Alternative Worlds of the Past: The Stories of the Courtesan, Across Cultures and Times   1 comment

Alternative Worlds of the Past: The Stories of the Courtesan, Across Cultures and Times.

“The Courtesan was one of the most accomplished woman of her time, she was well-read, well-educated and well-mannered at a time when most women could do no more than read a psaltery and bear children….”


Introduction : An Overview- A context and background to discussing the worlds of the courtesan .


I felt compelled to write about the worlds, cultures and histories of the Courtesan, at a time, when in the developed world,  many women have  economic and educational freedoms which some may take for granted, now, and yet across the world, many women are  not only still fighting  be able to work safely ,  to be free  from exploitation,  and have to access to good quality health care, but  to learn how to  fundamentally, read and write, which is is the bottom line  to the whole process of human social  and historical  change .

My question is, is  there a danger of all of us being very complacent, when the right to literacy, economic freedom and social freedom/civil rights have been hard worn, more so, when extreme/absolute poverty exists for at least 3/4 of the world’s population? Or, on a more deeper level, is our education creating consumers out of us?

Even in  developed countries,  for example, in the UK, right now,  as I write, despite having the bottom line of universal education, many young women are being influenced by consumerist ideas, and in attaining consumer status and values, that, on one level is seductive.

In the long term , this is not empowering, I think, because  it forces many people, men and women to stop using their minds , to stop thinking for themselves, to stop being and doing creatively , intelligently and intuitively. The bottom line, education, as old fashioned as it sounds, should pave the way for  better way of life for all- a passport to opportunities, better economic, social and hopefuly emotional health, for the whole of society. Maybe, the education system in many developing countries is preparing people to be just consumerists, as opposed to citizens in the full sense of the word.

Although, I may be digressing here, this has everything  to do with why I am exploring the lives of courtesans and it is with a sense of irony ,  contrasting  how mass industrialisation and economic development, along with educational  and health access /growth has impacted humanity, and women in particular, at this very point in time.

21st century consumerism/capitalism, in  developed countries as a continuation from  the 1800’s, for me, seems to suggest, what you buy is what you are; buying expensive /designer labels, luxury cars, homes, more expensive holidays, even in some cases paying for a more and more hedonistic lifestyle: money brings choices of how to spend . And on another level, we have reality TV shows, where celebrity or notoriety are gained- viewers watching voraciously.

The spin-off of these reality shows include shows where one is pitted against others and voted off, after failing to complete tasks/skills, techniques successfully or expected, to learn a new skill in a matter of weeks……….. Cultures of superficiality, a bit of fun, equal opportunity for being famous for 15 minutes, as Andy Warhol predicted? Perhaps, I am looking at the more negative aspects of this, when maybe I should be recalling the positive : better health care and medication / better housing/ improved life expectancy, huge leaps in social awareness/ tolerance/ greater appreciation of human diversity (fighting against racism/sexism/ageism/ homophobia and so on) greater social/individual control of one’s life/destiny,  better rights for women and so on….across the centuries.  but something sits uneasily here, with me, so I need to explore it.


Whatever it is, the Courtesan existed, across cultures and across times, until fairly recently, when so much of the female population, at any one time,across the world, lived in dire, appalling poverty. My opening quote speaks volumes:  that is, that was the courtesan.

Women did not have the mass education, as we do, across the developed world now, and  I asked the question about complacency,  in light of  the female  poverty that existed with constant pregnancies, death in childbirth, rearing surviving children, dying of infectious diseases and enduring the daily grind of life: the courtesan could move above all of that and stand boldly against the stark deck of cards dealt.

A courtesan’s life , with her education, good manners, etiquette,  cultural/political/ literary knowledge, social skills(be they sensual, conversational) speaks of life not framed by a consumerist agenda, as we are so used to now.  More often that not, the courtesan lived a very dangerous life, and had  to live by her quick wits and skills, and use her talents wisely and gracefully. Indeed education, for the courtesan, paved the way for greater social possibilities and futures for her,whether it was in Ancient Athens, 16th century Venice, the Songhai Empire in Western Africa or in 9th century Korea.

Many could argue, a courtesan is no more than a glamorous prostitute  (  eccentricyoruba) and no one would advocate a woman be a courtesan now.  She was more often not, not accepted in “polite societies”, was considered too independant, too wayward, too wild, too intelligent to live a conventional life, in the society she happened to operate in. A courtesan while higher in status than a slave and prostitute, was still considered lower class, but a courtesan “composed poetry..sang…danced and played instruments” (eccentric yoruba)

However, I suspect that there is a lot more to the courtesan than  face value and aim  to show examples of very highly intelligent, powerful, independant women and the backgrounds which fostered them.  I hope this provides food for the reader, and to ponder the very first question I asked about complacency, the role of education, values and etiquette, in the face of consumerism .


I aim to  briefly describe and discuss the various roles of the courtesan( which have existed, almost everywhere)  in different societies/cultures, such as Ancient Greece, Japan/Far East, parts of Europe, Africa, with an exploration of the slave/servant system in the Topkapi Palace (Ottoman Empire).  Although the Topkapi system is not about the courtesan per se,  the servants and the like, who worked in there, were all given an education and learned  a range of skills, which I feel is an important factor, when many women outside the palace, probably were expected to have just the minimum of literacy skills, ( religious literacy).  Again, this situation of limited education, is echoed everywhere else.

I hope to explore the qualities and difficulties of courtesan lives, and what messages they have for us today

First of all, what I would like to do, is explore the notion of sacred sexuality and the priestesses, temple dancers, et al because this is where it all starts, or has to start.

Hope you enjoy this journey of discovery………………


One response to “Alternative Worlds of the Past: The Stories of the Courtesan, Across Cultures and Times

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  1. Resources/references: Curiosity killed the Eccentric yoruba

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