The Role of Women in the Art of Ancient Greece

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Love and Sex and Women in the Art of Ancient Greece

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Love and Sex and Women in the Art of Ancient Greece

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Introduction

Empedocles said: "And these things never cease from continual shifting, at one time all coming together, through Love, into one, and another each borne apart from the others through Strife."

Art forms are identified by their associations and some forms can be associated with the two sexes. Art forms can relate to the shape of the sex organs, some secondary sex characteristics such as breasts, or they can relate to some activity which is unique to the sexes. When one studies a culture like ancient Greece one can draw certain conclusions about sexual values as a result of the presence or absence of these associations in the art of the culture.

It was very important for a Greek citizen to have a healthy wife that could bear healthy children. It was so important that the men turned to courtesans, or hetaerae for sexual satisfaction and entertainment. Lesbian activity is less recorded than homsexuality, but the writings of Sappho are interpreted as Lesbian by some. You can study Greek Vase paintings for illustrations of sexuality. The Boston Museum of Art has some particularly interesting pieces.

In order for a women in ancient times to become pregnant, she must have had sex. Babies were important for the future of the society so women had to have a lot of sex to become pregnant and have babies. Gods and goddesses had sex to provide new deities. The deities had sex with mortals so mortals could trace their lineage to deities. Some of these sexual encounters were rapes where the god compelled a woman to intercourse and others were more willing. The rape of Leda by Zeus in the guise of a swan is illustrated at: Athens, NM 1499. Goddesses also bore babies for mortal men.

Unlike the Christian notion of virgin birth where a woman could be pregnant without having sex, the Greeks believed that all babies were the result of sex but in some cases the mother became pregnant by having sex with a god. Greek men wanted to be sure they knew the father of a child so they carefully secluded their wives. But they only demanded as much sex as would get the wives pregnant. Demosthenes states: "Hetaerae we keep for the sake of pleasure: concubines (i.e. female slaves) for the daily care of our persons, wives to bear us legitimate children and to be the trusted guardians of our households." An amazing amount of information on Greek sexual practice is illustrated on Greek vase painting, but you will have to visit various museums to see it. More information about hetaerae is available at: Click here

There was quite a variety of love life in evidence. During the classical period the wives of citizens were carefully secluded. This prevented affairs but it also prevented rapes. It was very important for these wives to have babies so they were probably kept pretty happy. They probably got all the sex they wanted, but did not have to endure extra demands. When the husbands wanted sex for pleasure they turned to the hetaerae, a group of women who served as entertainers, courtesans, and prostitutes. The hetaerae were not secluded and could accompany the men everywhere. One of the reasons that the women were secluded was that Greeks believed that the sexual pleasure for a woman was nine times that for a man so women were easily driven by sex.

The experience of women in Greece certainly was the broadest possible. Helen was the face that launched 1000 ships. Her story is full of romance. Clytemnestra plots and schemes and murders her husband and then is murdered by her son. Medea leaves her home for love and then has to fight to keep her husband. He feels so little for her that he dumps her for a younger women. She retaliates by killing his children and the other women. Penelope is so loyal to her husband Odysseus that she waits 20 years for his return from the Trojan war. Breseis is captured in the Trojan war and becomes Achilles' love slave. Sappho wrote some of the most beautiful love poetry ever.

If you study the vase paintings you will realize that the sex they had was not very different than what is done today. The main difference is that they had only poor birth control and they knew nothing of venereal disease. If a women became pregnant she did have options that women of today do not have. If the baby was deformed it would be exposed to die. She could also sell the baby into slavery if she did not want to raise it. Abortions are much safer today than they were then. The Greeks tolerated homosexuality and lesbianism much more than we do today.

The study of ancient art and archeology suggests that the shape and function of womans's breasts has not changed much in the last 10,000 years. Attitudes about breasts have changed. Minoan women wore dresses, especially during festivals that exposed their breasts. Artifacts show them even dancing in this dress. Later Greek ladies preferred to cover their breasts in public. During the Greek period women wore an undergarment over their breasts, but it was more of a bandage. Ladies of the upper class might use the services of a wet nurse to save the appearance of their breasts. A wet nurse was a lower class woman who would suckle an upper class baby for hire. Now we feel that it is healthier for the mother and baby for the mother to suckle her own baby.

Today nipples at the ends of the female breast must be covered in public in the U.S.A. or the female is subject to public indecency charges. The public reaction to the sculpture of the Cyprian Aphrodite by Praxiteles suggests that female nudity was much more shocking during the classical period than it was in ancient Greece during the Trojan war. This is in spite of the fact that male atheletes customarily performed in the nude during the classical period. Yet female nudity is not at all common in the art of archaic Greece, while it became more popular after Praxiteles.

The ancient Greeks were very sexually oriented. They participated in a wide variety of sexual experiences. The ancient Greeks were more tolerant of same sex relationships and they did not bother their wives for sexual pleasure. They went to a group of specially trained women called hetaerae for that, but they believed that women had nine times the sexual pleasure that men did.

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Contraception

Nothing that the ancient Greek women had was an effective contraceptive. It is suggested that they used natural sponges to control their menstral flow but these would not have been effective contraceptives. There are herbs that they used that did reduce their fertility and may have helped them control the number of cheildren the bore but these were not very effective.

One reason the women had little interest in contraceptives is that they could easily sell an unwanted baby into slavery or even expose it and leave it to die. Oedipus and Atalanta were both treated this way. Exposed babies were semingly often picted up by others and either cared for, sold into slavery, or disposed of in some other way. In that sense the practice is not a whole lot different that the practice in England during the Industrial revolution of leaving the baby on the doorstep of a foundling home. Most of these babies died of disease.

The Greeks became known for Homosexuality and other forms of sex that were thought to be abnormal especially by the Christians. This included oral (cunilingus) and anal (sodomism) sex. It is possible that these other forms of sex were used by prostitutes to perform a sex act that would not get them pregnant. In that sense these would be considered contraceptives.

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Sex with animals

There are a number of Myths that suggest Greeks had sex with animals. Oddly enough an offspring results even though this is impossible. Zeus in the form of a bull raped Europa and had three sons by her who founded the Cretan Culture. One of those sons, Minos, married Pasiphae. Pasiphae fell in love with a bull and mated with him. The result was the Minotaur The mechanics of how this sex transpired is often left to the imagination. But it did affect art. Leda was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan and details of this action can be had in the following: Click here.

One must also inquire as to the motive of these stories about the sexual interaction of humans and animals. The desire seems not to be a clinical pursuit of truth. More likely is a desire to defame the participants. In the case of the story of the Minotaur, Pasiphae is related as a human queen. In earlier times she seems to have been a goddess. The fact was that she was the representative of a society that was conquered by the Greeks. And now, all we have are the stories by the conquering Greeks. It seems likely that the notion of the totem is helpful. A totem is an animal that gives power to a particular group of people. Sex between a human and an animal would explain how the trait of a particular animal might be acquired. Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world was born as a result of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a beautiful swan. It might be said that the totem of Helen's family was a swan.

Leda was the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. Zeus visted her in the form of a swan. The result of their sexual union was Helen and Pollux. The swan is more of a symbol of a bird goddess like Athena than it was of Zeus.

In the case of Pasiphae and the bull, the result of their sexual relation was a monster, the Minotaur, half man and half bull. Zeus in the form of a swan raped Leda. The result was an egg containing Helen of Troy. Zeus also raped Hera in the form of a cucoo. In the case of Io, Zeus turned her into a cow and then proceeded to rape her as a bull. But the result was a man.

The idea of a monster being born from such a union may result from the observation that some still-born fetuses resemble monsters. But there is also the possibilty that the tales of monsters result from accidental observation of fossil bones.

These myths do not suggest that such a union was desirable but they do suggest that these type of unions did happen. Even so it is usually easier to interpret these events in an allegorical way. The rape of Europa suggests that a prince of Crete went to Tyre and kidnapped a Phoenician princess. This is just what Paris did to Helen, perhaps in retribution.

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Sex Slavery in the Art of Ancient Greece

In the Iliad, Helen suggests she is no better than Paris' sex slave. I doubt that the Greek wives were treated as sex slaves but Greek law would not protect them from an abusive husband. The slaves of the house, if women, could easily be subject to this treatment. One of the delights of war (I am being very sarcastic of course) was that men could capture women as slaves that they would press into service as a sex slave. Briseis seems close to this situation in the Iliad.

Briseis, The sex-slave of Achilles

A slave owner would not be guilty of rape if he forced himself upon his own slave. He would be guilty of rape if he forced himself sexually on someone else's slave. Women were carefully sequestered which reduced rape, but probably did not eliminate it. The women who left the house to draw water were oftened annoyed by men. Typically these were slaves or poorer free women.

Slaves were needed for the work they could do and sex was not that productive. Only if a slave were forced into prostitution would sex be productive. Prostitutes were not as productive as the hetaerae but they did produce. One option that the Greek masters often took was to promise to reward a prostitute who was particularly profitable by giving her freedom. She then usually became a hetaerae.

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Nudity in Ancient Greece

Their attitude about sex was more open. They developed the pactice of having the men do their athletics in the nude. In art they then developed the notion of the heroic nude where all male heroes would be portrayed nude. Only later were women portrayed nude. But women were often portrayed in an attractive way. The result was that their art was fairly popular and shipped all over the world.

Because athletes performed in the nude, nudity became associated with the ideal of perfection and strength. The concept of the heroic nude developed from this. Heroes were often depicted nude because of their strength and purity, even with others clothed. But this is not a concept that applied to women. Nudity in women was more associated with beauty as exemplified by Aphrodite. In this case nudity associated with purity suggested heavenly love rather than lust. Of course sexually involved couples are usually nude so nudity has also this association. One must be careful in the interpretaion of nudity, because nudity can strip a body of any identification or personality. The body then becomes an object and is depersonalized. The Greeks were very strong on tokens. A goddess is identified by the tokens associated with her. If the body appears nude and the tokens of a goddess are present then the nudity can be interpreted as the purity of the goddess. If the body lacks tokens, then the body has been stipped of its personality and demoted. The sacrifice of a virgin may be depicted as a naked body because we are focusing on the sacrifice and not on the personality lost. When the focus is sexual conquest then the personality may be unimportant. This type of interpretaton is important for a determination of the moral intent of the nudity.

(From Empedocles) "A double tale will I tell: at one time it grew to be one only from many, at another it divided again to be many from one. There is a double coming into being of mortal things and a double passing away. One is brought about, and again destroyed, by the coming together of all things, the other grows up and is scattered as things are again divided. And these things never cease from continual shifting, at one time all coming together, through Love, into one, at another each borne apart from the others through strife...."

Women weren't usually protrayed nude, yet men were. Men were portrayed nude because of the custom of athletic competitions being held in the nude. This may have been because they could bear no weapons and so would submit to the judges who could bear them.

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Pornography in Ancient Greece

In our culture there are strict moral prohibitions against certain sex related material and activity. Beyond this there is the idea that certain sexual material drives people to crime and is therefore illegal. The ancient Greek society had a more tolerant view of sex which, under some circumstances was considered religious practice. Even though our word for pornography comes from the Greek word for prostitute (porne), there was no material that was to them pornographic in our sense. All they had was the paraphenalia of the prostitute. Greek art does picture sexual activity, but it is impossible to separate out a portion that is purient and to them illegal or immoral. The ancient Greeks did not have the concept of pornography.

Their morality was based neither on the Christian nor on the Jewish tradition so their notion of obscenity was different. In the realm of art pornography consists of images that are meaningless or poorly constructed. Nothing of the ancient Greeks would be considered meaningless just because we struggle for any information from a culture that old. They certainly had material which expressed their feelings about sex, but it would not be considered porn in the modern sense.

In the realm of law pornography often involves the visual display of sex organs. But there were a number of situations in ancient Greece where nutity was permissable or even required. But public displays of sex seem to have been limited. In the symposiums, entertainments for men, displays of sex could be part of the entertainment.

It the realm of religion some types of sexiness were encouraged as a part of a religious ceremony. Dancing that we would consider explicit might be part of a fertility ceremony. Sometimes a priestess would perform sex with a partner in a public ceremony to help the crops grow. Pornograghy, for the ancient Greeks meant images that promoted the business of cheap prostitutes. Today we define pornography in terms of morality that is based on sex as a basic evil. This is quite different from the Greek view. The Greeks came to Aphrodite for religious purposes that they thought were basically good. Though prostitution was within the realm of Aphrodite, there was nothing cheap about the goddess. The cheap prostitutes were slaves that were forced into prostitution against her will.

The situation is different for seduction and rape over the years. Today rape is an act of violence that has little to do with passion. Seduction is of no consequence unless it is pornography, then it is illegal. Seduction to the ancient Greeks was a moral issue. If a man had sex with a women then he made her his wife. Rape was more a matter of seduction. But rape by a god allowed descendents to claim a god as ancestor. Rape also symbolized the overpowering of one sect or culture by another. The stories of rape among the deities also warned girls what to watch out for. A good story does not always demonstrate good morality. In fact, stories of rape generally demonstrate bad morality.

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Sex in Ancient Greece

Question: sex

Answer: Sex was important to the ancient Greeks, but love was important as well. The death rate was higher because of ignorance about disease and poor health conditions. Water sources were not protected from pollution and wastes were not segrated from human activity. They needed a higher birth rate to compensate. Also, they needed a higher birth rate to support an expanding economy. But they needed good babies so they secluded the wives so they could concentrate on the task of raising healthy babies.

Their attitude toward homosexuality, lesbianism, and other sexual behaviors was permissive. But anal sex was not as prevelant as some believe. The standard position for heterosexual intercourse was to have the woman stand and bend over and the man to enter her vagina from the rear. Some say anal sex was invented by the Greek men and practiced on each other. In some cases it was homosexual sex, but in the majority of cases in ancient Greece it was bisexual. The practice seems of more benefit to the penetrator than the penetrated, but sex is mostly mental. It may also establish who is dominant. If practiced on women it rarely causes pregnancy, but has the disadvantage of transferring germs from the anus to the vagina if care is not taken. Of course the ancient Greeks knew nothing of germs. Even so they practiced monagamy, which greatly reduces the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.

Nymph on the Beach. In Ancient Greece genital sex was the most common while anal sex was possible.

Question: is intercourse is sex?

Answer: Not necessarily. Intercourse involves interchange or communication. business and barter involve non-sexual interchange. Intercourse becomes sex when sexual feelings are aroused. Two persons can communicate sexually without touching but it is still sex. But two persons can communicate in a way that involves sexual organs and it is not sex. A male gynecologist examining the sex organ of a female patient is not involved in a sex act. A male psychiatrist can cause the sexual arousal of a female patient and it is still not sex. Sex involves an intent, a use of sex organs, and a result before sex is really sex. Such considerations can cause a definition of pronography to be quite difficult. As a result sex crimes are difficult to maintain and prosecute.

Question: I want to find paintings that deal with sexuality and if possible prostitution...real art not pornography

Answer: In spite of the fact that famous painters existed in ancient Greece, none of the paintings have survived. All we have are descriptions and copies into vase paintings. But there is a great deal of material. Hardly any of the material from ancient Greece can be considered pornography. The majority of the material was done for religious purposes. Greeks tended to include sexual material in religious observances especially for deities related to love and fertility. The hetaera are a poplar subject. Whether or not they were involved in prostitution is an interesting subject.

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Pictures of Love and Sex in the Art of Ancient Greece

Sexual mores can be studied by using Ancient Greek vase painting. Unfortunately few of these are available on the net. There are illustrations in books and museums do have them on display. A few limited examples follow:

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The Role of Women in the Art of Ancient Greece

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