In ancient times, the Greek port Corinth was famous for its sacred prostitutes.
After landing at the Corinthian docks, sailors would apparently wheeze up the thousand-odd steps to the top of a stunning crag of rock called the Acrocorinth, which offered 360-degree vistas of the sparkling Mediterranean. There they would pass beneath the marble columns of the Temple of Aphrodite, goddess of Beauty and Love, within whose incense-filled, candlelit confines 1,000 comely girls supposedly worked around the clock gathering funds for their deity.
Since the Renaissance, this idea had gripped antiquarians, who liked to imagine that congress with one of Aphrodite’s servants offered a mystical union with the goddess herself — uninhibited pagans coupling in ecstasy before her statue in the perpetual twilight of the temple.
In fact, this lusty vision of Corinth was created entirely from a three-line report by the Greek geographer Strabo, who writes around 20 CE:
The temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than a thousand prostitutes, donated by both men and women to the service of the goddess. And because of them, the city used to be jam-packed and became wealthy. The ship-captains would spend fortunes there, and so the proverb says: “The voyage to Corinth isn’t for just any man.”
Having said that, modern historians have found that the image of a pagan free-for-all needs some serious qualification.
For a start, Aphrodite’s servants, who may or may not have been attractive, were not exactly willing volunteers. In fact, Corinth’s many cosmopolitan pornai, or prostitutes, were slaves purchased by wealthy Greeks and dedicated to the temple as a form of religious offering. (Once, a victorious athlete at the Olympic Games donated 100 women in a lump sum).
Also, recent excavations at the Corinth fortress have found the temple too small for 100 women to be working, let alone 1,000, so few — if any — carnal rites were conducted at the goddess’ feet. More likely, the sex slaves received their clients in charmless brothels around the temple, huddled on lumpy straw mattresses in small, dark, airless stalls rather like the ones preserved in Pompeii, with illustrations painted above the booths demonstrating each girl’s speciality.
It is true that Aphrodite was the patron goddess of Corinth, and that women there had a special relationship with her — but this didn’t do them much practical good. Greek males were riotously chauvinistic. Even their wives were regarded as chattel, suitable only for raising families; married Greek men went to prostitutes and young boys for “pleasurable sex.”
Not all Greek men, however, were enamoured of prostitution, sacred or otherwise. The philosopher Diogenes thought the habit of paying for love absurd, once telling a crowd that he himself “met the goddess Aphrodite everywhere, and at no expense.” When asked what he meant, Diogenes lifted up his tunic and pretended to masturbate.
– Courtesy of Beard, Mary & Henderson, John, “With this Body I Thee Worship: Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity,” Gender and History, vol. 9, 1997, 480-503