ANCIENT GREEK WOMEN

ANCIENT GREEK WOMEN

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Wounded Amazon
In ancient Greece, some have argued, women were generally regarded as irrational, sex-obsessed and prone to hysteria. Women had very few rights; they often were not allowed to leave the house and, inside their houses, they were relegated to rooms in the back of the house near the slave quarters. One classics professor told National Geographic: "The Greek polis was something of a men's club. Women tended to stay at home and do the household chores. They went out chiefly for ceremonies, festivals, and such duties as drawing waters. In myth, trysts often took place at wells. Going there was one way a woman got out of the house."

In Aristophanes’s Lysieria the heroine laments: "What sensible thing are we women capable of doing? We do nothing but sit around with our paint and lipstick and transparent gowns and all the rest of it." To get even with the dominate male class she leads the women of Athens in a sex strike in which wives refuse to sleep with their husbands. The strike paralyzes the city and the women seize the Acropolis and the treasure of the Parthenon. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Some argue that the view of women in ancient Greece as being demure and housebound is not correct. There were some places where women were held in higher respect. "There was a strong tradition of matriarchy in Lokroi," one scholar told National Geographic. "The aristocrats, for instance, descended from the mother's side. Also, the cults of two Goddesses, Persephone and Aphrodite, were powerful here."

Art critic Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “The main misconception is the notion that women had a universally mute and passive role in Athenian society. It is true that they lived with restrictions modern Westerners would find intolerable. Technically they were not citizens. In terms of civil rights, their status differed little from that of slaves. Marriages were arranged; girls were expected to have children in their midteens. Yet... the assumption that women lived in a state of purdah, completely removed from public life, is contradicted by the depictions of them in art.” Yet, “it would be a mistake to argue that the lot of women there was, after all, a fair deal. The record stands: no citizenship, no vote, little or no control over the use made of your time or your body. But the show is not making that argument. Instead it is using art to survey where, within a system of institutionalized restriction, areas of freedom for women lay.

Books: Women's Life in Greece and Rome by Maureen B. Fant (Johns Hopkins University Press); Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah Pomeroy, a classics professor at Hunter College in New York; Portrait of a Priestess, Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece by Joan Breton Connelly (Princeton University Press, 2007);

Working Women and Weaving in Ancient Greece

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Woman spinning
Lower class women often worked while middle class and upper class women devoted their attention primarily to domestic chores. Trades available to women included things like woolworking, clothes cleaning, breadmaking and nursing.

According to Xenophon, Socrates once asked a man named Ischomchus. "I should very much like you to tell me...whether you yourself trained your wife to become the sort of woman that ought to be or whether she already knew how to carry out her duties when you took her as your wife from her father and mother." Ischommachus replied, "What should she have known when I took her as my wife, Socrates? She was not yet 15 when she came to me, and had spent her previous years under careful supervision so that she might see and hear and speak a little as possible."

It is believed that women spent most of their time weaving. Wool was the most common fiber available and flax was also widely used. Cotton was stuffed into the saddles of Alexander the Great's cavalry in India to relieve soreness but that was largely the extent of its introduction to Greece.| [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

The methods used to make wool and cloth in ancient Greece lived on for centuries. After a sheep was sheared, the wool was placed on a spike called a distaff. A strand of wool was then pulled off; a weight known as whorl was attached to it; and the strand was twisted into a thread by spinning with it the thumb and forefinger. Since each thread was made this way, you can how time consuming it must have been to make a piece of cloth or a sail for a ship.||

To make cloth, threads were placed on a warp-weighted loom (similar to ones used by Lapp weavers until the 1950's). Warps are the downward hanging threads on a loom, and they were set up so that every other thread faced forward and the others were in the back. A weft (horizontal thread) was then taken in between the forward and backward row of warps. Before the weft was threaded through in the other direction, the position of the warps was changed with something called a heddle rod. This simple tool reversed the warps so that the row in the front was now in the rear, and visa versa. In this way the threads were woven in a cross stitch manner that held them together and created cloth. The cloth in turn was used to make cushions, upholstery for wooden furniture and wall hangings as well as garments and sails.||

Women in Sparta

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Dancing maenad
Spartan women had more freedoms and rights than other Greek women. Plutarch wrote that Spartan marriage was matrilocal and that "women ruled over men."

Spartan women were almost as tough as the men. They worked out by by running, wrestling and exercising so they could "undergo the pains of childbearing.” Girls were trained in athletics, dancing and music. They lived at home, while boys lived apart in their barracks. As adults, women participated in their own athletic events and performed naked like the men.

In Sparta women competed in front of the men nude in "gymnastics," which at that times meant "exercises performed naked." The Spartan women also wrestled but there is no evidence that they ever boxed. Most events required the women to be virgins and when they got married, usually the age of 18, their athletic career was over. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Women and Hysteria in Ancient Greece

The word "hysteria" comes from Greek word for "uterus." The condition was regarded as a sort of "womb furie" that produced the symptoms such as confusion, laziness, depression, headaches, forgetfulness, stomach upsets, ticklishness, cramps, insomnia, weepiness, palpitations of the heart, and muscle spasms.

Hysteria and women had been linked together since 2000 B.C., when healers observed that woman did nor release fluids like men during sexual intercourse and reasoned that fluids accumulate in the uterus where they caused a variety of problems and irrational behavior. Plato believed than in serious cases their uterus could fill with so much fluid it would become death and strangle its owner. These views persisted into the Victorian era.

Discrimination Against Women in in Ancient Greece

20120221-Gravestone_of_Mynnia.jpg Women were denied basic rights and expected to stay in their homes. Women were not normally allowed to testify in Athenian courts. They were usually "educated" in their husband's households.

Men sequestered their wives and daughters. The pale complexion a woman received from staying indoors all the time was seen as a sign of virtue and beauty. On the few occasions they were allowed to go out during daylight they were only allowed to bring a swallow of water and light snack and were required to be accompanied by a chaperon.

The veiling of women was common practice among women in ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium. The Muslim custom of veiling and segregating women is believed to have its origins in customs that were common place in ancient Greece.

Women who engaged in premarital and extramarital sex were regarded as immoral although the same behavior was acceptable among men. Infant daughters were often abandoned and girls of 14 were routinely married to men twice their age or forced into prostitution.

Art, Religion and Women in Ancient Greece

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Goddess Artemis (Diana)
A 2006 exhibition entitled “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens” was put at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore by Nikolaos Kaltsas, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, and Alan Shapiro, professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University . On the show Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “Much of that art is religious, which is no surprise considering the commanding female deities in the Greek pantheon. Actual worship took various forms. Some were simple gestures. In several vase paintings we see women pouring wine, milk or honey from flat bowls onto the ground as an offering. In others they lead sacrificial animals to altars, a reminder that the white marble temples we now so admire for their purity were once splashed with blood.” [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

One vase fragment, showing a group of women looking jumpy and frazzled, was long assumed to depict an orgiastic festival in honor of Aphrodite’s boy-toy lover, Adonis, the James Dean of Greek myth, who died young and left a beautiful corpse and mobs of inconsolable female fans. Recently, though, scholars have concluded that this is a marriage scene, with an anxious bride being prepared by hovering attendants for her wedding night.

The management of weddings was female turf, as was childbirth and the raising of children. So were the rituals surrounding death. Men were in charge of war and killing; women were in charge of washing and dressing bodies for the all-important last rites, without which souls were left to wander the Earth. Birth and death---the only real democratic experiences, existentially speaking---were in women’s hands.

There is no more moving image in the show than that of two women, one seated and one standing, facing each other in carved relief on a marble grave stele dated to the fourth century B.C. Both may be priests, or worshipers, in an earth-goddess cult; neither looks young. An inscription identifies the woman commemorated by the stele as Nikomache. The exhibition catalog suggests that she is the seated figure, the one who has settled in and will keep her place when the other walks away. The parting is evidently in progress as the women clasp hands and meet each other’s gaze.

Sappho wrote in poem called “Long Departure”: Then I said to the elegant ladies: / “How you will remember when you are old / The glorious things we did in our youth! / We did many pure and beautiful things. / And now that you are leaving the city, / Love’s sharp pain encircles my heart.”

Ancient Greek Goddesses

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Demeter
On the four main Greek goddesses, art critic Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “Like most gods in most cultures they are moody, contradictory personalities, above-it-all in knowledge but quick to play personal politics and intervene in human fate...Athena comes on as a striding warrior goddess, armed and dangerous, avid as a wasp, in a tiny bronze statuette from the fifth century B.C. This is the goddess who, in “The Iliad,” egged the Greeks on and manipulated their victory against Troy, and the one who later became the spiritual chief executive of the Athenian military economy.Yet seen painted in silhouette on a black vase, she conveys a different disposition. She’s still in armor but stands at ease, a stylus poised in one hand, a writing tablet open like a laptop in the other. The goddess of wisdom is checking her mail, and patiently answering each plea and complaint.” [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

Artemis is equally complex. A committed virgin, she took on the special assignment of protecting pregnant women and keeping an eye on children, whose carved portraits filled her shrines. She was a wild-game hunter, but one with a deep Franciscan streak. In one image she lets her hounds loose on deer; in another she cradles a fawn. But no sooner have we pegged her as the outdoorsy type than she changes. On a gold-hued vase from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg she appears as Princess Diana, to use her Roman name, crowned and bejeweled in a pleated floor-length gown.

Demeter was worshiped as an earth goddess long before she became an Olympian. Her mystery cult had female priests, women-only rites and a direct line to the underworld. And although you might not expect Aphrodite, paragon of physical beauty, to have a dark side, she does. She was much adored; there were shrines to her everywhere. And she had the added advantage of being exotic: she seems to have drifted in from somewhere far east of Greece, bringing a swarm of nude winged urchins with her. But as goddess of love she was unreliable, sometimes perverse. Yes, she brings people amorously together, but when things go wrong, watch out: “Like a windstorm/Punishing the oak trees,/Love shakes my heart,” wrote the poet and worshiper of women, Sappho.

Powerful Women and Priestesses in Ancient Greece

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Priestess of Delphi
by Collier
In a review of Joan Breton Connelly’s Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece , Steve Coates wrote in the New York Times, “In the summer of 423 B.C., Chrysis, the priestess of Hera at Argos, fell asleep inside the goddess’s great temple, and a torch she had left ablaze set fire to the sacred garlands there, burning the building to the ground. This spectacular case of custodial negligence drew the attention of the historian Thucydides, a man with scant interest in religion or women. But he had mentioned Chrysis once before: the official lists of Hera’s priestesses at Argos provided a way of dating historical events in the Greek world, and Thucydides formally marked the beginning of the Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. [Source: Steve Coates, New York Times, July 1, 2007]

During the same upheaval, in 411, Thucydides’ fellow Athenian Aristophanes staged his comedy “Lysistrata,” with a heroine who tries to bring the war to an end by leading a sex strike. There is reason to believe that Lysistrata herself is drawn in part from a contemporary historical figure, Lysimache, the priestess of Athena Polias on the Acropolis. If so, she joins such pre-eminent Athenians as Pericles, Euripides and Socrates as an object of Aristophanes’ lampoons. On a much bigger stage in 480 B.C., before the battle of Salamis, one of Lysimache’s predecessors helped persuade the Athenians to take to their ships and evacuate the city ahead of the Persian invaders---a policy that very likely saved Greece---announcing that Athena’s sacred snake had failed to eat its honey cake, a sign that the goddess had already departed.

These are just some of the influential women visible through the cracks of conventional history in Joan Breton Connelly’s eye-opening “Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece.” Her portrait is not in fact that of an individual priestess, but of a formidable class of women scattered over the Greek world and across a thousand years of history, down to the day in A.D. 393 when the Christian emperor Theodosius banned the polytheistic cults. It is remarkable, in this age of gender studies, that this is the first comprehensive treatment of the subject, especially since, as Connelly persuasively argues, religious office was, exceptionally, an “arena in which Greek women assumed roles equal ... to those of men.” Roman society could make no such boast, nor can ours.

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Diana and Actaeon
Despite powerful but ambiguous depictions in Greek tragedy, no single ancient source extensively documents priestesses, and Connelly, a professor at New York University, builds her canvas from material gleaned from scattered literary references, ancient artifacts and inscriptions, and representations in sculpture and vase painting. Her book shows generations of women enjoying all the influence, prestige, honor and respect that ancient priesthoods entailed. Few were as exalted as the Pythia, who sat entranced on a tripod at Delphi and revealed the oracular will of Apollo, in hexameter verse, to individuals and to states. But Connelly finds priestesses who were paid for cult services, awarded public portrait statues, given elaborate state funerals, consulted on political matters and acknowledged as sources of cultural wisdom and authority by open-minded men like the historian Herodotus. With separation of church and state an inconceivable notion in the world’s first democracy, all priesthoods, including those held by women, were essentially political offices, Connelly maintains. Nor did sacred service mean self-abnegation. “Virgin” priestesses like Rome’s Vestals were alien to the Greek conception. Few cults called for permanent sexual abstinence, and those that did tended to appoint women already beyond childbearing age; some of the most powerful priesthoods were held by married women with children, leading “normal” lives.

Athens’ roughly 170 festival days would have brought women out in public in great numbers and in conspicuous roles. “Ritual fueled the visibility of Greek women within this system,” Connelly writes, sending them across their cities to sanctuaries, shrines and cemeteries, so that the picture that emerges “is one of far-ranging mobility for women across the polis landscape.”

Book: Portrait of a Priestess, Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece by Joan Breton Connelly (Princeton University Press, 2007]

How Perceptions of Women in Ancient Greece Have Been Shaped

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema's
vision of a Greek woman
Coats wrote that Connelly’s well-documented, meticulously assembled portrait of women largely contradicts what has long been the most broadly accepted vision of the women of ancient Greece, particularly Athens, as dependent, cloistered, invisible and mute, relegated almost exclusively to housekeeping and child rearing---a view that at its most extreme maintains that the names of respectable Athenian women were not spoken aloud in public or that women were essentially housebound. Connelly traces the tenacity of this idea to several sources, including the paradoxically convergent ideologies of Victorian gentlemen scholars and 20th-century feminists and a modern tendency to discount the real-world force of religion, a notion now under powerful empirical adjustment. [Source: Steve Coates, New York Times, July 1, 2007]

But another cause is a professional divide between classicists and archaeologists. In their consideration of a woman’s place, classicists emphasize certain well-known texts, the most notorious being Thucydides’ rendition of Pericles’ great oration over the first Athenian dead of the Peloponnesian War, which had this terse advice for their widows: “If I must say anything on the subject of female excellence, ... greatest will be her glory who is least talked of among men, whether in praise or in criticism.” Connelly, though, is an archaeologist, and she insists that her evidence be allowed to speak for itself, something it does with forceful eloquence. Far from the names of respectable women being suppressed, it seems clear that great effort was made to ensure that the names of many of these women would never be forgotten: Connelly can cite more than 150 historical Greek priestesses by name. Archaeology also speaks through beauty: “Portrait of a Priestess” is an excellent thematic case study in vase painting and sculpture, with striking images of spirited women, at altars or leading men in procession, many marked as priestesses by the great metal temple key they carry, signifying not admission to heaven but the pragmatic responsibility that Chrysis so notoriously betrayed in Argos.

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Alma-Tadema's pandora
Among her more provocative points is debunking the idea that polytheism’s presumed spiritual failures may eventually have led to the Christian ascendancy. Connelly shows that the system long sustained and nourished Greek women and their communities. In turn, women habituated to religious privilege and influence in the pre-Christian era eagerly lent their expertise and energy to the early church. But with one male god in sole reign in heaven, women’s direct connection with deity became suspect, and they were methodically edged out of formal religious power. “There may be no finer tribute to the potency of the Greek priestess than the discomfort that her position caused the church fathers,” Connelly writes in her understated way. Her priestesses may be ancient history, but the consequences of the discomfort they caused endure to this day.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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