Phryne, a nickname meaning “little toad,” was a renowned courtesan in Athens at the height of the civilization’s power in ancient Greece, around the 4th century B.C.E. She rose to prominence during a period where priestesses and prostitutes were both blessed and protected by goddesses who the rulers of Athens feared.
Phyrne made her money as a courtesan, entertaining the wealthy and powerful privately. But she was also a public person. A few times a year the city state of Athens would commission Phyrne to perform sacred rites.
During the festivals of Eleusinia and Poseidonia, Phryne would dive naked into the Aegian sea to celebrate and reenact the mythical birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire. The entire Greecian community would gather to marvel at Phryne’s divine beauty. The famous sculptor Praxiteles used her as the model for the Aphrodite of Knidos.
Phryne was so powerful that when Alexander the Great tore down the wall of her hometown, Thebes, she offered to rebuild it herself under the condition that it would be inscribed, “Torn down by Alexander the Great, rebuilt by the courtesan Phyrne.”
As a courtesan, Phryne had a reputation for changing her prices to reflect how she felt about her clients. One notoriously odious king once remarked at a party, “Phryne it shames me that you would charge so much.” To which she responded, “If I took a cent less it would be I who was shamed.” That king raised taxes on his people to afford to be able to spend one night with Phryne.
At the height of her fame, the patriarchs of Athens charged Phryne with blasphemy, specifically for impersonating the goddess. She was charged with a capital crime for doing too good a job executing a performance she was hired to do.
Phryne was not allowed to speak in court. But she used her resources to secure a strong defense. Hyperides, a famous orator, spoke for her. According to legend, he stripped Phryne naked in front of the jury and dared them to look upon her body and see her divinity. He claimed that it would anger the goddess to see such a body destroyed, and that the jurors, and Athens itself, would be cursed by cursing Phryne. They could not bring themselves to condemn a priestess of Aphrodite to death.
She was acquitted. Phryne got to live, but this trial marked the beginning of the end for priestesses and courtesans who had taken up space and wielded power in the highest echelons of ancient Greek society. With Phyrne’s persecution, the patriarchs of Athens began a campaign that continues today, targeting public women, stripping them of their power, and silencing them with shame.
Written by Kaytlin Bailey for Petit Mort Magazine.