This page explains the what, when and where of the Athenian Hetairai, and also clarifies the differences between the Hetairai and the other forms of prostitution in ancient Greece.
Overall Prostitution in Ancient Athens
Prostitution in ancient Athens was allowed to be practiced and completely legal, as long as the women were not official Athenian citizens. This became ever more popular during the time of Solon (6th century BCE), an Athenian statesman and lawmaker, as he is credited to have funded many brothels filled with prostitutes who did not have Athenian citizenship. Therefore, scholars interpret this as Solon implementing a type of democracy for men’s sexual desire, as well as an alternative to adultery, which was considered a severe crime in the Archaic and Classical period of Athens.
Context: The Symposia
In short, the Greek Symposia was a drinking party for men in the elite class of Athens. This event was normally held in the adron, which was the man’s room in a Greek household. Activities at the symposia included drinking games as well as conversation in educated topics such as philosophy, the difference between genders and love. For entertainment, they would hire Mousourgoi (workers of the muses), which were women highly trained in the performing arts. If a man going to a symposia wanted a companion for the event, he would hire a hetaira.
What are Hetairai?
There are no exact dates for the appearance of the hetairai, however, it is thought that hetairai developed as a profession along with the symposia. According to scholars, the Greek word hetaira directly translate to courtesan. Along with the Mousourgoi, the hetairai were the only women allowed in the symposia, acting as a companion to the man who paid for her services. At the symposia, the hetaira would have elaborate conversations with the man in topics that are only taught to men, such as politics and philosophy. The hetaira’s training in conversation and education would stem either from an apprenticeship or a school for hetairai, which developed as the profession became more legitimate. Although they were mostly hired for their company and friendship, the hetaira would be obligated to have sex with the paying man if he so desired.
One important distinction to make is that of the hetaira and the pornai.
On one hand, the pornai were women who occupied the streets and brothels, providing only sex for payment from a large anonymous clientele. The pornai were highly accessible to all citizen men, from the elite to the lower classes. Only the performance of sexual intercourse was expected of them, as they provided their bodies for the man’s sexual pleasure.
On the other hand, the hetairai acted more as mistresses or escorts, primarily paid for their companionship. These women would have long lasting relationships with their clientele, which would be limited to only a few men at the same time. A hetaira would be expected to reflect the male fantasy of the “ideal lady” from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period. Hetairai were expected to appear delicate and dainty, eating lightly from their fingers and to not grossly over-drink:
Krobyle: In the first place, she adorns herself attractively and she’s neat and beaming toward all the men, not to the point of laughing out loud easily, as you tend to, but smiling sweetly and attractively. Next, she’s clever company and never cheats a visitor or an escort, and never throws herself at the men. And if ever she gets a wage for going to dinner, she doesn’t get drunk-for that’s ludicrous and men hate women like that-nor does she vulgarly stuff herself with dainties, but she picks at [the food] with her fingertips, [eating] in silence, and she doesn’t stuff mouthfuls into both cheeks, and she drinks quietly, not greedily gulping, but taking breaks.
Korinna: Even if she happens to be thirsty, Mother?
Kr: Especially then, o Korinna. And she never speaks more than necessary, nor makes fun of any of the men present, and she has eyes only for the one who’s hired her. And on account of this the men love her. And when it’s time to bed down, she would never do anything loose or sloppy, but from everything she hunts this one thing, how she might lead him on and make that man her lover. And these are the things all men praise in her
(Lucian, Dialogue of the Courtesans, 6.294) (Translated by Leslie Kurke 1997)
Depictions of Hetairai on Pottery Paintings and Ancient Writings
75% of our visual evidence for the existence of hetairai come from pottery paintings that would have been displayed on kylix (common ancient Greek drinking cup for wine). The inclusion of hetairai in symposiatic scenes only appear in the middle of the 6th century BCE, and during the last quarter of this century (525-500 BCE) the presence of women in scenes depicting symposiums becomes very much evident.
The presentation of their appearance come in variety, either fully nude or completely dressed in a simple cloth, engaging in conversation or in sexual acts with one or multiple men. Their hair is usually tied into a bun or a ponytail, with a band (or ribbon) that circles the head on top of the hair.
If you Google search “what is a hetaira”, this is the very first definition within the search results:
Although it is okay to simplify the definition to “a courtesan or mistress”, I find the comparison to the modern Japanese geisha to be very incorrect.
Mineko Iwasaki, the most famous modern geisha, explains in her auto-biography the intricate details of the profession. Beginning at the age of five, future geisha are trained for years in the Japanese traditional arts. They are primarily hired professional entertainers in the latter, but are also considered courtesans as they develop professional relationships with their clients.
Hetairai should not be compared to the modern geisha because the hetaira was obligated to have sex with his client if he desired so.
Geishas do not have sex with their paying client, unless they happen to fall in love and both parties consent. The sexual intercourse would be personal, and so would not occur in the geisha’s professional setting of a tea-house or party room.
This is a common misconception that I wanted to point-out, because the geisha is a traditional and historical profession which is highly regarded for the mastery of ancient Japanese arts, and there are no sexual implications involved whatsoever.
The hetairai cannot be simply categorized as prostitutes, unlike the pornai, as they do not directly sell their bodies. They are trained to embody the behaviours, characteristics and fantasies of the male Athenian elites, such is their clientele. Therefore, as evidenced through the direct translation of the Greek word, hetairai are courtesans who were mostly hired as companions for men at the symposia. These women were a strange type of courtesan altogether since they were not primarily hired for sexual pleasure, yet were inclined to do so if the client demanded. Many other types of courtesans from different cultures, such as the Japanese geisha, were only paid for their companionship and high skills in the musical and performing arts. This could be interpreted as the men’s sexual and romantic fantasies coming to life, since there were many restrictions on Athenian marriage, and the role of the Athenian wife to the Athenian husband must not have been sexually and intellectually stimulating, as they hired these hetairai to essentially be the “perfect” woman: sexually submissive and highly intellectual.
All photos are taken from Wikimedia Commons.
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Iwasaki, M., & Ouchi, R. B. (2003). Geisha, A Life. New York: Washington Square Press.
Kennedy, R. F. (2015, September). “Elite Citizen Women and the Origins of the Hetaira in Classical Athens” [1st proof]. Retrieved February 27, 2017, from https://www.academia.edu/9846591/_Elite_Citizen_Women_and_the_Origins_of_the_Hetaira_in_Classical_Athens_1st_proof_
Kurke, L. (1997). Inventing the “Hetaira”: Sex, Politics, and Discursive Conflict in Archaic Greece. Classical Antiquity, 16(1), 106-150. doi:10.2307/25011056 http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.mta.ca/stable/pdf/25011056.pdf
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