It comes as a surprise to members of a small and rather conventional society to be told that in old times, the women of Cyprus were regarded, in the least, of loose morals. It is believed that the fallacy starts with an observation made by Herodotus who wrote that: The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land once in her life to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger. …but while he casts the money, he must say, “I demand thee in the name of Mylitta” (the Assyrian name of Aphrodite). … the woman will never refuse, for that were a sin, the money being by this act sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects none. After their intercourse, she has made herself holy in the goddess’s sight and goes away to her home. … So then the women that are fair and tall are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfil the law; for some of them remain three years, or four. There is a custom-like to this in some parts of Cyprus. The story continued by word of mouth through the ages and was of course distorted resulting in travellers believing that the women of Cyprus were immoral. Comments continued throughout the ages.
Father Suriano from Venice arrived in Cyprus in August 1484 and found the people of Cyprus to be few and lazy. He affirmed the loose morals of the Frankish period. The women are lewd. The country and climate of themselves incline to fleshly lust, and nearly everyone lives in concubinage. In the days of king Jacques, the women went about attired seductively like nymphs. Now they go decently dressed. In a letter written by Elias of Pesaro, dated October 1563, the Cypriots are certainly described not in the best of terms: They do not allow their women to show themselves in the town by day; only by night can they visit their friends and go to church. They say that this is by way of modesty, but it is really to avoid the frequent adulteries, for their rule of life is thoroughly perverse. In 1738 Richard Pococke wrote that “The women are little superior to their ancestors with regard to their virtue; and as they go unveiled, so they expose themselves in a manner that in these parts is looked on as very indecent. Edmond Duthoit in 1865, writing to his mother mentioned that At Yialoussa…they could not understand why we put water in our wine and this was not all, don’t be too shocked- they wanted to bring us companions for the night. You realise they go the full way.
This idea was transmitted also into art and many watercolours present the Cypriot woman in the most inappropriate clothing, as the watercolour here. No woman in the nineteenth century could be seen with see-through clothing. But this was the imaginary Cypriot descendant of the goddess of love!
The watercolour can be viewed on the first floor of the CVAR.
The ‘Did You Know’ series is made possible with the support of OPAP (Cyprus)