Tag Archives: ancient greek vases

Spinning for pleasure?

We spin – by and large – because we enjoy it (well, we do when we’ve not – no, not mentioning injuries; they might go away – damn, just have). It’s all too easy to forget that in the past women must have found spinning a chore, something which had to be done to earn money or, even more directly, done simply to clothe themselves and their families. And testimony to that type of relationship with spinning and weaving goes right back.

What also goes right back is a link between spinning and prostitution.

I know – difficult to imagine it today: standing on a street corner with a drop spindle; alternative – ahem – uses for hand carders… but I’m talking about Ancient Greece, not dodgy parts of South London, and understanding the link started with pots, of all things.

Woman spinning; vase from the British Museum

Many Ancient Greek vases depict women spinning, weaving or in association with wool in some way, perhaps just with a workbasket by their feet. However, some of these pots also show the women who are working with the fibre in another, simultaneous context – being approached by men with money bags or gifts (and in one instance by man holding a hen and a boy with a bird and an octopus, but hey). There was some debate about whether these pots showed happy-family shopping scenes, but as more and more – er – unequivocal pots were found that rather domesticated/niave explanation eventually faded away.

It’s pretty clear what was in it for the men, and for the women to some extent, but why were the women so often depicted spinning or weaving, or accompanied by others who were working with wool?

Were Ancient Athenian men turned on by drop spindles as well as by pretty boys? Did these pots show virtuous women being lured away from a life of domestic bliss by rich young men with bulging money bags? This debate – known as the ‘spinning hetaeras’ debate – has now virtually ground to a halt, as most classicists have accepted that the women illustrated are indeed prostitutes and the men are their clients. And archaeology has now helped to clarify the link with spinning and weaving.

The unpromising patch of stones is part of a really important archaeological site. Honest.

Kerameikos, from stoa.org

(Well, it’s important if you’re at all interested in archaeology, classical history, the role of women and the history of cloth working.) It’s known as Building Z, and it’s in the Kerameikos district of Athens. It’s a potentially complicated site, too, with the rather labyrinthine building going through various stages from its foundation in the fifth century BC, even being abandoned completely at one point.

But it’s quite clear that for most of its life Building Z was a brothel. For one thing, it was in the right part of the city; we know from surviving writing that the Kerameikos was the red-light district where you could be guaranteed to find streetwalkers, and it was next to the city walls, a notorious place for a quickie. Then there are the rows of small chambers, a bigger (meeting?) room with a mosaic floor, a large number of finds only associated with women – described as ‘feminine accoutrements’ – and the sheer quantity of crockery of a type specifically used in entertaining. Oh, and there was evidence of a cult of Aphrodite, the sex-workers’ favourite goddess. Also, interestingly, of other goddesses, some of them foreign. These facts all led to a clear conclusion: a brothel. Well, a combination of brothel and bar, perhaps.

Life would not have been much fun for the women in the brothel (it was very rough indeed for streetwalkers). They weren’t hetaerae, the almost courtesan-like sex workers who could become rich if they were lucky, and who had a freedom unknown to most women. They were pornai, and would most likely have been slaves or captives, possibly foreign, auctioned off to the brothel keeper. The life of a brothel was feared by hetaerae, and a modern commentator says that ‘even slave girls thought of it as a fate worse than death’. One comic play refers to a Kerameikos brothel having about thirty women working there, and they seem to have stood in a semi-circle for clients to make their selection – something which probably took place in the larger room of Building Z. One writer says that they sang during this process… difficult to imagine, perhaps.

And then there were the loom weights. Over a hundred were found in the fourth and fifth century levels.

That’s many more than you’d expect to find in a domestic context, but of course making cloth was a trade.

There are some allusions to a link between prostitution and wool working in ancient literature – one elderly prostitute is described as now having to get by on what she can earn from her loom, for instance. It’s also noticeable that on some vases the ‘woolly accoutrements’ are being packed away as the men (money bags in hand) arrive. Perhaps the time had come for a change in the nature of their work?

Decent women, in Ancient Greece, didn’t work. Women were respectable wives or would become them shortly, or they were everyone else – and then they weren’t respectable. Well, that’s a simplification, but it sort-of works. The unrespectable could earn money in two major ways (minor ones included market trading and running a wine shop): prostitution or cloth working. Yes, there’s that evidence from literature that women moved from one to the other, but Building Z provides proof that the two could be simultaneous.

Bear in mind that even the most popular brothel would have had slack times, and the reason for all the loom weights and the illustrations of wool-working on the vases becomes clear. If you’re an ambitious and avaricious brothel owner, you’re not going to let the staff sit around and do nothing in the off-peak periods. They’ve got to earn their keep all the time, not just when the brothel is busy.

And there you have it: you work at your spindle or loom during the day, and at night you stand around in a semi-circle and sing.

One of the most evocative facts about Building Z and its weaving and spinning prostitutes comes from the third level, Z3. It looks as though this building met the same fate as the oldest one on the site – destruction in an earthquake around the end of the fourth century BC.

It probably struck in the daytime, because none of the looms had been packed away. They had been in use when the building was destroyed.