A flute girl plays at a Symposium
Lysander sailed into Piraeus, the exiles returned, and the walls were pulled down among scenes of great enthusiasm and to the music of flute girls. It was thought that this day was the beginning of the freedom for Greece…. Xenophon from “Hellenica”.
So ended the great Pelopennesian War between Athens and Sparta and their various allies, on April 25th 404 BC. And there Xenophon paints a very interesting picture. The walls in question were the long walls which linked Athens to the port of Piraeus. The power of Athens was the sea, and access to the sea. Admiral Lysander wanted to break that power forever.
Tearing down those walls “with enthusiasm” is understandable. Without the long walls Athens could be severed from the sea by a competent land army like the Spartans.
The presence of the flute girls adds a rich and complex symbolism to the event.
I have heard people refer to the flute girls, the aulêtrides as prostitutes. To do so is simply wrong. Their role in Greek Society is far more nuanced and complex. Athens had a formalised and taxed system of prostitution, introduced by the great lawmaker Solon.
At the bottom of the Athenian sex worker industry were the brothel prostitutes. Called pornai they were generally barbarian slaves, the property of pimps, working under tight control, with no rights.
Marginally above the pornai you had street prostitutes who were ostensibly self-employed but in reality probably operated like modern street hookers. They had some right of refusal and more freedom than the brothel prostitutes.
At the very top of the sex worker industry were the hetairai who were the equivalent of Japanese Geisha, courtesans or “escorts”. The hetairai had long term and often exclusive arrangements with wealthy men. They were expected to be cultured and somewhat educated. There are references to relationships where the intellectual companionship was more important than the sexual contract.
Between the high level and very expensive hetairai and the low level street and brothel pornai was the shadowy world of temple prostitution, flute and harp girls.
When looking at the sex industry from a modern western perspective it can be difficult to conceptualise the role of sexuality in Greek religion. Temples of Dionysus, Demeter and Aphrodite had sex workers who participated in rites. But while there is widespread lurid speculation about these rites there is very little actually documented about them. Dionysian rites involved intentional drunkenness as a path to attaining catharsis, and may also, in the manner of drunken people everywhere, have involved consenting sexual activity. Whether actual Dionysian temple prostitutes participated in such activities is unknown.
I suspect the situation in the temples of Demeter and Aphrodite were entirely different. The eleusinian rites of the temple of Demeter lasted until Christianity attained supremacy in the Roman Empire. Every senior Roman of note appears to have participated, but again the rites themselves are undocumented. There is great speculation that they involved low level rites of drunkenness and sex, and the higher mysteries. These higher mysteries may also have involved an ancient form of LSD derived from ergot, a mould that grows naturally on wheat.
Activities in these temples likely involved issues such as contraception, child birth and fertility. The problem of male infertility is easily remedied by a visit from a fertile “deity”. The economics of prostitution depends upon avoiding conception, or having knowledge of abortion practices. To this day these are issues that society struggles with from an ethical perspective.
But back to the flute girls! Solon’s laws included a structure for the management, appointment and control of fee structures for Flute and Lyre players. These “entertainers” were assigned to attend symposiums.
Today a symposium is a conference, often with academic connotations. In Ancient Greece the symposium was an event that took place after a banquet. It could range from an intellectual debate to a debauched party. Several writers refer to the importance of ejecting the flute girls from a symposium if you wanted a serious debate. This gives the impression that the flute girls acted in the role of party facilitators.
When the girls played their instruments it called a halt to “serious” conversation and signalled a relaxation phase of the night. The image of the girl above is taken from a Krater, a large urn that was used to mix the wine and water for a night of drinking.
The flute girls were paid to attend the symposium and play music. This did not mean they were necessarily prostitutes, although many of them were. They clearly had the right to pick and choose their situation, and negotiate any “extras”. They probably bribed the city officials to be selected for the better quality of symposium with the wealthier clients.
In his play Wasps Aristophanes character Philoclean abducts a flute girl from a party and tries to persuade her to have sex. This is not the act of someone who has power to simply take or pay for a prostitute. High status flute girls probably had more in common with courtesans like actresses or performers such as Nell Gwyn, Lily Langtry, Mata Hari or Lola Montez. The luckiest might attain hetairai status.
While the pornai are clearly used for sex, the flute girl brings a skill set to the table which makes her role and presence more nuanced. In the image on the Krater above she is fully clothed and the men appear to be listening to the music, waving arms in time. The music may have had an important set of roles. As already alluded to it served a boundary function moving the night from sober debate into relaxation. The music itself, if loud enough, may have precluded further debate. Music is a pathway to abandonment and a road to catharsis, especially when combined with wine.
For the ancient Greeks the balance between logic and emotion might be shifted through the use of music. Many ancient Greek writers questioned the place of music education in the classroom because the school should be devoted to the mind and not the heart.
So Lysander probably hired the flute and lyre players to attend the destruction of the long walls. These days it is difficult to decode his motivations, but it was not simply the provision of base prostitution to his soldiers. Pornoi would have sufficed for that.
Did he want to signal a boundary, to mark an end to the pain of decades of war and a move to a happier time of relaxation? Were there specific religious rites attendant upon the destruction of the walls? Did the music serve a role in the appeasement of the Gods? Or was he trying to appease the Athenians with “bread and circuses”?