Sacred sex and temple prostitution

I was planning to write about this myself some time, but Mary Harrsch has done such a great job that you should read her excellent summary on whether sacred sex was practiced in ancient times.

Sacred sex is the idea that some temples - invariably dedicated to Aphrodite or the local equivalent - had in-house prostitutes whose service was considered part of the worship. Whether it ever actually happened is very controversial.

I have no choice but to form a definite opinion because I must describe these temples in my books! Particularly the Artemision at Ephesus which appears in the second book, and for which there's a claim of temple prostitution. (And my view is there wasn't.)

Most mention of this subject comes with the sound of ideological axes grinding in the background. Which makes Mary's article so valuable, because it's actually even handed.

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 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, me see if I can think of a decent 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...