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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.