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Les Chansons de Bilitis, untitled pochoir by George Barbier (1882–1932), from the 1922 edition of Songs of Bilitis, edited by Pierre Corrard (Photo credit: Wikipedia) 
Bilitis is also a film

Pierre Louÿs

Pierre Louÿs (Dec. 10, 1870, Ghent, Belgium – June 4, 1925, Paris, France), was a “French novelist and poet whose merit and limitation were to express pagan sensuality with stylistic perfection.”[i]

In 1894, Louÿs, who was born Pierre Louis, published Les Chansons de Bilitis (1894), prose poems about Sapphic love.  According to Wikipedia, The Songs of Bilitis were written by a woman of Ancient Greece called Bilitis, a courtesan and contemporary of Sappho.  As for Sappho, who could be Bilitis, she was an ancient Greek poet, a woman, born on the Island of Lesbos between 630 and 612.  She was very gifted as a poet and was, therefore, included among the Nine Lyric Poets.  Pierre Louÿs translated the mostly lost Sapphic, i. e. lesbian poems of Bilitis or, possibly, Sappho.  So it would appear he invented many of them, showing talent, “stylistic perfection,” and providing himself and his readers with an opportunity to indulge in both exoticism and eroticism.

Exoticism and eroticism are very effective marketing tools, which may have motivated Louÿs to “fill in the blanks.”  As we know, many of the “Bilitis” or Sappho’s poems, were Louÿs own poems.  He was therefore able to deceive many readers, which is quite an accomplishment on Louÿs part, but somewhat humiliating for those readers who thought they were reading what my students would call “the real thing.”  Given the artful eroticism that pervades “Les Chansons de Bilitis,” let us be a little forgiving with respect to those who were deceived.  According to Britannica, Louÿs’s finest achievement is La Femme et le pantin (1898; Woman and Puppet), which is set in Spain.  More exoticism!

Sapho: the seventeenth-century France

In seventeenth-century France, the famous salonnière (from Salon) and late précieuse Madeleine de Scudéry (15 November 1607 – 2 June 1701) nicknamed herself Sapho Madeleine de Scudéry is the author of Le Grand Cyrus or Artamène, arguably the longest novel ever written.  She is also the main cartographer of the Map of Tendrea map of love included in Le Grand Cyrus.  Madeleine de Scudéry was Georges de Scudéry‘s younger sister.  So the memory of Sappho linguered in the mind of erudite salonnières.  Not to mention that the Greek Sappho wrote love poems.  But did they know that Shappic love was lesbian love?

The Daughters of Bilitist

The Daughters of Bilitist[iii] is a gay rights movement, active since the middle of the twentieth century.  We have little information on Bilitist, who wrote in the manner of Sappho, but we know Sappho was born in Lesbos and, although she is purported to have given birth to a daughter, Leïs, Sappho’s mother’ name, even Ancient Greeks doubted Sappho’s heterosexuality.  She may of course have been a lesbian, but this mattered little to the citizens of Ancient Greece.  She may also have had an affair with Thracian courtesan Rhodopis, which is fascinating as Rhodopis would be Cinderella.  This, however, I must investigate.  I must also investigate the reason why Sappho was exiled to Sicily?  It would have been a short exile as she lived in Lesbos for most of her life.  She probably died around 570 BC.

Sappho as a Poet

Sappho was an extremely talented poet, one of the Nine Lyric Poets, not a trivial achievement.  However, most of her poetry has been lost.  What is left is mostly fragments.  Moreover, Sappho wrote in Aeolian Greek, a lesser–known Ancient Greek dialect of which there were several.  She therefore had fewer readers.

George Barbier

George Barbier illustrated Pierre Louÿs’ Chansons de Bilitis and did so discretely and tastefullyI have therefore included a video or his illustrations, hence the above information.


[i] “Pierre Louÿs.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 03 Aug. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/349430/Pierre-Louys>.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Daughters of Bilitis.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 03 Aug. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/152374/Daughters-of-Bilitis>.

 [iv] “Sappho.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 03 Aug. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/523753/Sappho>.

Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) 
Chanson de Bilitis “La Chevelure”
Irène Joachim


© Micheline Walker
August 3rd, 2012
Songs of Bilitis,
illustration by
George Barbier
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)