Nothing gets a classical scholar’s heart pumping like the sacred prostitutes of Corinth, the Greek port that is depicted as the free-living “Amsterdam of the ancient world.” After landing at the Corinthian docks, sailors would apparently wheeze up the thousand-odd steps to the top of a stunning crag of rock called the Acrocorinth, which offered 360-degree vistas of the sparkling Mediterranean. There they would pass beneath the marble columns of the Temple of Aphrodite, goddess of Beauty and Love, within whose incense-filled, candlelit confines 1,000 comely girls supposedly worked around the clock gathering funds for their deity. Since the Renaissance, this idea had gripped antiquarians, who liked to imagine that congress with one of Aphrodite’s servants offered a mystical union with the goddess herself — uninhibited pagans coupling in ecstasy before her statue in the perpetual twilight of the temple.
In fact, this lusty vision of Corinth was created entirely from a three-line report by the Greek geographer Strabo, who writes around 20 AD:
The temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than a thousand prostitutes, donated by both men and women to the service of the goddess. And because of them, the city used to be jam-packed and became wealthy. The ship-captains would spend fortunes there, and so the proverb says: “The voyage to Corinth isn’t for just any man.”
Modern historians have found that the image of a pagan free-for-all needs some serious qualification. (“Feel the longing, the desire, in this collective delusion,” write Mary Beard and John Henderson of historians’ sweaty-palmed accounts). For a start, Aphrodite’s servants, who may or may not have been attractive, were not exactly willing volunteers. In fact, Corinth’s many cosmopolitan pornai, or prostitutes, were slaves purchased by wealthy Greeks and dedicated to the temple as a form of religious offering. (Once, a victorious athlete at the Olympic Games donated 100 women in a lump sum). Also, recent excavations at the Corinth fortress have found the temple too small for 100 women to be working, let alone 1,000, so few — if any — carnal rites were conducted at the goddess’ feet. More likely, the sex slaves received their clients in charmless brothels around the temple, huddled on lumpy straw mattresses in small, dark, airless stalls rather like the ones preserved in Pompeii, with illustrations painted above the booths demonstrating each girl’s specialty. It is true that Aphrodite was the patron goddess of Corinth, and that women there had a special relationship with her — but this didn’t do them much practical good. Greek males were riotously chauvinistic. Even their wives were regarded as chattel, suitable only for raising families; married Greek men went to prostitutes and young boys for “pleasurable sex.”
Not all Greek men, however, were enamored of prostitution, sacred or otherwise. The philosopher Diogenes thought the habit of paying for love absurd, once telling a crowd that he himself “met the goddess Aphrodite everywhere, and at no expense.” When asked what he meant, Diogenes lifted up his tunic and pretended to masturbate.
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Beard, Mary and Henderson, John, “With this Body I Thee Worship: Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity,” Gender and History, vol. 9, 1997, 480-503.
Ever since Strabo’s steamy account was rediscovered in the Renaissance, campaigners for sexual freedom have cited Corinth’s temples as the ideal of socially-accepted prostitution — in effect, church-run brothels. In 1826 London, the women’s rights activist Richard Carlisle even argued in his opus Every Woman’s Book or What is Love? that new versions of the Temples of Aphrodite should be opened all around Britain by the government, so that inept young men could receive practical sex education and thus save the local womenfolk from lives of frustration. Carlisle felt that lack of sexual pleasure was a serious health problem for British girls. If men knew what they were doing, he argued, we would not see “every third female sickly, consumptive, or wretched for want of sexual commerce.” The suggestion set off angry demonstrations in London and shocked tirades in the press. (It didn’t help that the book’s cover showed Adam and Eve without their fig leafs and described the Cross as a phallic symbol.) Despite this, What is Love? became a bestseller and stayed in print for more than 65 years. • 21 November 2007
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Bush, M.L., What is Love? Richard Carlisle’s Philosophy of Sex, (London, 1998).