Magical Buffet Mythology: Phryne

Illustration by Will Hobbs

I frequently say that I love people who hustle. It’s a hard thing to define since I don’t necessarily mean “to earn one’s living by illicit or unethical means,” as Random House Dictionary says. When I say I love the hustle, or people who have got their “hustle on”, I’m generally talking about “to proceed or work rapidly or energetically, to push or force one’s way; jostle or shove, to be aggressive, esp. in business or other financial dealings,” as the rest of the 2010 Random House Dictionary entry states. Kathy Griffin? Hustle. Perez Hilton? Hustle. David Pitkin? Hustle. However there is one lady who I put above all others when thinking about the hustle. Is it Oprah? Nope, it’s a woman whose hustle was so potent that she, despite being an actual person, has become entwined with the Gods themselves.

Phryne arrived in ancient Athens, Greece at the age of thirteen during the time of the hetaerae, sophisticated female escorts. The hetaerae of the era wore see through gowns, blond wigs, extensive makeup and extravagant jewelry. All things that Phryne, coming from work in the caper fields, could not compete with. Instead of competing with these women head on, she changed the game entirely. That’s right, she got her hustle on.

Phryne created an air of mystery. She dressed in opaque robes and wore no makeup or wigs, often time fully covering herself in veils. Phryne insisted on making love in the dark and charged huge fees for her companionship that she adjusted as she liked. At the annual Festival of Poseidon she would perform a striptease at the holy temple and then walk naked through the crowds to the sea shore where she would reenact the birth of Aphrodite from the sea.

These things turned Phryne into a superstar, commanding unheard of prices for an evening. Poets and painters honored her as the goddess made flesh. The sculptor Praxiteles used her as the model for his Cnidian Aphrodite.

Perhaps that was the tipping point. As any celebrity that has shot to superstardom can tell you, there is always a backlash. In Phryne’s case, the city fathers charged her with blasphemy (Some say that Phryne asked too large a payment from one of the city’s officials who took revenge by indicting her on a charge of impiety). However, when the case seemed lost, her lawyer took a new approach. One only made possible by Phryne’s beauty and her skillful hustle. Her lawyer ripped open her gown and exposed her breasts for the court. In ancient Greece physical beauty was deemed to have been given to someone from the gods themselves. Phryne’s bosom was so beautiful that the court voted to release her as a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite.

Now granted with divine immunity, Phryne was able to continue her life as the most exclusive of courtesans, living to a ripe old age and amassing a fortune. So vast was her wealth that she offered to rebuild the wall of Thebes after Alexander the Great destroyed it, on the condition that the Thebans agreed to inscribe on the new wall “destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan”. They declined her offer.

And that my friends is what I call a hustle of mythological proportions.