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Flowers of Pride: Sappho's Violets


From lavender to violets, purple flowers in have an undeniable lesbian legacy. They crop up repeatedly in lesbian iconography throughout history, each instance building on those which came before.


When tracing this back, the connection is established mostly through adornment; sprigs of lavender or violet being worn on the buttonhole, for example. ‘Adornment’ is used here rather than ‘accessories’, as embellishments forming unofficial ‘uniforms’ within the gay community were not simply decorative, but powerful symbols of safety and community.


The first evidence of this phenomenon can be found in the 6th century poetry of Sappho, fabled to be the first known woman loving woman. Her significance cannot be overstated – her influence is so profound that the word ‘lesbian’ is derived from the island of Lesbos, where she lived and wrote. From ‘Sappho’ came the word ‘sapphic’ to refer to any woman-loving-woman (wlw).


Although, sadly, only fragments of Sappho’s ancient poetry remain, historians and literary critics note myriad references to flowers – especially purple blooms. Her surviving work conjures images of idyllic pastures where girls and women frolic, adorned in beautiful plumage:


14.

Many crowns of violets,

roses and crocuses

…together you set before more

and many scented wreaths

made from blossoms

around your soft throat…

…with pure, sweet oil

…you anointed me,

and on a soft, gentle bed…

you quenched your desire…

…no holy site…

we left uncovered,

no grove…


Roses, violets, crocuses, honey clover, lotus and hyacinth are all referenced specifically by Sappho, although she also mentions ‘garlands of blooming flowers’ and ‘purple blooms’ more generally. The recurrence of purple and violet has been noted by many scholars. While translations vary, it’s thought that the violets were worn by a possible lover of Sappho, either in her hair as a ‘violet tiara’ or around her neck like a necklace. This image, eternally preserved in poetry, led to purple flowers being linked with female desire – an association which has endured for centuries.


It makes sense, perhaps, that Sappho wrote of lilacs centuries before the invention of artificial purple dyes, when the colour was not typically available anywhere else. In many ways purple is a symbol of lesbian love – it represents the ‘other’, found and cherished despite the odds.


In early 20th century Paris, violets were once again taken on as a purposeful lesbian adornment amongst a group dubbed ‘Paris Lesbos’. Amongst these women was Renée Vivien, a British poet who started a new life in Paris. Violets were a motif both in her poetry and in her personal style. This can partly be read as an homage to Sappho, but it was also honouring her first love, Violet Shillito. Fellow author Colette recalled that, ‘whenever she gave me any of her books, she always hid them under a bouquet of violets or a basket of fruit’.


In the 1926 play The Captive, one female character sends bunches of violets to another female character. The semi-public association with lesbianism caused uproar, leading to calls for boycott and censorship of the play. At some showings in Paris, women wore violets on their lapels as signs of support. After production was eventually shut down in in 1927, the negative connotations caused plummeting violet sales in the USA – to the extent that seven years later, florists were still feeling the effects. Eleanor Medhurst remarks, ‘I’d retrospectively apologise to the violet industry, but it was probably only lesbian customers that kept it going at all’.


Linguistically, violet remains a notable signal of homosexuality; think of character names such as Mrs Violet Venable in Tennessee William’s Suddenly Last Summer, or Violet from the lesbian cult classic Bound.


Many modern sapphics have reclaimed violets as a symbolic gift between lovers, or symbol of affiliation within the LGBT community. While the trend of gifting violets in the 1920s was borne partly out of a need to be covert, in modern times it remains a romantic gesture which honours the centuries of women-loving-women who came before. Back to Sappho:


I declare That later on, Even in an age unlike our own, Someone will remember who we are.


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Jeeino JB
Jeeino JB
Jul 08

My favorite Sappho's Violets! I love them so much that I bought some bedsheets inspired by them using Sobel Westex promo code and my bedroom is now looking something .

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Violets are my favorite flowers because of their impressive color and scent. dinosaur game

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The fragrant and alluring aroma of a violet blossom complements doodle jump the flower's stunning beauty. This blossom is beautiful.

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