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"We take a hetaera for our pleasure, a concubine for daily attention to our physical wants, a wife to give us legitimate children and a respected house.” Demosthenes, On Wives & Hetaerae, c. 350 BCE
In Hellenistic Greece, circa 700- 300 BCE, this was the general consensus concerning the role of women in a man’s society. However there is another side to this type of classification in any society. Plato wrote his immense description of a perfect society (utopia) where philosophers were kings and women were warriors if so suited to the part.
Because of society’s view of the behavior of the gods, sex was considered by men to be essential to pleasing the ribald gods and keeping mighty Zeus happy. Zeus, as father to all gods, never made the grade in the arena of monogamy to Hera. Anything in a woman’s toga was fair game to him. He disguised himself as a bull among other things to have sex with goddesses and maidens alike. Hera, as Zeus’s wife and Goddess of the Home and things womanly, knew of his dalliances and kept a close eye via her network of deities. However, because of society’s view of the wife/mother role, she could say nothing overt. She found other ways. Her anger and bitterness often caused consternation among the pantheon of the ancient Greek world. Zeus, in his infinite wisdom, generally nodded and muttered “yes dear” as Hera dressed him down. And then went merrily about the business of trying every woman within site of Mount Olympus.
To understand the mind of the ancient Greek, (and trust that it is a very difficult thing to do) you must understand their gods. For in the deities of Mount Olympus ranged a vast stretch of personalities, powers and temperament. They were nothing like the staid and stoic god of the Christians, nor did they resemble anything close to the elders of the Old Testament. Allah is simply a mystery, short of the truths according to Islam that He set upon Mohammed to scribe. The eastern beliefs are far more serene and non-complex in their philosophies and the earth religions and native beliefs kept the entire process of spirituality to spiritual growth in harmony with nature.
The Greek pantheon were a sordid bunch. Lust, greed, power, deceit, and dishonesty made up the essence of conversation at the feasting table of Zeus and Hera. The gods displayed all of the human traits and in a far superior manner. They did it all in a more grand style, often creating the impression to lowly humans that this type of behavior and temperament were sanctioned.
Men, of course, were far the superiors in the Hellenistic society. Women were owned, obliged, ignored or paid for. There were classes of prostitution as well. The lower classes barely had space to entertain their clients. The upper class of companions was expensive and brought status to the males who purchased them. As was often the case, married men kept a mistress and companion (hetaera) in lush quarters with full allowance. They were of course expected to be at hand whenever their patron wished it.
And so the wives played. They spent hours on hair and face. Chose their wardrobe with intense care and stripped their day planners of appointments. Wives of ancient Greece cultivated the company of writers, philosophers and artists. Each was thought by their husbands to be unworthy of attention and knowing what awaited them near the Senate House, happily left their wives to whatever entertainment she had planned. Of course, should an associate or peer catch rumor of his wife’s dalliances, the husband took severe action. Often to the point of divorce.
The wives were careful and often had slaves or freed servants within their home who protected their mistress’s reputation outside of the estate. History alludes to afternoon gatherings of quiet pursuit of intellectual stimulation. But history also gives us pieces and short essays of the goings on at these gatherings. Two attending guests or the hostess and a guest would slip quietly away and return a short while later, fastening a shoulder broach. Gender was not an issue at these events. Homophobia was practically unheard of in Hellenistic Greece. Lesbian relations and gay male coupling was merely a part of society. Many men preferred a gay lifestyle. The wives often spent time with only other wives and lesbian activity went with the menu and music.
So the wives had fun. Under the restrictive attitudes of an ancient world, where gods could philander and goddess could seduce, human men had few restrictions. They were expected by the gods to emulate them. Women, however, were not expected to act as goddesses unless they were paid or expected to do so by the husbands who kept them. Wives had no choice but to keep secret their afternoons. Hermes, who guarded the doorways and gates of ancient Greek homes is depicted in statuary and art as only a head and genitals. A fitting guardian for husbands to leave behind.
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