Hetairai: The Ancient Athenian Courtesan


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

Bust of Solon, National Archaeological Museum of Naples

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

Symposium Scene on an Attic Red-Figure bell-krater. Painted by Nikias, c. 420 BCE

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 courtesanAlong 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

Symposia Kylix with erotic motif
Kylic Depicting a Standing Youth and Two Youths bathing, c. 510 BCE

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.

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Modern Misconceptions

If you Google search “what is a hetaira”, this is the very first definition within the search results:

google hetaira definition

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.

Gion geisha Sayaka wearing a kuro-tomeosde. Photo by http://www.japanexperterna.se (No Available photos of Mineko Iwasaki available under creative commons)

 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.

Famous Hetairai





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.

“hetaera | hetaira, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 1 March 2017.

Davidson, J. (2006). Making a Spectacle of Her(self): The Greek Courtesan and the Art of the Present. In M. Feldman & B. Gordon (Eds.), The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (pp. 29-48). Oxford University Press.

Hetaira (hetaera): Greek Courtesan. (n.d.). Retrieved March 02, 2017, from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/hetairai/hetairai.html

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

Macurdy, G. (1942). Apollodorus and the Speech against Neaera (Pseudo-Dem. LIX). The American Journal of Philology, 63(3), 257-271. doi:10.2307/290699

Mark, J. J. (2012, January 18). Aspasia of Miletus: The Art of Eloquence. Retrieved March 02, 2017, from http://www.ancient.eu/article/80/

Solon. (2017, February 28). Retrieved March 02, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solon

14 thoughts on “Hetairai: The Ancient Athenian Courtesan

  1. Firstly, I really enjoyed reading your post! I have had a bit of experience in studying hetairai, and it was great adding to what I already knew.
    Your post was really well organized; you did a great job of explaining exactly what a hetairai was, along with the distinctions between them, the mousourgai, and the pornai. The description of the hetairai, and how they were primarily hired for their companionship, immediately caused me to think of the geisha in Japanese society. I really liked how you specified, however, that the hetairai and the geisha were fundamentally different, due to the lack of sexual intercourse involved in a geisha relationship. Also in this section, I found it really unique how you included the box of the google search, something I would never have thought to do.
    Other aspects of your post that I found added to it’s overall quality were the addition of images, the slideshow (which I think is an awesome idea), the videos, and the quote that you included.The general idea of subdividing your work under headers was a great way to organize it too, and something I think a lot of other people realized!
    The only constructive criticism that I may have is the placement of the images, which sometimes halted the flow of the post – but, other than that, I think your post is great!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is really interesting and well done, especially the contrast in Hetaira’s education with that of higher status citizen women. Interesting notes: Pericles actually caused a scandal at one point by kissing Aspasia in public (very improper). I’m surprised the video on Aspasia didn’t mention the fact that Pericles’ own law made children between foreigners and citizens illegitimate for citizenship.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I found this really well done and concise. It’s interesting to see that there were many roles a woman could have in this field, and a lot of time it is all just generalized as prostitution. I’m glad you’ve pointed out the parallels and the differences so people can be more informed. The notes about the geisha help put it all in perspective.


  4. Very interesting. Perhaps the Geisha is more like the Μουσουργοί. In their original conception, they were just musicians for the courtesans and her clients. But they began to steal clients for “free.” So they got demoted to simpler adornments which later became chic. And they predominated after the official courtesanship was outlawed.

    Their ambiguous status helped them survive.

    However back in the day geisha were indeed obligated, sometimes, to have sexual relations. But not in a prostitution arrangement. This was verified by a geisha obasan herself. Today it’s unheard of.

    I think the differences are not as rigid as we think. But they are worth noting. Essentially they are artists and musicians.

    Consider drag queens. There was a time when people assumed that all drag queens were prostitutes or sluts. Some are some aren’t (I being a female impersonator myself) It isn’t in the job description. That is the difference.


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