Symposium 12

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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.

Yes really!

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.

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12 thoughts on “Symposium

  1. Reply sally cronin Oct 31,2017 11:10 am

    Not sure how I missed this… I must have been going through my head down and ignore everyone week. Anyway… you managed to put the wind up anyone who has proudly announced to all and sundry that they are off to a symposium…. Wives are now going to be highly suspicious. The more people say the good old days, I wonder when that might have been! As to stag parties and hen parties that end up with someone buck naked and tied to a lamp post and where apparently one last fling before marrying the love of your life is considered a rite of passage, escapes me completely. As always the stripping back (pardon the pun)of a word or event we take for granted and laying it out there for all to see and enjoy…. hugs xx

    • Reply Paul Nov 1,2017 1:18 am

      Thanks Sally and Listen I know how busy you have been and yet you still unselfishly turn out quality content on your blog every single day. So please don’t worry about missing one of my articles. Luv Pxx

  2. Reply Shehanne Moore Oct 19,2017 4:48 pm

    Lol Paul. I don’t know how you do it but you do. That is come up with the most amazing posts, subject matter and delivery. And yep you have done it again.

    • Reply Paul Oct 19,2017 6:51 pm

      Dearest Shey, that is lovely thank you. I am NOT going to Crack a Joke because I don’t know what to say. But I will say I am deeply touched, Love Px

  3. Reply Norah Colvin Oct 19,2017 12:04 pm

    Fascinating post, Paul. I knew a little of this, but much I didn’t. If only history lessons in school got to be so interesting. The comments make great reading too.

    • Reply Paul Oct 19,2017 6:49 pm

      Dear Norah, thank you for the lovely compliment. However I do think, with the best will in the world, if the history teacher had said… 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. He would have been up in front of the School Board faster than you can say Jack Robinson. Not to mention getting lynched by the parents! Hugs Px

  4. Reply BRIGID GALLAGHER Oct 18,2017 4:34 pm

    Well that was a history lesson and a half Paul!
    Did Socrates drink the hemlock at the symposium? Or did they all go home in one piece? ?

    • Reply Paul Oct 18,2017 5:12 pm

      Given the subject matter of the symposium Brigid I think Socrates might have been better off drinking the hemlock there and then!

      In fact he drank much later tan when the symposium is set: very publicly surrounded by friends and admirers as a protest against the Athenian government. A bit like the Vietmanese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire at a busy intersection in Saigon in protest at the treatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnam Government. People were horrified by Athens for condemning him and Athens lost a lot of status. Socrates believed each individual should live under the law of the state so decided to comply with his death sentence. Also he did not want to show fear of death because it would undermine his philosophical stance- a philosopher should not fear death. But by complying so righteously with the sentence and honoring his half of the social contract between citizen and state he showed up the state for what it – something that did not honour its contract of justice with its citizens. Therefore the contract was broken by the government meaning the government was illegitimate.

  5. Reply Robbie Cheadle Oct 18,2017 5:26 am

    Paul, you come up with the most interesting stuff. What is your day job? I need a change from being a multi-coloured pin stripe (charted accountant with a creative side). Intellectual women have always had a raw deal and that is why I wanted sons.

    • Reply Paul Oct 18,2017 5:23 pm

      Day job Robbie: layabout, idler and wastrel. Luxury and idleness has a lot to recommend it especially on the intellectual front. You are right in the past women did get raw deal, but hopefully that is changing. I never see friends or colleagues as men or women simply people who have admirable qualities or (sometimes) not. And please god I’m not the only one! As a world it is immoral to waste half of our greatest resources simply because they are the ‘wrong’ sex.
      I was originally going to say ‘whose brains I admire’ but I actually don’t admire brains. What I admire is people who try. I worked in a university (in systems admin- not a a bona fide genius… although I thought I was… but I was the only one!) and knew some really brilliant people who could not put on two socks of the same colour, and then again I have know others who were not the brightest of lights but blessed with oodles of common sense and stunning human beings.

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