Lays of Corynth
One of the 4 monologues that integrate THE RED BOX performance refers to the historical character Lays from Corynth. Controversial and unique, Lays was an important hetaira* who captivated personalities of her age with her beauty and intelligence. She lived around 425 BC during the Peloponnesus war.
We have been inspired by her spirit to move through the centuries to the present. A woman who changes time, place, physiognomy, skin… A woman who sheds her slave status, who instructs and empowers herself to confront those who marginalize, or abuse her. A woman who transforms, leaves parts of herself to build others and like a Phoenix bird, is reborn from its own ashes.Is she a prostitute? Yes. But it could be any woman … It could be anyone.
* Hetaira (ἑταίρα, “companion”) – a type of prostitute in Ancient Greece. Unlike the so-called Pornai (which provided sex to numerous clients in brothels or on the street), the hetairai served only a few men as clients, had long-term relationships with them and provided company, both intellectual and sexual.
While most people still understand the concepts of prostitute and wife, the idea of ”hetaira” leads to many misunderstandings. A hetaira should give pleasure to the man who hired her beyond a simple sexual relationship … and there is room for everything. And one thing was very clear to the Greeks: hetairas were expensive. Lays of Corynth lived at the time of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). We don’t know her date of birth, as a hetaira never spoke of her age and always considered herself young, and we can assume that her death was at the end of the war or a little later. Lays was born on the island of Sicily. At the age of 15 she was sold as a slave and sent to the city of Corinth to serve in Aphrodite’s temple as a priestess. Corinth was famous throughout Antiquity as a center of libertine life and a city of expensive pleasures: “non licet omnibus adire Corinthum” (not everyone is capable of going to Corinth), four centuries later, the Epicurean Horace would say. The temple of Aphrodite that adorned its acropolis was known for practicing sacred prostitution in the style of the temples of the eastern goddess Astarte. Which means that the offering to the goddess consisted of having sex with one of her priestesses in exchange for a fairly high amount of money, an amount that was gladly paid if you could afford it, since the priestesses were varied and chosen for their beauty .
Among them was our Lays and the temple of Aphrodite was her first school. We assume that she came from a humble background, perhaps an orphan offered to the temple. Within its walls, our girl got the honor of being considered the most beautiful woman in the place and many men traveled to the city just to pay their respects to the goddess Aphrodite through have sex with Lays. But Lays’s wish, like all priestesses, was to be brought out of there by some rich patron who would hire her as a hetaira. The painter Apelles bought her from the temple and used her as a model for his painting of the goddess Artemis the Huntress. She remained with Apelles for three years in which he allowed her to learn with Aspasia of Miletus and finally granted her freedom. Lays was very beautiful and soon became the most famous of the Corinthian hetairas. When she got her freedom, she went to Athens.
Already in Athens, the sculptor Miron asked her to pose for the statue of the goddess Hera. As she stripped to pose, the sculptor marveled at Lays’s beauty and offered her everything he owned in exchange for a night with him, but Lays refused; he declared his love and desire for her and she rejected him again.In the shadow of the Acropolis, Lays settled independently and carved out a new life of hetaira claimed at all the banquets of the wealthy Athenians, who were lovers of pleasure. She learned to operate in the Athenian cultural environment thanks to the education that Aspasia provided her. Quite an honor for a woman, because Aspasia was a renowned teacher who Plato later came to consider Socrates ‘instructor in rhetoric and even the author of Pericles’ famous funeral speech, praising democracy. Today there are scholars, such as Jarratt, Susan, and Rory Ong who consider her the creator of the Socratic method. This is how Lays managed to dazzle one of the most famous and wealthy philosophers of her time, Aristippus, considered the founder of the hedonistic school. Lays was hired by the founder of the hedonists as soon as he met her at a party. From that moment on, he covered her with money and had such affection for her that two of his hedonistic works dealt with her. Lays achieved a panhellenic status that allowed her to demand outrageous amounts. This earned her a reputation for being greedy, for being a girl who only answered if they gave her big gifts; this provoked anecdotes such as that of the in love suitor, who pleaded with her in writing on a clay tablet to come visit him, and she replied: “I cannot go. This is just clay. “After years of capitalizing on her fame and beauty, Lays decided to return to Corinth, falling in love with a Thessalian named Hypostratus who took her to Thessaly. It is said that the Thessalians, out of jealousy, took her to the temple of Aphrodite and once there they stoned her to death. She was buried on the banks of the Peneo and a mausoleum was erected in her honor.
1 – Coin with the effigy of Lays of Corinth.
2 – Lays of Corynth by Hans Holbein the Young – Basilea Art Museum.
3 – Hera statue.