Hetaerai and High Priced Courtesans
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Hetaerai and High Priced Courtesans

Hetaerai were often depicted in art mingling with mixed company and participating as if they belonged there. These women were sometimes granted more freedom intellectually than their more "respectable" counterparts, which is one of the things that made them so unique for their time. The hetaerai were associated with the wealthiest in Greek society, but they had no protection from the people below them. They were still commodities of exchange among the wealthy.

Sources for the hetaerai are literary and archaeological evidence, and even those are very few. The vine vessels depicting them are odd in that they are aspirational in orientation. There are some images that are quite degrading to the Hetaerai including one such vine vessel depicting one Hetaera in falacio and receiving anal sex. Yet, these women were still idealized even though they were ridiculed. They were generally foreigners or non-citizens and they were famous for their beauty, seductiveness and education. They received no special standing but they were wealthy and well connected. They served as substitutes for common wives and other prostitutes. Hetaerai were higher priced prostitutes who served a ritualized function. Men often romanticized the hetairai because they represent the male fantasy. They are much more complicated than we find in sources. In fact, the study of the Hetaerai tells us more about the men than the women.

Hetaerai were often depicted in art mingling with mixed company and participating as if they belonged there. These women were sometimes granted more freedom intellectually than their more "respectable" counterparts, which is one of the things that made them so unique for their time. Despite this, these women were known to be capable of intellectual discussion and had knowledge of art and literature that could be lacking in many high society women of the time. It is important to remember, however, that hetaerai were not prostitutes. They did not sell sex or work out of brothels. They sold a dream of love, and the men came to them to fulfill those desires. It's been said that the Hetairai were th precursor for the Venetian Courtesans.

The hetaerai were associated with the wealthiest in Greek society, but they had no protection from the people below them. They were still commodities of exchange among the wealthy. Some hetaerai entered a household as a concubine and not as a legitimate wife. This was not a common occurrence, however. They were simply a live in girlfriend or hoar on the side. The hetaerai, like the andrones into which they were invited, were neither quite private nor quite public, and bridged the artificial chasm in men's lives between home and the life of the polis (1).

Since social events were not always abundant, intellectuals in the city would seek an outlet for conversation. In fact, hetaerai were the only women who actively took part in the symposium where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men. The artifacts we do have from the Hetairai come from the symposium most often. They drank and partied, but the drinking usually took a completely different turn near the end of party. Hetairai were essentially integrated into ritualized violence and humiliation. The Symposium is a social function for young men to integrate into their status group and as part of this, the men engage in ritualized violence with the hetaerai as a rite of passage. Men would force them to have anal sex and beat them with a staff, rod or shoe.

Demosthenes said: “We have hetaerae for pleasure, pallakae to care for our daily body’s needs and gynaekes to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.” Neaera was described as "working with her body", although she had not yet reached the proper age in other words, she became what Aristophanes calls a "not-yet-maiden-harlot" (hypoparthenos hetaera). The fact that Neaera ate and drank with men is stressed to prove that she was a prostitute . Nossis wrote about the experiences of the hetaerai in her epigrams. She may have actually been a hetaera writing from experience.

Needless to say, the opinions of the Hetairai are quite extensive but the evidence is still lacking. 

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Source

Eva C Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens , (London: University of California Press, 1985).

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Comments (3)

I am not really familiar wiht the subject. Thanks for sharing!

Proof that history never needs to be a boring subject.  Great article!

Thanks Rena and P. Guims. Yes, history is soo much more fascinating than people make it out to be.

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