BMCR 2004.06.09

Aphrodite’s Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece

, Aphrodite's tortoise : the veiled woman of ancient Greece. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2003. x, 358 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0954384539. $69.50.

In what will become a standard work in the field of Greek dress, Llewellyn-Jones (hereafter L-J) offers the first full-length examination of the veiling of women in the ancient Greek world from c. 900 BCE to 200 CE. His study covers the entirety of the ancient Greek world and argues that veiling was routine for women of varying social strata, especially when they appeared in public or before unrelated males. L-J further concludes that female use of the veil, which he defines as “any garment that covers the head or the face” (p. 8), was part of a prevailing male ideology that endorsed female silence and invisibility. While L-J asserts that the women who veiled their heads subscribed to this male ideology, he argues that veiling did not simply entail female powerlessness in the face of male authority. To the contrary, veiling allowed women a certain degree of freedom of movement and provided them with opportunities to comment on their social standing, their sexuality, and their emotional state.

The book’s structure is relatively straightforward. In the first five chapters L-J uses textual and iconographic evidence to formulate a vocabulary of veiling, to catalogue veil styles adopted by ancient Greek women, and to gauge how widespread veiling practices were in different periods of Greek history. In the final five chapters, L-J considers the variety of social and symbolic meanings of Greek veiling. After investigating the veil’s association with the related issues of shame, modesty, respect, and honor, L-J analyzes the veil’s place in the separation of the sexes, the female lifecycle, the Greeks’ fear of female sexual pollution, and female self-expression.

Chapter One looks at the state of the evidence and scholarship on Greek women’s use of the veil and the accompanying ideology of veiling. In what is undoubtedly the most controversial section of the book, L-J attributes the persistent silence on the subject to modern scholars’ wish to distance themselves and their discipline — either knowingly or subconsciously — from a garment so closely associated with female subjugation and Oriental “otherness.” As L-J himself admits, the scattered and fragmentary nature of the evidence for ancient veiling may have contributed to the lack of extensive scholarship on ancient Greek veiling practices. Nevertheless, modern scholarship’s relative neglect of this aspect of Greek dress is striking, especially in light of rich pool of textual and iconographic evidence L-J has painstakingly assembled, and may indeed be rooted in such political considerations.

L-J then provides a brief overview of this evidence, in which he points out that the literary sources both betray a heavy male bias and tend to omit detailed treatment of many aspects of daily life that would have been familiar to the ancient audience and not worthy of further elucidation. The artistic evidence, which does not necessarily reflect daily reality, also suffers from a male bias that may account for the general lack of attention to women’s everyday experience. In order to acquire a fuller picture of the veil’s place in Greek society, L-J judiciously examines anthropological and ethnographic studies of the practical and symbolic aspects of veiling in a number of modern veil societies. As he notes, such comparative material cannot replace missing information from antiquity. His study, however, shows that modern veil-society models, by providing a frame of reference, can improve our understanding of the ancient evidence and help us reconstruct ancient attitudes toward the veil. Chapter Two explores the Greek language’s range of terms for “veil.” As L-J shows, several problems impede the study of Greek clothing and clothing terminology, especially the lost meanings of many words, the complex nuances of surviving clothing terms, and the fluidity of Greek garments, which were composed of rectangles of cloth that could be adapted to a multitude of uses. Despite these problems, the variety of words and definitions for “veil” that L-J uncovers in the ancient sources demonstrates that the veil was a familiar and important garment in the Greek world.

Chapter Three provides a detailed treatment of veil-styles adopted in the Greek world. In order to furnish his readers with clear descriptions of the veil-types he discusses, L-J provides an abundance of helpful line-drawings and figures of both classical representations of veiled women and illustrations of modern veil-types. L-J uses Greek words in his descriptions when this is possible but also makes good use of modern Arabic (and other) terms to provide a catalogue of ancient Greek veil-types. The iconographic evidence, much to my initial surprise, reveals that Greek women wore a variety of veils, including face veils which became common towards the end of the classical period.

While L-J demonstrates that the veil was a far more important part of daily Greek life than previous scholars have admitted, his study would have benefited from a more systematized account of the iconographic evidence. Even though he supplies an overview rather than an exhaustive account of veiling-styles in the Greek world (cf. p. 41), the inclusion of a table listing the provenance and dates of the archaeological specimens he specifically describes — as well as the others to which he repeatedly alludes — would have given his reader a clearer idea of how widespread each veil-style was, where certain styles were popular, when the styles changed, and how systematic changes in style were across the Greek world.

Chapter 4 examines the iconography of veiling and the difficulties involved in decoding ancient representations of female dress. L-J first addresses the dichotomy between the literary evidence of veiling and artistic depictions of women uncovered and on display. Except in the case of the late fifth-century terracotta figurines of veiled women and the occasional representations of veiled women on vases discussed at the conclusion of the chapter, the veil appears to be absent in many female-related artistic compositions. λ however, convincingly shows that Greek vase-painters often created scenes that allude to the veil by means of a variety of elements, including female veiling gestures and the presence of garments such as the pharos or himation, which could be used as veils. As in the last chapter, L-J would have strengthened his argument by providing more detailed information on the frequency of such artistic devices, which would have enabled the reader to see exactly how common such allusions to the veil were, especially in comparison with scenes that completely omit the veil.

Nevertheless, L-J offers a compelling re-reading of the iconographic evidence, particularly in the case of the ” anakalypsis (unveiling) gesture.” In Greek art the gesture is usually performed by a female who raises part of her veil in front of her face, though sometimes the woman simply touches the veil or uses another article of clothing — such as the folds of a pharos or himation — instead of a veil worn on the head. L-J rightly questions the common scholarly interpretation of the motif as a gesture of unveiling, especially given the lack of textual evidence to support this reading and the abundant textual evidence supporting the habitual veiling of women, at least when out of doors. He offers, instead, a more neutral and wholly convincing reading of this motif as a “veil gesture” (p. 104) that reminds the viewer of the female figure’s aidos without obstructing the view of her physical beauty. The veil-gesture thus replaces the veil.

Chapter Four’s detailed analysis of the iconographic evidence, which lays an important foundation for the rest of the book, underscores the problematic absence of a corresponding chapter on the literary evidence. L-J claims at the beginning of this chapter that “the routine veiling of women is a familiar feature in Greek literature” (p. 85). While his assertion that the textual evidence of veiling is far more abundant than the artistic evidence is entirely plausible, it is not adequately supported by L-J’s brief overview of the literary evidence in his introductory chapter. A much fuller treatment of the textual evidence housed in an earlier chapter would also have shored up L-J’s later treatment of the veil’s various functions and meanings in Greek society.

In Chapter 5 L-J considers the relationship between veiling and social identity in the ancient Greek sources. According to λ veiling, like sexual separation, helped to preserve the Greek female’s chastity, which, in turn, ensured both the legitimacy of her husband’s heirs and the highly valued honor of her menfolk. When the woman emerged from her home and the protection of her male guardians, the veil rendered her both socially invisible and sexually inviolate and marked her as the property of the male whose honor was reinforced by both her invisibility and chastity.

L-J’s examination of the textual evidence reveals, however, that the veil’s role in the construction of social identity may have changed over time. The Homeric epics suggest that in the early archaic period the veil was the prerogative of elite women (and their personal attendants), though we must keep in mind L-J’s caveat concerning the epics’ skewed focus on elite women. If we can accept the Homeric picture of early archaic veiling, the iconographic evidence suggests that such exclusive use of the veil came to an end in the late archaic period and points to broader adoption of the veil in democratic Athens and even more widespread use of the veil in the Hellenistic world.

The one point of disagreement that I have with L-J concerns his attribution of the broader adoption of the veil in classical Athens to the political and social changes wrought by Athens’ gradual democratization, which both promoted less extravagance in male dress and limited female ostentation and freedom of movement in an attempt to curb aristocratic display and power. While such attempts at greater social and political parity very likely contributed to more widespread use of the veil, the increased concern about female sexual fidelity created by democratic reforms — especially Pericles’ citizenship law of 451/0 — also undoubtedly promoted the growing frequency of veiling in democratic Athens.

In Chapter 6 L-J cogently identifies aidos as a significant component of Greek veiling ideology. The veil, as container for and protector of feminine aidos, simultaneously displayed the female’s modesty and willingness to conform to established social norms, rendered her socially and sexually invisible, and thereby protected both the female from sexual impropriety and her male relatives from loss of honor. As L-J’s sophisticated reading of veiling shows, however, veiling was not simply a cultural mandate that underscored the female’s powerlessness relative to men. While women’s adoption of the veil supported the male ideology that advocated female subordination, veiling also endowed women with a certain degree of authority by allowing them to claim both respectability and assert their own position in the social hierarchy.

Chapter 7 continues L-J’s investigation of the social meanings of veiling with a consideration of the relationship among veiling, Greek domestic space, and the separation of the sexes. In a challenge to the all too frequent scholarly belief in Greek female segregation and seclusion, L-J more reasonably argues in favor of a gendered separation of activity that allowed women to have social and public roles of their own, provided that they adhered to the established social code of proper female behavior.1 Building upon Lisa Nevett’s important work on Greek domestic space,2 L-J views the interior design of the ancient Greek house as similar to that of houses found in the Islamic world. Instead of separating the sexes through a gendered division of rooms within the house, Greek males kept women away from unrelated men by closing off the main living areas to strangers.

The veil, like the shell of the tortoise that appears in this monograph’s title, actually became an extension of the Greek female’s domestic space and protected her as she entered male space. Symbolically separating and rendering the female invisible, the veil enabled a woman to leave her home in what L-J aptly describes as “a kind of portable domestic space” (p. 200) and to operate in the public sphere. As L-J goes on to demonstrate, the veil’s seemingly contradictory ability to both control and liberate women helps to explain the equally counterintuitive appearance of the face-veil known as the tegidion in the Hellenistic world. Why would a veil designed to hide the female face gain popularity in a period that witnessed the increased participation of women in public activities? L-J argues that the tegidion, by making the female even more socially invisible, allowed women correspondingly more freedom to go out in public. Increasing female freedom of movement and the growing control over female sexuality were thus intertwined.

In Chapter Eight L-J considers the place of the veil in the female lifecycle. Using an array of literary and archaeological evidence, L-J argues that girls who had reached puberty and had experienced menarche adopted not only the waist-sash but also the veil. While the textual sources suggest that both sashes and veils frequently figured in dedications to deities, L-J would have strengthened his argument for the adoption of the veil at the onset of puberty by providing a clearer picture of the incidence of the veil in both the fifth-century stone-inscribed catalogues of textile dedications to Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian acropolis and the fourth-century clothing inscriptions from Miletus and Tanagra.

On the eve of her wedding, the Greek girl would dedicate the veil she had adopted at menarche before donning her bridal veil, which was likely reddish in hue. This veil, which separated the bride from the rest of the wedding party, also helped to transform the bride into a wife and potential mother through the Greek wedding ritual known as the anakalypteria, the “unveiling.” L-J offers a radically new reading of this ritual’s place in the wedding ceremony. Unlike previous scholars, he treats the anakalypteria not as one definitive unveiling but rather as a series of unveilings that began with the public unveiling of the bride at the wedding banquet at the bride’s parents’ house and ended with the private sexual act in the bridal chamber that removed the bride’s internal “veil,” her hymen.3

As L-J notes in his discussion of the anakalypteria, the wedding veil also protected others from the dangerous gaze of the soon-to-be wife and mother, whose vulnerable state of transition was thought to render her susceptible to what he terms “malignant forces” (p. 244). Taking up this thread in Chapter Nine, L-J considers the Greeks’ view of the veil as a barrier against women’s naturally dangerous miasma (pollution) and uncontrolled sexuality, both of which posed serious threats to the social order. The veil shielded males from the female’s dangerously sexualized gaze, controlled her sexually enticing hair, and symbolically contained her contaminating voice like the stopper of a bottle.

As Chapter Nine and the preceding three chapters demonstrate, the veil served a variety of male needs and ultimately supported an ideology that advocated female modesty, chastity, silence, and invisibility. Throughout his discussion, however, L-J has provocatively argued that the veil simultaneously allowed Greek women a modicum of self-expression. By veiling a woman could call attention to her high social status, lay claim to respectability, display her aidos, command the aidos of others, and advertise her willingness to adhere to the established social code. In Chapter Ten, which looks closely at the issue of female agency in the act of veiling, L-J argues that Greek women — like Greek men — also employed the veil to express emotions such as anger and grief. Most surprising, perhaps, is the evidence that suggests that women also used the veil to accentuate their own sexuality. Women who were able to manipulate the sexual allure of the veil could send powerful sexual signals despite this garment’s intended concealment of female sexuality and protection of female modesty.

L-J’s examination of veiling in ancient Greece is an important and welcome contribution to the study of ancient Greek society. By treating Greek veiling practices as part of a long and widespread tradition of female veiling located throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean worlds, L-J further demonstrates the important cultural exchange that took place between the Greeks and their neighbors to the East. L-J’s sophisticated investigation of the place and function of veiling in Greek society, moreover, provides a new window onto the interrelated issues of Greek sexual mores, gender relations, and the construction of personal identity. His work enhances our understanding of the Greek male’s valuation of female containment and separation, which arose from a complex host of considerations, including fear of female pollution, the belief in uncontrolled female sexuality, and the overwhelming concern to maintain male honor.

L-J’s study of the Greek veil, however, does not simply confirm scholars’ long-held assumptions concerning Greek misogyny and the inferior position of women in ancient Greece. His investigation of veiling also illuminates the ways in which women negotiated this male ideology of veiling and found ways to express themselves and gain control over their movement and status in the male domain. The Greek veil, in other words, was not simply a tool and symbol of female repression, as the West has long deemed it, but rather a complex cultural icon that invites us to rethink the paradigms that we have traditionally applied to the study of ancient Greek social structures.


1. On the issue of female seclusion, see, inter alia, D. Cohen, “Seclusion, Separation, and the Status of Women in Classical Athens,” G & R 36 (1989), 3-15, Law, Sexuality and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1991), 149 ff.; R. Just, Women in Athenian Law and Life (New York, 1989), 111ff.

2. L. C. Nevett, “Separation of Seclusion? Towards an Archaeological Approach to Investigating Women in the Greek Household in the Fifth to Third Centuries BC,” in M. P. Pearson and C. Richards, eds., Architecture and Order: Approaches to Social Space (London, 1994), 89-112; “Gender Relations in the Classical Greek Household: The Archaeological Evidence,” ABSA 90 (1995), 363-81; House and Society in the Ancient Greek World (Cambridge, 1999).

3. For a review of the various scholarly theories concerning the timing of the anakalypteria in the wedding ceremony, see L. Llewellyn-Jones, “Women and Veiling in the Ancient Greek World,” Diss., University of Wales, Cardiff, 2000.