Bilitis was an ancient Greek-Phoenician
poet invented by the French poet Pierre Louÿs
(1870-1925). He passed off his own poetry, published in 1894, as translation
s of hers. She was supposed to be a contemporary of Sappho
, and to have visited her, and, this being the decadent
late nineteenth century in France, to have become one of Sappho's lesbian
lovers. The poems are in the style of Sappho but considerably more explicit
Louÿs went to a great deal of trouble to make them look authentic, giving her life story, details of the discovery of the poems inscribed in her tomb, and scholarly footnotes apparently from other sources.
The poems were printed in highly erotic illustrated editions, and the name of Bilitis became a codeword for lesbianism in both its political and its soft porn manifestations. A lesbian rights group was founded in San Francisco in 1955, called the Daughters of Bilitis.
The dedication reads, "This little book of antique love is respectfully dedicated to the young daughters of a future society."
Some of the poems Les chansons de Bilitis (The songs of Bilitis) were set to music in 1896-7 by Claude Debussy. None of these three has a lesbian subtext. They are
La Flûte de Pan
- La Flûte de Pan
- La chevelure
- Le Tombeau des Naïades
(The Pan Pipes
) tells of a lesson on the pan-pipe in which their lips
come so close together (Et tour à tour nos bouches / S'unissent sur la flûte
): but her mother thinks the girl was searching for her waistband
, and won't understand why it took so long.
In La chevelure (The Tresses) he tells her of a dream in which her long black hair had enveloped him, and thus they had become one with their hair, their mouths, and their limbs (Que je devenais toi-même,/ Ou que tu entrais en moi comme mon songe). Debussy said this song should be sung by a virgin, so that she would not understand the full impact of the words, but convey its trembling sensuality in a wondering way.
Le Tombeau des Naïades (The Tomb of the Naiads) describes how all the naiads and satyrs have perished in a terrible winter.
I can find French texts of the three Debussy settings, but not of Louÿs's complete set: if I come across them (mmm...) I'll node them all with my translations.