Women in Classical Greek Religion (2024)

Gender and Greek Religion

In general, religious roles were the same for men and women in ancient Greece. They worshipped the same gods and were involved in the same ritual activities, including choral dance, prayer, the offering of libations, and sacrifice. Both men and women participated in many of the same processions and festivals, such as the annual Panathenaia in honor of Athena at Athens. Elite men and women could hold priesthoods, the highest positions in civic cults, because the Greeks venerated both female and female deities. But there were a few key differences. Men and women focused on different gods and swore by different deities according to gender. Principle deities for women in Attica included Athena, patron of the polis; Artemis Brauronia, protector of children and childbirth; Aphrodite, celebrated in the festival of Adonia; and Demeter, principally at the festival of the Thesmophoria. The religious order reflected and reinforced the social order. Many publicly financed sacrifices took place in political and social contexts that excluded women. Indeed, the role of women in animal sacrifice has been much debated. Some scholars have argued for their total exclusion from the central act of slaughter and the distribution of meat, while others believe they participated, but in a more limited way than men. There are fewer public dedications by women and they seem to have participated in fewer sacrifices in domestic contexts. In contrast to men, who worshipped the same ancestral gods during their lifetime, women adopted new ones when they married and joined the families of their husbands. Female ritual tasks also diverged from those of men, mirroring their domestic duties as wives, household managers, and mothers. Activities like water carrying, food preparation, feeding, weaving, and washing often recur in a female ritual context.

Women as Priestesses and Dedicators

The most important religious position open to women in ancient Greece was that of priestess. In contrast to the roles of priests in later religions, pagan cultic personnel for the most part did not devote their entire lives to religious service, but rather performed their duties on an ad hoc basis, with the notable exception of the Vestal Virgins at Rome. Nor did they belong to a separate religious community with its own hierarchy and officials. Rather, both male and female priests, along with other religious officials, had families and managed their own estates when not engaged in their ritual duties. The close identification of priestly officials with their deities necessitated a category of female cultic agent acting essentially as public office holders equal to men. Homer’s Iliad provides a prototype for female sacred service (Homer, Il. 6.297–310). Hector instructs his mother and the older women of Troy to make an offering to Athena to avert a crisis in battle. At the temple, the priestess, Theano, opens the doors to the sanctuary, places the dedicatory garment on the knees of the cult statue, leads the women in a supplication ritual, and then prepares animals for sacrifice. Although these rituals are performed by Trojan women, they can be understood as Greek, given the lack of ethnic distinction between the two groups within the poem.

At Athens, priesthoods tended to be hereditary and controlled by a few aristocratic families. The Eteobutadai, a genos (clan) that claimed descent from the original Athenian dynasty, reserved to their female members the right to be appointed priestess of Athena Polias, the principal deity of the polis. Both this priesthood and that of Demeter and Kore remained in the same families for over sevenh hundred years. In 508–507 bce, the reforms of Cleisthenes introduced new priesthoods that were open to all citizens having the necessary qualifications. For instance, the priestess of Athena Nike, instituted in the 440s, was open to “all Athenian women” (IG 1335). Priestesses performed a variety of functions related to the worship of the deity and as a result had a strong public presence and authority within their communities. They led processions, offered prayers, lit fires on altars, poured libations, adorned statues, received and prepared sacrificial animals for slaughter, presided over sacrifice, distributed and consumed sacrificial meat, and tended sacred implements.1 Within sacred precincts, priestesses carried the key to the temple and cared for the xoanon (cult image), washing and dressing it as custom dictated.

Priestesses enjoyed much higher social and legal status than other women. They were not required to have a kyrios (male guardian), whether father, husband, or other male relative, to act on their behalf in legal matters. They received salaries; special privileges, such as a share in sacrificial and other offerings; and payment for performing rites. One of the most lucrative female priesthoods was that of Demeter, garnering five hundred drachmas in remuneration at the Greater and Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries. Priestesses also received housing privileges, burials at the public expense, and special seats at the theater. At Athens, priestesses had a legal right to sue. In one case, the priestess of Demeter sued the priest Archias for impiously performing a sacrifice on behalf of a hetaira (courtesan) in violation of ancestral custom and appropriating her own right to sacrifice at the Haloa ([Dem.] 59.115–117; Ath. 13.594b). Elsewhere it is said that another Theano, the daughter of a priestess of Demeter, refused to follow state orders to curse Alcibidiades, who had been condemned for profaning the mysteries, because she was “a praying, not a cursing, priestess” (Lys. 6.51; Plut., Alc. 22.4, 33). As a further sign of their legal independence, priestesses had the right to sign and seal official documents and appoint subpriestesses (Lycurg. On the Priestess fr. 6.4). Priestesses had the authority to uphold religious law and to speak publicly before Athenian political bodies such as the Council and Assembly (LSCG 102). The priestess of Athena Polias is said to have persuaded the Athenian citizens to evacuate the city prior to the battle of Salamis in 480 bce (Hdt. 7.142–144). A select few had eponymy, the practice of dating of a year after a priestess’s term in office, as in the case of the priestess Chrysis at Argos (Thuc. 2.2.1). Inscriptions record their benefactions to their cities and sanctuaries, where they built temples, marketplaces, and cisterns.

The practice of honoring priestesses was widespread in ancient Greece. They were publicly recognized with golden crowns, portrait statues, and decrees. Usually close male relatives, such as fathers, husbands, and sons, or sometimes both parents and, very occasionally, the mother alone, set up honorary statues for sacerdotal women. A priestess might dedicate a statue in her own honor, but with the permission of the city, as in the case of the statues of the priestesses of Athena Polias erected on the Athenian Acropolis. The base of one such statue describes the honored priestess as the daughter of Drakontides of Bate, who, at eighty-eight years old, had held the office for sixty-four years, from 430–365 bce. She is most likely a woman called Lysimache and possibly the prototype for Lysistrata in Aristophanes’s same-name play produced well within her term of service in 411 bce.

Apart from priestly service, women could also serve as public benefactors. They could found sanctuaries and make religious dedications. Although it may seem surprising that women could execute such a costly benefaction, the Greek mythic tradition offers many examples of female cult founders, such as Iphigenia, who carried Taurian Artemis to Greece and instituted the cult of Artemis Tauropolis Halai (E. IT 1463–1467). One inscription records that a woman named Chrysina from Asia minor, inspired by a dream, dedicated an oikon kai agalma (temple and cult statue) to Demeter and Kore in the second half of the 4th century bce (CEG ii.860). Probably the most famous example of a female dedication is the monumental kore of the daedalic type, from the mid-7th century bce, found in the sanctuary of Artemis at Delos. The dedicatory inscription that runs along the left side of her skirt reads, “Nikandre dedicated me to the far-shooting, the pourer of arrows, the daughter of Deinodikes of Naxos, excellent among other (sc. women), Deinomenes full sister, wife of Phraxos n(ow)” (IG 12, 5.2). Whether the statue represents a woman or the goddess, and whether Nikandre was a priestess is unknown. The dedication nonetheless suggests that women in their capacity as dedicators could assume a public voice and proudly proclaim their contributions to their communities. Women also made smaller dedications in the form of votives fashioned from wood or clay, called pinakes, or offered personal objects such as jewelry and clothing, made for and by them, to goddesses such as Hera, Athena, and Artemis. Although it is uncertain whether women used their own funds for their dedications, they clearly had the means to acquire and transport their personal offerings to sanctuaries and did so frequently.

The Ritual Activities of Girls

Citizens, we will begin to say a few useful words for the polis, which makes sense, for it reared me in splendor. When I was seven years old straightaway I was a arrhephoros. At the age of ten, I served as a grain-grinder for Athena. Then wearing a yellow gown, I played the bear at the rites of Brauron. And I once became a kanephoros as a beautiful girl, wearing a necklaces of figs. (Ar. Lys. 639–647)

In this passage from Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, the chorus of older women detail their cultic service to the city as the daughters of prominent citizens, referring first to the position of arrhephoros, then to their involvement in the rites of Brauron, and finally to the role of kanephoros (basket-carrier). The Arrhephoria was a ritual open only to young girls from aristocratic Athenian families. Two or four girls between the ages of seven and eleven were selected by the Archon Basileus and financed by the official state liturgy to reside for a year not far from the temple of Athena Polias on the Acropolis. There they assisted the priestess of Athena Polias in performing rites in honor of the goddess. They set up the loom threads on which were woven the peplos (garment) presented to Athena as part of the annual procession of the Panathenaia. A section of the Parthenon frieze appears to depict a portion of this ceremony. At the left, two girls, possibly the Arrhephori, carry objects on their heads, and two men at the right handle the sacred peplos (marble relief, slab V from the East Frieze of the Parthenon, c. 480 bce, British Museum 1816,0610.19). To mark the end of their service, the girls performed a secret nocturnal rite. The priestess placed items “unknown to the girls and to herself” on their heads (Paus. 1.27.3). They then descended through an underground passage to a shrine, possibly that of Aphrodite. There they left whatever they were carrying and returned with other covered objects to the Acropolis. Although little is known about the culminating rite, it may have commemorated Athena’s transfer of the infant Erichthonius to the care of Cecrops’s daughters, enjoining them not to look inside the basket. Scholars have hypothesized that the objects carried down may have been snakes and that those carried up may have been images of swaddled infants as part of an initiation rite.

Much more is known about the other sacred duty mentioned by the comic chorus, the rites of Brauron, a sanctuary of Artemis located on the eastern coast of Attica beginning in the 6th century bce.2 Every four years, a select group of girls between the ages of five and ten was chosen from each Athenian tribe to live in this sanctuary as arktoi (little bears) for an unspecified period of time, possibly as long as a year. Knowledge of these rituals derives from two types of evidence: myths connected with Artemis and artifacts found within the Brauronian precinct, including pottery fragments and records of textile dedications made by women. According to local legend, a bear scratched a young girl when playing with her. When the girl’s brothers killed the bear, they angered the goddess, who sent a plague that could only be stopped by the service of young girls “playing the bear” before marriage, a rite known as the Arkteia.

Fragments of pottery vessels in the shape used for dedications to Artemis from the late 5th century, called krateriskoi, which have been excavated in the sanctuary provide visual evidence for the ritual of “playing the bear.” They show girls naked or wearing short tunics as they dance, run, or process to an altar. They often hold wreathes or torches, and the occasional presence of a palm tree points to the worship of Artemis. Some feature bear imagery, depicting either an adult wearing a bear mask or a bear chasing a girl toward an altar. In addition to the ritual activities of girls, older women appear to help to prepare the girls for their ritual activities, perhaps their mothers, as well as one or more priestesses. The rituals may have culminated in the shedding of a saffron garment to mark the final stage of the transition. Scholars have interpreted these activities as a rite of passage that marked the physical maturation of girls and prepared them for marriage by reinforcing their identification with animals in need of domestication.3 Women also made dedications of clothing to Artemis at Brauron after childbirth, in celebration of a successful labor and delivery. These offerings are recorded in inscriptions which have been excavated from the Brauroneion branch at Athens. From the late 5th and mostly 4th centuries bce, these inscriptions yield valuable insights into the types of votive offerings, including garments and jewelry, accomplished by women. Since only the first names of the women are usually recorded, without the names of fathers or husbands, it is likely that they acted on their own, without the oversight of a male family member.

A public religious office open to young women on the cusp of marriage was that of kanephoros, the offering basket-carrier that led processions and was especially important in state processions like the Panathenaia, but also in private cults such as the Rural Dionysia. Around the age of fifteen, Athenian girls from aristocratic Eupatrid families carried on their heads the special three-handled offering basket, containing ritual paraphernalia, such as the knife, ribbons, garlands, and grains necessary for animal sacrifice. Attendants carrying parasols and stools escorted them. As with choral performance, this sacred office offered an opportunity to display the beauty of freeborn daughters and to indicate their eligibility for marriage to all who viewed them. Indeed, a comic father instructs his daughter to “carry the basket prettily” in order to attract a husband (Ar. Ach. 254–245). To be chosen to serve as a basket-bearer brought great honor to a girl and her family, whereas to be passed over incurred disgrace. When the unnamed sister of Harmodius suffered this humiliation in 514 bce, he retaliated by killing the tyrant, Hipparchus. The elevated status of the basket-carrier is further attested by the fact that she received a portion of the sacrificial meat that culminated the procession and later became the subject of Middle comedy.

Women’s Religious Festivals

In the Greek world, a festival was a day set aside for the collective worship of a particular deity. Such occasions were publicly financed and entailed the suspension of all political business. Festivals in which women exclusively participated are few. Typically they involved secret, often nocturnal, rites, as in the case of the Arrhephoria. The Attic festivals celebrated exclusively by women for which there is the most evidence are the Thesmophoria for Demeter and Kore and the Adonia for Aphrodite Ourania.


Women-only festivals from which men were strictly excluded were an important part of the Athenian ritual calendar and provided a special occasion not only for worship but also for female solidarity and leadership. Most of this nondomestic ritual engagement involved fertility rites. Festivals in honor of Demeter channeled the generative power of women to stimulate both agrarian and human productivity. The Thesmophoria, the oldest and most famous of these festivals, was observed in almost every part of the Greek world, but the most well-documented version was held annually at Athens. It was the largest and perhaps oldest Athenian festival celebrated by women. As part of the official state religious calendar, it was a public religious occasion, with a special civic space set aside for it, the shrine of the Thesmophorion, adjacent to the area where the Athenian Assembly met. Citizen men were required by law to pay all expenses for their wives to attend. The main features of the festival were secrecy, pig sacrifice, and rites promoting agricultural fertility.

The three-day festival was held on the eleventh of Pyanepsion, in late September or early October, a period that coincided with the fall planting of winter wheat, barley, and legumes. In the days before it was preceded by two other Demetrian festivals. First, citizen wives traveled to neighboring Halimus to celebrate the local version of the Thesmophoria, where they danced and offered sacrifice. At the Stenia, a preliminary feast to the Athenian Thesmophoria held two days earlier, they gathered and engaged in a type of ritual joking about sex, referred to as aischrologia. Thus five festival days during the early fall were set aside for women, from which men were excluded. These festivals of Demeter all occurred at seedtime and all aimed to promote agrarian and human fertility. Women’s religious activities at this time reinforced men’s labor in the fields by attempting to ensure the growth of the newly sown crops they planted. It must have been a busy ritual time for female citizens and perhaps a welcome break from domestic responsibilities and the demands of caring for their families.

Because men did not attend and women performed their rites in secrecy, it is difficult to reconstruct what went on during the Thesmophoria. The best source, Aristophanes’s Women of the Thesmophoria (411 bce), pointedly imparts little information about the actual rituals. Instead it comically portrays the intrusion of a male spy, Mnesilochus, disguised as a woman in order to defend his relative, the tragic poet Euripides, from prosecution by the women for his negative portrayal of them. Piecing together various late sources, the following picture emerges: Preparation for the festival began over three months in advance. Piglets were sacrificed in midsummer, probably at the Skira, another women’s festival, about which little is known, but probably connected with Athena. Their remains were then scattered in pits along with models of snakes and phalluses fashioned out of dough. Pigs were a customary offering to Demeter because of their fecundity as evidenced by their large litters but also because the Greeks associated them with female genitalia. Snakes were associated with Demeter and with chthonic cults more generally. The phalluses evoked male fertility. The recovery of the decayed remains played a central role in the Thesmophoria. A select group of women called antletriai (Bailers) retrieved the mixture at some point during the festival and placed it in boxes on the altars of Demeter and Persephone, as a sort of fertilizer to be mixed with seeds before planting to ensure a good harvest. Because this mix of decayed flesh, dough, and pig bones was considered sacred, the Bailers had to observe a state of sexual purity three days before they assumed their duties.

On the first day, Anodos (Going Up), citizen women assembled and hiked up to the Thesmophorion shrine carrying the implements necessary to perform their rituals and the provisions for their stay. Their departure must have caused a disruption, for on the middle day of the festival neither the law courts nor the Assembly met. There they set up temporary quarters, abstaining from sex and rigorously banning all men. Women from each deme chose two archousai (rulers) to preside over the festival. While obligatory for married citizen women, virgins could not attend because they had not yet achieved sexual maturity. On the second day, Nesteia (Fasting), the women fasted, sitting on mats composed of special plants believed to suppress sexual desire, symbolically commemorating Demeter’s refusal to eat out of grief for the loss of her daughter, as represented in the myth of her abduction. On the third day, Kalligeneia (Fair Birth), the women feasted, partaking of the meat of the sacrificial pigs, offering cakes in the shape of genitals, and eating pomegranates. After remembering the sorrows of a mother who had lost her only child, the women celebrated the gift of childbirth and children. The fertility of the earth at seedtime was closely linked to the bearing of fine children within the Athenian community.

Although it is unclear when the ritual took place, women engaged in the same suggestive banter of aischrologia practiced at the Stenia, probably at the end of the second day, after the fasting. In the context of the Thesmophoria, this jesting recalled the crude gesture of the servant Iambe who made the goddess laugh despite her sorrows in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Hom. Hymn Dem. 202–204). By encouraging sexual expression, this ritual joking was thought to promote sexuality within marriage and therefore female fertility. Like other women-only festivals in ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria established a female culture in which women were ritually and politically in charge, if only temporarily. The celebration emphasized that the continuity of the polis and its welfare depended upon women’s reproductive power.

The Haloa, a lesser known, all-women festival held on the twenty-sixth of Poseideon, in late November or early December, similarly stressed the role of female sexuality in the promotion of fertility. The origins of the name are unclear. It may derive from the Greek word for “threshing floor,” a stone circular area located outside rural Greek villages. The only extant description of the festival states that it was restricted to women and held at Eleusis (Sch. Lucian, 279, 24 Rabe). After male officials prepared an elaborate feast, they left and the women took charge of the proceedings. They drank wine and feasted on a variety of foods, except those forbidden in the Mysteries, such as pomegranates, apples, eggs, and fowl. They further carried models of male and female genitalia and engaged in aischrologia, while priestesses encouraged them to engage in adultery by whispering in their ears. It has been speculated that the Haloa was originally a fertility festival connected to the myth that the cultivation of grain was invented at Eleusis. A few Attic vases have been traditionally associated with this festival. The best known is an Attic red-figure pelike attributed to the Hasselmann Painter from around 430 bce (British Museum E819). It shows a woman leaning forward to sprinkle something from a rectangular box held in her left hand. On the ground stand four phalluses with leaves of barley curling around their bases. These might be the clay models used by the women in the Haloa or the Thesmophoria. Perhaps the woman has brought them to the field and planted them among the newly sprouted crops, scattering something over them meant to stimulate their growth, like the sacred, rotted mixture produce for the Thesmophoria. Whatever the correct interpretation of the pelike, the festival of the Haloa probably arose from a phallic rite practiced by women to promote the growth of grain before becoming a nocturnal festival associated with sexuality, license, and courtesans.


The Adonia was another festival exclusively celebrated by women. It honored Aphrodite rather than Demeter and is only attested at Athens. Evidence for its ritual practices is scanty, and little can be securely established, despite the large amount of attention it has garnered among classical scholars.4 Of Phoenician origin, Adonis was a mythical shepherd beloved by Aphrodite who was killed in a boar hunt just on the verge of adulthood. Despite his mortal status, he was worshipped as a god in a private ritual context. No public sanctuaries of Adonis were established at Athens nor did the youth receive a state cult. Rather, female friends and neighbors gathered together at midsummer to perform his rites on the rooftops of their houses. They sowed lettuce seeds in broken pots, called “Adonis Gardens,” and carried them outside to wither in the summer sun, evoking the premature death of the youth. Easily withered by the summer sun, the fragile plants evoked the premature death of the youth. It was a noisy event (Ar. Lys. 387–389), combining loud wailing in imitation of Aphrodite’s mourning over her dead lover and jubilation over the couple’s love. To signal the end of the festival, women threw the plants into the sea. Because not officially recognized by the polis, the rites of the Adonia were open to both hetairas and foreign women, in addition to citizen wives (Men. Sam. 35–46).

Rites of Dionysus

One other type of exclusively female ritual activity was connected to the god Dionysus. Although Euripides’s Bacchae depicts the violent and ecstatic rites of his female followers, known as maenads (Eur. Ba. 32–36, 216–220, 664–665, 699–703), there is little evidence for these practices in classical Athens. Instead, Attic vases, particularly red-figure stamnoi, document an unidentified form of Dionysus worship performed by women.5 They depict women gathered around the god’s distinctive altar, either indoors or outside. The shrine consists of a post or tree trunk decorated with a mask of the bearded Dionysus, several garments, and twigs from which cakes are suspended. In front is placed a table with food and two jars in the form of stamnoi from which women ladle wine. Other females often appear nearby, dancing ecstatically. Whether these images represent an actual ritual is open to question, but they do suggest that women gathered in groups to celebrate deities and cults outside of the official polis context.

Domestic Religion

Although women managed “the things within,” the extent to which they exercised ritual control within the household has been a subject of debate.6 Men performed the majority of rites associated with the family and the household, even those revolving around childbirth and naming, because they involved issues of familial identity, incorporation, and continuity, eventually expanding outward to the polis. According to Plato, women in particular are prone to make dedications, perform sacrifices, and establish shrines to gods both within the house and outside in response to fearful dreams and omens (Pl., Leg. 909e–910b). Wives prayed and made offerings to Hestia, the hearth and embodiment of patrilineal succession (Eur., Alc. 164–166). They were also responsible for placing strings of apotropaic amulets on young children to protect them from harm. Literary and visual sources frequently allude to women’s involvement in nuptial rites, including the bathing and adornment of the bride, wedding songs, and the carrying of torches in the procession that accompanied the girl to her new home.7

Within the domestic context, the most important religious obligation for women was the performance of funerary ritual. Although activities such as mourning, caring for the dead, and visiting tombs were not exclusive to women, they tend to predominate in the abundance of textual and artistic representations of death.8 While women’s two religious primary roles—that of promoting life and of supervising death—may seem contradictory, the two in fact were connected in the Greek mid, for the beginning of life implied its end. The hero Achilles, for instance, will suffer “such things as Destiny wove with the strand of his birth that day his mother bore him” (Hom., Il. 20.128). The mother thus engenders the condition of mortality in her child since fate or death accompanies an individual at birth. As has been well documented, funerary procedures carried out by women shared many similarities with nuptial rituals, including the bathing and dressing of the corpse before interment and participation in funerary procession.9 In classical Athens, the funeral had three parts: the prothesis (lying in state), the ekphora (procession to the grave), and interment in the grave. Although the legal responsibility of the deceased’s relatives, particularly sons, women were actively involved in all stages of funerary ritual.

Immediately after death, women prepared for the prothesis, which took place on the next day, either indoors or in an interior courtyard. First the eyes and mouth were closed, sometimes using a chip strap to hold the latter in place. Women then bathed, anointed, and dressed the body, usually in white. Antigone in Sophocles’s same-name play states that she has performed this ritual for all the members of her family in the absence of her mother, “For when you died, I washed and dressed you all with my own hands, and poured the libations on your graves” (Soph., Ant. 900–903). An unmarried or newly married person might wear wedding attire. The body was wrapped in a shroud and placed on a bier, with a mattress, pillow and cover, and with the feet placed toward the door or street. Sometimes the body was strewn with wild herbs to ward off evil spirits or to counteract the smell. The head was crowned with garlands of laurel and celery. A water jug stood at the door to purify anyone who came into contact with the body before he or she left the house. A branch of cypress—a tree associated with cemeteries—was hung on the front door to alert passers-by of the presence of death.

A major focus of the prothesis was ritualized mourning by the female members of the household. Although ritual lamentation was not performed exclusively by women, it is overwhelmingly associated with them in both textual and visual sources. Many Greek tragedies, for instance, feature choruses of mourning women, young and old (e.g., Aesch., Supp., Cho.; Soph., El.; Eur. Supp., Tro., IT). In ritual practice, the chief mourner, usually the mother, stood at the head of the corpse, closely surrounded by other women, even young girls, and engaged in traditional gestures and sounds of lamentation. In classical Athens, no woman under the age of sixty could participate, unless she was within the range of cousins or closer in relation. The songs belonged to a female poetic tradition handed down over generations that involved conventional themes and phrasing as well as improvisation. So central to ancient Greek culture were ritual laments performed by women that the earliest epic, Homer’s Iliad, contains several scenes of extended female mourning (Hom., Il. 18.35–147, 19.282–289, 22.475–515, 24.720–775). The return of Hector’s corpse after a long and humiliating delay allows his female kin to sing laments in responsion, led by the hero’s wife, Andromache, who cradles his head in her arms (Hom., Il. 24.723–745). Ritual gestures also accompanied these songs, as women beat their chests and heads, lacerated their skin with their nails, and tore their hair. Men also participated, although in a different way (Hom., Il. 19.282–289).

Female family members were also involved in the ekphora, the funerary procession and the most public part of the funerary rites, accompanying the body to the cemetery on the third day. Men walked in front and women behind. As in the prothesis, no woman under the age of sixty could join unless she was the child of a cousin or closer relation. By the classical period, limitations were also placed on how many female mourners could participate and the number of cloaks worn by them in the procession. Nor were they allowed to lacerate their flesh, sing laments, nor mourn anyone besides the deceased. Lastly, women were not supposed to carry tomb offerings in baskets larger than one cubit, the length of a forearm. The purpose of this legislation has been variously interpreted.10 It may have been intended to check women’s disorderly conduct in public or extravagant displays of wealth. A large cortège of hired female mourners sumptuously costumed advertised the status and prosperity of the Athenian elite at a time when a more democratic social agenda prevailed. Whatever the rationale, these restrictions had the effect of muting the one form of public verbal expression permitted to women in classical Athens.

Women also played an important and often overlooked role in caring for the dead at the tomb, mainly because this ritual task is seldom mentioned in literary texts apart. Tragedy typically depicts women as mourners, and much less often alludes to or represents them as visiting tombs. One obvious reason is that tending the grave required respectable women to leave the house, with potentially adverse consequences, while ritual laments could be performed at home. In Lysias I.8, for instance, the speaker traces the beginning of his wife’s adulterous affair to his mother’s funeral. Although men, whether sons, fathers, or servants, also visit graves in Greek tragedy (e.g., A., Cho. 1–21; E., El. 90–92, 509–517; E., Or. 470–473), the job more typically falls to women, especially teenage girls, who are depicted depositing locks of hair, pouring libations, and performing laments at the tomb (Soph., An. 431–432; Eur., IT 173–177; cf. 701).

The primary source for women as grave visitors is Attic polychrome white ground lekythoi. These cylindrical oil containers began to be produced between 480 and 470 bce, just after the Persian war, and during a period when funerary customs underwent significant change at Athens. Large-scale funerary monuments, such as the archaic kouroi no longer marked tombs and stone stelai for individuals are not clearly attested again until the time of the Peloponnesian war due to a law that curtailed the construction of elaborate grave monuments in Attica from 500 to 430 bce (Cic., de leg. 2.25–226).11 By the end of the 5th century, lekythoi stopped being produced as stone funerary monuments came back into vogue. Privately purchased, these vessels were placed around the bier at home during the prothesis, buried with the body, or placed on the grave after interment. Family members brought these small, portable objects to the tomb on the third, ninth, and thirtieth days, and then annually, after burial. Visits also occurred during the civic festival of the Genesia, as well as at other times. A lekthyos could also be used in public burials, where they were placed by the ashes of the war dead in the Agora, and then taken to the public cemetery and deposited in the public grave.12 Close kinswomen probably would have selected, arranged, and deposited the funerary vases.13

Although both male and female family members tended to their loved ones’ tombs, the lekythoi almost exclusively show women in this context.14 They represent them preparing flat baskets with their offerings, tying woolen ribbons around stelai, or leaving lekythoi as offerings. These objects affirmed that the dead had not been forgotten and promised that the women of the family would continue to take proper care long after their deaths. Conversely, the neglect of the grave diminished the status of the deceased and served as a particular reproach to the female kin (Aesch., Cho. 432–433, cf. 8–9; Aesch., Ag. 1554; Eur., El. 324–325). Through the performance of proper funerary rites both at home and at the grave, Athenian women helped to construct and maintain social networks and familial identity. The circulation of lekythoi provides concrete evidence of women’s physical presence in the polis as they chose the grave gifts and transported them from the interior of the house to beyond the city’s walls, where the cemeteries were located. They further attest to the critical function of women in forming and maintaining Athenian religious networks both at home and within the city, whether as basket-carriers, priestesses, festival celebrants, or mourners.

Review of Literature

For over a century the study of religion in Greco-Roman antiquity focused almost exclusively on men. Comprehensive works pay scant attention to women’s religious activities and their ritual contributions to their communities.15 Even the more recent and widely used textbook lack a sustained treatment of the subject.16

Not until the last few decades have women and ritual become the object of scholarly investigation. This development is closely entwined with the surge of interest in women and gender studies within classics facilitated by the flow female scholars into the academy and critical methodologies focused on women and gender from other disciplines. Indeed, much of the evidence for the lives of ancient Greek women, whether literary, archaeological, or artistic, involves ritual activity. The study of women in ancient Greece is thus inseparable from the study of women in Greek religion. Because the classical polis required women’s religious participation and public presence, religion has been viewed as the one sphere that allowed for female agency and civic influence.17 For this reason, most scholarship emphasizes female agency and competence in Greek religion.

Some of the earliest studies of women and ritual focus on Attic tragedy, a genre that has its origins in religion and abounds with references to, and performances of, ritual acts. In a seminal essay influenced by structuralist theory, Foley first recognized that female characters often breach the divide between household and polis through their religious interventions, restoring order to both spheres.18 The symbolic representation of women as ritual agents in tragedy is further explored in her two subsequent books.19 An essay by Winkler can also be considered foundational for current research. Using the festival of the Thesmophoria as a case study, he examines the possibilities for subversion and resistance afforded by female-only ritual activities.20

The last two decades has seen a rapid expansion of scholarship in this area. Numerous collections of essays have appeared, many as the product of conferences.21 Dillon offers the first comprehensive survey of all the evidence in its various forms to reconstruct a broad outline of women’s religious engagement in the classical polis.22 The analysis of Goff covers much of the same material but from a feminist perspective.23 She argues that female ritual activities demonstrate the presence and agency of women in the public realm and considers how these actions both reinforced and challenged gender norms. In her book on sacred landscapes and gender, Cole articulates how rites performed by women in Artemis cults strengthened the larger polis community.24 Female priesthoods represent another productive strand of research that powerfully articulates the very real public authority of sacerdotal women in the classical polis.25 Although not exclusively focused on women, the recent work on ancient Greek religion introduces new methodological approaches that move away from the traditional concept of polis religion to understand how all members of the city may have experienced and contributed to its religious framework.26

Women in Classical Greek Religion (2024)
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