Loose women of ancient Athens

There were three kinds:

Street girls and girls working the brothels;
Flute girls who attended parties; and,
at the top their profession, the courtesans.

The girls at the bottom level had a very hard life. They walked the streets, just as such women do today, and for the same reason, for which they were known as walkers.

In Ancient Greek, the word walker is pornê. The plural is pornoi. Yes, our modern word pornography is derived from the word for a common hooker in Ancient Athens.

It was forbidden for the pornoi to speak with a man in public. Instead they wore sandals with FOLLOW ME carved backwards into the soles. The words would be imprinted into the dust as they walked, and a man could then walk behind the pornê without speaking to her. When she picked up a follower the pornê would lead her customer directly back to the brothel in which she worked.

The pornoi charged not by time, but by sexual position! Some positions were considered better than others and rates varied accordingly.

The flute girls by comparison were effectively paid party goers. Athenian men frequently held parties called symposia. The wives didn't get an invite, but the flute girls did. The order of events was: eat, drink a lot, and then party. Everyone together in the same room. These days we'd call it an orgy. Flute girls were actually accomplished entertainers on top of any other duties which might...er...arise. Flute girls were paid per event, and they were paid a whole lot more than the pornoi.

Yes, this is where we get the modern word symposium. If you're an academic reading this, next time you attend a symposium, you can keep in mind that you're just not doing it right.

The most famous flute girl ever is probably the one mentioned in Plato's Symposium. In that book, the men, fresh from an exhilirating day of watching tragedy at the theatre, decide they want to discuss the meaning of Love. So they toss out the one and only flute girl present because her music is disturbing their philosophic discussion. I'll bet it's the only time in history that ever happened. I've written a short story about what happened to her afterwards, which needs a little bit more work before I can send it somewhere.

I confess loose women tend to make regular appearances in my stories, because...er...let me see if I can think of a decent reason...er...because they had much more social freedom than respectable women. Yeah, that's it.

Which in fact they did. It was unheard of for a respectable married woman to wander about the way the working girls could.

At the top were the courtesans. They were much like the salon hostesses of the 17th and 18th centuries: highly educated, able to discuss any subject, quote poetry, play music, and in addition they were really good in bed. A courtesan was called a hetaera. In plural, hetaerae. Powerful men clamoured for an invite to their parties. Only the wealthy could afford them.

The most famous hetaera ever was Phryne, of whom I've written in the past.

The top hetaerae had celebrity status. The women who reached such dizzy heights adopted what were known as hetaera-names, much as a celebrity today might adopt a stage name to enhance their image. Often these were taken from the Muses or were fine sounding phrases. One common hetaera name for example was Euterpe, who not only was one of the Muses, but whose name means delightfully pleasing.

Here's an excerpt from The Pericles Commission. Nicolaos, our hero and a young man, has turned up to interview Euterpe the Hetaera...

The house slave sniffed at me when I knocked, as if I were too verminous to cross her threshold. The name Ephialtes got me as far as the public receiving room, where I had been left to linger long enough to have inspected every art piece in the room, and there were a lot of them. I had never before been in the salon of a hetaera. The murals were short on Homeric battle scenes but gratifyingly long on sporting nymphs, satyrs and priapic Gods. I peered at them closely, my nose almost pressed to the wall.

“Educational, aren’t they?”

I turned, startled, and crashed my knee against a nearby table. Trying not to swear, and clutching my knee, I saw framed in the doorway the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on.

Euterpe had reddish brown hair that flowed down her lovely neck and over her shoulder to her breasts. She was wearing a dress that, even if it were not made of fabric I could see through, would have been considered scandalously immodest. As it was, she had my body’s full and immediate attention. The dress was tied in some way so that the material flowed with her skin. My mind ceased functioning since it was not required for the moment.

“Oh! Are you hurt?”

She knelt before me and touched my knee where I’d banged it. Waves of pleasure coursed up me.

Euterpe looked a little higher, and smiled. She stood, swayed to a couch and reclined, arching her back so that her nipples pressed out against the material and her legs were exposed.

“So, what may I do for you, young man?”

I collapsed back against the nearest couch, unable to speak and agonizingly aware how I must look to her.

Euterpe let me recover. She clapped her hands. A young woman appeared, whom I barely noticed.

“Would you bring me wine? And a carafe of cool water for our guest.”

The young woman reappeared with an exquisite thin pottery water cooler. I took it and thankfully let it rest in my lap, where it did me a lot of good...


Stephanie Thornton said...

This was a really interesting post! I knew about the sandals that said, "Follow me," but I don't think I'd ever heard of the position of flute girl.

I just finished reading Alcestis by Katharine Buetner. It's not on my list of favorites, but the first part does a great job of showing the circumscription of the lives of upper class Greek women. So well, in fact that I was even getting a little restless.

And I loved the scene, BTW!

L. T. Host said...

So funny... I just saw these in a wedding blog post:


And thought of your entry today. (The link is to Etsy, a sort of online bazaar-- different artists come up their own goods to sell).

Now if I ever see a woman wearing those pantyhose, I will only be thinking one thing in my head about her, ah, disposition.

Thanks, again, for the history lesson!

Amalia Dillin said...

I loved the symposium commentary.

Now I'm going to go read all the Phryne posts!

It's really interesting to see how the lives of women in Greece differed-- it definitely makes me grateful for what I have, in terms of rights and freedoms, even if the world isn't perfect yet.

Travis Erwin said...

Great [post my friend. In my years of taking Latin in both high school and college I never learned any of this.

Merry Monteleone said...

I think scandalous women are more fun to write in almost any society up until recent history (and still, now that I think of it)... the chains of the respectable women are a little harder to write around, and quite a bit harder to live with I'd imagine...

The scene is brilliant, Gary. I'm really enjoying the bits you've posted here and there, can't wait to get my hands on the novel :-)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie, I saw Alcestis in the Historical Novel Society's reviews and I've been meaning to read it.

Amalia, yes, the lives of the respectable women were restricted. Yet, if you read Lysistrata, it seems things did get wild from time to time. Unfortunately we know very little because few at the time wrote about them.

Thanks Travis! A lot of the fun, for me anyway, is turning ancient history into a living subject. The image people get of those times is generally very wrong. It was as exciting and tumultuous as anything that happens today, and not at all dignified!

I'm glad you like it, Merry. We're working on getting the book out! Stay tuned for some progress on that...

Tana said...

I'm curious to know if these women were frowned upon by their society or if being a courtesan was something a women would strive for with pride?

AvenSarah said...

A fun topic, definitely! One point worth making explicit, though, is the status of these women: both of the first two groups were slaves, owned by the men who ran the brothels or hired them out. So the profits went to the owners, and the women had even less choice than modern streetwalkers. And the hetairai were usually metic women--not Athenians, from non-citizen families (free, but with very little legal standing in Athens). Hence the different rules for their actions; they were never going to be respectable Athenian women, no matter how they acted.

Gary Corby said...

Aven, thank you! You always think to say the things I should have thought to mention myself. I really appreciate your additions.

Yes, the girls in the brothels were slaves for sure. Some of them had been abandoned by their fathers at birth, and picked up and raised by brothel keepers.

Question for you Aven: I was under the impression that flute girls could be metics, perhaps even the majority? Do I have that wrong?

I know there were a few free hetaerae who, as they got older, actually descended the hierarchy.

Gary Corby said...

Anne, the hetaerae were like minor rock stars, or starlets. Phryne set the standard for female beauty for centuries to come.

Aspasia is said to have run a school for hetaerae and been one herself before she married Pericles. True or not, people believed it, and that didn't stop her being one of the most important women of the century. Socrates considered it a privilege to be her pupil.

You can't get more rock star than Aspasia & Phryne.

In my stories, I've put Euterpe the Hetaera in their league but not quite as successful.

The pornoi at the other end of the scale had rotten jobs, probably no better than working in the silver mines, which believe me was a place you didn't want to be.

The flute girls were somewhere in between.

It was possible for a porne to be bought out by a besotted customer. Some earned their freedom that way.

Loretta Ross said...

Gary, I think you're mean! Now I'm all thirsty to read the rest of your book. Is the release date still in October? That's so far away!

Interesting that you should bring up flute girls just now. I came across mention of them in some story or other just last week and hadn't heard of them. Thanks for the explanation.

Meanie. :P

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta,

The on sale date when you can pick it off a bookshelf is 12th October. So I must remain a meanie until then. But expect some ordering news sooner than that...

RWMG said...

Can we assume that the customers of the low class streetwalkers could read enough to make out "FOLLOW ME" or did they just follow any woman whose sandals left letters in the dust?

Gary Corby said...

Robert, I suspect there's a story lurking in the back of that observation.

I should imagine that short phrase was well recognisable even to the most illiterate of the customers, except, of course, to any drunk sailor who's just blown in from, say, Egypt.

As you well know, any man who followed a respectable woman would be in severe danger of a beating from her husband or father.

RWMG said...

One can imagine only too well the consequences for a short-sighted none too sober prospective client following a woman unfortunate enough to traverse part of the route followed by a streetwalker shortly before.

CKHB said...

Once again you prove that you've mastered the educational-but-entertaining blog post.

Gary Corby said...

Robert, yep, that's where the crime story comes in.

Thanks Carrie! I do have fun writing these.

AvenSarah said...

Hmm, my second comment seems to have been eaten by my iPod. Let me try again from a computer.

Gary, I'm not really sure -- you're probably right that the flute girls were from a fairly wide range of statuses, and some were metics; if you have a source that says many were, I'd believe it. I don't know anything specific to the contrary.

One other point -- can we really say that Aspasia was _married_ to Pericles? She was his acknowledged mistress, yes, and had a high public profile, and he clearly respected her intelligence and advice, but I'm not sure a marriage between an Athenian citizen and a metic would have been legally valid at that point in Athenian history. Certainly his children by her wouldn't have been citizens; he had to petition for an exception to be made to his own law in order for his son to be granted citizenship.

Gary Corby said...

This is a fantastic example of the sort of thing I have to get right, so I'm glad you mentioned it!

My main reason for assuming flute girls were mostly metics is the pottery. Pornoi always seem to look unhappy, or at least business-like. But flute girls always seem to look like they're enjoying their work. I'm especially thinking of the krater in the Met where a flute girl is chilling out with her flute bag hanging off a relaxed foot. I have "The Reign of the Phallus" by Eva Keuls, which denies flute girls their own category and says they were low end hetaerae. Other books I've read seem to be split on the issue.

I don't know of any primary source which says definitively either way. Not that I'm an expert.

You have me dead to rights on Aspasia. I got slack about my phrasing. They lived together but no one knows for sure that they married. I was aware Pericles son of Pericles had to be made a citizen by special exception, which considering what happened to him he might have later regretted. I have a blog post due on that!

AvenSarah said...

I'm not sure I'd trust pottery as evidence for flute girls' state of mind; they didn't paint the scenes, after all; and entertainers who looked miserable would probably not get alot of work! As well, slavery doesn't automatically equal misery in a society with so many slaves of such diverse statuses (if that's not an oxymoron). Nor does free status equal independence or choices about how to make a living, or even control over one's own body, as is sadly evident all around us today. But I don't actually have any specific knowledge in the subject, just a vague intuition; so I would trust the sources or scholars you've read over my hunch any day!
I look forward to your thoughts on the younger Pericles...

Gary Corby said...

Fair point on the pottery. I'll keep my eyes out for something approximating a primary source.

dipylon said...

Singular: porne; Plural: pornai (fem.)
Singular: pornos; Plural: pornoi (masc.)