Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Reading Courtesans and Fishsticks

subtitled "the consuming passions of classical athens", a book about fish, and prostitution (pornai), and hetaera (courtesans), and women's limited options in ancient athens. (I am only a third of the way through the book so far). And anyway the book makes being female in ancient athens seem so dreary. I am sure not every woman's life was, such as maybe a strong lady raised on a farm who then married a farmer. A woman could probably be happy at her family and community's discretion without that being the norm.

I am reading this book because my boyfriend used it as his main source for an essay he wrote as a final paper, a paper that made me really angry because when we were talking about it he insisted that women were for children or sex (depending if they were wives or prostitutes) in ancient greece, and men were for love, and boys were for (I sort of forget, a complicated sexual/mentoring relationship)... And since he was saying that they just didn't have the role of hetero lovers, I said some young people must certainly have fallen in love and married and had lives together and he said I didn't get it and wives were exclusively for children and running a household so I started to cry because I felt like by extension he felt if he knew me under different circumstances he wouldn't love me, wouldn't have the capacity to love me. He apologized and said he was sorry to be so insistent but he had been the one to research and write and rewrite the paper I was contradicting without looking at the sources. His paper is not an argument, so a lot of the material is just what is in this book with additional sources, because apparently that is the requirement for history papers.

I read that brothels and prostitution was legal, with a whore tax, but adultery was punishable by death, such as if a man were caught with "a member of the family", that is, another man's daughter or sister or mother or of course wife, he could be killed. I forget exactly what the rule was for having sex with slaves who weren't yours, but it was something like a fine. For slaves who were yours it was considered legal but disrespectful because they lived in the same household as your wife.

So anyway. A third of the way through this book and I am again taking it personally, wondering what if I had lived under those circumstances? There isn't a chance I would have to be a prostitute in modern times because women can do all kinds of jobs, besides which I am very lucky to be supported while I go to school, and lucky to be smart enough to go, and if I weren't my family and friends would still shelter me I am sure. And if I needed social services for a time that is available. But what on earth would I be able to do in classical athens? I wouldn't have any access to education, or be able to date. Would I be able to be a hetaera? (The book makes that sound like the most power women could have as they controlled their finances in that situation, running a household alone, free to go outdoors, as well as having powerful friends.) I don't really think so. I am shy and much better at projects and thinking than party conversation and, I assume, haggling over seduction.* I think I couldn't have been a prostitute in a brothel, as I would die of angst, but then all the women who had to work in them probably felt that way and most managed anyway.

I have concluded that while never having access to education would make me a different person, I would still enjoy and excel at producing things by hand. I don't think women could be artisans, but could do textile work, so maybe that is where I would have found my place.