BMCR 2005.04.09

Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook

, Women's religions in the Greco-Roman world : a sourcebook. Maenads, martyrs, matrons, monastics.. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xxviii, 487 pages). ISBN 1423761790 $24.95.

For scholars and students alike, Ross S. Kraemer’s Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook is a welcome contribution primarily to the study of women’s roles in Hellenistic Judaism and emergent Christianity, and only secondarily to the study of women’s roles in the Greek and Roman polytheistic traditions. This collection of selected primary sources in English translation augments and replaces Kraemer’s well-received Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics: A Source Book on Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World, which was published in 1988 by Fortress Press. Like the 1988 sourcebook, Women’s Religions selects primary sources (both edited portions of long works and shorter writings in full) from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E. that pertain to women’s religiosity in the above traditions or that provide elements of the broader social context for women in Judaism, Christianity, and related traditions bearing a biblical imprint (e.g., God-fearing proselytes). The collection contains a wide range of literary, epigraphic, and papyrological sources in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, and Coptic, with two selections from sources dating earlier than the fourth century B.C.E., the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and a selection from Euripides’ Bacchae. It excludes passages from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, on the reasonable ground that these sources are readily available in translation. The translations are in current idiomatic English and are taken from reliable translation sources, with several selections translated by Kraemer herself. There are 217 selections, too diverse and numerous to enumerate here, and these range from several lines to several pages of text each. The 217 source selections are organized into 133 entries, and the 133 entries are organized into six Sections. Approximately a quarter of the 133 entries have two to ten source selections clustered together under one entry topic (e.g., entry 48, which contains five epitaphs of women from the alternative Jewish temple site of Leontopolis). Oxford University Press has separately produced a fine printed brochure detailing the contents of Women’s Religions in full, and the Press would be well advised to make this information available online as well.

The useful descriptive titles and general tenor of the six Sections of Women’s Religions remain the same as in the 1988 Maenads, Martyrs. Section One concerns “Observances, Rituals, and Festivals”; Two, “Researching Real Women: Documents to, from, and by Women”; Three, “Religious Office”; Four, “New Religious Affiliation and Conversion”; Five, “Holy, Pious, and Exemplary Women”; and Six, “The Feminine Divine.” All the source selections originally contained in Maenads, Martyrs remain in Women’s Religions. All six Sections, however, have been transformed in two major respects: First, updated bibliographies and introductions are now placed helpfully at the head of each entry, not at the back of the book as in the 1988 sourcebook. The bibliographies, Kraemer notes, give priority to secondary studies written in English, as dictated by space constraints. Further, Sections One,(Observances, Rituals), Two (Researching Real Women), Three (Religious Office), and Five (Holy, Pious, and Exemplary Women) now contain additional primary source selections, forty new selections total, while Sections Four (New Religious Affiliation) and Six (The Feminine Divine) contain the same selections as appeared in the 1988 Maenads, Martyrs. Second, Kraemer has written thoughtful new introductions to each Section, as well as a new general Introduction that contains a worthwhile retrospective on the burgeoning studies of women’s religions in antiquity from a recognized pioneer in the field.

Kraemer’s current interpretive stance of modified positivism, however, is philosophically rather confused and runs at cross-purposes with her sourcebook. On the one hand, she acknowledges that “socially constructed and variable ideas about gender … permeate ancient thought, culture, and experience so extensively that sources that appear to be about women may often instead be devices by which ancient writers, male and perhaps also female, wrote about all sorts of other concerns,” so much so that there is a “fundamental dilemma that stories about women might really only incidentally correspond to social and historical realities.” Nonetheless, Kraemer “continue[s] to be deeply interested in the project of historical recovery and reconstruction,” (p. 5). One cannot have it both ways. To harbor both views at once leads to expressions of enervating skepticism that make the very enterprise of historical inquiry seem a frustrating and elusive mirage, such as Kraemer’s introductory observation to Section Five: “Like much of the material in this anthology, these excerpts particularly exemplify the difficulty of disentangling the rhetoric of gender from actual historical and social experience, if such a disentangling is ever in fact possible” (p. 329). Those who commit to the social-constructionist position, at least as formulated above by Kraemer, must abandon all hope of historical recovery projects, including projects to reclaim real women. Conversely, those who still hope to engage in such projects must articulate a cogent challenge to the view that social constructions such as gender have only incidental correspondences with lived experience.

In its source selection, Women’s Religions is a premier textbook and scholarly resource for the study of women’s roles in the biblically based trajectories of Hellenistic Judaism, God-fearing syncretism, and early Christianity. (On occasion below I refer to these trajectories succinctly as “Lord-oriented.”) The six updated Sections are beautifully designed to give a balanced and rounded portrayal of women and their practices in these religious movements. 15 of the 47 entries in Section One (Observances, Rituals) and 16 of the 21 entries in Section Three (Religious Office) concern Lord-oriented practices and women’s roles therein, followed by a broad exploration of the social background of such women in no less than 35 of the 38 entries that make up Section Two (Researching Real Women). In Section Four (New Religious Affiliation), 6 of the 7 entries concern women who converted wholly or partially to Judaism or early Christianity. Section Five (Holy, Pious, and Exemplary Women) explores the psychological dimensions of such religious trends, with 13 — and almost 14 — of the 15 entries focusing exclusively on biblically based expressions of female piety and holiness.1 Finally, 4 of the 9 entries in Section Six (The Feminine Divine) deal with feminine dimensions of biblical and Gnostic notions of deity, which adds a fine theological dimension to the study of the women whose piety and lives are extensively covered in Sections Two and Five.

Section Two (Researching Real Women) is also valuable for the social history of Hellenistic Jewish women apart from religious concerns. This Section has an additional twelve pages of entries (pp. 143-155) on the papyri finds of personal documents belonging to two women whom Kraemer regards as Jewish, and who in greatest likelihood were Jewish, named Babatha of Maoza (herself illiterate) and Salome, also known as Komaïse. Babatha’s papers (or ‘the Babatha Archive’), first uncovered by Yigael Yadin and his archaeological team in the late 1950s, and published in 1989, deal with topics such as Jewish or Judean legal depositions, lawsuits, and the financial arrangements of marriage. The papyri remains of Salome’s papers, found in the Judean desert, are similar in their contents. As Kraemer acknowledges, “Frustratingly, these papyri speak indirectly at best to questions of religious practice” (p. 143). Despite their tangential relevance in a religion sourcebook, the papyri selections are included to enhance the social background of women in Hellenistic Judaism by showing their decision-making authority (pp. 119-20). Women’s Religions thus distinguishes itself as the foremost English sourcebook for undergraduate and graduate courses on women in Hellenistic Judaism and emergent Christianity, because it is dedicated to exploring the many dimensions of these women’s lives, religious practices, pious beliefs, and priestly or ministerial positions.

Women’s Religions is good but not of the same high caliber in its treatment of women’s roles in polytheistic Greek and Roman religiosity. Sections One (Observances, Rituals) and Four (Religious Offices) provide a solid introduction to the ritual observances and official cult positions of women in Greek and Roman religions from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E. These two sections contain a worthwhile array of selections on the following: female rites and services for Dionysus, Artemis, Aphrodite, Isis, Demeter, Mater Matuta, Hera, and Hermes; the role of the Vestal Virgins; and women’s magic rites. Women’s rituals for Eileithyia, Adonis, Helios, Rumina, the Nymphs, and Athena are also noted in brief, with about one entry per deity or deity cluster. Section Six is also good at conveying some of the theological ideas surrounding the goddesses Demeter and Kore, Cybele, and Isis. Regarding Greek and Roman religions, the new entries in Women’s Religions are culled almost exclusively from literary sources, and in particular from Pausanias, Plutarch’s Roman Questions, and the Greek novels. The passages from the novels make for lively reading. Considered together, Sections One, Four, and Six are fairly balanced in representing women’s roles in the polytheistic and various Lord-oriented traditions, with 92 pages for the former and 98 pages for the latter.

Women’s Religions, however, is problematic in several respects as a sourcebook for women’s roles in Greek and Roman religions. First, the wealth of inscriptions and papyri dealing with women’s polytheistic religious agency from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E. have only a minimal showing. While this collection is painstakingly current and wide-ranging in its array of inscriptions and papyri on Hellenistic Judaism, God-fearing syncretism, early Christianity, and Gnosticism, with 74 source selections total, it contains only 18 selections from inscriptions and papyri on the polytheistic religiosity of Greek and Roman women over these nine centuries. Of these 18 selections, only 3 are new source selections: one brief magic spell (57), one inscription from a family tomb purchased by Aurelia Tryphaina (66ἀ, and one honorific inscription recognizing Juliane, a priestess of Aphrodite and Demeter in Asia (84). The remaining 15 selections were already present in the 1988 Maenads, Martyrs, and 11 of these 15 selections have long been available in the Religion sections of the standard sourcebook and course textbook on Greek and Roman women in antiquity, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant (hereafter, LF) the first edition of which was published in 1982. Kraemer’s translations of these 11 selections from inscriptions and papyri duly credit Lefkowitz and Fant, but she still cites the first-edition entry numbers of LF rather than the second-edition LF entry numbers.2 This meager representation is surprising because there are many relevant and significant inscriptions and papyri and these are critical for elucidating women’s religions in Greek and Roman society, as shown by Matthew Dillon, Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (2001), Susan Guettel Cole, Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: The Ancient Greek Experience (2004), Celia E. Schultz, Women in Roman Republican Religion Bryn Mawr PhD Dissertation, 1999 (forthcoming as Addressing the Gods: Women’s Religious Activity in the Roman Republic), Jennifer Larson, Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore (2001), and Jon Mikalson, Religion in Hellenistic Athens (1998), pp. 140-44, 147, 199, 211, 293, to mention but a few.

Second, women in Greek and Roman religions are strikingly underrepresented in Section Two (Researching Real Women, 2.5 of 118 pages and 4 of 38 entries — 57, 58, 59, 66A) and Section Five (Holy, Pious, and Exemplary Women, 5 of 82 pages and 2.5 of 15 entries — 117A, 118, and the first portion of 111). Such thin coverage in these two Sections makes it impossible to use Women’s Religions to integrate the Greco-Roman selections in Sections One (Observances, Rituals), Four (Religious Office), and Six (The Feminine Divine) with the broader social context and psychological dimensions of Greek and Roman women’s religious lives, which is precisely what Sections Two and Five promote at length for the religious lives of Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian women. Further, for Roman and Greek women to receive only 2 of 118 pages of coverage in Section Two gives the impression that they left hardly any trace of their roles in the religious sphere, which is far from being the case (see, e.g., Celia Schultz, Women in Roman Republican Religion, chapter 3, “Epigraphic Evidence”). Finally, for Greek and Roman women to be represented by only 3 of 82 pages in Section Five (Holy, Pious, and Exemplary Women), with the remaining 79 pages devoted to fervid Lord-oriented styles of female holiness and piety, wrongly suggests that Greek and Roman women were deficient in holiness and piety, aside from rare anomalies (Anconia Fabiana in 117A and the fictitious Charikleia in Helidorus, An Ethiopian Story, in 118). This too is far from being the case. To name but one of many known models of Greek and Roman female holiness — and this from an epigraphic selection included in Lefkowitz and Fant, but not in Kraemer — the very accomplished high priestess Flavia Ammon perfectly fits the Section Five profile as a “holy, pious, and exemplary woman,” honored as she was “for her excellence and decorous life and holiness” (LF 258/428 = Pleket, Epigraphica II (1969), 11). The absence of balanced coverage in Sections Two and Five detracts from the usefulness of Women’s Religions as a sourcebook for the female dimension of Greek and Roman religions. This problem also hinders the collection from serving as a solid basis from which to compare the female dimensions of the Lord-oriented and the polytheistic religions in a holistic way.

Surprisingly, also, Women’s Religions has no Subject Index and thus does not lend itself to topic-based inquiries. There are only two indexes, one for Female Names and one for Sources. To address this problem, perhaps Oxford University Press would consider making Women’s Religions available in an online edition that allows keyword searches.

In conclusion, Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World is not a well-balanced sourcebook overall for women’s Greek and Roman religions in the Greco-Roman world, but Sections One (Observances, Rituals), Three (Religious Office), and Six (The Feminine Divine) are a fine place to start for such study. However, this collection is a very impressive resource throughout for the study of women and their religious roles in Hellenistic Judaism, God-fearing syncretism, and emergent Christianity.


1. The fourteenth entry in question, 117, has three source selections, two of which (117B and 117C) are Lord-oriented.

2. The correspondences between the eleven entries are as follows. Kraemer’s entry number appears first, followed by the two corresponding LF entry numbers for both the first (1982) and the second (1993) editions of Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. 4 = LF 125/404; 5 = LF 123/402; 7 = LF 113/384; 8 = LF 114/385; 9 = LF 115/386; 10 = LF 116/387; 80 = LF 121/400; 83A = LF 259/432; 83B = LF 263/437; 83C = LF 264/438; and 117A = LF 264A/439.