Sex in the Ancient World: Greece
Horses seducing nymphs and chaste, young maidens … gods firing arrows of lust into young men … philosophy and mythology certainly weren’t all the ancients Greeks were known for. If it had been, then words like androgyny, Aphrodisiacs, eroticism, Homosexuality, pederasty, and zoophilia wouldn’t exist in our modern dictionaries.
Sexual Culture for Women
The lives of men and women in ancient Greece were very different. The working class woman didn’t have any rights in Greek society and lived under the rule of their male kin. They were left uneducated, kept segregated in separate parts of the home, and were viewed as a commodity whose sole purpose was to breed and care for children. She was to be chaste, skilled at crafts like spinning, weaving and sewing - and be sober minded enough to run the household wisely.
Rather than risking their lives in seeking sexual comfort outside the marital bed, Greek wives did have some consolation to their loneliness, finding pleasure and release in a ‘marital aid' known as the dildo, or ‘Olisbos’. Ancient Sex Toys such as these first appeared in Greek times for use as an imitation penis and were made of either wood or padded leather; and they had to be thoroughly lubricated with olive oil before being introduced for play.
But frustrated married wives weren’t the only ones using sex toys to enhance their sex lives. Most women and men have had an illustrious fascination with devices, not unlike the olisbos, that added excitement and passion to sex. And according to numerous literary references, penis-shaped Sex Toys were such an important part of everyday Greek life that they were sold in the marketplace and taken virtually everywhere their owners went– some men and women going so far as to claim they would be brought into the afterlife.
Sexual Culture for Men
Greek culture permitted husbands far more flexibility in their sexual exploits. They were able to keep concubines as second wives, or enter into an intimate relationship with young men, yet their wives were harshly punished for going outside of the marriage. Married life was unromantic, sex infrequent and sterile - a stark contrast to the side pursuits of the free-wheeling Greek men, who had the freedom to choose what lover he pleased.
The acclaimed authority on sexuality throughout the ages, ‘Sex in History’, noted that in and around the latter part of the fourth century B.C., “Athenian men began to rediscover an interest in women, though not their wives”, and like the Romans, Greek men helped themselves to the services of an assortment of companions, such as:
Hetairai - the top level courtesans of the ancient Greek world were the clever Hetairai, professional, educated, and accomplished escorts who received gifts rather than money in exchanges for their services. Hetairai excelled at many of the things that Greek husbands prevented their wives from learning – much to the wives’ chagrin - and were able to sup at the dinner table and participate in conversation and debate. Although many of these courtesans offered sex as part of their benefit, some of them were nothing more than friends to their rich and powerful male clients.
Eromenos – in ancient Greece, the most widespread and socially significant form of same-sex relations occurred between adult men and pubescent or adolescent boys, the Eromenos, “beloved” or “child.” The young boys were free to choose their mates and usually had to be courted, and once they entered into a relationship with their elder partner, were educated, protected, and taught the ways of the world. In exchange, the younger males satisfied the sexual appetite of their mentors. The most common age for boys to enter into such arrangements was similar to that of Greek girls given in marriage; usually a young teen coupled with an adult many years their senior.
Concubines – little is actually known about the concubines of classical times, but the habit of keeping them gradually gave way in popularity in favor of brothel workers, Hetairai, and Eromenos. What is known is that the concubine’s life was generally an unhappy one: she had neither the independence maintained by the Hetairai nor the legal protection afforded to a Greek wife. Whenever the master grew tired of her presence, he could sell her off to a brothel as he wished.
Prostitution & Brothels
By the beginning of the sixth century, the first Athenian brothels had been established and stocked with prostitutes. Those who sold sex would line up outside of the establishments, clad in thin gauze and bare chests, while others would walk the unpaved streets looking for company. After surviving numerous centuries, a pair of leather sandals belonging to a streetwalker was discovered, and on the soles was a message studded in reverse – meant to imprint itself in the road for passersby to see; it read, “Follow me.”
Unlike developments in Western societies in modern times, the ancient Greeks did not consider sexual orientation to be a social identifier. Greek society did not differentiate sexual desire or erotic acts by the gender of the participants, but rather by the role that each person played in the sex act. Homosexuality was a social rite, and same sex relationships, particularly between an older man and a young male (known as pederasty), were an acceptable institution of that time.
Lesbianism, referred to as tribadism in ancient times, has also been evidenced. One of the most famous of these tribades was Sappho, whose home island of Lesbos gave rise to the term Lesbian. Moreover, a Leucadian woman by the name Philaneis who, despite the segregation of the sexes and the weak status of women, wrote the most famous classical sex manual on lesbian acts and sexual positions. Only fragments of the book remain today.
Sex Symbols and Mythology
Sexual imagery was often depicted in various artworks, and the phallus - many times in the form of a herma (or sculpture with a head) - was an object of worship as a symbol of fertility. As such, the physical characteristics of these icons were unquestionably masculine and in a perpetual state of erection. For example, Priapus, the god of fertility and horticulture, and protector of domestic animals, is always depicted in ancient art as having a giant penis – often larger than his own body - meant as a ‘threat’ to thieves and trespassers.
Greek mythology also features stories of gods in the context of lust and love, birth and death, with an imaginative – and often unusual - range of circumstances. To illustrate, take Aphrodite, goddess of sex and love. She was born from the white foam of the ocean waves, but not the kind you’re thinking of. As the story goes, Cronos, the son of earth and heaven, castrated his dad and threw his testicles into the sea, which drifted away in a foam of their own semen, eventually giving birth to her!
Ancient Greece was a world of amorous citizens, lusty heroes, and hot-blooded gods. In addition to their achievements and virtues, the colorful sexual history of our Mediterranean ancestors expresses an immense variety in their sexual exploits and provides interesting insight into part of the evolution of sex throughout history.