Today, my lovelies, I will begin discussing courtesans. People say, "A male courtesan? Surely, such a thing never existed in history." Well my darlings, I'm here to set you straight. Wait, let me choose another word. I'm here to enlighten you.
Cedric portrait by Arlie Adams
During the Renaissance the Italian word "cortigiana", came to refer to "the ruler's mistress” and later evolved to mean a well-educated, trained artist of dance and singing who provided companionship to wealthy, powerful, or upper-class men. The English word courtesan was derived from the French "courtisane" during the 16th century.
Veronica Franco, Venetian poet and courtesan
However, the art of the courtesan is much older and not restricted to women. Many ancient cultures had some version of a courtesan. In ancient Greece, the Hetaera was a woman of education and some freedom. When a woman married in ancient Greece, she was expected to breed and raise children, living a cloistered life. In contrast, a Hetaera could live a public life, own property and even take part in political discourse. One of the most famous of these women was named Aspasia, the companion of Pericles. There is some evidence pointing to a small number of women servicing other women with lesbian companionship,So, just what is a courtesan? Many people will say a prostitute. True, sex is a large part of the trade, but throughout history, courtesans were often well educated in many subjects and talented performing artists, like yours truly. The word courtesan originally meant a female courtier, one in attendance to a king or other powerful noble. Often, they were entrusted with secrets and employed as political operatives.
Ancient Greece has a reputation for prizing homosexual relationships, but this wasn’t without restrictions. For two grown men to have relations was generally frowned upon, instead Greek men sought the companionship of adolescent boys. Both art and literature of the time show that the erômenos (beloved) was a teen ranging from 13 to 20, or in some cases up to 30. Most evidence indicates that to be an eligible candidate, a youth would be of an age when an aristocrat began his formal military training.
There was widespread male prostitution, as certain acts, such as oral or anal sex, were looked upon as unseemly for upper-class Greeks to ask of an erômenos of their own class. In many ancient cultures, it was considered taboo for a man or youth of status to be “passive” in intercourse. The sanctioned act was to employ the thighs, not penetration, and the boy wasn’t supposed to ever feel arousal. It is likely however, that this recommendation wasn’t strictly adhered to. The life of a common prostitute in ancient Greece was stigmatized, and it became illegal for a free youth to sell sex. Indeed, men who later in life were exposed as former prostitutes could be stripped of rank. Can any of these be called a courtesan? Not by my definition, but some male entertainers who provided companionship could be properly referred to as courtesans.
This system of institutionalized pederasty is certainly repugnant by today’s standards. Many of these youths weren’t consenting and accounts often reveal that the objects of affection resented being used by their older lovers.
Alexander the Great flouted expectations of what male relationships were supposed to be. His boyhood friend, Haphaestion, remained his lover into adulthood. Alexander was gifted a young Persian named Bagoas. Bagoas had been made a eunuch in his childhood and became a favorite of Darius III, emperor of Persia. When Darius was murdered by his generals during Alexander's invasion of Persia in 330 BCE, one of the conspirators, Nabarzanes, gave Bagoas to Alexander as a gift. Apparently Bagoas was quite persuasive with Alexander. The historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, who wrote a biography of Alexander in the 1st or 2nd Century CE, says that it was Bagoas' pleas that saved Nabarzanes from being killed by Alexander for regicide. Curtius referred to the boy as "Bagoas, an eunuch exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, with whom Darius was intimate and with whom Alexander would later be intimate." Bagoas is the hero of Mary Renault’s historical novel, The Persian Boy and a character in her Funeral Games.
Alexander Battling Darius III
Throughout history, we see examples of courtesans attached to temple service. Babylonian women before marriage were required to go to the temple of Ishtar and sell themselves to a man for sexual intercourse, but these women weren’t courtesans. There are other examples of such practices in temples of Aphrodite and Astarte, but these indicate more of a rite involving one-time sex rather than an ongoing relationship that characterizes the art of a courtesan.
The devidasi of India were pre-pubescent and young adolescent girls from villages forced into a ritual marriage to a deity or a temple. They were trained in music, dancer and spiritual rituals. They worked in the temple as spiritual guides, dancers. Originally, the devidasi were celibate, but they later were expected to sexually service male devotees. In the past, some celebrated devidasi attracted the attentions of powerful men and became their companions. A few of them even exercised political influence. However, there are still young women forced to become devidasi, despite the Indian government’s work to end the practice.
It seems, my dear, that this subject is a much more involved than I anticipated, and so I’ve decided to dedicate a portion of my upcoming Saturday posts to discussing different types of courtesans.
Until next time!
Your passionate and loving boy,
*All images are in the public domain, excepting Cedric's portrait by Arlie Adams, owned by the author, and the bookcover by Linda Houle of L&L Dremaspell which is allowed to author for publication purposes.