4/23/10 - symposion

In today's excerpt - during the golden age of Athens (5th century B.C.), if you were among the wealthy and sophisticated and gave a party or symposion for your friends, sex was likely to be part of the entertainment you provided. And since Athens gained so much of its wealth and power from its seagoing skills, it was natural that you would speak about sex in nautical terms:

"The andron or men's meeting room [of the house] opened directly off the courtyard. Here the master of the house entertained his friends. The andron in a Piraeus house was designed to accommodate seven couches around its square perimeter: two couches on three sides and one sharing the fourth wall with the door, which was placed in the corner. After dinner, when the sun cast a shadow longer than a man was tall, was the time for wine. The symposion or drinking together was the crown of every Athenian feast. To accompany the flow of stories, speculations, and poetry, a fleet of earthenware pots were carried into the banqueting room. All had been fired a distinctive glossy black and red, and all were made in Athens of good Attic clay. Familiar mythical scenes were painted on the vessels. One cup showed Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship, listening to the songs of the Sirens. But there were  contemporary scenes, too, celebrating the exploits of the men who would be drinking from these very cups: warriors rowing across the sea to battle; warships cruising in convoy; archers shooting from ships at sea; pirates stealthily attacking unsuspecting freighters. The most beautiful of these ship paintings showed long sleek galleys rowing around the inner surface of a pot. When the vessel was brimming with wine, the ships appeared to be floating on its surface: warships reflected in a sea of wine, reflecting the 'wine-dark sea' of the beloved poet Homer.

"Sometimes the host of the party provided sexual pleasures along with wine, music, and conversation. The men might also seek more straightforward relief, free from civilized frills, at one of the many brothels in the Piraeus. Exercising untrammeled sexual freedom carried few consequences for Athenian citizens. Sexually transmitted diseases were as yet unknown, and few societies in history have granted to free adult males such extremes of sexual license.

"It was perhaps inevitable that Athenian men, who enjoyed thinking, talking, and joking about sex when they were not actually engaged in it, should have at times viewed sex organs and sex acts as extensions of their experiences at sea. A woman's vagina could be described as a kolpos or gulf, like the Corinthian and Saronic gulfs, where a happy seafarer could lose himself. As for the penis, a modest man could claim to have a kontos or boat pole, an average man a kope or oar between his legs, and a braggart a pedalion or steering oar. Inevitably too, the erection poking against an Athenian's tunic was referred to as his 'ram' [ramming was the wartime nautical manuever of hitting the broadside of an enemy ship with the front of yours]. Sexual intercourse was likened to ramming encounters between triremes (warships), but the men did not always take the active role. The popular Athenian sexual position in which the woman sat astride her partner gave her a chance to play the nautria or female rower, and row the man as if he were a boat. A man who mounted another man might claim to be boarding him, using the nautical term for a marine boarding a trireme. Sexual bouts with multiple partners were sometimes dubbed naumachiai or naval battles."


John R. Hale


Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy




Copyright 2009 by John R. Hale


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