The Women and the Gods


In a surviving fragment of his lost play The Captive Melanippe, Euripides puts in his heroine’s mouth a vigorous claim for the primacy of women when it comes to religious affairs, from oracular pronouncements to the service of various deities. Sophocles’ Antigone risks death rather than leave her brother Polyneices without burial rites. Plato, in the Laws, describes women as the leaders in all religious activities. For Ischomachus, in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, God has assigned to women, as the weaker sex, “indoor tasks” such as nurturing babies, instructing house slaves, managing the budget, and tending the sick. The Augustan geographer Strabo (during a discussion of Thracian polygamy) asserts:

All men regard women as prime movers in the matter of religious expression; it is they, too, who insist that men pay greater attention to the worship of the gods, to festivals, and to ritual lamentation [my translation].

Throughout Greek literature the same note is sounded: women are the bulwark of the oikos (household), the rearers of children, the promoters of cult and worship.

To a modern reader all this may be uncomfortably reminiscent of that fine old patriarchal Germanic slogan on women’s duties, touted successively by Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler, of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (“Kids, Kitchen, Church”), and so, too often, they were regarded in antiquity. But Euripides’ Melanippe states, flat out, that this makes them better than men, and snipes at “men’s futile censure of women, the vain twang of a bowstring, slanderous talk,” while Lysistrata, in Aristophanes’ play of that name, argues, con brio, that the feminine skills (e.g., in cleaning fleeces for the production of wool) would, in public life, be a vast improvement on the aggressive political techniques employed by men. Both Euripides and Aristophanes are probably using their characters to advance a minority opinion1 ; but it remains true that the domestic aspect of Athenian life, solidly founded on the oikos and inseparable from religion, formed an enormously important part of overall city-state (polis) life, in counterpoise to the public domain of the enfranchised male citizen-body (demos) in law court, council, and assembly, or (as so often) on the battlefield.

In this sphere of polis life the priestess clearly played (as Strabo suggests) a leading and fundamental role. This makes it all the more astonishing that Joan Breton Connelly’s Portrait of a Priestess is, as she rightly claims, the first full-length work to take the Greek priestess specifically as its subject. There are, as we shall see, various possible reasons for this; but the most obvious, to anyone studying the lavish illustrations and scrupulous documentation of Connelly’s book, is the scattered, often elusive, and for the most part nonliterary evidence from which her account has been painstakingly pieced together. She has run down inscriptions—honorific, funerary, financial, or cult-related—all over the Mediterranean. She has studied a plethora of statues and vase paintings in collections from Samos to St. Petersburg, from Messene to Munich, from Thebes to Toledo. Her indexes of monuments and inscriptions testify to the prodigious amount of work that has gone into this volume. She has also had to cope, for the most part successfully, not only with this all too patchy evidential record, but also with a formidable and varied mass of (often unconscious) prejudices, from antiquity to the present day. Portrait of a Priestess is a remarkable triumph against heavy odds.

The way Connelly structures her book is intriguing and, I think, significant. Though she is properly conscious (which students of ancient religion often are not) of the way cults can be affected, during what Braudel called the longue durée, by social evolution and changing mores, her study remains, as she correctly defines it, a portrait rather than a history. In fact, it consists of many portraits, since one of the most striking results of her researches is to highlight “the intensely local character of priesthood over such a broad sweep of geography and chronology.” As an archaeologist, she knows very well that archaeological research tends to be criticized by humanists for turning out a record of genderless, faceless blobs,2 and she works hard to emphasize the narrative element in her material, “the contributions of more than 150 historical women whose lives have been long neglected, slipped between the cracks of the more regularly chronicled accounts of ancient history, politics, and warfare.” The welcome tendency of this local emphasis is to inhibit unwarranted generalizations: the result is a sharp, variegated, sympathetic, and wonderfully readable study.

Connelly’s introduction, in which she lays out the scope, methodology, and interpretative assumptions of her research, together with some of the problems generated by current intellectual trends, is in many ways the most interesting part of her book. She stresses, to begin with, that “religious office presented the one arena in which Greek women assumed roles equal and comparable to those of men.” In the polytheistic Greek pantheon, goddesses enjoyed equal status with gods, a ranking reflected (the argument goes) in the status of their sacred servants on earth. To reinforce this assertion Connelly not only deploys the testimony of statuary (have draped female figures ever been so closely scrutinized?), vase painting, and inscriptions, but establishes a careful iconography to extract the last drop of religious significance from all the visual testimony. What is more, her survey—ranging from the early Archaic period (circa 750 BCE) to the third or fourth centuries of the Common Era, and covering most of the eastern Mediterranean—finds evidence of change as well as continuity, including a clear probability that Greek cults reached their apogee for the individual not in the Periclean age, but rather during the Hellenistic era that followed Alexander’s conquests.

The problems are many, and come from various quarters. How far in fact were women in classical Athens secluded, let alone silent, and was their status exceptional or the norm in the Greek world? Were the so-called “sacred laws” respecting sacerdotal matters something distinct from, or an integral part of, the whole body of legal precedent governing the city-state? Do the remarkably independent-minded women (Clytemnestra, Antigone, and Lysistrata among them) who inhabit Greek drama have a basis in reality, or are they simply the fantasies of their male creators? Were women in fact admitted as spectators to the plays in which such figures appeared? To what extent did temple service extend a woman’s domestic situation into the public domain? Do modern theories of gender oppression distort rather than clarify a Greek woman’s motives in assuming a priesthood? Perhaps most important of all, how far has our sense of the ritual, the functions, even the terminology of Greek religion been affected by Judeo-Christian monotheistic assumptions, not least in the matter of goddesses and their cults?

Modern religious assumptions, as Connelly knows well, are not only irrelevant to ancient Greek cult practices but can actively distort our understanding of them. We tend to assume a central core of defining belief, both doctrinal and prescriptive, expounded in sacred scriptures, and maintained by priestly theologians. Greek cults had none of these things. Priests and priestesses were there to carry out ritual, mostly to do with sacrifice of animals. Just what happened at the rituals—the words used and the actions taken—remains little known. The nearest thing to a sacred text was Homer. The gods were immortal and all-powerful, but wholly indifferent to human notions of virtue: Homer’s deities, indeed, were castigated by philosophers for immorality. If properly placated in rituals in the temples dedicated to them, gods might help mortals; if not, their random (and often spiteful) acts of vengeance made good drama. The relationship between mortals and divinities was pragmatic, and based on the power of the gods and the possibility of petitioning them: it had no moral element whatsoever. Build a god a great shrine, sacrifice to him or her lavishly, and your prayers might be answered. Otherwise, watch out. When we praise (as Connelly does) the easy-going permissiveness and general availability3 that characterized Greek polytheism, we need always to bear this deeply alien system of worship in mind.

It is to Connelly’s great credit that she not only faces these and other prickly issues, but does so with refreshing common sense. If she has a bias, it is, predictably, in pushing her priestesses’ integration into civic life somewhat further than the evidence warrants. This I find both understandable and, given some past approaches to the topic, eminently forgivable.


Like the amateur bridge-player who opens a hand by leading with what he thinks is his best ace, Connelly starts off with the honors bestowed upon a certain Chrysis, daughter of Niketes, Athenian priestess of Athena Polias.4 In return for her leading role in organizing the Athenian sacred embassy (or Pythaïs) to the oracular shrine of Apollo in Delphi “sumptuously [megalomerôs] and in a fashion worthy of the god and his special excellence,” Chrysis is granted a gold Apolline crown. In addition she acquires a whole string of hereditary civic privileges, starting with the office of proxenos (roughly equivalent to a modern consul, except that the proxenos was a native, and inhabitant, of his or her own city rather than of the one represented). Other perquisites included freedom from taxes, the right to own land and property, and inviolability of the person (asylia), a right ordinarily only granted, in special circumstances, to suppliants—people petitioning gods. This dedicatory inscription5 is certainly impressive, but it raises one or two questions that recur, as a faintly disquieting leitmotiv, throughout Connelly’s investigation.

First, and perhaps most important, Chrysis was both rich and very well connected.6 The wealth is evident from her benefactions. Her ancestors included numerous cult officials. On her mother’s side she belonged to the Eteoboutadae, an ancient aristocratic clan (genos) that had exclusive rights of inheritance in Attica’s two most prestigious priesthoods, those of Athena Polias and Poseidon-Erechtheus.7 This nexus of power in property and family, seemingly so at odds with the Athenian democratic ideal, was in fact typical: it often applied even to the candidacy of children to serve as religious acolytes. Connelly documents from inscriptions case after case where selection was so determined, giving the lie to claims that in such instances “we usually have no more information than snobbish statements by the lexicographers that [such places] were filled by ‘the well born.’”8 The sometimes embarrassing truth of the matter is that early implementers of democracy such as Cleisthenes, while giving the garlic-chewing multitude the political right to vote, carefully left the old social structure of family and genos untouched, so that Athens remained full of virulent class-prejudice, not least about those in trade. Moreover, between 600 and 300 BCE (and on the evidence for much longer) a limited group of well-placed families consistently played a leading role in Athens’s civic and political life.9 The inherited priesthoods fit this pattern well.

Next, there is the date. Chrysis received her honors not at some point in the Archaic or Classical era (circa 750– 330 BCE), but in 106–105, when for the first time the records show the presence of foreigners in the elite ephebic corps (young well-to-do citizens undergoing military training), when Athens was full of self-assertive Roman officials and businessmen, and revolt was brewing among the slaves in the Laurium mines.10 Nor were these honors conferred by the Athenian demos (had they been, this would indeed have meant a substantial civic concession to Aristotle’s “non-rational” sex11 ), but rather by the city of Delphi, in a group of awards that also included front seats at the games and priority for consultation of the oracle. They were slightly more substantial, then, than a modern honorary citizenship, but restricted to occasions on which Chrysis might choose to visit Delphi. All she got on the home front—a mark of distinction, but not in the same league—was her statue on the Acropolis. Lastly, some modern critics will inevitably note that what Chrysis is being honored for is her role as Lady Bountiful rather than for any display of religious virtue, while the same critics may privately reflect that in antiquity these qualities were too closely identified for comfort.

Still, though her prize exhibit isn’t all it might seem to be at first sight, for the most part Connelly simply goes truffling for local data, and what she comes up with is of enormous value. As she tells us at the outset:

The scope of surviving evidence is vast and takes us through every stage on the path through priesthood. It informs us about eligibility and acquisition of office, costume and attributes, representations, responsibilities, ritual actions, compensation for service, authority and privileges, and the commemoration of priestesses at death.

Inevitably, the picture is lopsided, if only because we know a great deal more about some priesthoods than others, and those for which an abundance of evidence exists are, as always, the most famous: Athena Polias (Athens), Demeter and Korê (Eleusis), Hera (Argos), the Pythia (Delphi). Connelly cleverly makes a virtue of necessity by taking the in-depth microanalysis she applies to these cases, and the accumulative evidence elsewhere of largely nonliterary testimony, and looking for ways to make them shed light on one other.

She also alerts the reader to some (though perhaps not enough) of the mistaken assumptions liable to be made by those coming unprepared to the study of ancient religion. The mediation between mortals and gods was not, for Greeks, a monopoly of the priesthood: in addition to the usual prayers, thanks, and gifts, any private person could offer sacrifice without a priest’s participation. There were also large numbers of religious officials other than priests in a cult hierarchy: acolytes, treasurers, scribes, musicians, temple guardians, and—dating back as far as the Minoan Linear B tablets—a wide range of domestic workers duplicated from the oikos: grain-grinders, bakers, weavers, sweepers, cooks, washers, decorators. The day-to-day function could be brought into the religious domain simply by the addition of the prefix hiero- (sacred) or the suffix -phoros (carrier), often reflecting the ritual action performed: hieronomos, a temple manager; kanephoros, a basket-bearer.

Such titles proliferated with ease, and testify to the multiplicity of local cults. In Attica alone the number approached two thousand, while Athens itself had no less than 170 feast days in its sacred calendar, a figure rather higher than the number of days a year on which the Assembly met in formal session. In this or any Greek polis, religion—a fact not always borne in mind today—was not only inextricably interwoven with politics and public affairs, but taken at least as seriously. We are confronted here with “a system in which myth, cult, ritual, and visual images were utterly interdependent and mutually supportive.” The ritual requirements of archaic myth could be horrific—who can forget Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis to placate Artemis and get a favorable wind for Troy?—but the fact remains that in traditional belief he did sacrifice her, even if later ages, finding the act hard to stomach, put it about that a deer had been miraculously substituted on the altar.


The literary sources, as Connelly is well aware, are difficult, ambiguous, and parti pris, their significance often hotly disputed by modern scholars. She seems uneasy dealing with them, and is sometimes overeager to have them support her central thesis. The argument that Euripides’ Melanippe, mentioned above, makes for the preeminence of women, above all in religious matters, is in fact (as Susan Guettel Cole stresses12 ) far from strong, and based on skimpy evidence. Predictably, Connelly also embraces the much-bruited but improbable suggestion that Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Myrrhinê were in fact based on the priestesses Lysimachê (Athena Polias) and Myrrhinê (Athena Nikê) serving at the time of the play’s production, even though Myrrhinê is there presented as a cock-teasing wife, and Lysimachê’s name doesn’t quite match (if the one is accurate, why not the other?).13 Connelly has an excellent case, but this kind of overpromotion detracts from its persuasiveness.

Connelly also shies away from any comment on the moral implications of her examples. She rightly cites the Trojan priestess Theano in the Iliad (6.297–310) as a parallel to later historical evidence for “the role of the priestess as key bearer of the temple, caretaker of the cult statue, leader of prayers, and initiator of sacrifice,” but doesn’t comment on the fact that the prayers are for the death of Diomedes, Odysseus’ comrade in attacks on the Trojans. In the next paragraph she mentions the Athenian priestess of Demeter and Korê who in 415 BCE refused to curse Alcibiades after his condemnation for blasphemously parodying the Eleusinian Mysteries—ceremonies that remain largely uncertain—on the grounds that she was a praying priestess, not a cursing one. No comment on that, either. Such decisions by Connelly may be in the laudable pursuit of objectivity, but the effect is to create a bare-bones account, more neuter than neutral.

One priestess Connelly actually, in effect, invents. When the Spartan regent Pausanias (not king, as Connelly has him) was about to be arrested for treasonous dealings with the helots—Sparta’s enslaved workforce—he sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena of the Brazen House. What to do? His mother, with typical grim Spartan concision, left a brick at the entrance. Officials took the hint and walled Pausanias in, only removing him, to avoid pollution, when he was on the point of dying from starvation. Connelly claims that his mother was in fact the priestess of Athena of the Brazen House, and this, if true, would raise some disconcerting questions. Luckily, it isn’t. The late military strategist Polyaenus, whom Connelly cites as her source, merely gives the mother’s name as Theano. There were several priestesses called Theano; therefore (or so Connelly’s thinking seems to run) this one, too, had to be a priestess; and, for good measure, the incumbent of the temple under discussion. Luckily again, Connelly doesn’t make a habit of this kind of reasoning.

Connolly deals best with literary texts on the infrequent occasions when they connect helpfully with the epitaphs, honorific decrees, and illustrative art that form the core of her study, and offer fascinating glimpses into the lives of individual women long dead. Of no passage is this more true than that in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata when the elderly chorus members reminisce about their ritual service in youth:

As soon as I turned seven I was an arrephoros,
then, I was an
aletris; when I was ten I shed
my saffron robe for the Foundress, being a bear at the Brauronia;
And once, when I was a beautiful maiden, I was a
wearing a necklace of dried figs.

(Lysistrata. 641–647)

This is a wonderful encapsulation of so much that Donnelly follows up on subsequently: the child who carries the mystic symbols or grinds grain for the goddess, shifting (as she nears puberty) to the saffron robe she wears as a “Little Bear” serving Artemis out at Brauron, until sexual maturity brings her to marriageable status as a parthenos, a word for which neither “virgin” nor “maiden” (let alone “girl”) catches the full social and religious significance.14 Much of what follows can be read as an extended and confirmatory gloss on this quotation.

Plutarch (Moralia 795D–E) aptly compares the stages of a woman’s sacred service to those of a Roman statesman’s political career, the famous cursus honorum. The stages also mirror the life cycle, and this answers the doubts that have been expressed concerning some priestesses’ part-time status, short tenure, and lack of “professional” training. From childhood to old age, from married women to celibate spinsters, there was an appropriate religious function for every person: the hierarchy was based on family life. As Donnelly says,

like choruses, the age-tiered groupings of ritual service reflected the collective character of a family model at the core. Each group had a special relationship to the divinity, based on the goddess’s own age, sexual status, and characteristics.

To each deity her own: just as Artemis was served by parthenoi, Demeter’s priestesses were married women. The variegations of the Greek pantheon allowed, as Donnelly sees, for the support of sympathetic deities at every stage of an individual’s life:

The Greeks developed a religious system based on the human experience and so it both reflected and sustained the human condition in its fullest realization of sexuality, gender, and the life cycle.

It is this system that Connelly sets out to explicate in the chapters that follow, and her journey (like Cavafy’s to Ithaca) is indeed “full of adventure, full of discovery.” We get choice anecdotes (when Herakles set about deflowering Thestius’ fifty daughters in one night, he was so infuriated by the sole refusenik that he made her his virgin priestess for life); evidence for the astonishing staying power, century after century, of illustrious families in priesthoods (those Eteoboutadae simply went on and on); fascinating details of dress and symbol (temple keys in vase paintings resemble the starting handle of a Model T Ford, often with something that looks like a string of cocktail sausages dangling from them); visual glimpses of processions, altars blazing with burnt offerings, and convincing answers to some of Keats’s questions (“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?” etc.) in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Finally, there are epitaphs and objects preserved in graves that spring their own surprises, including a Geometric burial at Eleusis (perhaps as early as 900 BCE) in which the sacerdotal occupant was accompanied by a faience figurine of Egyptian Isis.


As Connelly is well aware, and reminds the reader at intervals, the overall account she presents flies in the face of much traditional scholarship (and not a little ancient evidence) regarding the status of women in classical Greek—and, above all, Athenian—society. Pierre Vidal-Naquet is characteristic:

Athenian women were not properly speaking citizens, and young girls were not citizens-to-be whom the city had to take through stages of an educative initiation. The Athenian polis was founded upon the exclusion of women…. The sole civic function of women was to give birth to citizens.

In the speech Against Neaera, dubiously attributed to Demosthenes and delivered about the mid-fourth century BCE, the prosecutor, addressing his all-male jury, observes, as one stating an obvious truism:

We have courtesans for pleasure, concubines to service our daily physical needs, and wives to bear us legitimate children and be trusty guardians of our domestic affairs.

Financially and legally, a free Athenian woman was neither autonomous nor regarded as legally competent: that is, capable of managing her own own affairs or making her own decisions. All financial deals involving more than the cost of a sack of barley were denied her. She spent her entire life under the control of a kyrios (“master,” “possessor”), usually her father or husband.

There were other restrictions, but these were the main ones, and the important thing is to determine how far, and in what way, the findings of Connelly and those scholars who share her beliefs modify the overall picture. To begin with, it is clear that Athens was extremely patriarchal even by contemporary standards: in Sparta, Thessaly, Boeotia, and many of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, women enjoyed considerably more freedom, in particular as regards property rights. Secondly, and predictably, Athenian women showed considerable ingenuity at manipulating the rules from behind the scenes: the banker Pasion’s widow Archippe exploited the gray areas in estate and citizenship laws with dazzling acumen.15 Their modestly silent seclusion, too, has certainly been exaggerated16 : not all the gossiping housewives in the marketplace were slaves or aliens, and it is virtually certain that women attended theatrical performances: no ancient source denies this, and several strongly suggest it.

But the limitations undoubtedly existed; as Roger Just, in a sympathetic study, concedes, “Athenian political life excluded women from the secular offices and honours of the state.”17 Many of Connelly’s examples thus deal with exceptions to the rule, with women—mostly cult-related—who by wealth and family influence bent the old rules to their advantage rather than creating new ones. Her true achievement, however, is to have demonstrated, beyond all reasonable doubt, how fully religion permeated the structure of ancient Greek society, that of Athens included, and how intimately, from birth to death, as acolytes or priestesses, in a system of belief where praxis, or ritual, largely absorbed ethos, or explicit religious ideas, women sustained, and were in turn sustained by, a powerful and cohesive religious awareness coterminous with the concept of the oikos. The political world of the demos might ignore or downplay it (Kinder, Küche, Kirche again), but without its collusive binding force the world of the city-state could never have survived.

  1. 1

    As Susan Guettel Cole points out, “Melanippe has a stake in glorifying the female contribution to the ritual life of the polis, but few female characters in tragedy would share her opinion.” See her Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: The Ancient Greek Experience (University of California Press, 2004), p. 97.

  2. 2

    Ruth E. Tringham, “Households with Faces: The Challenge of Gender in Prehistoric Architectural Remains,” in Engendering Archaeology: Women in Prehistory, edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey (Blackwell, 1991), pp. 93–131.

  3. 3

    As regards the status of women, Connelly predictably privileges Greek polytheism over patriarchal Christian monotheism. Yet medieval abbesses exercised precisely the same kind of civic power as Greek priestesses, and on precisely the same basis: wealth and family. I am grateful to Professor Constance H. Berman and Ms. Rebecca Church of the History Department at the University of Iowa for a rich haul of material on this revealing topic.

  4. 4

    Athena Polias was the “protector of the city (polis),” just as Athena Nikê (see below) was “Athena-as-Victory.”

  5. 5

    Inscriptiones Graecae II (Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1913) 534–5, no. 1136.

  6. 6

    This is a common qualification among Greek priestesses. Euxenia, priestess of Aphrodite in Megalopolis in the second century BCE, both was granddaughter of the Achaean general Philopoemen and built Aphrodite an entire new temple and guesthouse. An inscription explains her vast generosity: “That a woman trades her wealth for good reputation is not surprising, since ancestral virtue remains in one’s children.”

  7. 7

    Erechtheus, a mythical cult figure identified with Poseidon (his name was etymologically connected with Poseidon’s seismological “earth-shaking”), was also thought to have been an early king of Athens. The temple on the Acropolis known as the Erechtheum housed his and several other archaic cults.

  8. 8

    Robert Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 220.

  9. 9

    See J.K. Davies, Athenian Propertied Families, 600–300 BC (Clarendon Press/ Oxford University Press, 1971).

  10. 10

    Christian Habicht, Athens from Alexander to Antony, translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider (Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 288–296.

  11. 11

    Aristotle, Politics 1260a; cf. Roger Just, Women in Athenian Law and Life (Routledge, 1989), pp. 188–191.

  12. 12

    See note 1 above. Cole cites Sophocles’ Antigone, and Euripides’ Electra and Cassandra, as comparable figures with good reason to feel excluded from religious ceremonies.

  13. 13

    J. Papadimitriou, “Attika I,” Archaiologikê Ephêmeris (1948/1949), pp. 46–153; D. M. Lewis, “Notes on Attic Inscriptions (II),” Annual of the British School at Athens 50 (1955), pp. 1–36.

  14. 14

    It is a mark of the kind of opposition with which Donnelly has to deal that even so good a social anthropologist as the late Pierre Vidal-Naquet, in The Black Hunter (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 145, should argue that “the stages referred to are those of a fictitious cycle.”

  15. 15

    Well described by Edward E. Cohen in Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective (Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 102–108.

  16. 16

    Too much weight has been placed on Pericles’ notorious advice to women, in his Thucydidean Funeral Oration (2.45), to display virtue by not getting themselves talked about, pro or con.

  17. 17

    Just, Women in Athenian Law and Life, p. 39.