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April 23 , 2011

The Songs of Bilitis


The Songs of Bilitis
by Pierre Louÿs

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"First published in Paris in 1894, this purports to be translations of poems by a woman named Bilitis, a contemporary and acquaintance of Sappho. This caused a sensation, not only because finding an intact cache of poems from a completely unknown Greek poet circa 600 B.C. would be a miracle, but because of its open and sensitive exploration of lesbian eroticism. Actually Bilitis never existed. The poems were a clever forgery by Pierre Louÿs – the ""translator""; to lend weight, he had even included a bibliography with bogus supporting works. Louÿs actually did have a good command of the classics, and he salted Bilitis with a number of quotations from real poets, including Sappho, to make it even more convincing.

Just because this is a fake does not detract from its literary value. And just because it was written by a man did not prevent it from acquiring cultural significance for Lesbians. In fact, one of the earliest organizations of Lesbians in the United States was called the Daughters of Bilitis (although this could have been because it was a reference that would elude most people).

Prior to the 1960s, in the US, English translations of Bilitis were considered risqué enough to warrant lavish privately printed limited editions. This was a dodge to circumvent now-defunct censorship laws. The version this particular etext is based on was printed in 1926, and has sensual and very witty Art Deco illustrations by Wily Pogany."

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