I have been reading extracts from a translation of The Travels of Bronteas. Brointeas is travelling with his slave Phylon in ancient Cyprus. He visits a number of cities and temples most of which are dedicated to Aphrodite. What emerges is a picture of a society in which social life and attitudes are radically different from what we are used to today. I want here to particularly talk about relations between the sexes and attitudes toward sexuality. It is a great shame that no writings by women have survived to give us the other side of the story, but even from this male perspective one can see that things were very different.
Before getting onto sex, it is worth saying something about slavery. As I said, Bronteas is accompanied by his slave. There seems to be a pretty good and trusting relationship between the two men. When they are attacked by robbers they fight shoulder to shoulder and when Phylon is wounded Bronteas looks after him and interrupts the journey until Phylon is recovered. When they get to Paphos, they find that there are many men's clubs and Bronteas join the club for actors, though he does not claim any great acting ability. However, there is also a club for slaves and Phylon joins it. The club for slaves has its own public ceremonies and rituals which Phylon participates in. I notice that Bronteas never refers to Phylon as "my slave" or similar but always calls him by name, speaks well of him, and accords him some respect and dignity. Clearly, at least in this instance, attitudes to slavery were not quite how we tend to think of it. Slavery was considered an entirely normal and indispensable part of ordinary life and might well, in some cases, have been preferable to being poor.
When you go into a public place nowadays what you are likely to see are a lot of couples. Perhaps more than half of the groupings of people that you will see will be one man and one woman together. Sometimes they may be accompanied by one or more children. In the ancient Greek world you would not have seen this. Men were with men and women were with women and the places that they frequented were mostly separate, so you would rarely have seen them mixing. If you did see two adults together who were lovers, it would have been two men.
Altogether, in that society, there would seem to have been a lot more sex of all kinds, and by no means all or even the majority of it would take place within marriage or even between members of stable heterosexual couples. Each town that Bronteas visits has public buildings, often a museum, shops, eating places, temples and brothels. The majority of brothels contained women and girls but there were many male ones too. You could also have sex by going to the temple. It was a normal part of the worship of Aphrodite to have sex with one of the priestesses and there were also customs whereby women received the blessing of the goddess by sitting in the temple courtyard until a male stranger came and chose them and had sex with them. The man would pay a coin to the temple. It seems that when men had sex it was commonly a situation where they paid for it one way or another and this was considered normal, not immoral. Bronteas warns, in a note, how one can easily spend all one's money on sex and have none left for food.
Many of the religious ceremonies also involve sexual intercourse. At Paphos there was, once a year, a coming of age ceremony in which virgins form a procession and with much chanting and various symbols proceed down to the sea. There they each take off their gown and enter the waves while everyone watches from the shore. An image of Aphrodite is also taken into the sea. All this is in replication of the belief that Aphrodite herself emerged from the sea at Paphos. Once in the water the naked girls perform a ritual and then sensually massage one another so as to become sexually aroused. They then return to the shore and each select a man from the crowd with whom to have sexual relations. This ceremony formed part of a much bigger series of ceremonies in honour of the goddess and at that time of year Paphos was crowded with people from all over the middle east who came to participate.
Bronteas' account tells us how there are many other such ceremonies involving sacred sexuality, sometimes between priests and priestesses, sometimes between priestesses and laymen, sometimes between lay devotees, each different in detail in different temples and different towns. In each town the myths were interpreted a little differently and Bronteas is interested in hearing the different stories in each place. Greek religion also involved the sacrificing of animals which were then eaten, as well as lavish offerings of fruits and vegetables, so ceremonies had the characteristic of being feasts as well as love-ins..
One has to reflect that in those days it made sense for women to get pregnant early and frequently. Men would have little or no part in the care of infants who would be cared for by their mother, grandmother and mother's sisters, whether the mother was married or not.This would mean that women were more willing or eager to find lovers and to do so as soon as they were able. What we call falling love was regarded as a kind of possession by the goddess, or at least falling into her power. With our attitudes it is difficult to imagine a father being pleased that his daughter has got pregnant at age thirteen by a foreign stranger who is no longer in town, but things were different in those days.
Male children would gradually get more male attention as they got bigger. We do not know much about relations between women, though we do have a few of the poems of Sappho. Sexual relations between men were considered as normal as heterosexual ones. It was common for an older man to have a young man as a lover and this was one of the ways that a boy learnt how to become a man. From other sources we know that some of the crack regiments of ancient Greek soldiers were composed entirely of male homosexual couples.
We can see from all this that many things that today are considered to be sexual abuse or are looked at askance were, in those days, not only normal but in some cases obligatory elements in normal social life. Were the ancients able to observe our modern society, they would probably conclude that we are a rather repressed and joyless lot who have lost the ability to worship the divine powers in a full and healthy way.
Each society is different and the conditions that it has to cope with vary with history and geography. Studying other times and other cultures can open one's eyes and make one reflect on how things we take for granted or even feel righteous about may not always have seemed so certain and that other mores may have prevailed. The Christian church, when it became dominant suppressed the religion of Aphrodite even more severely than most of the other Greek cults. Did this make us better people? Have we recovered from that suppression? Nowadays we live in very different circumstances and our attitudes are shaped by different conditions. Child mortality is much lower. Industry seems to demand that the sexes both work equally. Society is less centred on sex and children and more on money and power.
I have always enjoyed stories of classical times and got a lot from this one.