In ancient Greece, hetaera were highly educated, sophisticated companions. Today, in our sex negative culture, they are usually regarded as simple prostitutes, but this is an incorrect assumption.
In ancient Greek society, hetaera were independent and often influential women who were renowned for their achievements in dance and music, as well as for their physical and intellectual talents. They were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes.
Unlike most other women in Greek society at the time, hetaerae were educated. Τhey were also the only women who actively took part in the symposia, where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men. They were the only class of women in ancient Greece with access to and independent control over considerable amounts of money.
Some similarities have been found between the ancient Greek hetaera, the earlier Babylonian nadītu, the Japanese geisha, and the Korean kisaeng.
Hetaera were beautiful, immaculately dressed companions, who were trained to be "sexually exciting, mentally stimulating and capable of infatuating intelligent men." Unlike a man's wife, this woman could hold a conversation. A wife was just some Senator's daughter, who took care of a man's home and bore your children.
But a hetaera was so much more. Demosthenes observed, in his oration Against Neaera: “We have hetaerae for pleasure, concubines to care for our daily body’s needs and wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”
There was one foreign hetaera in particular, named Aspasia, who became one of the most highly revered women in Athens. She was so well-read and intelligent that she hosted lectures on rhetoric and philosophy in her own home. She was also drop dead gorgeous. For those reasons, she scooped up the most ineligible bachelor in Greece, Pericles.
He became to her what modern day reporters would call a "sugar daddy on steroids". He even went so far as to divorce his wife and move Aspasia into the house. He willed his legacy to their illegitimate son, and he would have married her if it was legal. And, through all of this, she became the unofficial queen of Athens.
What's truly amazing is that heterae were the inventors of platonic love. Why, you ask? Again, because most men could not sleep with them. Once they were snatched up by a prominent man, that was pretty much it as far as pleasing others sexually was concerned.
Therefore, their admirers had to be content with loving them for their wit and charm, their beauty and grace and their irreplaceable companionship. Ergo, platonic love.
All of the great philosophers you've studied - from Heraclitus to Homer to Socrates - they were all in love with hetaera. Many of them developed their theories of love while in relationship with a heterae, fluent in the language of emotion and philosophy.
In fact, the aforementioned Aspasia, was the object of affection for Sophocles, Phidias, Socrates and his followers. According to Plutarch in Life of Pericles, "what great art or power this woman had, that she managed as she pleased the foremost men of the state, and afforded the philosophers occasion to discuss her in exalted terms and at great length."
There were many other hetaerae mentioned in the historical record. During the classical period there was Theodota, companion of Alcibiades, with whom Socrates spoke in Memories; Phryne, the model for Aphrodite of Knidos, the work of Praxiteles, of whom she was mistress but also companion of the orator Hypereides, who defended her against a charge of impiety; and Leontium, companion of Epicurus and herself a philosopher. Alexander the Great loved a hetaerae named Thaïs.
Some of these hetaerae were very wealthy. Xenophon describes Theodota as being surrounded by slaves, richly dressed and living in a grand house. Some distinguished themselves through their extravagant expenditures; Rhodopis, the Thracian courtesan emancipated by the brother of the poetess Sappho, is said to have distinguished herself by having a pyramid built.
The fees of these courtesans varied considerably, but were very much higher than those of the common prostitutes. In Menander's The Flatterer, there is mention of a courtesan earning as much as 10 pornai together. If Aulus Gellius is to be believed, courtesans of the classical era could earn up to 10,000 drachmas per night.
To give you an idea of how prevalent prostitution was in the Greek world, in the city of Corinth they built the temple of Aphrodite, which housed more than a thousand sacred slave-prostitutes.
However, hetaerae should not be confused with pornai of the time, who sold sex by the act and worked on the streets or out of brothels. Prostitutes in ancient Greece were divided into several categories: the pornai were at the bottom end of the scale, usually slaves of barbarian origin.
Pornai were usually employed in brothels located in "red-light" districts of the period, such as Piraeus ( ie, the port of Athens) or Kerameikos in Athens.
The classical Athenian statesman Solon is credited as being the first to institute legal public brothels. He did this as a public health measure, to contain adultery. The poet Philemon praised him for this measure in the following terms:
"Seeing Athens full of young men, with both an instinctual compulsion, and a habit of straying in an inappropriate direction, bought women and established them in various places, equipped and common to all. The women stand naked that you not be deceived. The door is open. One obol. Hop in. There is no coyness, no idle talk, nor does she snatch herself away. It is as you wish, in whatever way you wish."
The Solonian brothels provided a service accessible to all, regardless of income. One obolus is one eighth of one drachma, the daily salary of a public servant at the end of the 5th century BCE. Thus, an hour with a temple prostitute cost the equivalent of a day's pay for a middle class man.
Heterae were able to charge much more than the common pornai - historical records indicate they were paid at least ten times as much. The most desired heterae were able to charge over a thousand drachma for a single evening of passion.
Incidentally, Solon used the significant taxes he levied on brothels to build a temple to Aphrodite. Therefore, it is clear that classical Athens considered prostitution to be an intrinsic part of its democracy.
Hetaera: The Archetype of Goddess/Whore by Moses Ma
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last updated: 22 April 2016
last updated: 22 April 2016