Hetairai and Sex

Superficially hetairai seem to fill the role of prostitute (i.e. one who provides sex in exchange for money), but that is a simplistic understanding of their participation in symposia.  Prostitutes (or porne) were the occupants of brothels or were streetwalkers paid with money for sexual services (Kurke 1997; 108).

Hetairai on the other hand received no money in exchange for their work.  Instead they survived “within the framework of gift exchange” (Kurke 1997; 112), which fostered a bond between giver and receiver.  A hetaira was not just someone that could simply be paid to show up to a symposium. The characters of Aristophanes jokingly point out the dichotomy between "good" sex workers (aka hetairai) and the prostitutes (aka porne):


Chremylos:       I’ve heard Korinthian courtesans don’t notice

                        If someone poor should make a pass at them.

                        But once a wealthy man comes on the scene,

                        Without delay they thrust their arse at him.

Karion:             And boys, I’ve eard, behave in just that way.

                        The lovers themselves don’t matter, it’s just the money!

Chremylos:       But not the good ones, only the prostitutes.

                        The good ones never ask for money.

Karion:             Then what?

Chremylos:       [ironically] Perhaps a pedigree horse, or hunting dogs!

Karion:             No doubt they feel ashamed to ask for money,

                        And dress their vices up with pretty words.


In order for this gift-exchange to form, a relationship with an individual woman must be fostered, and she must be taken care of and wooed with gifts in order to access her sexual services (Kurke 1997; 112). Their services were furthermore framed as “favors” that the woman was “persuaded” to give up.  It fostered the narrative not of monetary exchange, but rather a meaningful personal connection between the symposiast and hetaira. 



The works of Anacreon feature a poem that highlights this idea. The coy Thracian filly references a hetaira, who must be wooed and teased before any erotic encounter can occur (Kurke 1997; 113-114).  The hetaira and symposiast form a playful relationship, very unlike the emotionless exchange of services that characterize the relationship of a porne and client.  Thus even in sympotic sexual entertainment, there was complex participation of each symposiasst.

return to interactive kylix images:  

Hetairai and Sex