Born as Mnesarete around 371 BCE, the woman who came down to us in history as “Phryne” began life as a Thespian refugee. According to the Greek historian Pausnias, the principal deity of Thespiae was Eros. The principal festivals were the Erotidia, and other sources suggest they worshipped the Muses with a festival on Mount Helicon. Whether she was born into the position or became one during her early years remains a question today, but we know her native home of Thespiae was razed at roughly the same point in time by Thebes. Located in central Greece, north of the Gulf of Corinth, Thespiae fell in events subsequent to the Corinthian War and its surviving population was forced to flee to Athens. It isn’t known precisely when Thespiae was restored, but Phryne seems to have remained an expatriate living in Athens rather than returning to her homeland.
At this remove it is very difficult to sort out what stories about Phryne are myth and which are historical. There is little doubt that she was a historical person as there are attestations to her statues in several locations. The Historian Plutarch tells us that she was nicknamed “Phryne” meaning “toad” for either her complexion or a snub nose, however much of what we know of her comes from Athenaeus of Naucratis, who lived in the late 2nd and early 3rd century CE. She was widely renowned for her beauty but was also intelligent and clever. Athenaeus called her “goddess of wordplay and practical thinking.” He says that she was attractive enough that she always covered herself in public and never went to the public baths, “but on the solemn assembly of the Eleusinian festival, and on the feast of the Poseidonia, then she laid aside her garments in the sight of all the assembled Greeks, and having undone her hair, she went to bathe in the sea.” (Athenaeus Book 13, 59)
She is connected with Praxiteles, the sculptor, who was her lover and modeled the Aphrodite of Cnidus on her. Athanaeus says that she was allowed to take any of his statues in payment, and selected a statue of Eros, which she dedicated in the Temple at Thespiae. While the story may or may not be historical, we do know that the Eros of Praxiteles existed in Thespiae, and was quite famous. It was a significant enough work of art that it was looted by the Roman Emperor Caligula, restored by Claudius, and looted again by Nero. It is not unreasonable to think that it may have been a gift to, or dedicated by, Phryne.
Her eventual patron was a very wealthy orator, Hypereides, who declared his love for her, but the overall story of her life seems to present a woman who was an important social figure, rising to fame through her connections to other famous artists. She is called variously a “courtesan,” and “prostitute,” and she certainly had a number of lovers. The most famous story about Phryne is her trial. She was prosecuted by Euthias for indecency. The charge seems to have stemmed from her appearance nude at a religious festival. While nudity is not implicitly sexual, in this context her nudity is tied to her role as a courtesan, as a sexual woman who openly represented Eros. She was defended by Hypereides and when “it was plain that the judges were about to condemn her, brought her forth into the middle of the court, and, tearing open her tunic and displaying her naked bosom, employed all the end of his speech, with the highest oratorical art, to excite the pity of her judges by the sight of her beauty, and inspired the judges with a superstitious fear, so that they were so moved by pity as not to be able to stand the idea of condemning to death ‘a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite.'” (Athenaeus Book 13, 59)
It is possible that the classic version of her trial is overwrought, as a contemporary account by Poseidippus gives a somewhat less flamboyant version, though in neither case is Phryne said to be ashamed or repentant. There may even have been two historical women named Phyrne. Like Arthur or Parzival, Phryne may be a Gnostic Saint who is part historical, part legend, and it is her legend and what it has meant to people over years and kept alive in our culture that is important to us today.
It is hard to know what to make of this at such a remove, but there may be some suggestion of a cultural clash, with Phyrne’s actions representing the importation of Thespian practices. The eventual dedication of a statue at Delphi suggests Phryne not just as a prominent courtesan, but as someone of cultic importance. “And the people of her neighborhood, having had a statue made of Phryne herself, of solid gold, consecrated it in the temple of Delphi, having had it placed on a pillar of Pentelic marble; and the statue was made by Praxiteles” (Athenaeus Book 13,60)
Phryne is described as a prostitute in many sources, but her life, revolving around powerful orators and talented artists, suggests more similarities with the courtesans of 19th century France. It is important to understand her story in the terms of the day. Throughout much of history only two paths were open to women who did not choose to live as the virtual chattel of a man, though neither were safe, nor always available. One was to be some sort of “common woman,” in the sense of a woman who took many partners, relying on the revenue generated by the combination of her appearance, intelligence, and wit. This revenue might come as payments to a prostitute or in the form of patronage to a courtesan. The other common path was a religious vocation in which, during Phryne’s period “dedication to the Gods,” or in the later, Christian era, “marriage do the church,” placed a woman off limits to mortal men. This second path often precluded any expression of sexuality. Phryne seems to have combined the best aspects of both choices, whether as an exile rebuilding the practices of her destroyed home city, or a mystic constructing her own faith and practice. Athenaeus tells us that she was quite wealthy, indicating that she was able to maintain her independence.
While we can’t know the details, her story focuses on her self-determination. While Athenaeus tells us that Hypereides owned a woman named Phila at Eleusis, who he emancipated, and “kept” that “most extravagant courtesan Myrrhina” (Athenaeus Book 13, 58) but Phryne appears to have been her own woman. She was not obliged to take partners she did not want, and was in control of her own destiny. She controls her own sexuality and is not at the bidding of men, and that implicitly forms the core of the charges against her.
The traditional telling of her legend focuses on her beauty, but we have to assume that it was as much her personal appearance and bearing which carried the day at her trail. Her acquittal was not by men who found her too attractive to kill, but rather out of “superstition” that they might be defying the Gods, that she was “a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite.” The implication being that she did not go covered in public out of shame or modesty, but because her beauty, and implicitly her sexual self, was an offering suitable for the divine.
In this regard, as both a woman who was haled into court for her open and demonstrative sexuality and also recognized as a Priestess, she becomes a strong Thelemic figure. She is both “whore,” in the positive sense we attribute to that word as Thelemites, and “Goddess.” Phryne provides an example for us of the bridge between human and divine, through and in harmony with her sexual nature, a core element of Thelema. But her relationships are all on her own terms, and it is her status as a Priestess that protects her. From her we derive a strong role model for the erasure of shame, and the embrace of our sexual selves as divine.
Phryne has a special meaning for us as Thelemites. In Thelema we are taught to be “shameless in deed as in word.” Yet too often we are constrained in the expression of our sexuality or gender by those who, like the Patriarchs of Athens, believe we have gone “too far.” This shame may come not only from without, but from inside our own community by others who have revelled alongside us, but believe we are profaning their festivals. No element of Phryne is about forcing our expression of sexuality on anyone, but she is our model and hope that if we are resolute in our presentation, and refuse to bow our heads and be ashamed, we too may overcome those who would judge us.
In that spirit we offer an Intercessory Prayer to Saint Phryne
An Intercessory Prayer
Hail Phryne full of Grace
Hail Phryne blessed of Aphrodite
Hail Phyrne thou initiated of Eleusis
Hail Phyrne whose statue at Delphi pleased Apollo
Blessed art thou among women
Sacred Whore and Initiate
She whose self possession and beauty break the holds of Patriarchy
Look upon us now for we have done that for which we are shamed
Raise up our heads and give us measure of your strength
That we shall never be ashamed of our desires
Cast the wrath of Aphrodite, who turned Trojan against Greek upon those who persecute me
Expose their hypocrisies each unto another
Let them turn upon each other as feral animals fighting over a scrap
Sacred Whore lend us thy hand to hold up our heads that we be not ashamed, nor fear
Teach us to be shameless in deed as in word.
Though we are brought into Court or tried secretly in the recesses of narrow hearts
Hail Phryne beloved of the People of Athens
Hail Daughter of Eros
Hail Phryne knower of the secret fire
Pray for us now, and in the hour of our need
(In extreme cases the last line may be changed to “Pray for us now, in this hour of our need”)