WOMEN AND RELIGION IN ATHENS

 

     While this is not the place for an in depth look at Greek religion, an understanding of a few principles is essential as their view of the divine was quite different from that of the great monotheisms in the modern world. Deities varied considerably in power, though the least of them was stronger than any mere human. They demanded worship and respect from the community as a whole and were quick to strike down any who became self-righteous and overconfident, but otherwise they had no particular interest in bonding with individual men and women.  There were a few stories of gods and goddesses siding with a particular person, but when they interfered in human affairs it was for their own entertainment, playing with humans in much the same way a child would play with dolls or toy soldiers. A Greek woman might have prayed for a happy marriage or for a male child, but she did not seek or expect to find a personal relationship with a god or goddess. Insulting a deity or getting self-righteous and overconfident invited divine retribution, but beyond that morality and religion were unrelated concepts. Humans, not gods, decided what was proper and what was improper behavior. Worship was a collective act by means of which society as a whole sought the favor of a god or goddess. Individuals sought favors but they did not try to build a personal relationship with an individual god or goddess. There were no denominations or schools of theology, and no one ever said, “My god or goddess is better than your god or goddess.”   

     There were religious festivals on about half of the days of the year. Some were quite minor and involved only a few celebrants, while others went on for two or three days with everyone taking part. Since worship was a community affair, not a personal matter, and women made up a full half of the population, their involvement in these festivals not only signified that they were an integral part of the fabric of society but gave them an opportunity to live, be seen, and even play a starring role in the outside world well beyond the confines of family. Perhaps the simplest way for women to participate was in the formation of a chorus where all ages would gather together as a choir that would recount through song and dance stories from the lives of the gods and goddesses and perform in small groups before friends and relatives at weddings, funerals, and other family get-togethers. Though these events could hardly be called public affairs, they did give women the opportunity to be seen and perhaps admired by people outside their own home.

     On a more formal basis there were a number of cult activities that gave young women and girls exposure to the entire community. Some were open only to a handful of privileged, upper-class girls, while others accepted all who were at the right age. The Kanephoros was the maiden selected to lead the procession anytime there was to be a public sacrifice. For the major festivals she would have come from the wealthiest class, but on family occasions such as a wedding the Kanephoros would have been an unmarried daughter from the same social circle as the bride and groom and almost every girl would get a turn. The post was strictly ceremonial: she carried a basket on her head and once she had led the way to the altar her responsibilities were over, but for a short period of time all eyes were focused on her.

     For the Arrephoria, two girls between the ages of seven and ten were selected from among the wealthiest families. In a night-time fertility rite they carried a basket on their heads into a sanctuary beneath the Acropolis, where, apparently they spent a year until it was their turn to carry the baskets back to the surface. According to legend the gods killed the first pair of girls who dared to look inside the baskets. The Arkteia had room for a much larger number of girls. This festival, dedicated to Artemis, began in the Archaic age and continued through the Classical and may have been celebrated at a variety of sites. Different versions exist that may represent changes over time or variations from one site to another; in any case, the evidence is fragmentary.

     The goddess Artemis, twin sister of Apollo, was a bit of a contradiction. She enjoyed hunting lions, panthers and stags in the company of her nymphs, but she was also thought of as the protector of the wilderness and wild animals. When she was only three years old she asked her father Zeus to guarantee her perpetual virginity. Determined to remain pure all her life, she inflicted terrible punishment on any man who threatened her chastity. The protector of animals was an accomplished huntress and the perpetual virgin helped women become pregnant and presided over childbirth. Girls were initiated into her cult when they reached puberty, and when they were about to marry they presented her with all their toys and other objects of childhood.

     One of the myths surrounding Artemis included the story of a pet bear kept in her sanctuary at Brauron. When a young girl was mauled to death after she started to tease the bear, her brother took his revenge by killing the animal. As punishment, Artemis sent a plague, but then agreed to lift the pestilence in return for the sacrifice of a virgin. One man offered his daughter but sent instead a goat wrapped in a blanket. The substitute was accepted as genuine and regularly celebrated for several centuries, first at Brauron, some 38 miles from Athens, and then at other sites as well. The festival featured girls between the ages of seven and ten racing, dancing, and pretending to be a bear. Some or all of the girls may have spent several months at the temple preparing for the ritual. A series of ceramics called krateriskoi show the girls wearing short tunics or nothing at all as they compete. Put together, the various festivals expressed a significant part of the ethos that bound the country together. Our evidence for the Arkteia is fragmentary at best, but it has none the less prompted a great deal of speculation on its meaning and place in Greek culture. It certainly gave young girls the opportunity to spend time together, and we can safely assume that they were taught the basic myths that underlay the festival. Women were normally expected to shun the attention of the wider community, yet all eyes would have been on at least the girls who won the various competitions. Greeks saw a great similarity between girls and wild animals. Parthenoi, women who were sexually mature but unmarried, were thought to be lustful and a danger to themselves and to society. They needed to be tamed. Girls in the Arkteia were said to have played the bear; that is, they acted as if they were a wild animal. Was this festival intended to prepare young girls for the arrival of puberty, a means to introduce pre-pubescent girls to the time when they would be viewed as sex-objects? Was this possibly a chance for bachelors to look at the coming crop of bridal material?

     Open only to married women, the Thesmophoria was a three day festival in honor of the goddess Demeter. On the first day the women left their homes and gathered at an encampment on a hill about a kilometer west of the Acropolis. They fasted on the second day and feasted and celebrated on the third. Details of the event were supposed to be kept secret and men were not allowed to attend, but we can assume the event gave women a chance to share experiences and give and receive advice on how to survive in a world dominated by men. 

     The Adonia was a two day festival honoring the death and resurrection of the vegetation god, Adonis. Aphrodite, the goddess of physical love, took possession of Adonis at his birth. Totally smitten by his beauty, she entrusted him to Persephone in the Underworld for safe-keeping, but she too was captivated by her young charge and refused to give him back. The Olympic sized quarrel between the two goddesses was settled only when Zeus intervened and ordered Adonis to spend four months of the year with Aphrodite and four months in the Underworld with Persephone. The remaining months he was free to spend where he wished. Aphrodite and Adonis eventually became lovers. A week or so prior to the Adonia festival, the women of Athens planted seeds in shallow baskets which they then carried to the roofs of their houses where they were left unwatered. The seeds germinated in a normal manner, but the plants wilted and died in the hot sun. On the first day of the festival the women cried and beat themselves as statues of the god, along with these Baskets of Adonis, were brought into the streets and laid out like corpses at a funeral. The second day was one of merriment as the women celebrated the resurrection of Adonis and the renewed growth of vegetation.

     While there were exceptions to the general rule, the temples and sanctuaries of a goddess were normally presided over by a priestess and those of a god by a priest. The posts were often hereditary, and cannot really be considered a career opportunity for women, but Chief Priestesses had official standing in the community and were exempt from the rule decreeing that no woman’s name should be spoken in public. A Chief Priestess was not unlike any other magistracy and she could sign contracts and conduct business appropriate to her office as easily as a man.

 

 

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