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A character in Greek mythology, Phaon of Mitylene in Lesbos is most famous for his supposed brush with Sappho, the Poetess, and her subsequent death.

Phaon was once an old and ugly ferryman, but that all changed when he ferried an old crone to Asia Minor and refused payment. The crone turned out to be none other than the goddess Aphrodite in disguise. She rewarded him by giving him an ointment. When he rubbed this ointment on his skin, he became young and beautiful: irresistible to women.

He was even irresistible to lesbians, it seems, as myth would have it that Sappho fell in love with him, even going so far as to “repent” her former lesbianism.

Phaon slept with her, but as he had many female callers, he soon grew bored with her and spurned her. She was so heartbroken by this unrequited love that she threw herself off “Lover’s Leap” (later known as Sappho’s Leap), a Leucidian cliff, and drowned herself in the angry sea.

In the 18th and 19th century, Sappho was most known for the legend of her lovelorn suicide. As is a common plot device in lesbian fiction, her death was seen as a sort of punishment for her lesbianism. She was “defeated” by Phaon’s crippling masculine splendor as a penalty for being too self-confident in her fame, and for rejection of men for her love of women. Others saw it as proof Sappho was not a lesbian in the first place.

Now, it has been mostly agreed upon that the myth of Phaon and Sappho, popularized by Ovid, is highly unlikely to be true. Many people now believe that Lesbos had two women named Sappho at that time: the Poetess, and a harp player from Mitylene, Phaon’s hometown. As both women had the same name, and both wrote poetry, it is possible that they just got confused in later times.

Another explanation for Sappho’s leap to her death it that it was an archaic sacrificial ritual. Others believe that Sappho was pushed off the cliff as punishment for her debaucheries, i.e. her love of women.

So if Sappho did not throw herself off the White Cliffs of Leukas for Phaon, where did the legend come from? Well, Sappho may have sung about her leap in one of her songs/poems, but as a metaphor. The metaphor, probably for swooning, could have been taken literally and been incorporated into a myth. It may also have sprung from early translations of fragments of Sappho’s poetry that mentioned Phaon. Phaon was an alternate name (sharing names seems to be a great source of confusion in Lesbos) for Adonis: Aphrodite’s consort. As Sappho revered Aphrodite and wrote about her often, it isn’t surprising that Adonis came up.

Oh, and as for irresistably handsome, haughty Phaon? He was killed by a man he was “cuckolding”. All’s well that ends well.

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