Courtesans are at the high end of the sexual traffic in women. Although some achieved great wealth, most began as poor girls who were sold or driven into the sex trade as their only means to a better life. Etymologically the word courtesan refers to a woman attached to a royal court, a female courtier. Most often she was elegantly dressed and coiffed, beautiful, mannerly, a talented singer, dancer, or musician, and a great wit or conversationalist. She was a woman trained to attract attention and to please men. In contrast to prostitutes who have many clients and whose incomes range from bare subsistence to comfort, courtesans usually had a single patron who paid all their extravagant expenses. James Davidson (1998) notes the distinction to be made between the gift-exchange practice of the ancient Greek hetaeras that established a relationship of patronage and friendship, and the commodity-exchange practice of the prostitute that did not. While some hetaeras took cash as well as relationship-establishing gifts in exchange for their company, during which sex was a distinct possibility, prostitutes were explicitly paid cash for sex. This distinction between presents and payments is useful for ancient and medieval India as well, especially in the case of the devadāsīs who were supported by their temples and by kings. In later periods of European history courtesans were associated with royal courts that had the money, leisure, and interest to enjoy their various talents, such as the courts of Renaissance Italy and of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France and England, although almost any man possessed of great wealth was welcomed by them. Courtesans were often in direct competition with male courtiers for the acquisition of patronage, wealth, and political influence, and the acrimony of courtiers is apparent in the male-dominated voice of history (Rosenthal 1992).
While men used courtesans for pleasure, religions used them for didactic purposes. The religions of the world abound with stories about repentant courtesans, such as legends of the Magdalene, or about their venality and dangerous powers of seduction, which they used to jeopardize male religious practice. This is equally true in South Asia, with the additional belief that they were powerful sources of fecundity on many levels.
Courtesans have long been a staple of South Asian myth, literature, drama, and ritual life. Plays featuring courtesans were frequently performed during spring fertility festivals to help promote the fruitfulness of humans, animals, and crops. In keeping with this connection between courtesans and fecundity, there are many tales in which a king can only end a drought by sending a courtesan to seduce a celibate sage. This theme was enacted in an annual ritual by devadāsīs, the sacred courtesans at the temple of Jagannātha in Puri, in order to hasten the monsoon rains. The connections between semen and rain have a long history in the ancient world, and both are also connected to fecundity and thus to power. It was believed that by withholding his semen a sage could blight the land, unless the king had a greater command over the powers of fertility, or unless he could command the auspicious powers of a beautiful and fertile woman. In similar scenarios, the god Indra sends divine courtesans (apsaras) to seduce celibate sages whose spiritual power threatens his own.
There are also many Buddhist and Hindu stories in which courtesans fail in their attempts at seduction, which serve several purposes: Whereas they highlight an ascetic's control of his sexuality, they also serve as a warning about the dangers of sexuality to spiritual power and they define women as sexual temptresses.
Courtesans in India, and in Japan as well, lived in their own section of town, a red-light district of sorts, but one in which the arts flourished. Many were accomplished singers, musicians, dancers, poets, and wits, and they knew the arts of costume, cosmetics, and setting. The courtesan district was imagined to be separate from the mundane world, to be a place of art and refinement, populated by beautiful, sexually available women. In Japan, this is known as the "Floating World." The entrance fee, of course, could be high; plays and stories frequently tell of men who met financial ruin in their pursuit of the many pleasures offered by these skillful women.
Devadāsīs present the most complex picture of South Asian women who have been classified as courtesans. This complexity is connected to the sacredness of their temple office, and thus to their relationship with divine beings, and to kings, who in India, as in many parts of the world, were considered divine. Indeed, devadāsīs brought together the courtesan and the sacred by often classifying themselves as apsaras, divine courtesans.
One became a devadāsī either by inheriting the office, for instance being the daughter of a devadāsī's brother, or being adopted by a devadāsī, as devadāsīs were not supposed to give birth to children. Instead, their stored-up procreative powers were heightened by their sexual activity, which they passed on to the brides and infants they blessed, and to the entire kingdom through their ritual functions. They were ceremonially dedicated to the temple before they reached puberty (a tradition that was outlawed in 1947 by the Devadasi Act), and from that moment they were considered married to the ruling deity of the temple. Since the king was considered to be the living incarnation of the god Jagganātha (Viṣṇu in his incarnation as Kriṣṇa), a tradition existed that the king consummated the marriage. If she wanted, a devadāsī could then establish a liaison, but only with an upper caste man who lived in the area served by the temple.
The most famous Buddhist courtesan was the beautiful and rich Amrapālī, known throughout India for her intelligence and accomplishments. In her story the ascetic and the courtesan receive a new twist: It is the ascetic, the Buddha, who seduced the courtesan into abandoning worldly life, for Amrapālī became a Buddhist nun and achieved enlightenment. Buddhist authors also used courtesans to dramatize teachings about impermanence, especially of the body. For instance, in a poem attributed to Amrapālī after she had become a Buddhist nun and grown old, she says:
Once my body was lovely as polished gold;
now in old age it is covered all over with tiny wrinkles….
In the Saundarānanda, a popular literary work by the first-century Buddhist monk Aśvaghoṣa, the Buddha takes his half-brother to see the beautiful apsaras of heaven in order to get him to abandon his beautiful wife and become a monk.
The complexity of Japanese prostitution is demonstrated by the hundreds of words that can refer to prostitutes, who participated in a hierarchical world based on rank, artistic accomplishment, and beauty. Since even noble families could fall on hard times, girls from all levels of society were sold into prostitution, as were samurai wives caught in adultery. The highest ranked were the tayu, who were proficient in dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, composing poetry, serving tea, and other arts. The distinctive and magnificent clothing of courtesans included almost foot-high black-lacquered wooden clogs. Geishas did not arrive on the scene until the late eighteenth century. The word geisha means artist, indicating that they were entertainers, mainly musicians and dancers. Their roles changed time and again as Japanese society changed, but their main function was and is to entertain and amuse men at banquets. Any involvement with the sex trade is hard to pin down. While they had different licenses than prostitutes, some clearly engaged in sexual activity with their customers. Traditionally, the transition from apprentice to geisha involved a one-time sexual encounter with a patron.
Both courtesans and geishas were often the subject of Kabuki plays that end in the double suicide of the woman and her lover due to thwarted love (Shively 1978). Kabuki began with the performance of a woman called Okuni in 1603; she mimed and danced the role of a dandy visiting a brothel, which became another enduring theme in Kabuki. Theatrical performers and prostitutes have long been associated in many parts of the world; in Japan, courtesans and actors were both represented in popular prints, some of which were sexually explicit.
In ancient Greece, courtesans are usually thought of as hetaeras, such as the well-known Aspasia, made famous by her relationship with Pericles (c. 495–429 bce) and admired by Socrates. But hetaera is a slippery term that was also used for more common prostitutes, including those who were slaves. The best-known hetaeras are from the late fifth to the third centuries bce. Generally, they were hired for an evening or longer as escorts. Sometimes men formed alternative households with them. Rarely, they had their own households. Those who did were called megalomisthoi, or "big fee" hetaeras; these courtesans were written about in plays, mainly comedies, and posed for artists. Phryne, a fourth-century bce courtesan, modeled for the first Classical female nude by Praxiteles. According to Callistratus (On Hetaeras), Phryne became so rich that, after the destruction of Thebes by the Macedonians, she offered to have the city wall rebuilt if they would put up the inscription: "Alexander may have knocked it down, but Phryne the hetaera got it back up again."
Hetaeras were taken to festivals and drinking parties all over Greece, but especially to elaborate dinner parties known as symposia, which also usually included female sex-workers of other categories. Like geishas, hetaeras were cultivated and charming, and they made these banquets more pleasurable for men, often pretending to enjoy men's off-color jokes and telling some of their own.
In the nineteenth century prostitution was widespread throughout the major capitals of the world, but nowhere else was it as highly regulated as in Paris with its registry of prostitutes and the dreaded bimonthly medical checks for venereal disease. Yet there were many ways around registering, which was voluntary until enforced after an arrest. Procuresses prevented actual police scrutiny of prostitutes, while underpaid girls working in shops or laundries supplemented their incomes through an older lover. Further up the social scale, women who had slipped a notch or two were able to maintain independent establishments where they entertained men. At the top were the celebrated courtesans whose extravagant lifestyle was a testament to the wealth of their patrons. This was actually a financially impractical situation, since the courtesan spent almost all she was given on display without being able to secure anything for her future. It also made her the focus of widespread criticism when hard times hit.
This is the era of Blanche de Païva, a Russian émigré whose excessive but beautiful home still stands on the Champs Elysées; Marie Duplessis, who was the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux camélias; and Apollonie Sabatier, who was immortalized in the poems of Charles Baudelaire.
During La Belle Époque (c. 1890–1914), some of the best-known courtesans were dancers who performed at the Folies Bergères, which provided them with a very public opportunity to display their charms and which continued the long-standing associations between prostitutes and performers. Among these, Caroline Otero, frequently called "the last great courtesan," stands out. She was born the illegitimate daughter of a Gypsy mother and a Greek army officer in 1868. Like her mother, she began earning her living as a dancer while still a child. By 1890 she was a major star on the Paris stage, courted and feted by a slew of wealthy and aristocratic lovers who made her jewel collection the talk of Europe. Unfortunately, she lost her entire fortune through her passion for gambling and a series of bad investments. She died, destitute, in 1965.
The world-renowned Mata Hari also met a bad end. Born in provincial Holland in 1876, she was named Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She escaped the narrow life awaiting her by answering a newspaper ad seeking a wife for a colonial military officer stationed in the Dutch East Indies. After several years and two children, she began performing native dances at the officers' club. When her marriage failed, at age twenty-seven she went to Paris to begin a career as a highly erotic oriental dancer and a courtesan with innumerable lovers. Her greatest success was between 1905 and 1920, but her talent as a dancer was limited and she grew fat, petulant, and poor. In the middle of World War I she fell passionately in love with a much younger Russian officer serving with the French. In her wild pursuit of him from one military post to another, she used forged papers to cross national borders, which led to the accusation that she was a spy for Germany. She was found guilty and executed by a firing squad in 1917.
In a wide variety of patriarchal societies, royal and rich men created a market for talented, beautiful, and sexually available women who were able to mingle socially with powerful men in ways virtuous women were not. Most languages have a rich vocabulary of terms to place women in various sexual categories (Davidson 1998, Young 2003). For example, in Sanskrit there is the distinction between the kula-strī (a wife, a woman from a good family) and vāra-strī (a courtesan, a restraining woman). This distinction between the good wife and the bad courtesan is particularly brought out by the contrast in sixteenth-century Venice: between the courtesan's social mobility, public role, and relative freedom of movement and the restrictions imposed on the movements and public role of aristocratic women. In literature and art they were both denigrated as venal and overly sexed women or romanticized as women with noble feelings, courage, and loyalty. In all this may be seen that courtesans were products of male longing for a bad girl who could be controlled and who would love the controlling man for his domination.
Economically, this categorization into good and bad breaks down even further. Courtesans were bad because they drained men of money, but they were also lauded as the treasures of Venice because they fulfilled the need for sexually available women in a prosperous mercantile city-state, and they attracted rich tourists. Sex tours have long existed. Similarly, in the Tamil epic Manimekhalaï (Shatton 1989), a young courtesan is initially thwarted in her desire to become a Buddhist nun by the leaders of her city who see her as a major attraction of wealth to their city.
Because they are bad (and have money), courtesans appear to have a freedom of movement and expression unknown to other women but, like their extravagant costumes and jewels, their freedom was part of a performance piece that reflected glory on their male protectors. The courtesan could, and often was, brought down hard and fast because she was always under legal constraint and thus even more vulnerable to male whim than "good" women.
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