Years ago, while in psychoanalysis, and, luckily, fairly early on in this five year period of my life, my shrink suggested, quite casually, that I might be what he termed a ‘hetaera’ woman. I blinked at him. I’d never heard the word before. He directed me to a little known, but seminal paper written in 1951 by Toni Wolff, Carl Jung’s lover, long-term collaborator, his ‘mystical sister’, ex-analysand and fellow analyst. Wolff was a great analyst too, in her own right, and she analysed Jung during his famous creative breakdown/breakthrough and the production of his most famous piece of work, the Red Book.
Hetaera was a type, or archetype Wolff herself identified with. It is the word for ‘companion’ in Greek and refers to a kind of educated courtesan found in ancient Greek society, an archetype directly opposite to mother in Wolff’s reckoning. In Greek antiquity, women who were mothers remained indoors, with little freedom to go about in public life, let alone the world of politics. The hetaerae, by contrast, mostly slave girls given an education, were allowed to attend the symposium and be part of things; some, such as Aspasia, the companion of Pericles, were even influential. The hetaera was free, and yet, yes, she was expected to offer sexual favours; she was a kind of man-made female companion, friend/sexual partner who enjoyed some freedom, who had been given it by men, and who, depending on luck and how she played her cards, could even fare well.
Soon after this comment from my shrink, I found as much information as I could about Wolff’s little known paper, Structural Forms of the Feminine Psyche, which identified four basic female archetypes: mother, hetaera, amazon and medial woman (a woman who can commune with the spirits). I found an examination of the paper in a book called Four Eternal Women, by Mary Dian Molton and Lucy Anne Sikes, a book I highly recommend. To begin with, I didn’t even bother reading about the other three types because they were so well known to me; all I wanted and needed was to read about this hetaera woman, who was she? And was she me? If so, was the news bad? If not bad news, what was the low down, what was the news? I read on. Looking back, it was probably the first time I had a sure feeling of being known and ‘got’, sync-ed in, understood, by another person, another woman too. High Five. Thank you Toni Wolff.
Her overall definition of hetaera sounded like a definition of me and many of my friends, of herself too, a woman who had a deep conviction about her own creative needs and ambitions, her life’s work, her own sacred space, her growth, personal development, her time to think, make work and to be in the world and, to in some way, to contribute. Wolff’s examination of the hetaera was written in between the first two major waves of Western feminism. Mostly, it was this: the hetaera was a woman for whom marriage meant certain death. I understood this, implicitly. For many years I had a recurring dream of being walked up the aisle of some stain glass-windowed old church, only, once reaching the altar, to faint or scream or bolt away, veil trailing.
Death. The death of me and my dreams of being the thing I most wanted to be. To write, and to read, and to be left alone to do as I pleased. I like men, but none of that other thing, the marriage thing. None of that; not for me. Even now, aged fifty-one, I can feel breathless and suffocated by the idea of a lifetime of monogamous sex. Dear God, what a hellish idea, what a huge price to pay for one’s very dear life. In the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, Psyche is also to be married to Death, a great joke, and this part of the myth also echoes my life long fears. Except in that myth Eros pricks himself with his own arrow, falls in love with Psyche and later, Psyche falls in love with him, though she is not allowed to “look at” i.e., know him, she is set impossible tasks, which she completes, and they have a huge and happy wedding. The moral learning of the Eros and Psyche story is that Psyche, learns to commit to erotic love and to mature within marriage; in short, she learns the great art of compromise, she softens in motherhood and she succumbs to Eros, who plays the role of master in her life.
Dear men reading this, this story of Eros and Psyche is embedded in your collective unconscious too. Many of you yearn to meet Psyche and to have her commit and surrender and soften to you as master. Eros and Psyche is THE great heterosexual love story handed down to us from antiquity. It’s a sexy story too, however, the myth has no “after the wedding” part, the part where poor Psyche, once wed, gets to spend the rest of her life indoors, minding babies, while Eros, the lover, is out all day and night, being a hero and a God and having a God’s good life. Poor Psyche, there simply isn’t an ‘after the wedding’ part of the myth. Death, you could say, finally, wins.
So, fast forward a few thousand years; along comes 20th century feminism. Equal rights, and all that; women get to go to The University, and well, Psyche gets an education, Psyche now wants to do a PhD in neuroscience, write poetry, fly to the moon, drive cars, and God for bid, take part in the life outside the home.
Actually, yes, the Gods did forbid it.
Married women were for the home and the home alone, that is except for those called hetaera, the ones given an education, by men. It took 20th Century feminism to liberate the modern hetaera type, and many of these hetaera also married, is my thinking, and had children; some fared well within marriage, some struggled. The ‘have it all’ woman: job, babies and marriage are stories that are rare but do exist, I know a handful of these women. Good for them. Marriage? For me, the idea of hieros gamos, the sacred marriage written about in many myths, or, the notion Plato wrote about, that we are creatures split in half, forever doomed to search for our other half, is questionable. Life isn’t about finding an outer soulmate; rather, it is about loving and nurturing the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine principal within.
You see, for me, being hetaera has been a primary ego choice, my truthful motivation of how to live and be. It is the direct opposite ego choice of mother; in fact, mother and hetaera is a dynamic pair of opposites. They are both strong ego preferences and there is a strong tension between us, as I have experienced, many times, and still do, when I walk into a room full of women who are mothers. I set them off, sometimes, and they can make me feel awkward, too. I like children, and find them original, but caring for one, for what – fifteen years – would have been disastrous. I am a woman who has killed a cactus. I have given away much-loved hand-reared cats. I have abandoned men in one country, to follow my work in another, only to fall for a man in that country and then leave him behind too, to follow more work. My work has always come first.
While I am capable of loyalty, compassion and good friendship, marriage would have stifled me and my children might have ended up applying for someone else, another mother. I wouldn’t have been ‘the right sort’. My children might have liked me but needed more help.
A modern day, 21st Century hetaera woman, such as myself, has evolved from the ancient lineage, from these hetaera of old, who were then, given an education by men, and for men alone, however, we are women who flourished in modern times, thanks to feminism. We are women who prefer our freedom over the bond of marriage, women for whom having children is not a priority.
When Toni Wolff died in 1953, Jung was distraught; his life long partner, creative collaborator and mystical sister had gone. In a garden, he left a small stone memorial for her with the words ‘Toni Wolff, Lotus, Nun, Mysterious’ written vertically in Chinese letters; these were his words for her. They are good words, too. Since my archetypal discovery and self-naming, I have thought about Wolff a lot, and Jung’s names for her. I would love to write more about Wolff because there is surprisingly little written about her even though she was such an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis, and in such an important man’s life. My guess is her family has guarded her estate and her letters very closely. To date, there is no biography of Toni Wolff, and there should be. Suspicious, no?
When I received this valuable tip from my shrink, I had been ‘releasing’ information about the ups and downs of my affairs of the heart. I had been dating a well-known sex worker, and he was a queer, polyamorous man, an anarchist, a Scorpio, and a professional lover man. It had been tough going, (it was my first experience of trying polyamory) and yet it had been a love bond and a friendship too and I had known, unconsciously, that I had picked this man to help me grow. I had wanted to be like him, you see, somewhere, dimly, a lover and a person who could love openly more than one person. I wanted a role model and a mate. I hadn’t picked and pursued this man for babies and marriage, that was for sure. This is a common trait of hetaera women, picking partners (male and female) to help them fulfil their potential. Finding out about this hetaera archetype helped me to understand my own past patterns when it came to relationships and what motivations lay behind my significant relationships. At forty-six, (then), I’d remained happily unmarried; free to be myself in the world. I had avoided the dicey subject of children, and, I had chosen men who had helped me, in Jungian terms, individuate.
My six-year relationship, in my thirties, with a fellow writer was a passionate love affair and also a creative collaboration. We were both writers and ran a writing centre together and our time together was full of books, learning and helping each other write. It was much more, but, hey, there’s a memoir out there with all those details, so I won’t elaborate. My four-year on/off, lover/friend/lover relationship with a sex worker in my forties, was similar in that it brought two enquiring seekers together. Both these relationships had been about thinking and living and being in a creative, ongoing dialogue about work and not about kids, and when/if we were going to get married. The hetaera woman makes a good long-term creative collaborator with a man and or another woman, or even a good short-term dynamic relationship. The hetaera is a good lover and co-creator; she is an intellectual and she is creative and she seeks dynamic relationships in which Eros, the lover, is also an intellectual friend, not a master of any kind, a relationship in which she and Eros are equals.
So, when my shrink made this comment about me and my type, I nodded, I did some research and never really looked back. An actual bone fide type for the woman that I feel I am, had always been; there is even a lineage, a long one, in the creative arts and sciences, too, for women like me, stretching back to antiquity. Here are a few examples of other hetaera women: Mary Magdalene (Christ’s companion, of course, but not wife), Aphrodite (as opposed to the virginal ingénue Psyche), Calypso, Cleopatra, Sappho, Circe, Delilah, Innana, Lilith (the insubordinate who refused to lay down under Adam and was banished to the desert) and more recently, of course, women like Madame Curie, Georgia O’ Keefe, Yoko Ono, Anaïs Nin, Freda Kahlo and Simone de Beauvoir and many, many more . . . all hetaera women.
In a rapidly changing, modern world where people are trying (rightly) to self-identify and explain themselves, I had already found a list I was happy with: tantrika, sex positive, kinkster, bi-curious, hetero-flexible, etc. But this new name hetaera felt like the one that landed best. I even had a chain of women to look back at, and yes they all checked in as friendly towards my past and current way of life; all of them felt like sisters-in-arms. Most of these women were single; they hadn’t been mothers or felt drawn to mothering. For them, mothering wasn’t a priority. So, with one casual suggestion from a man, (and yes, I get it, a man?), I came to look on as a guide and a person of immense compassion and wisdom, one word, and clunk-click, I’d found my status amongst my fellow womankind, my true archetypal identity in this crazy, busy, over-informed and under-educated contemporary world we live in.
However, there are shadow associations, too, for the hetaera woman, of course there would be. Of course, we also get a bad rap.
- Selfishness/narcissism. Oh yes, I’ve had this levelled at me many times, mostly by my own mother, “You never had children, you’re selfish.” Ah, well, there’s as essay here in this alone. As I mentioned, it has been a strong silent motivation, for me, to live the life I have lived, sans the bonds of marriage. I never declared anything outright; it was more like an instinctive dodge. Do we call men who pursue their vocational dreams selfish or narcissistic? No. But for men marriage is a bonus; they gain something, lose nothing; it is a status symbol to have a wife, a family. For women, we lose the freedom we once had; we go under, for years, into motherhood. Is it a selfish thing to protect the self? If so, then yes, I am selfish. And as for narcissism, well, all creative people have that element to their core modus operandi, that’s how we make our books, art, music; it comes from a strong need to make a mark. Often it is narcissistic rage, sometimes it is just a strong need to create. Yes, we creatives tend to be the narcs; we are the ones who say ‘me no fuck give’ and drive empaths mad with despair at our lack of concern for them; and yet all empaths want to sleep with us, make us better, heal us. It’s a bittersweet this thing called erotic attraction, but hey, that’s another essay too.
So, to my mother, who has never been able to understand me, I say, “Okay, yes, I am selfish and narcissistic.” AND, I have never once hurt or offended women who are mothers. I respect mothers, deeply, and ask only to find my place amongst them.
- The hetaera is man-obsessed. We live life for our relationships with men. Toni Wolff was Jung’s helpmate, collaborator and colleague; more than anything, she wanted to make work together with him. This meeting of minds that they shared also ignited Eros; it was a deep love they had, a clear and honest respect charged with sexual attraction. I’m wondering if this describes the love I have always yearned for too and even enjoyed more than once. Is this, then, man-obsessed? To want to cultivate this kind of bond? Respect + Eros, to me, feels like a very healthy and dynamic combination.
- The hetaera is bad with other women, mostly women who are mothers. I reject this. This is a patriarchal critique. Men like to think we women are cat-like creatures and spend our loves plotting each other’s downfall and competing over men. But leave all us women alone and we find our own way towards each other. Yes, that is key: red tents, women’s groups, even Suzanne Noble’s hot tub evenings, these are powerful places of female love, bonding and cross-connecting and they have existed since the dawn of time and, yeah, leave us alone together and there is nothing more powerful than a bunch of women hanging out, without men. It is a vibrant space and any woman who has enjoyed this space understands what I mean. A hetaera woman, such as myself, an unmarried, childfree, creative, a hopeless narc and a lone wolf? I have often felt so very happy to be amongst my sisters in these times, married women and mothers. There, I have felt accepted too, for all I have achieved and for all that I never have achieved, which is fine re children.
And here, a note. I have never slept with another woman’s man or a married man, a high point of principal. This feels like a serious moral crime; I have a deep allegiance to the sisterhood and consider it the lowest of the low to steal another woman’s man, no matter how unhappy he is or they are together. And besides, like Khalo, many hetaera women are bi-sexual and have a love of women, so ‘no’ to this third shadow area.
- The hetaera doesn’t have her own career; instead she dedicates her life to supporting a man’s career, often a famous man. This could well have been true prior to the 20th Century feminist movement, when it would have been hard, if not impossible for women to find their way into education. This is an old critique, pre the women’s movement. End of.
- The hetaera woman is a prostitute. Ah, women of the light! Sex workers, yes, I am of their lineage, make no mistake about that; I am of their type, I am their offspring, come down from Adam’s first wife, Lilith, banished to the desert for being insubordinate, yes, that’s me. I’m of that line of womanhood. Mind you, Eve, Adam’s second wife, (taken from Adam’s rib, urgh) didn’t make much of a good wife either, did she? What with causing the actual ‘fall of mankind’ with that apple and eating from the tree of life. So Lilith and Eve, no matter which type a woman identifies with, the wife or the banished harlot, eventually we are all aligned with man’s downfall; we are sisters of sorts. One type is just a lot worse than the other. Lilith, the first model had wayyy too much sexual agency, and Eve, well, she also had a mind of her own. Bad us. Few woman, mother or hetaera, get through life without being reprimanded for our sexuality, or called a slut.
- The hetaera is a spinster. Being unmarried, we have a lack of status in the mainstream world. We have, in some way, been left on the shelf, not been picked. We have gone unfulfilled, i.e. we have not been filled, (oh the receptive vessels that we are), by a man’s sperm/bank account/status etc. One of the happiest results of my hetaera lifestyle has been that, over time, I have created and shaped my own status: writer. It has taken a long time, and often I walk into a room alone, without a man on whose arm I hang; it’s just me. I go with my own life/world/ways and I do not feel in any way a less significant woman to my married female friends. I am not, in any way at a ‘loose end’; rather I go home when I like and with whom I like.
So here I am, age fifty-one, gently ageing and living a life full of good friends and good work. My future plans include more writing and more books, and also more mentoring of emerging writers, probably and especially women. I will hang with the Buddhists and the yogis, and hopefully get to northern India and Nepal some time soon. My feeling is that 20th Century feminism, amongst many other benefits, has made it easy for the hetaera to flourish in the world and gain acceptance, carve out our lives. I am not at all alone in this hetaera thing either; I have met a lot of others and spy them everywhere, especially in my creative writing classes, for all women who want to write have the same drive towards freedom.
In the near future I will also see my own mother die, come to terms with her death and also the end of the chain, for I have no daughter. The great actual lineage of women I am born from, Yvette, my mother, Maman, Laure Garrana, my grandmother, Irma Mifsud, or Nona, my great grandmother, are awesome women. They all married and they all had daughters and I am the end of the line, a hetaera. And my books will outlive me; they have been my creative progeny. And, maybe, in the future, I will make a trip to Vienna and find the garden in which the great Carl Jung erected the memorial to my other mother, my creative mother and mentor, role model, Toni Wolff, the woman who showed me who I am. And maybe, just maybe, I will find a way to talk to the Wolff family, persuade them I’m the right person to write her biography. And I will call it Lotus, Nun, Mysterious.