BMCR 2002.11.06

Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion

, Girls and women in classical Greek religion. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. x, 436 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0415202728 $95.00.

In this very useful book, Matthew Dillon successfully carries out his plan to offer, as he puts it, “a serious start on [the] study of girls and women in classical Greek religion” (x). His sober, informative, and well-researched assessment provides a fine place for students and professional scholars alike to begin studying — or to make new forays into — women’s religious roles in Athens and elsewhere, primarily in the classical period. Dillon expresses two additional purposes in writing this book. First, he aims to support the view that Athenian and other Greek women did “have the greatest share … in matters concerning the gods,” just as Euripides’ Melanippe maintains (1). Second, he aspires to offer “a representative range of the iconographic evidence and its relationship to the literary and epigraphic evidence for girls’ and women’s cult activities” (4-5), in order to facilitate future studies on ancient Greek women and religion. Dillon accomplishes the second purpose in his study. In relation to the first purpose, he amply demonstrates that women had a very great share in divine matters, though not necessarily “the greatest.”

Dillon’s study is not a mere survey. In this work, which he modestly describes as a “concrete gathering of some of the data” pertaining to women in classical Greek religion (5), he offers an impressive number of new suggestions, ideas, and interpretations along the way. These he tends to signal with the adverb “presumably,” such as in, “Here the idea is presumably that sex was impure…” (193, cf., e.g., 168-9, 222, 287). This adverb serves as one verbal cue to help one sort many of Dillon’s new ideas from his amassing of already known information. Readers may not find all these ideas persuasive, though many are worth serious consideration.

The body of Dillon’s study is divided into three Parts (ι and each part has three chapters each. The book also has a generous set of 56 black and white illustrations that are pivotal to the study. This tripartite organization allows Dillon to bridge the dichotomies between ‘public and private’ and ‘Athenian and non-Athenian,’ in order to show that Greek women had important religious roles across such divisions. Part I, “Public religious roles” (chapters 1 through 3), explores various public religious functions of women who were nubile daughters or already married women in Athens and elsewhere, including their roles as prolific dedicators, proud basket-bearers, and influential priests. Here Dillon demonstrates that there was a close connection between women’s patriotism and their public acts of religiosity. Given this connection, it becomes an interesting question whether or not Athenian women considered themselves to be as excluded from the polis as modern scholars commonly say they were. Public religion appears to have been their venue of politics in a society that made no conceptual division between polis and temple, unlike our ‘church and state’. Part I, in my estimation, is the best organized and argued section of the book.

Part II, “Segregated and ecstatic religious rites” (chapters 4 through 6), offers a survey of the more secretive area of women’s ritual practices. Here Dillon first explicates the little that is known about segregated or women-only rituals, such as the Thesmophoria and Haloa. He then explores ecstatic religious rites open to citizen and non-citizen women alike, including the maenadic worship of Dionysus and rooftop laments of women over the death of Adonis. He also underscores the prominence of non-citizen women in classical Greek religion by devoting chapter 6 to the religious role of prostitutes and foreign women in Athens.

Though very informative, Part II is not as well organized as Part I. It is unclear, for instance, why the Thesmophoria should not be included in Part I on women’s public religion, for as Dillon himself notes, this festival had all the marks of public religious activity in Athens and other Greek cities, including a spot on the ritual calendar and state support (109). The Thesmophoria was performed outdoors over several days to help ensure the good of the city as a whole, from healthy offspring to flourishing crops. The mere fact that men were excluded does not render its rites non-public. To suggest otherwise, as Dillon does by relegating the Thesmophoria to Part II, works contrary to his own purpose to show that ancient Greek women’s religious functions were of considerable public significance and deserve greater recognition for their political import. Granted, for us it is hard to appreciate how women with their pit of decaying piglets contributed to the civic good (whereas it is easy to appreciate, say, how men’s work on juries contributed to it), but contribute to the polis they did in the minds of the ancient Greeks. Further, some other chapter sections in Part II are of dubious relevance altogether. To name one example, it is puzzling why, in a book about women in classical Greek religion, Dillon sees need to devote a section to show that males as well as females could be prostitutes in Athens (184-6).

The title of Part III (chapters 7 through 9) ostensibly deals with only two loosely linked topics, the “Sacrificial and domestic rituals” of women. In fact, the chapters and chapter sections of Part III concern a broader range of subjects that do not all fit the rubric “sacrificial and domestic,” such as chapter 9 on women’s roles as mourners at funerals, which were primarily public rites, not strictly domestic services. To the extent that various chapter sections in Part III explore women’s domestic rituals, such as some of the pre-nuptial rites (215-35) and domestic preparations for funerals, they nicely complement Parts I and II on women’s public and ecstatic rites. The diversity of other topics pertaining to women’s rituals in Part III, however, such as women as suppliants (259-60), women’s way of dressing for rituals (250-4), and a medley of comments on menstruation, pregnancy, and miscarriage (249-54) make chapters 7 through 9 rather obscure in their organization. The mélange slows the reader down, though the contents remain worth the effort to read. This is especially true of the section in chapter 8 that does concern sacrifice, where Dillon makes a good case that women were in principle ready to wield the sacrificial knife on goats and small dogs (241-6).

The book title has two potentially misleading features. First, by “girls” in the title, Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion, Dillon almost exclusively means “young women,” that is, fully adolescent females — nubile from an ancient Greek perspective. Only on rare occasion does he refer to prepubescent girls in Greek religion (e.g., 57, 220-1). Thus, scholars who interested in childhood in ancient Greek society will find little about girls per se in Girls and Women, because the book focuses on younger and older women. Second, Dillon’s book does not concentrate as exclusively on the classical period as the title indicates. He explores, on occasion, relevant evidence from the Hellenistic period, even though he states in the introduction that he will avoid making comparative ventures into Hellenistic material (5, see also, e.g., 175, 203-5). Hence, Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion proves of some interest for scholars of Hellenistic religion and women, whereas Dillon’s title and introduction indicate otherwise.

Notwithstanding the organization problems in Parts II and III, Dillon’s study is a worthwhile collection of much iconographic evidence concerning women’s religious functions in ancient Greek society. This gathering, which aims to be representative rather than comprehensive, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. His bibliography is extensive though not exhaustive,1 the index is good, and many of his notes, which are endnotes, are encapsulated bibliographies of specific topics on women in Greek religion. As such, the book provides an excellent entry point into further research. One especially impressive feature in the notes is the care Dillon shows in listing numerous available published illustrations of a vase or sculpture that he discusses but was not able to include in his book. Even if one’s library does not have one source for an illustration that he cites, it is likely to have one of the others.

Routledge, however, made an unfortunate decision in opting to make the Notes needlessly hard to access. The book has nothing but the plain header “Notes” on the endnote pages, including neither the page ranges nor the chapter numbers in the endnote headers. The chapters likewise have no chapter number in the headers. Thus, it is very difficult to access this or that endnote without flipping pages back and forth in an endnote treasure hunt, first to check the chapter number, then to find the page where the chapter notes start in the endnotes, and then to locate the desired note number. Routledge should at least have provided the appropriate chapter numbers in all the headers, text and endnotes alike. Finally, there are a couple of authorial errors, such as the portrayal of Dodona as an oracle of Apollo (98-101). These errors are obvious, though, and they do not undermine the overall worth of the study.

Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion may not be the most engaging work of scholarly prose to read and consult, but it is a conscientious and substantive contribution to the field. Students and professional scholars in the field alike will benefit from drawing upon its wealth of support for the view that Athenian and other Greek women maintained a very great share in matters concerning the gods, a share that had a political dimension which we should not downplay.


1. One surprising omission from the bibliography is Gail Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature, London and New York: Routledge, 1992.