14 October 2008

Athenian Ladies in New York

Worshipping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens (with Update)

An exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York will soon explore the many ways in which women’s religious worship contributed not just to their personal fulfilment but to the civic identity of the leading city of the Classical Greek world as well.

Worshipping Women seeks to correct "the unremittingly bleak picture that the lives of Athenian women were highly restricted when it came to the public sphere and participation in the political process. The involvement of women in cults and festivals ... was as essential for the successful functioning of the polis as that of any member of society."

I wish them luck.

Of course, a woman's life wasn't 'unremittingly bleak' but it was certainly unremittingly patriarchal. The idea of women taking part in the public business of the polis would have seemed inherently comical to Athenian citizens (males only, of course). That's what's behind Aristophanes, in some of his surviving plays, where he chuckles, gurgles, and snorts at women pretending to take on the roles of men instead of staying at home. The women are well aware of what men think about them:
Men never speak a good word, never one, for the feminine gender,
Everyone says we're a Plague,the source of all evils to man,
war, dissension, and strife
Still, as Onassis knows, the only area in which women had any power at all was in religion. Public ritual gave a woman the only chance she had (if she were respectable) to get out of the house and even, sometimes, to mingle with men. And that made husbands nervous. Especially in Dionysus’ cult, women had an outlet for worship equal or greater to that afforded to men. In the spirit of Dionysian revelry, women could become his priestesses or 'Bacchae' simply by drinking, dancing, singing, and releasing their inhibitions.

Then, there were also women-only festivals where men were excluded. Naturally, they didn't like being excluded -- but they were stuck: such rites were sanctioned by ancestral tradition. There are anecdotes and legends about men who tried to spy on women's secret rituals. After all, they had to know. They had a right to know. Unsurprisingly, the spied-upon sometimes responded with lethal fury. But not always.

The most venerable women-only rite in Athens, the Thesmophoria, held in autumn at the time of sowing, included hurling pigs into snake-filled crevices, and strict observance of sexual abstinence. Women left their homes to set up a tent city close to the site of the public Assembly of men.
Let us now devote ourselves to the sports which the women are
accustomed to celebrate here, when time has again brought round the
mighty Mysteries of the great goddesses, the sacred days....
But all they really did at such festivals, so men feared, was give vent to their legendary potential for defiance and subversiveness. And drink undiluted wine -- as Aristophanes reported, they took an oath sworn over cups of the best rich, dark wine never to mix their wine with water!
Oh! you wanton, you tippling women, who think of nothing but wine; you are a fortune to the drinking-shops and are our ruin; for the sake of drink, you neglect both your household and your [weaving] shuttle!
Men of ancient Athens surely laughed at Aristophanes' plays and this lampooning of women, but it may have been uneasy laughter. Did they really fear that their wives were secret alcoholic nymphomanics -- adulterous, lecherous, bibulous, treacherous and garrulous to boot! All vice, in short, and the curse of their husbands.
There is but one thing in the world worse than a shameless woman,
and that's another woman.
Ladies, I offer terms...

Aristophanes finally made his peace with women. At the end of his play about the Thesmophoria, he tells the troublesome matrons:

If well and truly, your honourable sex befriend me now, I won't abuse your honourable sex from this time forth for ever.

Non-abusive banter only, I am sure, at the Onassis Cultural Center 10 December 2008 t0 9 May 2009. It may well be worth a trip to the city since Greek newspapers say that many objects will be seen for the first time in New York.

Does that mean that Ladies are usually relegated to the storerooms? Surely not.

With thanks to the blog Tropaion for this alert.


Above: Statue of the Goddess Artemis,ca. 100 B.C. From Delos (found in the House of the Diadoumenos). Athens, National Archaeological Museum.

Below: A Spartan woman victor in the foot-race at the Heraean Games, ca. 460 B.C., Vatican Museum, fitting a description by Pausanias, which says that the girls competed divided into three teams according to their age. During events their hair was allowed to fall loose on their shoulders and they wore a short chiton tunic which reached down to their knees but left bare their left shoulder and breast. As in the case of male Olympic winners, the prize for them too was a wreath of wild olive as well as the right to dedicate a tablet depicting themselves at the temple of Hera.

Updated 19 December 2008:

The show has opened. See the review in the New York Times.


  1. That parting "this one's for the ladies" shot of Aristophanes' reminds me forcefully of this. The difference being that we know the author is distant from the humour in the latter case.

  2. Heavens! I will never think of Tom Paine in the same way again :-)


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