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Gnathaena: The Bawdy Courtesan


The Bawdy Courtesan

(4th century BCE, Greece)

In ancient Athens, there was a realm of courtesans known as hetairai (singular: hetaira).

They were upscale escorts for the elite, higher ranking than the lower class of sex workers known as pornai.

Yes, they were called pornai. Yes, that’s where porn comes from. *eye roll*


Hetairai were known for their sexual prowess along with their witty banter and sparkling conversation, and Gnathaena was no exception.

Historian Laura McClure says:

“Gnathaena had the widest reputation for her humor...her jokes are characterised by coarse language and excessive crudity.”

Gnathaena showed off her dirty jokes at symposiums, which were big drunken banquets of male debauchery, the kind of mass gathering you wouldn’t want to attend in the age of coronavirus.

Respectable women weren’t allowed to attend, regardless of pandemic status, but hetairai were hired to entertain, because, you know, double standards.

Symposiums were such an important part of men’s social lives that several philosophers wrote official codes of conduct, almost like etiquette books for symposium-goers.

Gnathaena, who was both a frequent host and guest of symposiums, wrote her own code of conduct from a woman’s point of view.

Called “Table Manners,” it flips the script of the usual etiquette books that focus on men, and describes who’s allowed at Gnathaena’s gatherings and how they have to behave in her presence. Was it a work of parody by a woman?? I don’t know, it sure sounds like it.

Gnathaena’s humor was legendary. The Greek writer Athenaeus says she’s "very witty and prompt in repartee” and he recounts some of her best lines:

Athenaeus wrote:

“Once, when a man came to see her, and saw some eggs on a dish, and said, "Are these raw, Gnathaena, or boiled?"

"They are made of brass, my boy," said she.

Get it? BALLS.

“On one occasion, when Chaerephon came to sup with her without an invitation, Gnathaena pledged him in a cup of wine.

"Take it," said she, "you proud fellow." And he said, "I proud?" "Who can be more so," said she, "when you come without even being invited?"

Is this… a cum joke?

Also interesting—one of Gnathaena’s main lovers was Diphilus, a comedy playwright.

Apparently, she loved to tease him and make fun of his work. I can only imagine that Diphilus snatched a few of Gnathaena’s witty one-liners for his plays, although we’ll never know for sure.

Gnathaena's wit lived on well past her death.

Some of her daughters and granddaughters carried on the family business of sex 'n' snark.

Humor runs in the family.