Public Women

We have reconstructed a bare outline of the ancient world's large cosmetics industry, some of its social ideologies, and most of its accoutrements—all widely dispersed, and so close to the daily lives of so many people. But there is one other story which has been running subliminally throughout: the position of women at the centre of all this activity.

Originally a biologically determined body-surface treatment, the routines of the cosmetic toilette brought physical aid and comfort to mind and body by clearing up skin diseases, repairing damage, covering up imperfections, and in general enhancing personal beauty and vitality. Whoever did it, allo-grooming was obviously a very valuable skill or service;what-ever went on before, it was clearly already strongly gendered and socially organized in Eurasia by c.3000 bce; i.e. it was mainly performed by women, for men (and to a lesser extent for themselves and children). Secondly, it had acquired a new economic status—in fact it had almost become a profession. The Eurasian concubine, courtesan, geisha, bes, hetera, ganika, and other 'public women' were the supreme exponents of the ancient toilette.

From their very first historical appearance in the royal graves at Ur and stretching forward into later court history, we see these massed troupes of courtly women, acting much like 'B'- and 'C'-ranking allo-grooming primate females. At the bottom of it all was the control and exploitation of sexuality—and nothing in the ancient court was more important than royal seduction and procreation. Women, especially beautiful or skilful women, were regarded in law as valuable chattels, and all ancient Indian rulers kept troupes of women for their sexual and social entertainment, taking them along on courtesy calls, or ordering 'all lovely maidens' to the gates of the city as a greeting honour for important diplomatic visitors. The Arabic word harem originally signified the 'sanctuary or a sacred precinct' of the king's quarters;but the word gradually became synonymous with the female quarters.44 Unofficially, it was the old custom of polygamy for the chief male; officially, these extra women were servants of the chief female, her sewing maidens, whose youth, joie de vivre, and sportiveness gave them the stamina to perform constantly at feasts, picnics, and celebrations—like one Persian monarch whose 'maner is, that watching in the night, and then banketting with his women, being an hundred and forty in number, he sleepeth most of the day'.45

Water-play was always erotic, especially banqueting or picnicking by canals, streams, or rivers: 'See', said an Egyptian love poem from 1300 bce, 'how sweet is the canal in it which you dug with your own hand for us to be refreshed by the breeze, a lovely place to wander.' Or more explicitly: 'I love to go and bathe before you. I allow you to see my beauty in a dress of finest linen, drenched with fragrant unguent. I go down to the water to be with you and come up to you again with a red fish looking splendid on my fingers.'46 The Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana (c.ad 400) was originally written 'at the request of the public women of Pataliputra'—a guild of courtesans. If a public woman mastered the seductive and sexual arts of the Sutra and Shastra, said Vatsyayana, she would become 'a ganika, or public woman of high quality', expert in the arts of dress, witty disputation, poetry, game-playing, music, and dance, and a woman universally honoured and praised. Vatsyayana set the seduction scene in the pleasure room, decorated with flowers, and fragrant with perfumes, attended by his friends and servants, [he] will receive the woman, who will come bathed and dressed, and will invite her to take refreshment. He should then seat her on his left side, and holding her hair, and touching also the end of the knot of her garment, he should gently embrace her with his right hand. They should then carry on an amusing conversation on various subjects, and talk suggestively... sing... and persuade each other to drink ...At last when the woman is overcome with love and desire

[he] should dismiss the people that may be with him, giving them flowers, ointments, and betel leaves, and then when the two are left alone, they should proceed as has already been described in the previous chapters.47

These were the chapters that covered the famous sixty-four erotic sexual positions (derived from already ancient sacred texts) known as the Kama Shastra, which the practically minded Vatsyayana reduced to eight essential bodily embraces: four to do with touching, piercing, rubbing, and pressing, and four which were gymnastic (twining, climbing, lying, lap-sitting); eight types of kiss, and eight kinds of lovebite with attractive names such as 'the coral and the jewel', or 'the broken cloud'. He gave many helpful cosmetic receipts for beautification, and reported among other things on the adornment of the penis— 'the people of the southern countries think that true sexual pleasure cannot be obtained without perforating the lingam, and they therefore cause it to be pierced like the lobes of the ears of an infant pierced with earrings'.48

It is not surprising that the beauty of some of these public women became legendary, or that they apparently enjoyed a high degree of public support and affection; their fame also rested on their public performances of religious dancing and music-making (much like performing stars today), and these public appearances helped to set popular standards of beauty and grooming. The skills and accomplishments of the professional courtesan help to illuminate the lives of some of the famous queens of ancient history;from this perspective Queen Cleopatra, for instance, can be seen as a royal-born ganika playing for high stakes.49 But for every expensive Queen Cleopatra (or King Nebuchadnezzar) there were a thousand other princesses and princes, all with their toilettes to prepare, and marriages to make. Each individual faced a shifting kaleidoscope of physical and social advantage or disadvantage throughout their lives which directly affected their grooming habits—and even the poorest had some grooming habits. If they were lucky they had a protective home, family, and kin who performed loving, intimate acts of grooming and gave medical attention 'for free', in their 'free' rest times. Baths, expensive paints, scents, and oils were not essential;simple ingredients, simple tools, and home preparations would do. But even these scanty advantages would be wrecked if the work dried up, or local politics changed for the worse.

Up to around 1700 bce, Eurasian trade and industry had provided an uninterrupted flood of new capital, high technology, and disposable income. Economically speaking, the beauty trades were an early capitalist success story, a luxury that became a necessity. In eastern Eurasia many ancient cosmetic customs and trades were preserved up to present times; in western Eurasia, however, physical circumstances dictated a different path. Few ancient empires could withstand such natural ecological shocks as the massive eruption at Thera (Santorini) in 1628 bce, from which the Minoans never recovered;or the deforestation, silting, and salination that destroyed crop yields and created desert in the Fertile Crescent: Nineveh was eventually sacked in 612 bce and Nebuchadnezzar's fabulous golden city of Babylon was overrun in 539 bce.50 But as it turned out, however, the ancient Mediterranean trading system and its luxury trades had not even reached their peak. Around the Aegean archipelago the Greeks were well dug in by 539 bce. The Greeks are normally where the history of hygiene begins.

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