The Songs of Bilitis

The Songs of Bilitis
Author Pierre Louÿs
Original title Les Chansons de Bilitis
Country France
Language French
Genre Poetry, erotica
Publication date
Media type Print

The Songs of Bilitis (/bɪˈltɪs/; French: Les Chansons de Bilitis) is a collection of erotic, essentially lesbian, poetry by Pierre Louÿs published in Paris in 1894 (see 1894 in poetry). Since Louÿs claimed that he had translated the original poetry from Ancient Greek, this work is considered a pseudotranslation.[1]

The poems are in the manner of Sappho; the collection's introduction claims they were found on the walls of a tomb in Cyprus, written by a woman of Ancient Greece called Bilitis, a courtesan and contemporary of Sappho to whose life Louÿs dedicated a small section of the book. On publication, the volume deceived even the most expert of scholars. Though the poems were actually clever fabulations, authored by Louÿs himself, they are still considered important literature.

Louÿs claimed the 143 prose poems, excluding 3 epitaphs, were entirely the work of this ancient poet a place where she poured both her most intimate thoughts and most public actions, from childhood innocence in Pamphylia to the loneliness and chagrin of her later years.

Although for the most part The Songs of Bilitis is original work, many of the poems were reworked epigrams from the Palatine Anthology, and Louÿs even borrowed some verses from Sappho herself. The poems are a blend of mellow sensuality and polished style in the manner of the Parnassian school, but underneath run subtle Gallic undertones that Louÿs could never escape.

To lend authenticity to the forgery, Louÿs in the index listed some poems as "untranslated"; he even craftily fabricated an entire section of his book called "The Life of Bilitis", crediting a certain fictional archaeologist Herr G. Heim ("Mr. S. Ecret") as the discoverer of Bilitis' tomb. And though Louÿs displayed great knowledge of Ancient Greek culture, ranging from children's games in "Tortie Tortue" to application of scents in "Perfumes", the literary fraud was eventually exposed. This did little, however, to taint their literary value in readers' eyes, and Louÿs' open and sympathetic celebration of lesbian sexuality earned him sensation and historic significance.


A dancer in Biskra

In 1894 Louÿs, travelling in Italy with his friend Ferdinand Hérold, met André Gide, who described how he had just lost his virginity to a Berber girl named Meriem in the oasis resort-town of Biskra in Algeria; Gide urged his friends to go to Biskra and follow his example. The Songs of Bilitis are the result of Louÿs and Hérold's shared encounter with Meriem the dancing-girl, and the poems are dedicated to Gide with a special mention to "M.b.A", Meriem ben Atala.[2]

Basic structure

The Songs of Bilitis are separated into three cycles, each representative of a phase of Bilitis' life: Bucolics in Pamphylia— childhood and first sexual encounters, Elegies at Mytilene— indulgence in homosexual sensuality, and Epigrams in the Isle of Cyprus— life as a courtesan. Each cycle progresses toward a melancholy conclusion, each conclusion signalling a new, more complex chapter of experience, emotion, and sexual exploration. Each of these melancholy conclusions is demarcated by a tragic turn in Bilitis' relationships with others. In the first stage of her life, Bucolics, she falls in love with a young man but is then raped by him after he comes upon her napping in the woods; she marries him and has a child by him, but his abusive behavior compels her to abandon the relationship. In the second stage (Elegies) her relationship with her beloved Mnasidika turns cold and ends in estrangement, prompting her to relocate once again. Finally, in the Epigrams in the Isle of Cyprus, despite her fame she finds herself longing for Mnasidika. Ultimately she and her beauty are largely forgotten; she pens her poems in silent obscurity, resolute in her knowledge that "those who will love when [she is] gone will sing [her] songs together, in the dark."

One of Louÿs' technical accomplishments was to coincide Bilitis' growing maturity and emotional complexity with her changing views of divinity and the world around her— after leaving Pamphylia and Mytilene, she becomes involved in intricate mysteries, moving away from a mythical world inhabited by satyrs and Naiads. This change is perhaps best reflected by the symbolic death of the satyrs and Naiads in "The Tomb of the Naiads".


Like the poems of Sappho, those of 'Bilitis' address themselves to Sapphic love. The book became a sought-after cult item among the 20th-century lesbian underground and was only reprinted officially in the 1970s. The expanded French second edition is reprinted in facsimile by Dover Books in America. This second edition had a title page that read: "This little book of antique love is respectfully dedicated to the young women of a future society."

Seventy years later, the first lesbian organization would call itself Daughters of Bilitis. Founded in 1955 in San Francisco, it was organized for lesbians to meet other lesbians while promoting the acceptance of lesbians as legitimate members of society.


In 2010, the faculty and students of Southwestern University (Georgetown, Texas) performed the complete corpus of Debussy's Bilitis-inspired music, together with original musical compositions and one original poem inspired by the story of Bilitis. The performances featured a reconstruction of the 1901 performance using pantomime, recitation, and tableaux vivants. It also included a modern "deconstruction" of the Bilitis story, also using pantomime and tableaux vivants, to the music of Debussy's 6 Epigraphes antiques, much of which is based on the music used for the 1901 performance. The theatrical performances were directed by Kathleen Juhl, who also performed the recitation of the poems. Debussy's 3 Chansons de Bilitis were performed by mezzo-soprano Carol Kreuscher and pianist Kiyoshi Tamagawa in Victoria Star Varner's megalographic installation The Mysteries Revisited, which was inspired by the Villa of the Mysteries and addresses some of the themes present in Louÿs' Bilitis poems.[3]


The Songs of Bilitis have been illustrated extensively by numerous erotic artists.

The most famous illustrator to grace the collection with his drawings, was Louis Icart but the most famous illustrations were done by Willy Pogany for a 1926 privately circulated New York edition. These were drawn in a very art-deco style, with numerous visual puns on sexual objects.

Other artists have been Georges Barbier, Edouard Chimot, Jeanne Mammen, Pascal Pia, Joseph Kuhn-Régnier, Pierre Leroy, Alméry Lobel Riche, Suzanne Ballivet, Pierre Lissac, Paul-Emile Bécat, Monique Rouver, Génia Minache, Lucio Milandre, A-E Marty, J.A. Bresval and James Fagan.

Georges Barbier

See also


  1. Venuti, Lawrence (1998). The Scandals of Translation. New York: Routledge. pp. 34–39.
  2. Alan Sheridan, "André Gide: a life in the present", p.101
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