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Posts Tagged ‘Aphrodite’

Lady fairest ever seen
Was the bride he crowned his queen.
Pillowed on the marriage-bed,
Whispering to his soul, he said,
“Though a bridegroom never pressed
Dearer bosom to his breast,
Mortal flesh must come to clay:
Even this shall pass away.”
  –  Theodore Tilton, “The King’s Ring

Every year on the Day of the Dead I write about why the holiday exists, why it is necessary, and why ruining the quality of life in an attempt to increase its quantity is both foolish and ultimately futile.  To those who have only started reading me this year, or who have only read a few selected pieces over a longer time, this might seem a strange topic for a harlot; one might expect death to be the farthest pole from my topic, except perhaps for mentioning it as an extreme manifestation of whore stigma or when paying my respects on December 17th.  But in truth, it’s both predictable and appropriate on a personal, professional and philosophical level.

zombie and harlotFrom a personal standpoint, I would probably have written often on this topic even had I never become a card-carrying prostitute; I was a strange, wild, moody  Wednesday Addams of a child, born on Halloween night and fascinated with horror lore and imagery.  Autumn was both my native season and the one in which I felt most comfortable, and I struggled with depression for over twenty years until at long last sex work helped me to get a handle on itMy favorite books, stories and even songs  mostly tend to involve death or other melancholy elements, and just look at the stories I’ve published on this blog and in my book (or just the cover of the damned thing, for goddess’ sake!)  So if you’ve read more than a handful of my (burnt) offerings and were still surprised that I sometimes think and write about death, you just haven’t been paying attention.

Professionally speaking, I must point out that whores often deal with the dark side of human nature.  Fear and sex are inextricably intertwined, and men who have rape fantasies or other “bad” urges may seek out sex workers to help them explore these in a safe and non-judgmental space; others, unfortunately, may seek out unwilling sex workers for the same reason, and the only “safety” they seek is their own relative safety from legal consequences.  Dominatrices and some fetish workers specialize in dealing with the darker aspects of human sexuality, and in criminalized, semi-criminalized and quasi-criminalized systems virtually all sex workers (especially those who work the street) are at a much greater risk of violence or even death than their domesticated amateur sisters.  And nobody who is afraid of death, or who views it as an unpleasant subject improper for polite company, could do the work I do now; take a look at a few items in any of my TW3 columns and I think you’ll see what I mean.

It is no accident that sex workers are among the most dedicated worshippers of the Mexican death-goddess, Santa Muerte, and that many of the myths surrounding pagan whore-goddesses (who were sometimes war-goddesses as well) involved violence and death; even long before criminalization of sex work was the norm, it was recognized that sex itself comes from the same hidden parts of the human psyche as those less-pleasant things.  Sex originates from the deepest wellsprings of life, but so does death; the latter is no less a biological process than the former.  Sex brings new life into the world, but death sustains that life; every one of us (yes, even vegans) continues his existence at the expense of the other lives we consume every single day in order to keep our internal fires burning and repair our damaged or worn-out tissues with materials stolen from the dead.  Not even plants are innocent of this colossal carnage; since some substances (such as phosphorus) are comparatively scarce, all life would soon grind to a halt were the constant supply of corpses to be choked off.  Nor is sex itself all moonlight and love songs; in many species it’s a brutal, coercive affair, and even among humans it can never be purged of its bestial and terrifying aspects, no matter how much feminists and other puritans insist that it can.  Sex and death are our constant reminders that for all our pretensions we are still animals; no wonder those uncomfortable with that fact try to disguise and sanitize both of them, to hide them from the children and speak about them in whispers, to bind them in legal codes and bury them under layers of ritual.  But no matter how deeply we bury our sexualities they reassert themselves, and no matter how diligently we try to delay death, it will come when it will come.  Both are impossible to ignore and impossible to prevent, and human society would be a lot better off if we learned to accept both as indisputable facts of material existence. 

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Beauty depends on size as well as symmetry.  –  Aristotle

Maeve resisted the urge to hurl the abacus against the far wall of the library.  It might have given her a little momentary satisfaction, but it would do nothing to remedy the situation and would, in fact, make it slightly worse because she would then have to buy another abacus.  She had carefully checked her figures three times, and found no errors; for the first time since she had become a courtesan, her expenditures for the month had exceeded her income.  And given that she had been cutting back on those expenditures for over a year now, that was a very bad development indeed.

She hastened to her looking-glass and closely examined her face in it.  She was still a very beautiful woman, but the encroaching signs of age were unmistakable and even the expensive cosmetics she purchased from a talented alchemist could only delay the inevitable.  Sooner or later she would begin to display the grey hair and wrinkles she had evaded for decades, and then her income would dry up along with her body.  Maeve sighed deeply; she was not an especially wise woman nor a frugal one, and though she had known for half her life that this day would eventually come, she had failed to make even the most rudimentary investments for her retirement.  And while most women could count on children and grandchildren to support them in their dotage, Maeve had traded away her ability to have them many years ago, in a bargain that seemed sensible at the time.  Her only hope was the Potion of Youth that the alchemist said he could make for her, but its price was so high she dared not spend the money unless she was absolutely certain it would buy her many years of good income again.

No, she was in a fine stew indeed, and thinking her way out of things had never been her strong point.  So she instead retired to her private shrine to Venus and began to pray for either divine inspiration or (preferably) a new and generous patron who would consider her maturity a plus rather than a minus.  When she was finished with her prayers, she found her maid Elise waiting for her in the anteroom with a rather odd look on her face.  “Ma’am, you have a visitor downstairs.”

“How wonderful!  Perhaps the goddess has answered my prayer already!”

Elise’s mien grew even stranger, but Maeve did not notice; she was already halfway down the stairs in less time than it takes to tell, and her maid appeared in no rush to keep up with her.  Reaching the door to her parlor, she took a moment to check her hair and teeth in another glass, then swept gracefully into the room in a way calculated to impress any but the dullest of clients.  It is a testament to her years of experience that she did not gasp out loud when she saw who was waiting for her in the room, but no mortal could have kept at least a momentary reaction from being reflected in her visage.  Because seated on the couch, drinking her tea and eating her cakes, was someone she at first took to be a very small boy until she realized that he had a beard.

He immediately stood up and bowed deeply; even though he was standing on the couch, his head was yet below the level of her bosom when he returned to an upright position.  “Allow me to introduce myself, dear lady; I am Ulwin O’Meglyn.”

The room grew quiet for a moment; Maeve was completely at a loss for words.  And even when she found her tongue at last, what came forth would not have won marks for elocution.  “Unless I very much miss my guess, good sir, you are a leprechaun.”

“I am not!” he said with controlled indignation.  “I am a brownie.  Leprechauns are about six inches taller and generally dress in tasteless green outfits, though I must admit they make some very fine shoes.”

Maeve was beginning to wonder what she could possibly have done to offend her goddess enough to deserve this joke being played upon her.  “Good Sir Brownie…”

“Ulwin, please.”

“Ulwin.  I apologize for my reaction, but, ah, I expected a different kind of visitor.  If you are seeking a position here, I would be happy to have you under the traditional arrangement.”

The little man looked at her with a rather annoyed expression.  “Madam, it is clear that you are rather ill-informed about developments in the relations between our races over the past several generations.  While it is true that in the past most of my people worked as servants in human households and refused to take formal payment, that has long since ceased to be the rule; I am the owner of an agency which places brownies in service in the very best households in the kingdom.  And as you can see, I have done quite well for myself.”

Now that he mentioned it, Maeve noticed that his clothes were impeccably tailored and his hat, boots and walking-stick new and of the finest craftsmanship.  “Pardon my ignorance, Sir Brownie…”

“Ulwin.”

“Ulwin.  I’m not especially interested in hiring additional paid servants at this time, but if I change my mind…”

“Dear lady, at the risk of being indelicate…I am not here to offer the services of those I represent, but to hire your services.”

Maeve could not help but laugh, though she had no desire to offend the polite little gentleman.  “You must forgive me, sir, but…well, it seems the difference in our statures might make that sort of activity rather difficult.”

“You disappoint me, madam.  Surely you do not think me a schoolboy who considers mere coupling to be the be-all and end-all of the time a man spends with a woman?”

For the first time, she realized he was absolutely earnest; exactly three seconds later, she began to consider his proposition.  She cautiously sat down beside him; he was still shorter than her despite the fact that he was standing on the seat.  “You’re serious?”

“Utterly.”

“But, don’t I seem…well, rather huge and grotesque in your eyes?”

“I would not be here if I felt that way.”

“I suppose not.  But why…I mean, how…that is…”

“I hardly thought I would have had to explain the strange mysteries of humanoid desire to an expert in the field.”

teacupMaeve knew he was right; there was no predicting what strange permutations would arouse the ardor of one man or another, and in her many years of experience she had found that no less true of dwarves, elves or other near-human people.  And it was obvious he had a great deal of money; perhaps Venus had heard her prayer after all.  “Your suggestions intrigue me, Ulwin,” she purred in her most charming manner; “Let me pour you some more tea and we’ll discuss it further.”

His smile let her know that she had already dispelled whatever bad feelings her clumsy and unprofessional reactions had engendered, and as they chatted she envisioned a profitable association with him and perhaps other little men who might share his tastes.  Nor was that the limit of the possibilities his visit had opened her mind to; one of her regular gentlemen had told her that only two days’ ride into the mountains, there was a village of friendly giants.

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There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.  –  The Gospel of Philip

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, long considered to be either a prostitute or “reformed” prostitute and therefore the subject of special devotion by many Catholic (and Orthodox, and Anglican, and Lutheran) whores.  As I have explained before, there is no canonical evidence for this; the idea seems to date to a sermon  delivered in 591 by Pope Gregory the Great, in which she was identified as a repentant harlot (possibly by identification with the “adulterous woman” whom Jesus rescues from being stoned in the 8th chapter of John).  But the four canonical Gospels are not the only ones:

…among those used by Gnostic congregations (and subsequently excluded from the canon) were four more Gospels:  Thomas, Philip, Mary and Judas, all but the last of which assign a much more prominent role to Mary Magdalene than the four canonical ones; indeed, the Gospel of Mary is actually attributed to her.  These Gospels refer to Mary as Jesus’ “companion” and describe him as loving her more than his other disciples and often kissing her on the mouth…the Gospel of Mary identifies her as the unnamed “disciple Jesus loved” mentioned so often in John…

Pope Gregory may well have been aware of these gospels, and perhaps intentionally conflated the Magdalene with the adulteress as a way of smearing her in a time of increasingly-patriarchal Church practices and increasingly-prudish Church attitudes toward sex.  It is possible that one of the reasons Mary the Harlot caught on so quickly as a mythic figure was that she built upon and supplanted the clearly sexual (though not specifically professional) portrayal in the Gnostic gospels, oral traditions of which could well have survived their suppression two centuries before Gregory’s sermon.  I might even point out that she could well be viewed as a Christianized Venus, just as the Blessed Mother is a Christianized mother-goddess and Jesus himself a Christian solar deity.  The actual biographical facts of the lives of the human beings upon whom the mythic figures are based is of no more importance than whether Buddha could actually perform miracles, King Arthur pulled a sword from a stone or Mohammed flew into heaven on a winged horse; as in the case of Saint Nicholas (the official patron saint of whores), the mythology which has developed around the historical Mary Magdalene has a life of its own independent of the mundane facts.  The process of apotheosis creates a new being separate and distinct from the long-dead person whose name he or she shares, and that being inhabits the irrational realm of faith rather than the rational one of fact.

Simply put, Mary Magdalene the symbol is an entity wholly distinct from Mary Magdalene the first-century Jewish woman, and whether the latter was a whore, wife or mere follower to Yeshua bar Yosef is immaterial to the power of that symbol.  For centuries, the name “Magdalene” has been synonymous with “prostitute” in Christendom; when in the 13th century the idea arose for the first time that whores were “fallen” women in need of “rescue”, the asylums established for the purpose were called “Magdalene homes”.  Though few of these institutions survived the Black Death, the movement was revived in the mid-18th century and the number of such places multiplied with the rise of the “white slavery” myth a century later; though they again died out in most places in the early 20th century, they continued on in Ireland until 1996.  In various parts of the British Isles, the term “Magdalene” became “Maggie”, and applied either to whores in general (in England) or ones confined to Magdalene laundries (in Ireland).  The working girls in a number of folk songs are named “Maggie”, and of course Stephen Crane gave us Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets; some of y’all have probably guessed that I chose the name “Maggie” for a reason, and perhaps noticed that the name “Maggie McNeill” has a similar cadence to “Mary Magdalene”.

So even though I well understand that Mary Magdalene may not have “really” been a member of my profession, I also understand the difference between fact and truth.  The sacred whore may have largely ceased to exist in the mundane world of matter, but she still exists in the human unconscious.  And in the West, it has pleased her for a number of centuries now to work under the stage name Mary Magdalene.

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Easter 2014

Again rejoicing Nature sees
Her robe assume its vernal hues
Her leafy locks wave in the breeze,
All freshly steep’d in the morning dews.
  –  Robert Burns

Easter GreetingsAs I pointed out last year, most of the holidays Christianity took over from paganism and redecorated with a Christian rationale are still pagan to the core; this is especially true of Easter, which is virtually indistinguishable from the other spring festivals which preceded it all the way back to Sumer and before.  Christians still celebrate with the ancient symbols of flower, hare and egg, Jesus’ coming forth from the tomb is just the old story of Tammuz or Attis or Adonis or Osiris with refurbished names and details, and (in English, at least) even the festival’s name is that of the goddess from whom Christ inherited the day.  Before cute bunnies and the like become the dominant iconography in the early part of the 20th century, the goddess still appeared on Easter cards and other illustrations in the guise of an angel, a young mortal girl or even the Blessed Mother; no matter how much the Church patriarchy tried to suppress her, she just kept popping up out of the spiritus mundi like spring flowers from winter soil.  And though the sheer joy of spring is severely muted due to the disconnection of modern urbanites from nature, her symbolism still persists; as this holiday reminds us, many things which have been buried are nonetheless not truly dead, and merely await the proper time to emerge into the sunlight once more.

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This is a kind of hybrid column, half Q&A and half guest post.  A reader sent me the photo below, and wanted to know if I could tell him anything about it (you’ll see why he thought I might in a moment).  Well, everything I know about art wouldn’t even make a whole column, but the essence of librarianship isn’t knowing information directly, but rather knowing where to find it.  So I asked Aspasia Bonasera, who happens to be an art historian in addition to a sex worker, and she provided the analysis below.  I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

In the early eighties I found this de-framed painting in an antique store in Wisconsin.   An older couple who ran the store said it had come up the river from Storyville to Chicago, where they got it in an estate sale, along with its anecdotal provenance.  Seems it was cut from its frame in great hurry, then later “framed” in something that was at some point painted dark brown…

Storyville painting

This painting was done in oil on canvas.  Primary colors dominate, though the palette is vibrant; the paint quality is average to maybe slightly above average.  The canvas itself looks to be average quality as well (cotton or low-grade linen), so this painting was either done by an artist without a lot of money to spend on finer, linen canvases or someone who paints as a hobby.  This says to me that it probably wasn’t a commission or if it was, it was not commissioned by someone with a lot of money for the project.  Commissions are generally done with the best materials the artist has access to, and it is not unusual for the patron to provide these finer materials.

The painting was originally larger; the female subject’s foot is clearly cut off at the bottom of the canvas where it was cut and re-framed.  There could be any number of reasons for this; for example, if the painting was commissioned for one patron but the deal fell through for reasons unknown to us, another patron may have bought it but asked that it be scaled down to fit on their walls.  More than likely, I think this painting was cut and re-sized by the buyer rather than the artist.  So far as I can tell, there is no signature of the artist on the painting, which tells me it may have been located on the bottom of the painting, which has been removed.  If the artist had re-sized/re-framed the painting in his studio, he would have re-signed his creation.

The painting shows a classic Reclining Venus, which was a popular theme in antiquity and Renaissance paintings.  For example, the Venus of Urbino by Titian is a Reclining Venus.  Naturally, this would have been an appropriate subject for a brothel.  The two young men are almost satyr-like, especially their ears, which are almost pointed and their long, drawn faces.  Satyrs were known for their lust and high libidos and were often depicted with women who were equally lusty and wild, especially Maenads.Diana and Actaeon by Camille Corot (1836)  The presence of the men in a voyeuristic pose may also be influence by the Greek myth of the virgin huntress Diana being surprised at her bath by the hunter Actaeon, whom she punished for spying on her nudity by turning him into the very animal he hunts (see also Titian’s rendering of that story).  Unlike Diana, however, the woman in this painting, as a representation of Venus/Aphrodite quite enjoys being spied on, though she doesn’t make eye contact with the voyeurs but affects an aloofness that probably only intensifies their lust for her.  Appropriate for a sex worker!

The style reminds me the most of French Rococo artists such as Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, or François Boucher.  Fragonard and Boucher are known for their erotic arts and voluptuous pastoral scenes.  This painting shows nature as full and sensual and blossoming.  The style, in my opinion, is very strongly influenced by Fragonard, which brings me to a conundrum of my own.  Fragonard was very popular among the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the French Revolution.  When the Revolution occurred, Fragonard fell out of favor (as did Boucher) and his art was forgotten for many years; this included the time period in which Storyville would have existed.  That said, however, Fragonard may have fallen out of favor in mainstream art history, but perhaps he was still remembered among those who were outside of the mainstream, such as those people who still liked the voluptuous and erotic artistic expressions embodied by the Rococo?  Certainly there would have been those among the elite classes of the French Creole in New Orleans who may have had Fragonard paintings (or at least known who he was) and also patronized Storyville.

Obviously without more to go on, this analysis is purely speculative, though based in what I have learned in my course work.  I would love to know more about it, though, as I always love investigating that intersection of sex and art.  If the reader really wants a thorough, in-person investigation, I suggest contacting a gallery that is in New Orleans itself, such as M.S. Rau Antiques; in Chicago, there are a whole bunch of places that could do the job as well.

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I’m sure regular readers already know Aspasia, who is not only a regular reader and frequenter commenter, but a blogger whom I’ve linked on several occasions.  In a recent correspondence she told me about Oshún; since I’m very interested in the subject of whore goddesses, I was immediately intrigued and asked if she would do this essay, and she graciously consented without any arm-twisting.

Like so many other young women these days, I began to research the old myths of ancient goddesses from all around the world during my early to mid twenties.  I was always drawn to sex goddesses like Oshún, Aphrodite, Inanna, etc.  We’re all kindred spirits, if you please.  Their personality traits, especially those of Oshún and Aphrodite, are very similar: graciousness and generosity (and you’d do well not to anger them), unabashed femininity, sexuality, and sensuality.  They display absolute authority over the power of sexuality, which was understood to be the complex thing it is and certainly not a frivolity as our anti-sexuality culture deems it to be.  In the pantheon of ori (divine beings) in which Oshún is a member, she is the third most powerful after the Father God Obatalá and Mother Goddess Yemayá.  Like them Oshún has a sacred color, yellow, all her own; all other orisha (spirits or gods) must share colors.  Oshún isn’t known to many people outside of the Caribbean, Brazil or the Yoruba people found primarily in Nigeria and Benin (though they can also be found in Ghana and among the Krio of Sierra Leone); however, she is known and revered everywhere in the Latin Caribbean and South America where the Yoruban people were taken during the slave trade.  In Cuba, where Oshún has been syncretized with Santa Cecilia (patroness of music) and La Virgin de La Caridad del Cobre, she is known as Our Lady of the Caridad del Cobre with a feast day of September 8th.  Cobre means copper in Spanish, and the precious metal figures prominently in the representation of Oshun.

OshunBesides copper, Oshún also favors gold and all things shiny and yellow; this is similar to Aphrodite, who also favors gold and is often (though not always) depicted with golden hair.  Tied around Oshún’s hips is a gourd filled with her honey, which she smears on the mouths of men whom she is trying (and always succeeding) to win over; she also smears it upon her own naked body, a frank reference to lovemaking.  Similarly, there are stories concerning Aphrodite sharing her goldenness with lucky men she has chosen to be hers…for a time.  Both goddesses are sea-born in some fashion with names that reflect those origins: Aphrodite (Greek for “foam-born”) rose from the sea and Oshún was named after the deep “O” sound the Earth made causing a boulder to fall into the water, which made the “shun” sound…or so one patakí (parable) of her naming tells us.  She is the goddess of the “sweet” waters and indeed has a river named after her.  Oshún is most revered as a goddess of sexuality, sensuality, beauty, love, money, joy, music… la dolce vita.  She is the “Divine Epitome” of all that is wonderful about women and femininity, and is renowned for her beauty; in Cuba she is known as La Bella Mulata (“The Beautiful Mulatto Woman”).  A patakí explaining the change in Oshún’s physical appearance in Cuba tells us that she changed her appearance to better blend in with the diverse racial mixture found there; her skin color changes from dark brown to golden honey-brown, the latter being another symbol in the representation of Oshún.

But I always noticed something missing from the typical feminist writings on sex goddesses: their whore aspect.  All of the sex goddesses, with their consummate love-making skills, also have a connection to money or money-like objects or symbols and yet somehow, following the feminist mindset, never the twain shall meet.  Not even within the same goddess!  The PC revisions of these goddesses are a disservice to them and to any who want to know about them, even if they don’t feel the same strong pull to their service that I do.  Oshún Panchagara is the whore aspect of Oshún.  As with Aphrodite, modern-day revisionists avert their eyes from her frankly sexual and overtly whorish aspects and give it a gloss and polish that is absolutely misplaced.  I only found out about Panchagara through a book I recently acquired in which a Cuban santero (a male practitioner of Santería; female santera) priest and “son of Oshún” (all followers of Oshún are considered her children) not only mentions this aspect but celebrates it.  Baba Raul Canizares writes in Oshún:  Santería and the Orisha of Love, Rivers and Sensuality:

In one of her avatars, Oshún Panchagara, she is depicted as a Holy Whore, “La Santa Puta”.  This is a controversial aspect of the orisha, rejected as a New World fabrication by modern-day Yoruba revisionists and African-American feminists who feel their goddess is being degraded by depictions of her as a prostitute.  These people are actually projecting their own prejudices and morality into the equation.  In reality, prostitution has not always been viewed as degrading or immoral.  In fact, temple prostitutes, including the famous “vestal virgins” [sic] of ancient Rome, have featured prominently in the history of ancient religions.  On and off, prostitution has been legal in Cuba until the late 1960’s.  It is only natural that, just as every other profession has a patron saint, prostitutes also enjoy this privilege.  In her aspect as Panchagara, Oshún is at her most rambunctious, coquettish, and wild.  Panchagara is La Bella Mulata on Steroids, a woman very much in control who chooses who she’ll bless with her sexual favors.  Panchagara is in no way a victim, as those who object to her claim, but an empowered female who has chosen prostitution on her own terms and for her gain.  Oshún Panchagara has been an inspiration to women who for whatever reason have had to engage in prostitution; she demonstrates that a human being’s sense of self-worth need not be affected by what he or she does for a living.

There is little about Panchagara online, at least nothing as honest as Canizares’ statement.  The PC aversion to her frank sexuality, which Canizares also hits upon, can be found here in this article where a modern-day African-American female follower of Oshún seems to have a bad reaction to the “wrong” expression of sexuality as shown by other daughters of Oshún.

Panchagara completes the totality of Oshún.  Unabashedly sexual and sensual, a love for money (she was impoverished at one time, resulting in an aversion to being poor), confident in her beauty and allure…that is Panchagara and most every other sex worker I know!  As una bella mulata myself, I have a strong kinship with Panchagara.  While I am not a santera, I worship Oshún in my own way.  She is an endlessly fascinating goddess and saint.  Baba Raul Canizares and Migene Gonzalez Wippler are both Cuban and have a wealth of knowledge of Oshún in the Santería/La Religion Lucumi tradition, which is the one that has influenced my worship of Oshun the most.  Panchagara is an aspect of Oshún that must not be left out.
Oshun by Selina Fenech

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I Lais, once of Greece the pride,
For whom so many suitors sigh’d,
Now aged grown, at Venus’ shrine
The mirror of my youth resign;
Since what I am I will not see,
And what I was I cannot be.
  –  Julian the Egyptian

Lais of Corinth by Hans Holbein the Younger (1526)As I’ve written many times before, it’s difficult to know which details of the lives of courtesans are true and which are false, and which of the latter are embellishment or exaggeration and which outright invention on the part of the lady herself, her admirers, her enemies or her biographers.  And that’s just the modern courtesans; the biographies of those of the ancient world often trail off into legend and myth.  But the problem with writing about Lais is simultaneously simpler and more maddening: there may have been two hetaerae by the same name living at almost the same time, whose biographical details became confused with one another; or, there may have only been one Lais who sometimes looks like two because stories about other courtesans became mistakenly attached to her.  So though I’ll do my best to straighten things out, I cannot promise to fully untangle a skein it has taken over twenty-three centuries to tangle.

Some sources say she was born in Hyccara, Sicily in 421 BCE, and died in Thessaly in 340.  That’s a long lifespan, but not impossible even for the time; however, if she was only one woman the legend about her death – that she was stoned by the native women out of jealousy –  would certainly have to be false, since I hardly think even the greatest beauty of her age (as she was reputed to be) would still be capable of inspiring murderous jealousy at 81.  If the story of the murder is true, she would either have to have been born at least forty years later or to have been two women.  However, I am highly suspicious that it is indeed true, because it sounds a lot more like a tall tale men would make up than actual female behavior; while women are certainly capable of murder, we generally don’t do it in big groups unless there’s some sort of ritual involved.  If the death date is accurate, I think it’s much more likely Lais died of old age in her bed…but that makes a much less lurid story.

The account of her origin is no less interesting, but far more credible: her birthplace, Hyccara, was conquered by the Athenians in 415 BCE and its entire population sold into slavery.  Lais ended up in Corinth, and as she matured into a beauty won her freedom in much the same way Rhodopis did.  Some modern authors claim that the elder Lais was born in Corinth and the younger in Hyccara, but since the town was depopulated years before the birth of anyone who was still young in 340, this hardly seems likely.  The two-Lais theory is undermined still further by the fact that though there are solid contemporary references to her in the early 4th century BCE, those which take place later are entirely anecdotal.  The philosopher Aristippus (435-356 BCE) was one of her clients and mentions her in two of his writings, and in his play Wealth (388 BCE), Aristophanes states that she was kept by a man named Philonides.  By contrast, the accounts of famous men who were said to have sought her out in the mid-4th century (such as Demosthenes and Myron) are unverified by contemporary sources; furthermore, the story that she set an absurd price for one man while giving herself to the philosopher Diogenes for free is also told about Phryne, with Demosthenes playing the part of the King of Lydia.

There is one last factor which makes the one-Lais theory far more likely than its rival: the woman who died in 340 (and was buried in a tomb decorated by a statue of a lioness holding a ram in her forepaws) was supposed to have moved to Thessaly to live with a handsome young man named Hippostratus, with whom she had fallen in love.  Now, poets adore the romantic notion of a successful courtesan giving it all up for love, but in truth this rarely happens; most often, it’s older, retired courtesans who take up with much younger men rather than young ones running off with boys their own age.

So though we cannot be sure, the facts of Lais’ life seem to be these: she spent her later childhood and early teens as a slave, and was trained as a hetaera; after a while one of her admirers bought her freedom and she quickly became popular.  She charged very high fees and indulged herself in many of the extravagances common to her profession; she even developed her own exclusive perfume.  But by her early thirties she began to slow down, allowing herself to be kept by a succession of wealthy men rather than accepting a large number of short-term clients.  As she got older still she took up with Hippostratus and moved to Thessaly, and eventually died of old age.  But her legendary beauty and reputation attracted stories as honey attracts flies (even stories that were also told about others), and eventually there were too many of them for just one woman’s lifetime to contain…so some not-quite-as-clever-as-they-imagine historians decided to split her into two.Lais in Hades by Gustave Cortos, print by Luis Falero (1902)

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