Not so different as you might think…



The Ancient Greeks were not as different from our own culture as one might think. The differences were more in culture and outlook, but not so much in how they found love and friendship. I’m sure that people in the future will look back at us and think that we were just as strange and conflicted in our own twisted, special way.

What you will notice is that there are no mentions of wives. In ancient Greek society it was horribly impolite to talk about one’s wife, or even enquire about the wife of a friend. To do so was to invite cuckolding, or gossip. Also, wives weren’t there to be loved or to inspire passion. They were baby-making machines, property, and considered to be no more capable than the children they bore. Women were descended from Pandora, who had been sent by the gods to punish men for the use of fire. Until Pandora and her box came along there had been no sickness, death, or suffering of any kind. Women were a race apart, with the body of a goddess and the mind of a dog, and hardly a romantic topic at the best of times.

I have to note that most of the information that I’m using comes from Athens, since that’s where the majority of the written records for Greek society originate from. There were differences in other cities, both in how women were treated, and in how men were required to act, and love. Thebes and Sparta would be the best example of that, although that would be an entire topic in and of itself.

I’ve included a few poems that interested me, with some explanation about the subject matter, and a picture that seemed to fit. I didn’t want to go on too long, or put anyone into information overload. The selections are from various times and cities, because although there might be regional and tribal differences, they were all Hellenes at heart.

Maenad with a thyrsus (sacred pinecone-topped phallus-stick of Dionysus), and a Satyr (with goat horns and a horse's tail) drinking from a wine cup


There is, oh yes by Pan, though hidden, there is,
oh yes by Dionysus, some fire beneath the ash.
I’m afraid. Don’t put your arms around me. Often, unseen,
a tranquil river undermines a wall.
So now again I’m afraid, Menexenus, that this
will slip into me and hurl me into love.

Callimachus (in 44 Pf.) speaking of the return of a male lover (Menexenus).

Pan was the patron of sexual excess and ‘boys gone wild’ partying, and Dionysus was the patron of wine, liminality (things on the border between one state and another), and the insanity that undermines civilization. He was also the only god in the entire pantheon who truly loved his wife (Ariadne) and was faithful to her. Plus, he turned women insane (Maenads) and drove them into the hills to tear wild animals, like lions and bears, to pieces with their bare hands. And then eat them. The women’s Festival of Dionysus must have been something to behold… as long as you were female. Men who tried to spy on them got torn to pieces. And eaten. Considering how citizen women were treated it was probably the only time they got to let off steam and get angry (without getting dunked in baths of pig-poop- I kid you not- that was what doctors told husbands to do when their wives got angry or sarcastic. She was acting too much like a man, so had to be balanced out again and made fertile and ‘dark’).

Pan just had a really big schlong, and went around having sex with anything that moved. Or not. But he especially liked nymphs and farm animals. His musical set of pipes was made out of a nymph who ran away and got turned into reeds to escape him. So, he cut them down and made them into an instrument. Yes. His pipes are the corpse of a dead nymph that he tried to rape.

The Barberini Faun- 2nd Century B.C. (I wasn't sure about putting the whole statue on since it's full frontal nudity, but it's gorgeous- sensual and slightly cruel depending on the angle you view it from. I suggest looking it up online.)

O lord, with whom Eros the subduer
and the dark-eyed nymphs
and glistening Aphrodite
join in play, you who roam
the high crests of the mountains,
I kneel and beg you, come to me
kindly, hear my prayer,
and may it please you:
Give wise counsel
to Kleoboulos, get him,
Dionysus, to accept my love.

Anacreon, PMG 357

It starts off so lofty and solemn… and ends up in the gutter. ‘Kleoboulos’ means ‘famed for counsel’, so he must be given wise counsel by Dionysus to have drunken sex with someone he has so far avoided.

This is the sort of poem that would be sung at a Symposium- a men’s drinking party, where they would discuss philosophy, have dinner, and then start the drinking games where the host, or his honoured guest, would decide how much water was added to the wine. Sometimes they would all troop off to the house of a young man and stand outside and make fun of him, while the older man who had fallen in love with him would get down on his knees and beg for him to come outside and drink with them. Loudly. A song-poem such as this would have been just the ticket. You can just hear the laughter and drunken teasing in the background as the poet got down on one knee and sang this with mock-sincerity.

No you didn’t fool me- wandering down the road
where you used to ride, defrauding your love.
Get out! The gods hate you, men can’t trust you.
That snake in your lap turned out to be shifty and cold.

Theogonis (Book One- 599-602)

Cyprian, end these pains, scatter the cares
that eat my soul, turn me back to merriment.
End this awful anxiety, be merciful,
and let me act wisely now that my youth is gone

Theogonis- the ‘second book’ 1323-1326

Boy, your slutting around has wrecked my affection,
you’ve become a disgrace to our friends.
You dried my hull for a while. But I’ve slipped out of the squall
and found a port as night came on.

Theogonis- the ‘second book’ 1371-1274

Don’t caress me with words, your heart and mind in another place,
if you love me and your heart is true.
Love me with a pure heart or renounce me,
start a fight, hate me openly.

Theogonis- ‘first book’ 87-90

These are fairly self-explanatory, seeing as the Greeks used the play of ‘riding’ in the same way that we do today. As well as snakes, apparently. Theogonis had some seriously spiteful epigrams. These are the best of them. There were plenty more. He says ‘boy’, but that’s a general translation. Young men were courted between the ages of 17 and 21 were seen as the apex of beauty. Anything younger or older was seen as pervy or déclassé , respectively.

Eros, pursuing a woman.

Once more Eros, under darkened

lids, fixing me with his melting gaze,
drives me with every kind of spell into the
tangling nets of Kypris.
And yes, I tremble at his coming,
as a horse who’s borne the yoke and won the prize, but ageing now,
when hitched to the speeding chariot, goes to the race against his will.
Ibycus (PMG 287)

Often the imagery was of pursuit and capture, or horses and riding. Unlike the later versions of Eros as a chubby little mischievous baby, this one is an enticing home wrecker who cannot be denied.

Aphrodite was also called ‘Kypris’, after the island of Cyprus where she was born. The Greek version of the goddess of love was also very different from what modern people think of. She was married off to an older god, who was the most ferociously ugly, grumpy and talented deity. Hephaestos was the smith of Olympus. But, he was also the most mocked, since his wife was constantly tricking him and having sex with every cute guy she could find. He was a laughingstock. Aphrodite was cruel, vain, jealous, bitchy, deceitful, and completely impossible to resist. So much for love, hey?

Bring water, bring wine, boy, bring us blossoming
garlands, bring them, so I can box with Eros.

An ugly, balding man offers money to a young woman in a fashionable dress. She is possibly a musician or courtesan.

Once more Eros of the golden hair
hits me with his purple ball,
calls me out to play with the girl
with the flashy slippers.
But she, since she comes from noble
Lesbos, scoffs at my hair,
since it’s white, and gapes
for another girl.

Anacreon (PMG 358)

Since he’s talking about a woman in a sexual nature she’s obviously not a citizen of his city. She is probably a hetaira – a courtesan- since she has the choice of whether or not she is involved. Courtesans were, much like in later medieval Venice, free entities who could choose their lovers. They were educated, and moved in the circles of nobility. They were contracted for their wit and beauty, and like the geishas of Japan, may or may not have been sexually involved. Of course, not all prostitutes were so lucky. The vast majority were slaves, including young men. Although, they could only be used up until they reached a certain age- when they started looking like full-grown men. Pornai (slave prostitues) could buy their freedom, usually on credit. Free prostitutes could make a name for themselves as musicians, dancers, or just being really good in bed (which could bring them lots of money if they were good enough).

Alcman and Sappho

The moon has set
and the Pleiades, it’s mid-
night, the hours go by.
I sleep alone.


Sappho was one of the most famous lyric poets of the ancient world. It’s a terrible shame that her works were systematically destroyed during the dark ages that came after. If anyone is interested in more poetry about love between women, then they should check out Alcman of Sparta.

So, it’s getting late, and I’m running out of things to say. If anyone has any questions about these poems, or comments, please contact me at jennifer_thorne**at**

Jennifer Thorne studied Classics at University, but decided not to go on with it because of all the ‘pot courses’. ie. This is a pot. It’s very important. Write down the features that make it different from the other twelve-thousands slides of pots that I’ve shown you over the past two months. *shudder* If they’d taught the interesting bits it might have been a different story altogether.
Otherwise, she is a school librarian, has eclectic tastes, and a fickle Muse. She is currently between pets, and has never had an iguana. Although, she does have a cute, furry husband and an adorable, non-furry daughter. They’ll have to do for now.
You can buy her first (and so far only) published story here:
Her Livejournal blog is here:

Jennifer’s Advent Calendar giveaway is a copy of The White Cat, which will go to someone who can write the funniest rhyming couplet on a classical theme! Go poetry! Winner will be announced on Christmas day

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

8. What is the traditional Christmas ballet?

23 Responses

  1. Remarkably educational! One of the Mary Renault books talks about someone going to watch the Festival of Dionysius – is it Fire from heaven or am I dreaming?

    • I seem to be woefully uneducated about historical fiction… I’ve never read anything by Mary Renault. That does sound good, though.

    • Now that I think about it, that might be the correct title. I seem to have a niggling memory about something to do with Dionysus and an inspiring madness and ‘fire from heaven’ that he engendered in women. It was about as devastating as getting hit by lightning, apparently- devastating and transformative. He wasn’t a particularly gentle god.

  2. Oh, this is fascinating. I love finding out about ancient greek culture and I learned a lot of new info. here — I had no idea Pan’s pipes were so sinister!!!

  3. This is fascinating stuff. The origin of Pan’s pipes was a new one on me as well. It does put a rather sinister spin on things, doesn’t it?!

    • Very. And theatre is the odd descendant of the yearly celebration of his death (and the grape harvest and the first tasting of last year’s production of wine)… The first plays to be put on were ‘tragoidia’ (tragedies) meaning ‘goat song’. I had to go look up the word on wikipedia, and it says different things than my professor did at the time, so don’t quote me as an expert, I guess. He said that it was in honour of Pan, and there was lots of drinking, and parades with enormous phalluses, and was one of the times that citizen women were allowed out of the house. And the plays that only men, and widowed and un-marriageable women could watch.
      As you might know, all the parts were played by men, with teenage boys playing the part of women. Some of the actors got quite a following, with stalkers and everything. Kind of fascinating, really.
      (Oh, look, I blathered again 🙂

  4. Like Kay, I had no idea of the origin of Pan’s pipes. Like Maeneds, I suppose its only time before that shows up on True Blood. Those poems were amazing..

    “Boy, your slutting around has wrecked my affection,
    you’ve become a disgrace to our friends.” that certainly sounds very modern to me in emotion.

    wonderful post. And my daughter and I had 2 iguana as pets. They were certainly interesting and grew rapidly. Before passing on, they almost had a cage as large as a room with precise lighting and humidity requirements. Not a pet for the fainthearted unless you live somewhere like Florida and can have a outside cage.

    • I haven’t watched any episodes of True Blood past the first season. They have Maenads? That’s incredibly cool. And, not terribly surprising from what I’ve seen. They were the Dead-Heads of the Classical age…

  5. O ye gods, that deem me unfit for Venus,
    But fear it not, for I prefer a penis.

  6. I pray to Mars, to Pan and Janus
    that today’ll be the day I breach that anus!
    (you can rule me out of winning as I’m the organiser)

  7. Griped Ganymede, “When Zeus snatched me up,
    “I thought I’d bear more than his ‘cup.'”

  8. Interesting. I think perhaps your professors couldn’t teach you the interesting stuff because they didn’t know. My Dean of Ancient History and Philosophy admitted being sent to the stacks frequently to check out details in SAPPHO SINGS [he seemed surprised that they all proved accurate :D]

  9. Thank you. There are some poems here I’ve never seen before. A lovely post about a fascinating culture.

  10. Absolutely fascinating! I can’t come up with a couplet, but wanted to tell you that I appreciate your post anyway.

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