Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.15

Matthew Dillon, Esther Eidinow, Lisa Maurizio (ed.), Women's Ritual Competence in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. Routledge monographs in classical studies.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2016.  Pp. xiii, 247.  ISBN 9781472478900.  $149.95.  


Reviewed by Jennifer Martinez Morales, Monmouth College (jmartinezmorales@monmouthcollge.edu)

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This edited volume is an exercise in what happens when we combine two different but complementary areas of study: ritual and gender. The purpose of this book, developed from a conference bearing a similar title, is to present a broader understanding of women’s agency in rituals and religion in a way that highlights women’s lived realities in the ancient world. The community, therefore, is a key element that unites most of the contributions in this volume. Women’s ritual contributions within the community at large are examined from different perspectives. Material culture (e.g. terracotta statues, cooking vessels, and Greek inscriptions) and written texts (e.g. Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris) are all examined in different chapters.

This volume deals with different theoretical approaches to ritual ‘competency’ and women’s ‘agency’, and the chapters reflect this. The chapters are arranged not only by themes, but by theoretical viewpoints. All contributors have different definitions of how they understand the key terms. Meritxell Ferrer, for example, understands ‘agency’ as ‘the ability to act with consequence’ (p. 11), while Cecilie Brøns, following Alfred Gell, attributes a dual nature to the concept of agency, seeing agency as being both external (language, practices, rules) and internal (of the mind) (p. 58). Divided in four parts, Part I explores ‘objects and offerings’, Part II ‘authority and transmission’, Part III ‘control and resistance’, and Part IV ‘denial and contestation’. There are no highly problematic contributions, so I will start my evaluations with the most successful contributions to this edited volume: Part IV (chapters 11, 12, and 13).

J. Bert Lott in his chapter titled ‘Women’s ritual competence and a self-inscribing prophet at Rome’ analyses a passage from Dio in which the ancient author describes a female prophet who carves sacred texts into her arm and is troubling the crowds in Rome to the point that Augustus has to intervene (Cass.Dio.55.31.2-3). Although at first glance this passage may not reveal too much information about women’s ritual competency in the ancient world, Lott successfully illustrates the amount of evidence that can be inferred from this simple yet complex ancient passage in our sources. Lott convincingly argues for the story to be understood as a religious ritual. After analyzing the lack of control that Rome had over these prophets, the author examines the actions of this female prophet considering the theories proposed by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley on ritual competence as understood by cognitive science. The author successfully demonstrates how the actions of this female prophet can be understood as aspects of ancient Syrian religion, especially the worship of the cult of Dea Syria. The woman is ultimately described as ‘a legitimate type of agent within a recognizable belief system’ (p. 210), and as such she deserves our attention.

Chapter 12 examines early Christian writings in a new light. This much-needed chapter builds on previous scholarship on the agencies of victimhood by the author. Esther Eidinow focuses on the agency of so-called ‘victims’ of magic and successfully argues against a reading of these women as passive victims. Instead Eidinow contends that we should interpret these texts as showing ‘the potential of these women for physical, mental, and spiritual discipline’ (p. 216). The author follows the theories of agency put forward by Sherry Ortner (i.e. agencies of power and agencies of projects). Once more, we see a contributor to the volume successfully analyzing ancient evidence using a cognitive approach to ritual. The chapter examines several examples of women as the targets of magical attacks, but the most illuminating are the episodes in the Acts of Andrew and the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The reinterpretation of these texts with cognitive theories of agency allows Eidinow to present a new appreciation of these women as portrayed by the early Christian church. This chapter moves beyond a simplistic understanding of (for example) Thecla as masculine to see her as a complex character whose story with Paul ‘depicts how a woman’s connection to the church could provide her with a new agency’ (p. 224).

Deborah Lyons, in her chapter ‘“What the women know” Plutarch and Pausanias on female ritual competence’ examines ancient Greek women’s rituals, including mystery cults, as portrayed by both Plutarch and Pausanias. Lyons successfully argues that the questions these two ancient authors ask (often about female-only cults) are equally important for our understanding of ancient women’s rituals. Lyons also argues that male ignorance should not be understood today as suspicion or contempt from the part of our ancient authors. On the contrary, this may indeed suggest that ancient Greek women’s rituals were perceived in antiquity with some form of prestige and respect (p. 229). According to Lyons, not knowing about an ancient ritual could go ‘hand in hand’ with ‘recognition and appreciation’ of that ritual (p. 229). This complexity is seldom acknowledged in modern scholarship on ancient Greek rituals, especially those that concern women, so it is great to see this particular contribution in this volume.

Other contributions similarly demonstrate the complexity of women’s ritual competence in the ancient Mediterranean. Andromache Karanika in chapter 2, for instance, contends that ritual functions like language. The author uses linguistic theory to analyze women’s prayers in Homeric speech. The most successful analysis in this chapter is that of the peplos woven by Sidonian women and Athena’s rejection of this ritual offering as represented in Book 6 of Homer’s Iliad (p. 39). According to Karanika, there is a ritual error which prompts Athena’s rejection of the offering, namely that the peplos was made by captive Sidonian women and not by Trojan women (who dedicated it). By successfully analyzing the text as a ritual error, Karanika shows how this famous passage in the Iliad should not be merely understood as Athena’s support for the Achaeans, instead we should see the goddess’ rejection of the ritual offering due to a ritual error by the women. It is through this example that we see ritual functioning like language in the ancient world.

Another author in this volume also links women’s ritual competency to ancient textiles. Brøns, in her chapter ‘Power through textiles: Women as ritual performers in ancient Greece’ shows the role that textiles play in women’s agency in ancient ritual practices. What Brøns calls ‘the anthropology of touch’ is the best part of this chapter (p. 57-61). She argues for the importance of women’s interactions with ancient textiles when performing ritual practices like washing and dressing cult statues. These acts, Brøns maintains, should not be merely understood as basic maintenance actions in temples but as ritual in itself. Overall, the author successfully uses Gell’s theories of agency to show how cult statues could embody the deity itself, and the women by dressing and washing the statue came into close and personal contact with the actual deity.

This book makes a significant contribution to both gender studies and studies on ancient Mediterranean religions. If there is one criticism it is that despite being a volume on ancient ritual, the reader feels there could have been a more comprehensive definition for ‘ritual’ than ‘dynamic and creative activities’ (p. 6). Nevertheless, this is a much-needed volume which opens the field to viewing women’s agency in ancient religions in a variety of different ways. Both scholars and students will find much of value in this edited collection.

Authors and titles

Introduction / Matthew Dillon 1
Part I Objects and offerings
1. The forgotten things: Women, rituals, and community in Western Sicily (eighth--sixth centuries BCE) / Meritxell Ferrer
2. Materiality and ritual competence: Insights from women's prayer typology in Homer / Andromache Karanika
3. Power through textiles: Women as ritual performers in ancient Greece / Cecilie Brøns
4. Silent attendants: Terracotta statues and death rituals in Canosa / Maya Muratov
Part II Authority and transmission
5. Shared meters and meanings: Delphic oracles and women's lament / Lisa Maurizio
7. Owners of their own bodies: Women's magical knowledge and reproduction in Greek inscriptions / Irene Salvo
Part III Control and resistance
8. Bitter constraint? Penelope's web and "season due" / Laurie O'Higgins
9. Women's ritual competence and domestic dough: Celebrating the Thesmophoria, Haloa, and Dionysian rites in ancient Attica / Matthew Dillon
10. Inhabiting/subverting the norms: Women's ritual agency in the Greek West / Bonnie MacLachlan
Part IV Denial and contestation
11. Women's ritual competence and a self-inscribing prophet at Rome / J. Bert Lott
12. "A devotee and a champion": Reinterpreting the female "victims" of magic in early Christian texts / Esther Eidinow
13. "What the women know": Plutarch and Pausanias on female ritual competence / Deborah Lyons
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