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In ancient Greek society people carefully followed the social rules of good behaviour. Women had to be good mothers. Kids and youths went to school, to the gym and were trained to be brave warriors. The elder ones inspired the new generations with their wise advice. And everyone prayed to the gods during the religious festivities. There was a time though, when almost everything was allowed and when social rules of good behaviour could be forgotten: the symposium. Museums are filled with vases showing symposiasts having fun and playing, precisely because the Greeks, like the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Chinese and the Anglo-Saxons, often buried their dead with games (or scenes of games), in order to allow them to have fun during their afterlife.

Scene of Symposium in Ancient Greek Society
A slave attends to a vomiting symposiast, 500-470 BC, National Museum of Denmark

1. What a Vase Can tell Us About Ancient Greek Lifestyle

Among the many drinking vessels at the British Museum, there is one of particular interest. It’s a red-figured Stamnos showing Greeks playing a drinking game called ‘Kottabos’ (and is, of course, one of our Fun and Games treasures). During the game, players had to throw dregs of wine at a target. It was a bit like darts, but harder because the dregs had to stick together mid-air before reaching the target. The protagonists of the scene are ephebes, Greek male adolescents training to become soldiers. All ephebes are well dressed (or half-dressed!), sometimes wear ivy-wreaths, and drink and sing, while a girl in a beautiful garment plays the flute.

Glimps of ancient Greeks society in the scene of a vase
Greek Stamnos with symposiasts at the British Museum, 475-425 BC

2. Gender Roles at the Symposium

All the males in the scene were part of the wealthier part of the population. Only the richest and most educated men were allowed to have fun at the symposium, after all. But what was the role of women at the party and in ancient Greece? The girl represented was probably a hetaira (a slave prostitute). Hetairai constituted a social class of their own in ancient Greek society. In their daily life, they were trained to serve as the companions of wealthy men (while their wives were secluded at home).

The role of women in ancient Greece
Hetaira playing Kottabos, 500 BC ca, Getty Villa Collection

3. The Role of Women in Ancient Greek Society

Historians and archaeologists don’t often know much about Greek Women and their stories. For sure we know that Greek men were freer than women. The hard duties of men’s daily life could in fact be eased at their drinking parties, where rules didn’t exist. Some suggest that the hetairai, the women entertaining them during the symposium, were more influential than the women of the upper class. During their training, they were taught philosophy and politics so to be able to converse with all men. While they were, of course, little more than sex slaves, it seems clear from the evidence at our disposal that hetairai did participate in the intellectual life of ancient Greece and that the symposiasts often took them as their personal advisors.

The role of Greek women at the symposium
Drinking cup with naked women folding their garments, The Met

4. A Vase or a Book?

It is incredible how much we can learn from the scene of a vase! Greek vases are almost books, often recounting stories of real life and social behaviour and allowing us to enter the fascinating world of ancient Greek society. For more on Greek art and architecture, read about The Parthenon and don’t forget to check our posts on Egyptian art, giving away other bonus answers, here and here! Are you also in love with Greek art and its hidden messages? Book a hunt at either the British Museum or the Louvre where you’ll find plenty of Greek art! If you liked the saucy theme of this blog post, have a look at the most interesting love stories of the past: Cupid and Psyche, The Ain Sakhri Lovers, Thetis and Peleus, and Priapus.

Just a heads up: some of the things in bold might be answers to bonus questions on your Fun & Games hunt, whose First ever Version in Italian will be on Friday April 3rd at 5.30 pm.

Marble statue of Cupid from British Museum collection

Our final Love Hunt Blog before Valentine’s Day is all about its chubby little mascot: Cupid. Check out the whole series here, here and here!
However our little cherub has a much more storied past, before he was reduced to selling cards and chocolates.

Originally Eros in Greek, the God of Love, in some versions he is one of the oldest forces in the universe, predated only by Chaos and Gaia (Earth).
Most commonly though the Romans knew little Cupid as the son of Venus, Goddess of beauty. Her husband was Vulcan, but Cupid’s father is Mars, God of War, naughty! (This might be useful on your hunt!)
The winged archer is a symbol of how flighty love makes us, and he carries a bow because love wounds us from afar. He is also sometimes depicted as blind, to show how love is indiscriminate and makes us blind to all else.

You might also find him riding dolphins on fountains and other classical architecture. Though clearly many Roman artists had clearly never seen an actual dolphin before ever in their lives.

Painting of Cupid riding a fish like creature that looks nothing like a real dolphin
A classic dolphin…

Meeting Psyche

But Cupid of course could not avoid being struck by one of his own arrows. Eventually even the God of Love finds himself deeply in love with a mortal called Psyche. Psyche originally meant ‘soul’ or ‘breath of life’, rather than mind in the original Greek. She was a mortal of great beauty hated by Venus for stealing worship and attention away from her. Venus send her son to make Psyche fall in love with something hideous but poor Cupid scratches himself with an arrow and instead falls deeply in love with her. He spirits her away to his villa in secret, so everyone will believe she is in love with a monster like his spiteful mother wanted.

Giuseppe Maria Crespi painting of Psyche discovering cupid's true form, from Uffizi gallery in Florence
A tale as old as time…

In the ‘Beast’s’ castle Psyche is entertained by songs, and dinners that serve themselves as she slowly starts to fall for the mysterious beast she never sees… Sound familiar? (Be our guest, be our guest… what’s the story? Have you guessed?) Until one night she sneaks into Cupid’s room as he sleeps. She is so startled by his beauty, that she stumbles into his nearby arrows and falls head over heels for him too!

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss neoclassical marble sculpture by Antonio Canova in the Louvre Museum
Find this beautiful piece on a Louvre THATMuse hunt


After some brief torturous quests to the Underworld to placate Venus, her jealous mother-in-law, Psyche is given ambrosia by Zeus, king of the gods. This makes her immortal and Cupid and Psyche live happily ever after! Their wedding feast was second only to Thetis and Peleus, also found in our Love hunt!

The Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche (1517) by Raphael ceiling fresco lively party scene

Love Hunt: The Ain Sakhri Lovers

Today for our third Love Hunt blog we have a very special object. The oldest and most mysterious object on our Love Hunt: The Ain Sakhri Lovers. Possibly the oldest porn in the world! 
 

The Ain Sakhri Lovers from the British Museum Collection. Small sandstone sculpture of two figures intertwined.

This statue is the oldest known representation in the world of two people making love. Discovered in the Ain Sakhri caves near Bethlehem, it dates back around 11,000 years. At this time, humans were only just learning how to move from hunter-gathering to farming. The Natufian people of the Middle East who made this sculpture we’re some of the first to begin to domesticate sheep and goats, alongside their hunting dogs for catching deer.  


Now animal husbandry and breeding means you’ve worked out what men are for in the job of creating new life. So this phallic looking little figure could have been a ritual object, related to a fertility god or goddess. Maybe a divine talisman aimed at helping their fledgling civilization be fruitful and multiply? Or it could just be someone carving themselves a little saucy bit of fun! 
 

Studying the human form

views of the Ain Sakhri lovers sculpture from all four sides, top and bottom

It shows two figures sat facing and with their legs wrapped around each other, one on top of the other. It is impossible to work out the figures’ genders though. We have no idea if it shows a man and woman in the act of reproduction or two men celebrating all things Priapic. Because whatever way you look at the statue, it seems to have been designed to look phallic in some way. Artist Marc Quinn wrote about this piece for the BBC’s Around the World in 100 Objects programme and noted that from every direction you can read the overall image as some kind of reproductive organ. I will leave it up to your imaginations to see what you can see! 

Thetis and Peleus – Wedding of the Ages 

Welcome to our second Love Hunt blog (see the first here). Read up on the sauciest stories from antiquity and get yourselves some bonus points!

Welcome to the tale of the grandest wedding of the Greek world. Maybe not the loveliest wedding but definitely the most eventful. Full of drama, scandal and family feuds, like all good weddings! 

Painting of Thetis and Peleus's wedding feast by Joachim Wtewael. A busy scene of celebration and debauchery.
Love an outdoor wedding

Thetis was a Sea Nymph admired by Zeus and Poseidon (Remember this for bonus points!) until they discover a prophesy. Her son will be greater than his father. So they decide to marry her off to a mortal, to avoid any danger. They did kill their dad after all!

Thetis changing into a lioness as she is attacked by Peleus, Attic red-figured kylix by Douris, c. 490 BC from Vulci, Etruria - Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
Clingy boyfriends are the worst. Turn into a lion.

They choose to marry her off to Peleus, a mortal king, to that great son will be mortal and no threat to the Gods. Peleus tracks Thetis down and tries to shake him off by transforming into a lioness, serpent, fire and water but he’s a clingy guy and won’t give up easily. Eventually Thetis surrenders and agrees to the wedding. 


Zeus throws a huge feast to celebrate, and all the gods are invited. All except one. Eris, the Godess of Discord is not invited. Don’t we all have that one family member who always causes trouble everywhere they go? But of course, rather than stay away, Eris does what she does best and causes havoc. She crashes the wedding and throws a gift out ‘to the fairest’ goddess at the party. Hera, queen of the gods, Athena, Goddess of wisdom and war and Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and beauty all believe themselves the fairest of them all, so Zeus makes a mortal prince, Paris, pick which goddess is the most beautiful.
Sound like a good idea? Having the best man publicly announce the hottest bridesmaid? 

Paris offers a golden apple to Venus, angering Minerva and Juno. Painting by Peter Paul Reubens from British National Gallery
They’re all beautiful Paris, this is a bad idea.

What follows is everyone is so furious at the outcome, the Trojan war begins and all hell breaks loose. Pretty good drama for just one wedding. Maybe the moral is better to invite a little discord than have a lot turn up uninvited? 

The Sophilos Dinos, Black-figured red attic bowl and stand, signed by Sophilos as painter. Showing scenes leading up to the Trojan War.

Regardless, Thetis doesn’t have to stick with clingy Peleus once the war starts. She has her amazing son, Achilles, hero of the Trojan war! You can discover all about Thetis, Achilles and the Trojan war at the British Museum until 8th March 2020 in their Troy exhibition, containing one of our favourite treasures from our Fun and Games and Love Hunts, the Sopholos Dinos! 

Find out more about the most dramatic couples in history and myth, like the Ain Sakhri Lovers, and Cupid and Psyche.

Love Hunt: Priapus

Welcome to our new blog series, highlighting the great treasures in our British Museum Love Hunt. Discover some of the most famous lovers in history: Thetis and Peleus, The Ain Sakhri Lovers and Cupid and Psyche. This upright fellow has become a bit of a mascot for our Love Hunt at the British Museum. This…ahem, impressive piece has a hilarious and surprisingly stories history behind it. 

Metal figure with a large erect phallus with bells hanging off. A tintinnabulum depicting Priapus from the British Museum
The Priapus tintinnabulum in the British Museum

Priapus seems to have originated as a minor greek god in Asia Minor, the then greek controlled west coast of modern day turkey, and been particularly worshipped around the city of Lampascus. He was seen as a nature god and protector of farms, associated with an abundance of fruit, vegetables and livestock. The Greek historian Pausanius writes: 

This god is worshipped where goats and sheep pasture or there are swarms of bees; but by the people of Lampsacus he is more revered than any other god, being called by them a son of Dionysus and Aphrodite. 

However being the son of the gods of wine and love does not seem to have helped poor Priapus. I’m sure many of us have had our share of misfortunes mixing love and wine, but Priapus was cursed for his parents’ indiscretions to be forever saddled with a giant… well we now call it a priapus after the god himself, but if you’re not a classics scholar you probably call it an erection (It’s ok, you can admit that’s the first thing you noticed!) But sadly this was not much use to the god as the curse meant that it was always useless right when he needed it most! 

A greek painting of Priapus with a comically large phallus

Comedy or Tragedy?

City dwellers in Athens and later Rome don’t seem to have respected the nature god and his powers of fertility as much as the countrysiders and Priapus becomes a bit of a joke through the centuries, starting with Xenarchus writing a comedy play called Priapus in the 4th Cetury BC. Even iconic poets like Ovid and Chaucer have joked about powerless Priapus! 

A winged phallic tintinnabulum hung with many bells, to be hung as an amulet over a doorway

However our one from the British Museum collection has been well hung with little bells to create a tintinnabulum. These were suspended, like wind chimes or a mobile, above doorways as a good luck charm. This one is Roman however, not Greek so Priapus has been combined with Mercury, protector of boundaries, to guard your doorway. It was thought the sound of bells and the image of the penis kept evil spirits at bay. Of course, the bigger the better so Priapus finally found his time to shine, fighting off evil. Would you like to protect your home from the evil eye by hanging these by your front door? What would the neighbours say?!

Book a Love Hunt at the British Museum, or the Louvre for you next party or team buillding event!