As ancient Greek history has played such a pivotal role in subsequent cultures throughout time, that to learn about women in this society enhances our understanding of western civilization. Ancient Greece was not a united nation, but a collection of individual sovereign communities with a common language, and similar religious rituals and beliefs. Communication was difficult due to the numerous islands and mountainous terrain that bisected the communities of people. Democracy, classical art and architecture, philosophy, and drama all can trace their lineage to ancient Greece.
Antique vases and statues abound with figures of women, some carrying over to modern times. The Statue of Liberty in New York harbor is based on the Greek style of depicting a female goddess. In front of the United States Supreme Court building sits justice, portrayed as a Greco-Roman female goddess. The state seal of Virginia shows a man fighting ancient female amazons, and classical Greek women such as liberty appeared on America dimes, quarters and dollars.
While classical Greek culture, which flourished between 500-330 b.c.e., contributed the most to our knowledge of Greece, earlier and later periods are also worthy of attention.
Numerous problems present themselves in reconstructing the life of women in ancient Greece. Many of the historical sources have been lost, and histories preserved from the past were written by upper class men for their own edification. A few fragments of women’s writing exist, including lines from Sappho’s poetry. Controversy surrounds the interpretation of these and other artifactual evidence, and thus how women were viewed. For instance, many of the Greek vases depicting women show them handing warriors their helmets as they prepare for battle, and so some scholars point to the passive role of women. Reading the plays of the classical playwrights give us evidence of women as strong, central characters in Greek tragedies and epics. Not being frequently mentioned in ancient Greek sources does not imply that women were not vital to society. While lacking official political power, women contributed to the shaping of society, what anthropologists call liminal.
Before 1870, no one guessed that great civilizations had flourished in the Greek area before the rise of Athens in the seventh century. Heinrich Schliemann and his Greek wife excavated and found Troy, then went on to discover the Mycenae ruins, leading Arthur Evans to excavate the island of Crete.
Minoan Civilization circa 2000-1100 b.c.e. centered on the island of Crete, and is considered to be the oldest Greek society. Minoan derives its name from the mythical King Minos who kept a Minotaur, a half man half bull figure supposedly in his labyrinth or palace precinct. Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, volunteered to go to Crete as part of a tribute required by King Minos, where he had to find his way out of the labyrinth without getting killed by the Minotaur. With the aid of Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, Theseus succeeds, but faces additional trials. Minoan frescoes painted with leaping acrobatic males and females over bulls are reminiscent of American rodeo stars. Was this possible? Some scholars say absolutely not. Others cheer their feats. Was the bull or gymnasts drugged on opium? As the Minoan language has not been deciphered, perhaps we will never know the truth, but ongoing archaeological investigation may uncover more tantalizing clues to this ancient civilization that was a major commercial trading society.
Scholars have even debated whether this was a bona fide matriarchal society because in its surviving frescoes women are depicted more frequently than men. Detractors of this thesis point to America’s preoccupation with the female figure both nude and covered, and the United States is surely not a matriarchal society. On the island of Crete, numerous palaces have been found, but no fortified walls, indicating either security behind a navy or a nonviolent society. Serene rooms with painted walls of animals and plants add credence to the peaceful lifestyle of the Minoans. The throne is not elevated from the other seats, indicative of an egalitarian society. There is evidence of advanced plumbing with the world’s first flush toilet and terra cotta bathtubs. Figurines of bare-breasted women with full-length skirts that have one or more snakes entwined around their arms are considered to be representations of their chief goddess, who is nameless or a priestess for this goddess. In hilltop sanctuaries, there are what appears to be representations of their deity called the Mountain Mother. Other statues of this goddess or another female figure circa 1300-1250 b.c.e. shows them with poppies on their head. Historians of ancient Greek medicine remark that this is the time of the Trojan War, and that Helen had a famous Egyptian potion that relieved her deepest sorrows.1 Supposedly this was opium that has 5-10% morphine content.
There is good evidence to indicate that priestesses were more important than priests on Crete. In a procession fresco from Knossos, the main political palace of Minoan civilization, the priestess is shown receiving tribute, adulation and worship from two approaching lines of men. Females participated in various religious rituals involving dancing and sacrifices, both important components of religious activities in later Greek history. Recent research has found what purports to be the first sculpture of Zeus, placing Crete as his birthplace, long after the goddesses were administering to the people.
The next early Greek civilization is called Mycenaean, named after its capital located on the Peloponnesus. This culture dominated the Greek world from about 1600 to 1100 b.c.e., and was illuminated five hundred years later in Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, clearly following the oral traditions of ancient societies. Again it was Schliemann, who started digging here in 1876 and uncovered what he called King Agamemnon’s palace and his famous gold mask, supposedly artifacts from the Mycenaean Age. Here was the homeland of the famous and beautiful Helen of Troy. We know today that her kidnapping did not launch the Trojan War, but was due to economic issues and the need to control the entrance to the Hellespont or Dardanelles that led to the lucrative resources of the Black Sea region. In later Greek times, Helen was revered as a goddess, especially by the Spartans, her natal home. Homer’s works became the Greek “bible”, outlining for the Greeks their heroic past, and how they were to feel, think, and behave, including what was the most important facet of their life, fighting. Mycenaean’s cultural legacy became extremely important for women in ancient Greece, as these Homeric epics were continually retold and inculcated by the populous. Present-day interpretations of these tales are often moot regarding woman’s status, but the ideas of the stories vastly impacted Greece’s history.
Not much is known about women in bronze-age Mycenaean culture, but it is thought they were not as well regarded as in ancient Minoan society. Mycenaean women are less prominent in the artifactual evidence. Earlier sacred sites to goddesses appear to be replaced by male gods like Zeus and Apollo, although the Mycenaean’s continued to worship the Mountain Mother at sanctuaries in the mountains. We get our first detailed descriptions of the Greek deities in these epic tales. Zeus and Hera are at the apex of the Pantheon, followed by Poseidon, Aphrodite, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Ares, and others, but as in the Near East when their mythology relates the repossession of female deities by male deities, the same process occurred in Greece at this time. The continual antagonism between Zeus and Hera illustrates this. In one story Zeus secures Hera in chains and hangs her upside down. In a fascinating book entitled Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Sharleen Spretnak, remarks about the rich oral tradition where goddesses reigned supreme. The frequent use of the epithet “ox-eyed” for Hera, suggests that Hera was the great goddess worshiped by Greek inhabitants before Zeus was born. Does Hera connect with the cow goddess, Hathor, of ancient Egypt, which could offer proof of her ancient birth? At Olympia, the Heraion, the temple to Hera, predates by a long time the Temple of Zeus. By the Homeric Age Zeus became superior to Hera, undoubtedly showing women’s declining status. We get glimpses of women’s economic contributions ranging from weaving cloth, leather workers, and grain processors, all positions that were segregated by gender.
After the Mycenae Era, Greece went through a “dark ages.” Not much is known about this time concerning women or men. The next period is known as the Archaic Age, circa 800-500 b.c.e. This is the time of the evolution of city-states for ancient Greece, and the beginnings of Greek colonization. Greeks were farmers, traders, and fishermen, living in the rural areas. Some villages became larger political units known as poleis or city-states. These varied widely in area and population. People who lived full time in the country were considered inferior to the city dwellers that also worked the fields, but lived in the cities. Politically, the Greek world went through various forms of government structure from hereditary monarchies, to oligarchies, to dictatorships and democracies. Not all city-states arrived at the democratic stage like Athens. Sparta was basically a monarchy, with socialistic tendencies. Athens and Sparta became not only the two largest city-states, but perhaps the most diametrical opposites. We have more extant information on Athens and then Sparta than any other Greek city-states. Over time as the mainland population grew, there was not enough land to go around, so many Greeks left for other islands and land ringing the Mediterranean, Black and Aegean Seas in the years 750-550 b.c.e. All these areas were similar in climate and soil to mainland Greece, so the Greek way of life was transmitted to these regions. Indigenous people in these areas were exposed to Greek ideas, and many adopted some of the Greek culture, but with many variants. The Etruscans in the northern part of the Italian Peninsula are a good example of this.
During the Archaic Period, Homer and Hesiod, the famous Greek authors, wrote down their ideas that will vastly impact society. See below for a discussion on their work under misogyny of the Greeks.
It was the Classical Period, 500-332 b.c.e. that we are the most familiar with, and when literature, philosophy and artistic endeavors were delineated mainly by Athens. Sparta does not provide us with any tangible material of this type. In keeping with Greek manly pursuits of fighting, both Sparta and Athens lead the successful military defense against the encroaching Persian Empire, and then turned on each other in the pyrrhic victory known as the Peloponnesus War, which led to the eventual downfall of the Greeks and the rise of the Macedonians and Alexander the Great. As can be expected, the lives of women in these various city-states varied, but the classical period definitely inaugurates a severe decline in women’s roles. Athens was probably the most unfavorable to women’s position.
What was life like for Greek women? Our sources mainly attest to life in the city-state of Athens, the predominant one for the Greeks. Conditions changed for women as Athenians altered their governmental structure and laws through the centuries. In Athens, women legally and politically did not have power for they were under the control of males their entire lives. Girls never formally came of age as boys did at eighteen. Before Solon’s monumental economic and political reforms, circa 600 b.c.e., fathers could sell their daughters into slavery if in economic distress. Fathers did not raise daughters unless they could anticipate providing them with an adequate dowry. Birth of a son was the fulfillment or goal of marriage, although a line from Euripides, in his play, Medea, somewhat negates this premise. “What they say is that we women have a quiet time, staying at home, while they are off fighting in war. They couldn’t be more wrong. I would rather stand three times in a battle line than give birth to one child.” While the birth of a son was special, the birth of a daughter often times was a dismal event. Fathers, fearing not having enough money for the future dowry, would insist that their infant daughters be killed. Debate is currently occurring whether more girls than boys were exposed, one of the methods of infanticide. Some studies postulate that the average Greek family consisted of two boys and one girl, statistically an unnatural figure. Both Aristotle and Plato, famous Greek philosophers, suggested that the age of marriage be postponed thereby limiting the childbearing years for women. Then, if the number of children grew too large, the mothers were to abort the fetuses. But because of the desire to ensure male dominance, women were married off at an early age and a long childbearing career. Girls married as teenagers, usually around fourteen, and the husbands were at least thirty years old. Mandatory virginity was for the brides only. There was the standard betrothal contract where a dowry was given, usually land or money. Administered by the husband, the dowry remained legally the wife’s, and if there was a divorce, it went with the wife.
Weddings most often occurred in January as this was Hera’s month. Popularity of January for weddings is analogous to June for modern brides in America (based on the goddess Juno, the Roman version of Hera.) After the wedding, the wife was to remain faithful. It was socially acceptable for husbands to pursue affairs with female prostitutes or younger men. A wife could be even lent by her husband as a surrogate mother to another household for the purpose of bearing a male heir to continue the household during high wartime male mortality. A great quote from Demosthenes, the noted Greek orator, summarizes the latitude of husbands and wives: “We have hetaerae for the sake of pleasure, prostitutes for daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children and trusted guardians of our households.”
In Sparta, the other major city-state, life for women was different than in Athens.2 Sparta was a strong militaristic society, and so much of what occurred in Sparta happened because of their omnipresent war-footing. When a girl was born she was inspected by a group of elderly men, who determined if she was strong enough to live. Otherwise she was exposed. Her young life was spent in various athletic pursuits, toning her body to produce babies. Throwing the javelin, wrestling and racing were some of these events. Footraces at Olympia to commemorate Hera saw virgin Spartan women participating. Incidentally, athletic contests in honor of Hera predate the Olympics in honor of Zeus. At the Panhellenic festivals, Spartan women also owned victorious racehorses. Spartan women attended all athletic contests (just the opposite of Athens and other city-states), cheering the winner, but mocking the losers. The strength and tenaciousness of Spartan women was legendary. King Pyrrhus of Epirus with his crack mercenary army supporting him hesitated to attack the walls of Sparta as they were defended only by women, children and elderly men.
Spartan women had far more freedom than those of other Greek city-states. Sparta was the only state that prescribed public education for its girls. In Sparta a woman’s husband was not her legal master as in Athens. Most Greek women did not go out without veiling, except it was thought Sparta women went out uncovered. A recent monograph shows otherwise.3 In fact, young Spartan maidens of marriage age went naked so that prospective husbands could see who they might want to marry. Some husbands carried women away forcibly and made them their wives. After the wedding, husbands and wives still lived separately, for men continued the Spartan practice of living in military barracks. Once marriage took place, marital partners within a group could be exchanged. It was honorable for husbands to share their wives to produce good offspring, especially if a husband was older. An interesting story illustrates this point. An earthquake had convinced King Agis that he should not sleep with his wife Timaea. Concurrently, Alcibiades, a noted handsome and charming Athenian exile, appealed to Timaea as a fit sire for future Spartan kings. Later King Agis wondered about his “new son”. After checking the calendar, he disowned him. As in Athens, it was the main duty of Spartan wives to breed brave and strong children. In Sparta the policy was to reward having many children. A father was freed of military duties upon the birth of his third son, and free from taxes with his fourth son.
Spartan women, because the males were mostly fighting (they had helots or slaves to do the farm work), led an independent life, but they were not to lament if their loved ones were killed in wars. Women said to their men folks in a famous statement from these times: “Come home with your shield or on it.” Women had the right to own and dispose of property, whereas in Athens it was not possible. From the fifth to the third century b.c.e. women’s power in politics increased when the kingship became more dictatorial or despotic. Then as more wars occurred in the third century b.c.e., women had even more power. This power was mainly due to the wealth they controlled from land, estimated by Aristotle as two-thirds. Concomitantly, wealth increased in the hands of a few, including women. Consequently, a wealthy bride of a powerful father could influence who became king of Sparta. Plutarch, the second century c.e. writer’s depiction of the third century rebellions, mentions elite as well as peasant women involved. Was Sparta a gyneocracy like Aristotle says? Aristotle claimed that Sparta ultimately failed (but then so did Athens) because Sparta did not control its independent women; “women love wealth and so society loves wealth and so men are ruled by women.” Pointing to the reason Sparta lost to the Thebians, Aristotle claimed it was the chaotic behavior of its women. Yet it was the first time Spartan women had seen the enemy, and naturally they would have reacted violently when they saw the Thebians burning their property.
What did the Greek women do when they wanted to eliminate unwanted pregnancies? We now know that they practiced birth control, using some very effective measures. The most potent one was silphium, commonly known as giant fennel. It had both contraceptive and abortifacient capabilities. Apparently the demand for silphium drove prices so high in the fifth century b.c.e. that the playwright Aristophanes would write in his play The Knights: “Don’t you remember when a stalk of silphium sold so cheap.” Growing in a small coastal area of North Africa, within a few centuries the demand for silphium could not keep up with the supply. Scarcity and then extinction lead the ancient Greeks to use another plant from the genus ferula, asafoetida. Though less effective than silphium, it was widely used. Other contraceptives utilized were Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot, pennyroyal, rue, artemisia, myrrh and pomegranate.4 Most of these have been scientifically proven today to have contraceptive and abortifacient properties. 5 Scholars feel that probably most of these plants were used for abortions rather than for contraception because there are more references to abortion in the ancient world than contraception. Ancient Greek medical texts discussed numerous abortion techniques, including the usage of plants as pessaries, oral potions, and suppositories. No laws against abortion were present in ancient Greece. In some areas unmarried daughters were expected to get an abortion to save themselves and their fathers from dishonor. Plato thought that the state should mandate that all pregnancies needed to be aborted in women over the age of forty. While the famous Hippocratic Oath contains its famous injunction that doctors foreswear abortion, some current scholars have argued that this was a later Pythagorean addition. For the ancients, life was not present until birth, and thus no stigma was attached to abortion.
A wife’s other major duty besides bearing boys, was to take care of the household, and make cloth. Use of the distaff (staff held the wool to be spun into thread) became such a strong identifying mark for women that even today the term distaff is often used as a synonym for a female. Peasant women worked in domestic service, retail shops, wet nursing, midwifery, and prostitution. There were goddesses that were aligned with the medical arts of women, Hygeia, and Panacea. Hygeia, as the goddess of hygiene, together with her sister Panacea were often portrayed accompanying their father, Ascelpius, the god of medicine. Hygeia taught people to achieve health and longevity by proper behavior. “Middle class” housewives managed the house and servants, while remaining secluded in the women’s quarters. The only men women were allowed to see at home were relatives.
Other women would have visited, and it is apparent that women formed supportive networks of women from their same social class just as they have done throughout history, including today. Women could attend public festivals, sacrifices, and funerals, and even be allowed to be official mourners for their relatives, although periodic legislation was introduced to try and curb ostentatious behavior by women at funerals. Proper mourning and burial were extremely important to the ancient Greeks. In the play, Antigone, by the tragedarian dramatist Sophocles, Antigone was willing to sacrifice her reputation and life to properly bury her brother against the wishes of the king.
Divorce was relatively unknown in the early years of Greek history, but very common in the classical period. When a wife wanted a divorce she needed her father or another male to bring her divorce suit before city officials. A husband could divorce his wife just by exiling her from the house. Fathers also had the right to separate their daughters from their husbands and bring them back home or to marry them to someone else. After the divorce, the dowry was to be returned to the wife. If the husband was late in paying it, then eighteen percent interest was charged. Many cases a husband did not divorce his wife to maintain access to her dowry. No dowry was returned if the wife committed adultery.
Probably the most emancipated women in Athens and other city-states were the hetaerae or courtesans. While usually starting their life as a slave or a dowry-less maiden, with good luck, intelligence and the right patron, hetaerae could elevate their status. Aspasia, a hetaera, became the mistress of the de facto thirty-year ruler of Athens, Pericles, and eventually became his wife. They had a son, who was granted citizenship after a wavering of the law that disallowed this in children not born in Athens. Aspasia was born in western Asia Minor in Miletus, coming to Athens in about 445 b.c.e. Well educated, it is now thought that Aspasia might even have written the famous “Funeral Oration” speech, Pericles gave during the Peloponnesus War with Sparta. She may have taught rhetoric to men, and may have instructed Socrates in the techniques of public speaking. Aspasia and other famous hetaerae mixed freely in male company, attending symposia where they engaged in debates of politics, drama, and philosophy, and demonstrated their
There is recorded the rule of only one queen in ancient Greece until the Hellenistic period when many more women rose to this political role. In the city-state of Caria in Southwestern Asia Minor, with Halicarnassus as its capital, reined a queen, Artemisia. She joined forces with the Persians, circa 480 b.c.e., in their attempt to conqueror Athens and other Greek city-states. Fearing another amazon, the Athenians offered a huge reward for anyone capturing her. While the Persians lost, Artemisia lived.
Religious rituals and worshipping of the gods and goddesses were important to the ancient Greeks. Constant celebrations were carried out for the rites of passages for young girls, maidens, and women. All involved honoring the goddesses, and for all Greeks, male and female, their lives were interwoven with their deities. Particular goddesses fostered the lifecycle of females. When young girls were approaching their menarche, puberty rites were held. The next major stage in women’s lives was the movement into adulthood and marriage and distinctive observations were enacted. Acting as mentors to these two groups were the goddesses, Persephone, Artemis and Athena.
The other goddess connected with rituals for females was Demeter, goddess of grain and agriculture, who had many festivals in her honor where women celebrated their powers of fertility and sexuality. The most important one was the fall three-day fertility rites festival for Demeter called Thesmophoria. Only women who were married to citizens could attend. The women spent three days living in Demeter’s hilltop sanctuary in space normally occupied by men, and paid for by the males, a clear indication of the importance of Demeter. She was the mother of Persephone, who was seized by Hades, the god of the underworld, and made his wife. Demeter finally won release for her daughter for half of the year when Zeus, Demeter’s sister and wife, and the father of Persephone, was forced to relinquish to Demeter, who was causing crop failure, famine, human infertility, and disallowance of sacrifices to the gods. It is a fascinating side note that had Persephone not eaten some of the pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she would have won full release.6 Zeus’ arrangement with Hades for Persephone’s marriage to the underworld deity is indicative of the way marriages were arranged in the Greek world. A father and a perspective groom made all the arrangements, and in the case of Demeter, she did not even know of her daughter’s destiny, which shows how strongly ingrained this tradition was. In Athens, the dead were called Demetreioi, Demeter’s people.
Another more famous festival, and open to both men and women, was the Eleusian Mysteries, named after the site of its rites. While primarily honoring Demeter, her daughter Persephone was included. The Catholic saintly site of Our Lady of Lourdes used to be a shrine to Persephone. Those initiated into these mysteries would receive hidden knowledge, including salvation and a happy afterlife. Writers from Aristophanes to the Roman senator, Cicero, waxed lyrically about the positive influence of the Eleusinian Mysteries. For over two thousand years, the Greeks and then the Romans worshipped Demeter in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and these rites were a major competitor to the growth of Christianity.
Dionysus as the god of wine and song had religious rites special to him that were similar to those for Demeter in the Eleusian Mysteries. The maenads, the female followers of Dionysus had special status. Both Dionysus and Demeter were worshipped mainly by the peasants, and vestiges of these practices will continue well into modern history. The countless religious festivals enjoyed by women in ancient Greece allowed them to escape their confinement in their houses, interact with other women, and provided Greece with an incalculable contribution of support and sustenance for their society.
Goddesses associated with married women were important too. On a daily basis wives offered prayers and food to Hestia, who was the goddess of the hearth, which was the center of the home. Hera, while wife of Zeus, and goddess of marriage, has ancient lineage like Artemis and Aphrodite. Perhaps the most well-known of these goddesses exalted by adult women was Aphrodite, goddess of sexuality and love. Here again like Artemis, her ancestry goes way back to ancient Near Eastern origins, and she is comparable to Inanna, Ishtar and Astarte of Mesopotamia, who were goddesses of sexuality and other attributes. Aphrodite’s major temples were at Cyprus and Corinth. Sexuality was joyful to the ancient Greeks and the many artistic renditions of humans enjoying themselves are evident in the extent artifacts. Both men and women offered sacrifices and worship to Aphrodite. There was always the underlining presence of danger in sexual power and this is evident in the drama and literature, and the female deities were chastised in literature for any show of sexual passion. A lesser goddess, Calypso, in the Odyssey of Homer, criticizes male deities for this double standard. Later on in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Aphrodite and her counterpart Venus, will be the first shown in statuary or paintings uncovered. This female nudity will evolve into a major symbol of western art.
During the Age of Pericles much money was spent beautifying Athens, including building the still-standing Parthenon, the temple to Athena. Athena was the patron goddess of the Athenians, and the city held a major festival in her honor, the Panathenaia. In a contest to see whose name would grace this city-state, the god of the sea, Poseidon, offered the Greeks sea spring water, but by giving them the olive tree, Athena got the city named after her. Young girls and adolescents honored Athena, who always remained a virginal maiden. She was also the goddess of wisdom, represented by the owl on Athenian coins, and the goddess for the creative arts of the Greeks, worshipped by weavers, potters, and craftsmen. Remarkably, Athena was also the goddess of war and military victory, illustrated by her title Nike or Victory. Inside this monumental pillared temple to Athena was a forty foot statue of Athena made from gold and ivory. Young girls specially chosen from noble families wove the cloth and then made the dress or peplos for Athena to wear in a special festival held every four years.
At Ephesus in Asia Minor, settled by Greeks from the mainland, was the celebrated Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Built around 800 b.c.e., it was originally erected in honor of Artemis, a powerful mother goddess, even though a virgin, and similar in iconography to Isis in Egypt and the Virgin Mary in Christian theology. Later in Greek history, Artemis was demoted to a moon, hunter, and untamed nature goddess, indicative of her connection to ancient goddesses affiliated with wild
animals, like the goddess in Neolithic Catal Huyuk and Cybele. In this demotion Artemis became the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and the twin sister of Apollo. Artemis’ name means “she who slays”, and she is often pictured armed with a bow, quiver, and arrows. In this context Artemis oversaw adolescent boys’ rites too as well as young girls. According to Greek legend, Artemis punished evil men and women by sending plague and death among them, but she was also the one who healed. Artemis was the one that assisted pregnant women in childbirth, and thus her name was given to the medicinal herb, Artemisia or mugwort, used to encourage faster labor. In the fourth century, when the Temple of Artemis was destroyed by fire, Alexander the Great lavishly rebuilt it. Among the common folk in Greece, Artemis was the most popular, and “where has Artemis not danced?” is a famous Greek saying. It was at this temple site that Paul preached his message of Christianity, but was thrown in jail for impeding the worshippers and souvenir sellers.
The most respected women of ancient Greece were the priestesses of the various female deities, and mystery religions. This high status of priestesses reflected the deep-rooted Greek conviction that while women were not as intellectual as men, they had spirituality, allowing them closer communication with the divine elements. The terms of office of the priestesses of Hera at Argos were so well respected that important Greek historical events were dated by them. For instance, the respected historian Thucydides dated the beginning of the Peloponnesian War when Chrysis was priestess at Argos. Many priestesses oversaw the numerous female cults and temples, including offering libations and animal sacrifice. In the fifth century, many priestesses became famous. One of these was Lysimache, priestess of Athena for sixty-four years, and identified as the model for Lysistrata in the play of the same name by Aristophanes.
Perhaps the single most influential Greek at any given time was the priestess or Pythia at Delphi. Usually a young ignorant peasant girl (some scholars say an old lady), was fed poisonous laurel leaves laced with henbane that put her into a trance. Under this hypnotic state, she became the vehicle for the voice of Apollo as interpretated by the priests of
Apollo. All Greeks, including Plato, thought that consulting the Delphi Oracle for major questions pertaining to life was necessary. Originally, Delphi was the site of worship to the ancient Greek mother goddess, Gaia.
The most famous woman in ancient Greece was Sappho, the celebrated late seventh century, b.c.e. poet from Lesbos. We know very little about her life. Presumably she was married as she had a daughter, to whom she wrote poignant poetry. Sappho’s poems are primarily love poems addressed to other women, but whether this was reflective of the times when homosexuality and homoeroticism were prevalent in ancient Greece is still being debated. Early Christian writers deliberately removed Sappho from the historical record by destroying her poems because of these links that were unacceptable to them. Her poetry survives only in fragments, except for the one complete poem, usually entitled “The Hymn to Aphrodite.” Sappho was appealing to Aphrodite to help her in a current love relationship, indicating the Greeks’ personal and direct tie with the gods and goddesses. Sappho’s reputation earned her Plato’s recognition when he called her the “Tenth Muse.” The muses were semi-divine women who represented the various cultural arts. For instance, Clio was the muse of history. The term lesbian came from Sappho’s birth home, but was not coined until the nineteenth century. We have the names of other women poets, but little of their work has survived.
Perhaps equally impressive were the contributions of female philosophers in Greek history. While some scholars deny the existence of any women philosophers, Mary Ellen Waithe’s anthology A History of Women Philosophers: Ancient Women Philosophers, 600 b.-500 c.e. makes a good case for their existence and contributions although documentation is sparse. It was at the Pythagorean School in southern Italy, established by Pythagoras, where many female philosophers became prevalent. Themistoklea is said to have given her ideas to Pythagoras, not vice versa. This is the same claim Socrates makes according to Plato in his Symposium, where Diotima, a woman, teaches Socrates. Theano, Pythagoras’ wife was also a philosopher and she along with her daughters may have authored one of the “sacred discourses” hitherto attributed to Pythagoras. In the later classical philosophical schools of Athens, women were not allowed entrance, but other philosophical schools did
It is in the Homeric epics that misogyny in Greek society surfaces. Misogyny or misogamy, the fear or hatred of women, ripples consistently throughout Greek society, and will impact subsequent civilizations as they succumb to Greek ideas. Women’s experience with misogyny throughout the centuries has been severely detrimental to women. Many examples of misogyny can be found in Greek literature. In the Odyssey, Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, while touted as the faithful wife, there is also simultaneously suppositions that her faithfulness could not be trusted. When Odysseus returns after a twenty-year absence, he does not reveal himself to Penelope until he has killed the suitors vying for his wife’s hand. Odysseus states: “do not ever be too kind to your wife or tell her the whole of your plan, however well you know it but tell her part of it, and leave the rest hidden.” Telemachus, Penelope and Odysseus’ son, states “my mother says I am the son of Odysseus, but I don’t know. No one by himself can know his own seed.” Agamemnon, the protagonist of the Iliad remarks “…brings your ship back to your homeland secretly, not openly, since women can never be trusted.
Contemporary with Homer was another Greek poet, Hesiod, a farmer by trade. In his celebrated works Theogony and Works and Days, he outlined for the Greeks their creation origins, and the organized pantheon of the twelve major Olympian gods, six male and six females. In his works Hesiod tells the story where man was created first, and lived happily, until in punishment for the god Prometheus’ stealing fire and giving it to man, Zeus created the first woman, Pandora. It is thought that Pandora was the human personification of the ancient inanimate mother goddess, Gaia. In vase paintings Pandora’s iconography is indistinguishable from Gaia’s. When Pandora opened her box, all the evils that inflict the human race were released. Hesiod then elaborated on the tale by relating how the various deities gave negative characteristics to Pandora and by extension all women. Athena gave her the ability to seduce men. Seduction and by extension beauty made women enormously powerful. Aphrodite gave cruel passion to Pandora, while Hermes, the messenger god, gave Pandora a thieving heart with the ability to lie and manipulate. Appropriately, Hesiod coined the famous
phrase about women, “men could not live with them and could not live without them.”
Another nearly contemporary figure of both Homer and Hesiod was Semonides, who wrote a famous satire that classified women into ten different types. All were negative except for one, the bee. Two of these contrary ones were the sow woman, who sits by the dung heap and grows fat while maintaining a filthy house; and the bitch who is always yapping like a dog. Greek women by the seventh century were idle, lazy, slovenly, gossips, vengeful, shrewish and unscrupulous. These leitmotifs of negative traits became imbedded into the male psyche up to and including modern times.
One of the most enduring legacies from the Greeks was the theater, and both comedy and tragedy were invented by them. As an indication of their universality, Greek plays are still being performed and enjoyed today. By the fourth century making fun of wives and women was a standard theme in the comedies. An immortal line from a lost play defines this theme: “O Zeus why need one say evil of women in detail? It would be enough if you say woman. I wish the second man who took a wife would die an awful death. I don’t blame the first man; he had no experience of that evil. The second man knew what kind of evil a wife was.” Aristophanes, the noted comedy playwright, in 392 b.c.e. wrote: “women roast their barley sitting, just as they always have…they bake cakes, just as they always have; they nag their husbands, just as they always have; they sneak their lovers into the house, just as they always have; they buy themselves little tad-bits, just as they always have…”
Lysistrata, the famous play by Aristophanes, seems to place women in a powerful position, but scholars think these contrasts dramatically with their actual roles. Sick and tired of endless fighting and war, the women of Athens decide they will seize the treasury and go on a sex strike until the warring ceases. The ribald and energetic lines that the women use are not only humorous, but indicative of women utilizing power where they can. Of course, actual women did not perform on stage. Men dressed as women, but Aristophanes definitely captured the satirical source of women’s plight.
Euripides, a dramatic playwright has been judged by scholars today as both a misogynist and a champion of women. This division at least testifies to the complexity of his female roles. His celebrated play Medea is a coveted role desired by the best dramatic actresses in Greece today. Medea was a princess of Colchis, the area where Jason sought the Golden Fleece. In her quest for Jason’s love and promise to take her with him, she committed a horrible murder of her brother. Later on when Jason falls in love with another woman, Medea kills her two sons to avenge this, another dastardly deed that places Medea outside the pale of womanhood.
Other powerful examples of women creating havoc for men can be found in the depiction of various female monsters found in Homer and other ancient Greek literature. During Odysseus’ ten year trip back home to Ithaca, he encounters many trials and tribulations, most of which came from women monsters. It becomes typical for male heroes of Greek legends to travel this monstrous road too. Scylla, a nymph transformed into a menacing rock with snake and dog heads growing from her, eats men. To give her credit, she was turned into this monster by the goddess Circe who desired Glaucus, who loved Scylla. The famous Medusa, who has snakes for hair was also turned into a terrible woman when Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple, and Athena cursed Medusa with the snakes. Medusa’s power comes from her being personified as a grotesque gorgon, who has the ability to turn men into stone who look upon her. Leering Odysseus’ men to death with their beautiful songs were the sirens, and the meaning has been kept in the English language meaning femme fatales.
The Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle continued these misogynistic writings, although Plato and Aristotle were more accomplished misogynists than Socrates. Socrates wrote “women are the weaker sex…being born a woman is a divine punishment, since a woman is half way between a man and an animal.” Aristotle as both a philosopher and scientist had considerable authority right down to the Scientific Revolution of seventeenth century. His contributions to the lowering of women’s status in the Greek world and beyond emerged from such statements as: “The male is by nature superior and the female inferior and one rules and the other is ruled. This inequality is permanent because the woman’s deliberative faculty is without authority, like a child’s.” For Aristotle “menstrual discharge was semen, but lacking only the soul.” According to Aristotle, women were imperfect or malformed males produced as a result of a conjugal act stained by some impurity.
In tandem with the misogynistic tendencies of the Greeks, was the legend of the Amazons. For the Greeks, Amazons were a race of warrior women who lived somewhere on the edges of the civilized world, somewhere in the Black Sea region. While artistic renditions of Amazons show they have two breasts, the word Amazon means having no breasts. A legend developed that these women had their right breasts removed to aid in their use of the bow and arrow. Some of the myths regarding the Amazons may have some historical basis, and recent archaeological uncovering of burials leads many scholars to conclude that the Scythians, an actual historical tribe, exhibited much of the same characteristics as the Amazons. Amazons were outside the regular fabric of society, as they acted as men. They did not marry, but when they wanted to have female children, they captured men and seduced them. If a male infant was the result, then he was killed, the opposite of what the Greeks did, by committing female infanticide. These Amazons were warriors, who rode astride, and lived without males. Encounters with Amazons were expected of the greatest Greek heroes to show their champion status.
Mary Lefkowitz, in Women in Greek Myth maintains that Greek mythology is the most important legacy from ancient Greece.
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