhausted by sudden pains, often to the very edge of death. The doctors agreed with the midwives that the cause of the disease could be found in the absence of a marriage, that the evil would grow day by day, and the suffering would get worse. While any health remained, her health was to be healed by marriage. [bolding is mine for ease of reference in connection with my discussion]

The translation of the entire work, along with the Latin text can be found on the internet (currently at least) at a site maintained by Georgetown University here. There are, however, many other ways the text can be accessed and many other translations into other modern languages (see the links at the end of this post).

Though some have argued Apuleius may have had in mind a reference to the tradition of hysteria — the ‘wandering uterus’ — found in Plato’s Timaeus (91c), that reference is a full two centuries after Sappho and only implies, but does not explicitly mention, the risk of death from the condition to which it refers. By contrast, S.31 is in particular famous for Sappho’s characterization of sexual arousal/orgasm as triggering a near death experience. Though the medical practice attested by the Apology subordinates the role of women relative to that found at the time of Socrates, the recognition of the importance of sexuality is roughly analogous to what was prevalent at such time and contrasts sharply with what was to come in the centuries and millennia afterwards, especially in North Africa.

The Relationship Of The Physical (Sexual) To The Metaphysical (Spiritual)

Although a suggestion was made over a decade ago that Apuleius’s marriage with Pudentilla inspired the C&P episode in the Metamorphoses (see Harrison, Apuleius, A Latin Sophist), I have not seen any follow up on that suggestion (but I am mindful there may be some — I just want to be clear that what follows is independent of it). There is, however, persuasive evidence that it indeed did inspire C&P and such evidence further suggests that C&P and hence all of the Metamorphoses deserves the serious attention that at least some scholars and translators have insisted it should have. Given the case for Pudentilla’s involvement in the drafting of the Apology it is worth considering the possibility that not just C&P but the entire Metamorphoses should be considered a joint production of Apuleius and Pudentilla. It is narratologically framed as a woman’s story: it purports to be a story an old servant woman tells a young woman in an effort to console her for having been abducted (i.e., it is a story told to a woman, by a woman, about a woman (Psyche)), who at the end of the story we learn gives birth to — a daughter.

Pudentilla = Psyche

Given that Psyche is portrayed as a young virgin, it might seem implausible that Pudentilla should be equated with her. But, assuming that Pudentilla had reached menopause that is in fact not implausible at all: postmenopausal women were referred to by some ancient Greeks as ‘virgins’ (parthenoi). Furthermore, from the philosophical viewpoint of Apuleius (and presumably Pudentilla), which can be loosely characterized as Neo-Platonic (albeit merged with worship of a goddess (Isis = Aphrodite) to a degree not commonly associated with Plato’s philosophy at any time period), Pudentilla as a psyche, if not the Psyche of C&P, was ageless. Consistent with the original meaning of the term ‘metaphysical’ as used by Empedocles (whose worship of Aphrodite is relevant to interpreting Apuleius), spiritual transcendence was as often as not thought of as horizontal (metempsychosis, metamorphosis) rather than vertical (going up to heaven).

Thus, it would be unfair to consider Apuleius merely to be flattering Pudentilla by basing the much younger Psyche on her: there is more — much more — to it than that. Underlying the sympathetic portrayal of Psyche is a profound respect for the unique importance of female spirituality that while it is metaphysical (as the very meaning of the name Psyche signifies) is at once manifested — revealed — physically. It is, for example, up to Psyche’s mindfulness (keeping her pregnancy secret) as to whether the child she carries will be divine or mortal (strongly suggesting her character was in part intended to be contrasted with the Virgin Mary (with either positive or negative implications with respect to Christianity — the ambiguity itself may be deliberate (in this regard note the meaning of ‘Pudentilla’ in Latin mentioned above))(Met. V.11.6). The power thus attributed to a woman is underscored by how the sexual act itself is marginalized (as a quick penetration (de brevi punctulo)) versus the amount of growth produced from the ‘rich womb [or: uterus]’ (locupletis uteri)(Met. V.12.2). Although far more detailed than anything that can be attributed to Sappho, such empowerment and the way it relates the metaphysical with the physical is consistent with what can be discerned in several fragments of her poetry as well as the complete poem (S.58b) discovered and published for the first time in 2004.

C&P = Epithalamium

A genre of poetry well attested in antiquity and which survived into relatively recent times was the epithalamium or wedding song. The author who ‘owned’ that genre in ancient Greece was Sappho. Though only fragments of Sappho’s epithalamia survive (S.31 may be one) there should be little doubt but that they were well known to Pudentilla, whose knowledge of Greek can be taken as evidence of a thorough training in the Greek literary tradition. As a mother, such poetry would have been especially likely to have been known to her, as it seems to have originally been used as a vehicle for prophetic statements about what sort of children a couple would produce (even if, as noted earlier, the actual practice of medicine from Sappho’s time cannot be reliably generalized to where and when Pudentilla lived).

Therefore, it is likely that C&P incorporates elements of Sappho’s poetry to a far greater extent than can now be appreciated. It is worth noting that Apuleius briefly refers approvingly to Sappho’s poetry in the Apology (Section 9). By itself that might not seem surprising, but Apuleius is the only ancient author to refer to Sappho in a way that demonstrates he had studied her in detail as evidence by his having learned her Aeolic dialect (which by his time was an arcane, ‘dead’ language).

A literary ‘echo’ of S.31 has been previously noted in how Psyche is diagnosed with ‘love sickness’ at Metamorphoses V. 25. What has not been noted (to my knowledge) is that one adjective Apuleius uses to describe her condition is identical to one he uses in describing Pudentilla’s condition in the Apology: saucia. That is no accident: he uses the same adjective earlier in describing Psyche’s condition before her transmigratory ‘marriage’ with Cupid (Met. IV. 32), where it is, in contrast to a physical illness, characterized as referring to a psychological one (animus = mind in Latin, which was not always sharply distinguished from the feminine cognate anima = psyche/soul). Given the risk of death Apuleius associated with Pudentilla’s condition it would seem to indicate he thought of it as having the sort of psychological/spiritual dimension analogous to that represented/symbolized by Psyche.

A Preliminary Assessment Of The Philosophical Implications

There are a number of implications related to assessing C&P as a philosophical work (with ‘philosophical’ understood to refer to what is also categorized as ‘theological’ and ‘psychological’ as those terms are used today) that I intend to incorporate into one or more posts on the history of philosophy. For now I only want to point out that the most important implication of all is the possibility that C&P reflects the influence of Pudentilla. Though philosophical works by heterosexual couples would seem to be evidenced by Parmenides and Boethius, the female figures they portray as assisting them have generally been assumed to be mere fictions.

Pudentilla, by contrast, was unquestionably a real historical figure. The only other major philosophical work(s) that reflect such a collaborative effort are Friedrich Schelling’s Philosophy of Art Lectures (ca 1800–1806) and Essay On Human Freedom (1809), each of which manifests the influence of his wife Caroline, who like Pudentilla with respect to Apuleius, was over a decade older than Friedrich and had, among other things, substantially more life experience than he did at the time. Though Schelling did not discuss Apuleius in his many writings (though he does briefly refer to C&P), both the similarity of his wife’s collaboration with him and that of Pudentilla with Apuleius, as well as Schelling’s focus on the philosophical significance of Greek mythology justify comparing ‘his’ philosophy of with that implicit in C&P.


For those with a knowledge of Latin, the complete texts of Metamorphoses and the Apologia are available at the Perseus website here:



For more on Sappho, including the Greek text and a translation of S.31, visit this blog/website I have focused on her.

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