These days a symposium sounds quite prestigious. It something scientists and academics attend to exchange cutting-edge ideas. So it might surprise you to know it come from the Ancient Greek for ‘Drinking Together’. Something probably not that far off the truth these days either: a load of bladdered physicists doing Stephen Hawking impressions… Cos he’s SO easy!
It derives from Greek SYM (actually sun meaning together) and POTES (drinker) in the same way Symphony means sounds together and Sympathy means feeling together, Symmetry – measured together, Symbiotic – living together and Symbol – thrown together.
It’s from the word ballein meaning to throw giving rise to the modern word ball. Clever when you think about it, as a symbol is a representation of something entirely unrelated: meaning the sign and the corresponding object are quite literally thrown together.
So why drinking together, you ask.
A symposium was the tail end of a banquet when the entertainment started. Now, whether it was to be frivolous or serious depended on the King of the Feast: an honoured guest chosen to decide how much water was mixed with the wine -basically to determine how pissed everyone would get drinking together.
If it was a Stag Party (αρσενικό ελάφι πανηγύρι – arsenikó eláfi panigýri)* where the whole point was to get battered until you threw up or passed out, while humiliating the groom with a Rubenesque stripper….
Hang on a mo…
That doesn’t quite work does it?
Peter Paul Rubens is far too modern to be meaningful to an Ancient Greek.
Let’s start again…
… Stag party where the whole point was to get battered until you threw up or passed out while humiliating the groom with a JUNOESQUE (that’s better) stripper dressed as a policewoman (γυναίκα φρουράς -gynaíka frourás)* before tying him bollock naked (όρχις γυμνός – órchis gymnós)* to a lamppost (ψηλό φούρνο – psiló foúrno)*. Then the wine was neat.
If on the other hand it was an evening of intellectual and political discussion then the host was obviously a tight arse (φιλάργυρος – filárgyros)* as the wine was watered down by as much as 70%, and everyone went home with a gob on them.
The particular symposium the heading relates to is Plato’s Symposium, espousing his much quoted theory of human sexuality. But before we get to the good bit, let’s just have a bit of background shall we?
This is your cue to skip to the end.
Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical text dating to about 380 BC, commemorates a (probably fictional) party of some 20 years earlier with a load of famous Athenians. No, I’d never heard of most of them either but two names did stand out: the comic playwright Aristophanes and the philosopher Socrates, who was Plato’s tutor.
Socrates was ordered to commit suicide by the Athenians for corrupting youth with blasphemy. When he dared say the Gods were not real, he was ordered to drink Hemlock: a poisonous plant and part of the carrot family. Rather like cyanide it causes the nerves to the respiratory muscles to fail. Although this is the official story, the real reason might have been Socrates pissed off the powers-that-be by praising the enemy, Sparta.
Socrates wrote nothing down and his works are only remembered through the writings of his pupil, Plato. Nowadays historians point out most of Plato’s stuff is only known from copies made some 800 years after he died, which seems to make the origin of Greek philosophy somewhat akin to the game of Chinese whispers.
The subject of Symposium is physical love and desire, and the most noble expression of that love is… between a man and a boy; in which the boy gives sexual pleasure in return for knowledge and virtue
Really, what did you expect?
They were Greeks!
For God’s sake they invented it!
In Plato’s Symposium each guest gives a speech in praise of love. To be fair it is not quite the porn-fest you might expect. For instance Socrates speculates men start with the love of a beautiful person. This successively develops into a love of physical beauty in general, then moral beauty until finally he attains an appreciation of divine beauty. This has come down to us as Platonic Love. A phrase often bandied around with only a vague idea of what it means.
You will notice that in Ancient Athens it’s always men. Women had a pretty raw deal. Any woman wanting a decent conversation probably would have had to resort to prostitution. I kid you not! The most influential woman in Classical Athens was the formidable and rather charming Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, who ran her own house and hosted dinner parties like a man.
Aspasia was a hetairai (more of a high class call girl than a two dollar hooker). Men flocked to her for intelligent conversation and despite her notoriously immoral life even deigned to let their wives and daughters hear her speak on occasion. Which was enormously big of them, don’t you think?
Back to Plato’s Symposium and the Theory of Human Sexuality (ta-dah!), which Plato puts in the mouth of the most famous comic playwright in Ancient Greece Aristophanes, meaning no one really knows if Plato was serious or just messing with his readers’ heads.
Aristophanes says the human race was originally created as three sexes of spherical creatures of two bodies: joined back to back, facing away from each other. The three sexes were: those with two male bodies; with two female bodies; and one male and female body. As they were complete, they needed on-one else. It made them powerful and fearless. They thought to replace the gods, so Zeus crippled them by splitting them in two.
This is why everyone spends their entire life looking for their other half. Those belonging to the woman/woman or the man/man form find the other half in the same sex, while the male/female form finds the other half in the opposite sex.
* If it’s all Greek to you, as indeed it is all Greek to me, please feel free to use Google Translate. There were no stag parties in Ancient Greece as far as I know, or for that matter, policewomen, or lampposts (it wasn’t Narnia!).
Some of the phrases I transliterated. With others I had a bit of fun and used my imagination. The rest are thrown together (symbolic) or should that be just bollocks.