Written around 440 BC, The Histories tells of the epic clash between the Persian empire and the Greek city states - the Battle of Marathon, of Thermopylae and of Salamis. But it is also a rich tapestry of the ancient world, its peoples and their cultures, full of saucy and scandalous tales. I would like to highlight some of those stories in this and future blogs. All extracts are taken from Penguin Classics edition of Herodotus: The Histories.
……….There is one custom among these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite and give herself to a strange man.
Many of the rich women, who are too proud to mix with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages with a whole host of servants following behind, and there wait; most, however, sit in the precincts of the temple with a band of plaited string around their heads – and a great crowd they are, what with some sitting there, others arriving, others going away – and through them all gangways are marked off running in every direction for the men to pass along and make their choice.
Once a woman has taken her seat she is not allowed to go home until a man has thrown a silver coin into her lap and taken her outside to lie with her…The woman has no privilege of choice – she must go with the first man who throws her the money.
When she has lain with him, her duty to the Goddess is discharged and she may go home…Tall, handsome women soon manage to go home again, but the ugly ones stay a long time before their can fulfill the condition which the law demands, some of them, indeed, as much as three or four year………
……….The most ingenious (of the Babylonian practices) in my opinion is a custom which, I understand, they share with the Eneri of Illyria. In every village once a year all the girls of marriageable age used to be collected together in one place, while the men stood around them in a circle; an auctioneer then called each one in turn to stand up and offered her for sale, beginning with the best-looking and going on to the second best as soon as the first had been sold for a good price.
Marriage was the object of the transaction.
The rich men who wanted wives bid against each other for the prettiest girls, while the humbler folk, who had no use of good looks in a wife, were actually paid to take the ugly ones, for when the auctioneer had got through all of the pretty girls he would call upon the plainest to stand up and then ask who was willing to take the least money to marry her – and she was knocked down to whoever accepted the smallest sum. The money came from the sales of the beauties, who in this way provided dowries for their ugly sisters.