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"In some respects the position of the ancient Greek _hetaira_ was more analogous to that of the Japanese _geisha_ than to that of the prostitute in the strict sense. For the Greeks, indeed, the _hetaira_, was not strictly a _porne_ or prostitute at all. The name meant friend or companion, and the woman to whom the name was applied held an honorable position, which could not be accorded to the mere prostitute. Athenæus (Bk. xiii, Chs.XXVIII-XXX) brings together passages showing that the _hetaira_ could be regarded as an independent citizen, pure, simple, and virtuous, altogether distinct from the common crew of prostitutes, though these might ape her name. The _hetairæ_ "were almost the only Greek women," says Donaldson (_Woman_, p. 59, "who exhibited what was best and noblest in women's nature." This fact renders it more intelligible why a woman of such intellectual distinction as Aspasia should have been a _hetaira_." --Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 6

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In ancient Greece, hetaerae were courtesans, that is to say, highly educated, sophisticated companions. They are often regarded by people today as simple prostitutes, which is an incorrect assumption, although most of them did infact have sexual relations with their patrons.


In ancient Greek society, hetaerae were independent and sometimes influential women who were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Mostly ex-slaves from other cities, these courtesans were renowned for their achievements in dance and music, as well as for their physical and intellectual talents. Unlike most other women in Greek society at the time, hetaerae were educated. Τhey were also the only women who actively took part in the symposia where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men.

Some similarities have been found between the ancient Greek hetaera, the earlier Babylonian nadītu, the Japanese geisha, and the Korean kisaeng.

Plutarch's Life of Demetrius is our longest and most detailed surviving account of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. The biography reports that Demetrius displayed a great lack of commitment, making light of marriage by having many wives at one time and even slighting them by consorting with many freeborn women and many hetairai. Lamia, a famous early Hellenistic courtesan, was his favourite. Plutarch mentions her in the context of fourteen separate anecdotes. We know that Lamia was once a member of Ptolemy I Soter's entourage and was a flute player. How she came to be a musician for Ptolemy is not known. Many women who played musical instruments in ancient Greece were also involved in prostitution, but there is no evidence that Lamia was reputed to be a prostitute before her involvement with Demetrius. The hetairai involved with kings were noticeably monogamous. Polemon tells us that Lamia was the daughter of the Athenian citizen, Cleanor, and that she had built the stoa or art gallery at Sicyon as a benefaction to the people. Lamia was renowned not only for her beauty and charm, but also possessed a great wit.

Among the most famous were Thargelia, a renowned Ionian hetaera of ancient times, Aspasia companion of Pericles, Archeanassa companion of Plato, the famous Neaira, and Thaïs, a concubine of Ptolemy, general on the expedition of Alexander the Great and later king of Egypt.

Hetaerae appear to have been regarded as distinct from prostitutes (pόrne), and also distinguished from mistresses (pallakide) or wives (gynaekes). In the oration Against Neaera, Demosthenes said:

“We have hetaerae for pleasure, pallakae to care for our daily body’s needs and gynaekes to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”

In this same oration, Demosthenes mentions that Neaira's purchase price (both at her original purchase by Timanoridas of Corinth and Eucrates of Leucas and her own subsequent purchase of her freedom) was 30 minas. Since the mina was equal to 100 drachmae and the drachma can be thought of as equivalent to the daily wage of a skilled worker, this would make her purchase price over 8 years salary—obviously beyond the means of the average person.

The male form of the word, hetaeros (pl. hetaeroi), signified male companions in the sense of a business or political associate. Most famously, it referred to Alexander the Great's bodyguard cavalry unit (see Companion cavalry).

In Jungian psychology, the hetaere is one of Toni Wolff's four feminine archetypes.

Simone de Beauvoir makes significant discussion of the hetaira type in her seminal volume, The Second Sex.

List of courtesans in ancient Greece

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hetaira" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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