Dissertation Title:

Where Sappho Meets Frog Woman: Mythopoesis with Place


Kirsten Johnsen

Date, Time & Place:

October 21, 2021 at 10:00 am


Mythologies of place reveal our beliefs about Nature, self and Other. In this time of pandemic and climate change, the imperative to recognize the power of Nature grows daily. To respect Nature’s agency, we need to deconstruct the structures of meaning we impose upon it.

The legend of the lover’s leap—the fabricated story of an Indigenous woman leaping to her death for lost love—was extremely popular among settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was based on another false legend about the death of Sappho, the Lesbian Greek poet. While American settlers assigned lover’s leaps stories to Indigenous lands, European elites celebrated the depiction of a dying Sappho as an image of the sublime in art. Exploring the lover’s leap tradition exposes its role in the colonizing of gender and the gendering of colonization. This eroticized image of feminine death has been used to enforce heteronormativity, silence women writers, and romanticize genocide.

Several lover’s leap legends have been told about Maatha Kawao Qhabe, or Frog Woman Rock, a cliff located in Central Pomo territory. Maatha Kawao asserts a very different sense of female eros, power, and spiritual agency in the land. To me, Frog Woman teaches the necessity of honoring the boundaries of the Other. For healing from genocide to take place, settlers must learn to respect Indigenous Peoples’ stewardship of these lands. This requires reevaluation of settler constructions of identity. Following the lover’s leap to its origins in the Mediterranean mythic imagination reveals images of profound transformation at the liminal edge. This is the kind of change that humanity confronts in the ecological challenges ahead. Honoring Pomo peoples’ spiritual relationships with the land might help us rediscover how to face the supernatural Other in the age of the Anthropocene.

Sappho’s poetic fragments offer a clue to this remembrance. Her relational eros presents a way to listen to and respect Maatha Kawao’s spiritual power. In this place, when Sappho meets Frog Woman, myth and poetry intermingle in prayerful offering to the world.

  • Program/Track/Year: Mythological Studies, I, 2014
  • Chair: Dr. Christine Downing
  • Reader: Dr. Lori Pye
  • External Reader: Dr. Victoria Patterson
  • Keywords: Pomo Territory, Maatha Kawao Qhabe, Frog Woman Rock, Lover’s Leap, Sappho, Genocide, Anthropocene