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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.

  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.

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