BMCR 2004.09.18

Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: the Ancient Greek Experience

, Landscapes, gender, and ritual space : the ancient Greek experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiv, 292 pages) : maps. ISBN 9780520929326. $45.00.

Susan Guettel Cole’s new book, Landscapes, gender, and ritual space: the ancient Greek experience, is a wide ranging investigation of how ancient Greek political communities defined themselves through the organization of space and gender. This includes the ways in which Greek poleis claimed their territories, created productive and ritual spaces within them, and invoked gender to forge and maintain spatial divisions. This is a very important book and will be especially welcome to scholars working on Greek religion, gender, drama, and the polis. It is elegantly written, copiously documented, and filled with fascinating information drawn from epigraphic sources. In a very real sense this book is in the details. The main points are meticulously documented over the course of seven chapters. For purposes of this review, I will discuss some of the highlights of each chapter, emphasizing those issues for which C. offers a new or controversial interpretation.

The first chapter examines the three conjoined landscapes in which every Greek community lived: the natural landscape composed of the earth and its waters, the human realm of the polis, and the imagined landscape inhabited by an array of fantastic beings, including the dead and the divine. It then turns to two early genealogical narratives to further excavate these landscapes and to uncover the role of gender in forging them. According to C., the Theogony is a product of the early polis and its particular need to explain and control the natural world. However, in contrast to the Near Eastern cosmogonical epics whose form it borrows, the Theogony does not attempt to justify divine kingship but rather emphasizes “the principles of communal decision making and the establishment of a Greek moral order” (22-23). Yet, the Theogony is constrained by its genre to express political development in terms of a genealogy in which the entire universe springs from a single family. Consequently, “relationships are defined in terms of the family, time is represented by the succession of generations, and male authority is inevitable” (23). In addition to personifying the natural world, genealogical narratives were also used to justify territorial claims, to forge or emphasize a relationship between human communities, and in some cases, to establish ethnic identity. In Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, genealogical narratives operate to connect local territories to “elite families who claimed descent from the gods” and to locate families in the genealogy of Deukalion, thus paving the way to unite disparate groups under the shared umbrella of Hellenic identity (24). C. finds that this narrative displays “a strong connection between gender and geographic consciousness. The Catalogue organizes the continent according to founding families and emphasizes females as the links between regions” (25).

In the second chapter on ritual space, C. discusses how Greek poleis created and maintained sacred space, with special attention to purity and pollution codes. It begins with an analysis of thirteen Hesiodic aphorisms concerning the relationship between humans and the gods ( Works and Days 724-56). According to Cole, these aphorisms, containing injunctions like “Do not urinate standing and facing the sun”, are directed at a male audience and emphasize the importance of keeping the divine free from the defilements of the human condition. Since the gods inhabited space in the human realm, special care had to be taken to preserve the purity of sacred space. Special basins called perirrhanteria containing water from pure springs were placed at the entrance of many sacred precincts. When this water was sprinkled around those about to enter the sacred space, the ritual “demonstrated purity by an allopathic process that employed pure water to expel any trace of pollution” (45).

In chapter 3 the focus shifts to central spaces within political communities and between regions. Beginning in the early Iron Age, before the emergence of the polis, regional sanctuaries encouraged community by promoting a common culture of religious practice. As political communities developed, sanctuaries provided a space in which conflict and aggression could be mediated and also encouraged the standardization of legal procedure. According to C., Greek communities recognized Apollo at Delphi as an authority on legal issues pertaining to pollution and purification (72). In addition, early laws were published by various communities in Apollo’s local temples. Apollo’s most important sanctuary at Delphi was both geographically remote (and so perceived to occupy neutral space) and central: by the fifth century it was regarded as the navel of the earth. While Delphi was seen as the symbolic center of the universe, the prytaneion was the symbolic center of each individual Greek polis. Housing the city’s hearth and sacred fire, the prytaneion was the exclusive domain of male citizens. At Athens it was also the place for announcing new gods, not as naturalized citizens as in many other cities, but as privileged metics granted the right to own property (82).

Chapter 4 examines the human body and ritual space, focusing especially on the relationship between gender and ritual. Although there was no overarching pattern determining who could participate in festivals, rituals pertaining to war, politics, and athletics were restricted to men while rituals pertaining to sexual reproduction were the purview of women. Although women could worship divinities of both sexes, women’s roles and dedications always involved the family. Accordingly, C. concludes that the ritual system reproduced the gender asymmetries at the heart of Greek polis culture. C. links women’s limited access to the language of oath and oath sacrifice to women’s political and economic disabilities in Greek culture.

In Greek thought, immortals are separated from mortals by their freedom from distinctively human processes like birth and death. Consequently, these physical conditions came to determine categories of pollution (94). Since women were more subject to these conditions than men, they were also subject to more ritual restrictions. For instance, because women experienced bodily processes beyond their control, they came to be classed with polluting animals and insects (dogs and flies). Yet, although the particular characteristics of the female body made women liable to greater restriction, they also served to make women better equipped to perform certain key rituals. According to C., women’s permeable bodies afforded them a special capacity to deal with the dead and other situations involving the crossing of boundaries.

In this chapter, C. also offers a convincing argument about the role of blood as a purifying agent. She introduces the argument in the context of discussing the exceptionally high standards of purity required of the Koan priestess of Demeter (138). Before performing any public ritual, she had to trace a boundary in piglet’s blood around herself (inter alia). According to C., the piglet’s blood, itself an impure substance, worked homeopathically to cleanse and counteract impurity. “Like a sponge, the blood of the slain piglet absorbed the impurity so it could be removed” (140).

Since the Greeks measured individual happiness in terms of progeny and a city’s happiness in terms of the fecundity of its women, it is not surprising that male reproductive anxiety is a pervasive theme in Greek literature (146-7). In ch. 5, C. considers how the Greeks dealt with and conceptualized problems of infertility. She finds a connection between sexual reproduction and the political in Greek thought attested as early as Hesiod’s Works and Days. In Hesiod’s poem, a city’s reproductive success hinges crucially on its judicial practices. Broken oaths and promises inevitably lead to barrenness both in the agricultural and human realm. This correlation is not a quaint superstition of the early polis transcended with the greater political development and abstraction of the classical polis. Throughout the classical period, formal oaths were used to obligate citizens to the polis and to forge agreements between cities. Every such oath contained a curse threatening traditional punishments for oath-breakers: infertile land, women, and livestock. With every oath, according to C., the citizen pledged his family as security for his loyalty to the political community (156).

The anxieties about reproduction and illness that C. elaborates in the language of oaths, curses, tragedy, questions put to the oracle at Dodona, and traditional oracles identified with Delphi, are complemented by concerns voiced in Greek medical writing. The medical writers developed various theories of conception and embryology because they and the people they treated were centrally concerned with reproductive failure. But in contrast to many of the philosophers and most of Athenian tragedy, these writers acknowledged a woman’s contribution to the form and formation of offspring, arguing that women, like men, supplied “seed” or sperm. In so doing, they rejected one dominant theory that diminished the female reproductive role by viewing women as passive receivers of male seed (163-5). Yet, they did not dispense with agricultural analogies altogether. When explaining and treating female pathology, which was almost always linked to the reproductive system, Hippocratic writers conceptualized the female body as a miniature agricultural landscape. According to C., this analogy makes sense of the ancient medical use of oral and internal animal excrement. When medical writers advise the application of animal excrement to correct female moisture levels they are essentially imitating the agricultural use of manure as fertilizer (169).

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the crisis of sterility and paternity portrayed in Euripides’ Ion. In the play, Xouthos and Kreousa consult Apollo’ oracle at Delphi about their childlessness. Although important work on the play has already discussed the problems and perhaps ironies of Kreousa’s reproductive status, to my knowledge Cole is the first commentator to correlate the play’s reproductive language to the characters’ divergent understandings of maternity and paternity. While Xouthos employs traditional agricultural metaphors defining the male as the sower of seed, Kreousa speaks of sexual intercourse as a blending of substances from two parents. “[A]s contributor of maternal seed equal to the paternal seed of Apollo, she guarantees that the child she once nourished with her own blood is a true son of the land” (177).

Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the legends and landscapes of Artemis, the goddess who presided over the stages in the female lifecycle. These two chapters most successfully integrate the main themes of the book: landscape, gender, and ritual space. In ch. 6, C. examines the known locations of Artemis’s sanctuaries in the Greek world. Artemis’s earliest sanctuaries were often located in the most remote places. When cities matured, however, they often built additional temples to Artemis within the city, using the worship of Artemis to link the political center to the outlying territory. According to C., “the theme that unites the most distinctive sites of Artemis is the idea of dangerous or threatened passage” (184). This idea underpins the occasions when male citizens sacrificed to Artemis: when crossing boundaries, and for inspiration in war and assistance in battle. Artemis’s epithets also suggest a strong attachment to place. They “emphasized the proximity to flowing waters or springs” and were often “formed from the names of the natural features that anchored her sanctuaries” (191).

Ch. 7 considers the role of women in the worship of Artemis and the importance of women’s worship to the wider political community. One of the peculiar features of Artemis’s female rituals is their location. They were often held in remote and unprotected border areas. The stories of attacks on women at her festivals measure a certain anxiety about the safety of her female worshippers in these remote locations (201). This raises the question of why Artemis’s festivals were often held in vulnerable areas. According to C., the paradox is usually explained under the rubric of initiation ritual “whereby an individual’s transition to a new status is achieved by a temporary reversal of normal communal restraints and a demonstration of successful confrontation with the wilderness” (203). She rejects this explanation, however, because it privileges the individual in the context of a state sponsored female ritual, explaining that “the ritual system of the polis placed more emphasis on creating community than achieving individual status” (203). C. argues that by placing female rituals at vulnerable border sanctuaries, communities demonstrated and affirmed their own security.

In return for protecting the polis’s borders, Artemis expected her female attendants to be loyal, that is without sexual experience during their service. When an attendant or worshipper was disobedient, Artemis punished the entire community with plague or famine. Accordingly, service to Artemis measured a community’s success in supervising its women. Women worshipped Artemis at each stage in their reproductive lives to win her assistance and avoid incurring her revenge or anger.

Artemis, it seems, was also something of a clotheshorse. “She was called Kithone at Miletos after the kithon, a tunic with sleeves” (224). The inventories found at Brauron list women and children’s clothing dedicated to commemorate various stages in the female life cycle. C. emphasizes that Artemis is the only divinity whose clothing dedications came in so many varieties and so many sizes” (216). The inventories from Brauron are also exceptional, however, for carefully distinguishing finished and unfinished weaving projects. According to C., the unfinished projects are signs of an interrupted life, making them appropriate dedications to Iphigeneia, a heroine whose life was also cut short (219-21). This raises the question, however, of why Iphigeneia, a Peloponnesian heroine, was associated with a local Attic ritual. In this context, C. examines Euripides’ Iphigeneia Among the Taurians, a play that presents an aetiology for the Attic ritual. At the end of the play, Athena appears and instructs Iphigeneia to become Artemis’s priestess at Brauron, promising that after her death she is to receive garments left by women who die in childbirth. C. finds that “the irony of Athena’s concluding speech … delivered at a time when Spartan occupation of Dekaleia prevented contact with sanctuaries in the hinterland, would not have gone unnoticed by an audience who assumed that Athenian ritual should extend to the farthest reaches of Attika” (226). C. concludes the chapter and the book by reiterating the importance of Artemis’s female rituals specifically for the Athenians. The Athenians published inventories of individual dedications to Artemis both at Brauron and in the city. “[T]hese inventories symbolized the city’s achievement in promoting its rituals, supervising its women, and producing its crop of healthy children” (230).

In the preface, C. explains that this project began as a book about the body but later became a book about landscape. As it stands, however, the book contains chapters on both the body and landscape. Happily, it succeeds in weaving these topics into a coherent whole, illustrating the pervasive conception of the female body as a miniature agricultural landscape and the productive effects that landscape was perceived to have on both male and female bodies. Finally, the book locates these ideas squarely within the political domain, demonstrating that Greek political communities were crucially concerned with successful sexual reproduction and the women’s rituals performed to insure it. With its wealth of information and unexpected juxtapositions, this is a book that every classicist interested in religion, gender, and the history of the polis will want to own.