BMCR 2007.08.43

Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece

, Portrait of a priestess : women and ritual in ancient Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. xv, 415 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm. ISBN 0691127468. $39.50.

Table of Contents

Joan Connelly’s new book on Greek priestesses joins a field crowded with studies of the role of women in ancient Greek religion; indeed, Connelly’s subtitle invites comparison (largely favorable) with recent books by Susan Cole, Barbara Goff, and Matthew Dillon.1 Connelly’s brave effort is a long time in the making and deserves to be taken seriously. For one thing, the book is substantial in length and assembles a rich body of documentation, much of it epigraphical and unfamiliar to many archaeologists and art historians. It is also lavishly produced. There are illustrations to burn, with some examples of the same objects illustrated by both black-and-white and color photographs. Unlike the competition, Connelly’s book focuses on women in official cult roles and seeks to make a case for the importance of archaeological evidence, in particular images of priestesses and lesser female sacred servants in Greek art. Why priestesses? They are a noteworthy exception to the exclusion of ancient Greek women from public life, and their proliferation in the Greek world seems remarkable enough in the ancient Mediterranean context to warrant the conclusion that priestesses were central to the Greek religious experience.

Chapter 1 outlines possible approaches, both theoretical and pragmatic, to the role of women in Greek religion. In the end (16-17), the methodology of Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood is adopted, in practice a kind of thick description of every possible source of evidence, without unduly privileging some forms of evidence over others. A heavy dose of good, old-fashioned prosopography is also called for. The title Portrait of a Priestess alludes, we are told, to the 150 or so named individuals profiled here. It also presages the alliterative chapter titles to follow.

Chapter 2 surveys the full range of sacred offices open to women at all stages of life, and the modes of acquisition for Greek priesthoods: inheritance, allotment, and (in Hellenistic Asia Minor) sale to the highest bidder. A lifetime of virginity for priestesses was not the norm in any place or period. One is struck immediately by how much of the available evidence is Athenian, and by how late in date most of it is. Apart from the familiar recital of female religious roles in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata (ll. 641-647) and a few stray fourth-century portraits of kanephoroi (female basket-bearers), nearly all attestations of sub-priestly offices for girls and women date to the second century B.C. or later. Athens in the late Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods emerges as a place where status-conscious citizens chose to commemorate female sacred service in ways it had never been commemorated before. Explicit indications that priestesses rose to their office as a result of an unofficial cursus honorum of sacred services date to the first century B.C., though Connelly would clearly like us to accept that attitudes remained consistent from the fifth century B.C. onward.

Chapter 3 deals with four “priesthoods of prominence”: those of Athena Polias on the Athenian Acropolis, Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, Hera at Argos, and the Pythia at Delphi. The approximately 25 priestesses of Athena Polias whose names we know from literary and epigraphical sources begin with Lysimache, who served for a remarkable 64 years, received a portrait statue on the Acropolis, and probably inspired the character of Lysistrata. Despite Hellanikos’s famous list of priestesses of Hera at Argos, few of their names survive apart from that of Chrysis, who accidentally burned down the temple in 423 B.C. (Thuc. 2.2 and 4.133); she is one of the very few women that Thucydides mentions at all. Connelly summarizes the prosopography of these and the priestesses at Eleusis competently. The Pythia is the odd woman out here, and elsewhere in the book too. Despite her historical importance (fully half of the many mentions of priestly women by Herodotus concern Pythias), there is only one possible portrait of a Pythia, and the evidence for it is somewhat dubious, consisting of a statue base with the signature of the fifth-century Greek sculptor Phradmon, found not at Delphi but in Roman Ostia. A search through Anne Jacquemin’s study of dedications at Delphi2 turns up a host of portraits of other subjects at Delphi, many of them set up by the Delphians or by the Amphictyony, but not a single Pythia. Connelly does not mention this anomaly either here or in her treatment of priestess portraits in Chapter 5. Oddly enough, the only objects illustrated in this chapter are vase paintings that might or might not represent priestesses, which Connelly interprets as illustrations of mythological priestesses rather than real women.

The question at stake in Chapter 4 is the following: did priestesses wear special clothing, or dress up as the goddesses they served? The example with which the chapter opens is that of Anthia, a priestess of Artemis at Ephesos in Xenophon of Ephesos’s novel of the second century A.D. Though Connelly inveighs against “those who deny the existence of priestly garb” (87), the more spectacular examples of “dressing the part” are either literary or epigraphical, and they are all late in date. The reality of the Classical and early Hellenistic periods was more mundane. Following the lead of Alexander Mantis in his important study of representations of priestesses in Greek art,3 Connelly identifies the temple key as the most distinctive identifying attribute of priestesses in sculpture and vase painting. She collects and discusses examples of kleidouchoi in document reliefs, votive reliefs, and portraits in the round, saving the gravestones for Chapter 8. Far more problematically, Connelly attempts here (110-115) to argue that libating women shown in Greek vase painting, holding scepters or wearing crowns and accompanied by painted name labels naming these goddesses in the genitive, should be re-identified as priestesses.

Chapters 5 and 8, dealing with portraits of priestesses in sanctuaries and on gravestones, are central to Connelly’s archaeological project. Though Pausanias seldom chose to mention priestess portraits in the sanctuaries he visited, inscribed statue bases and surviving marble portraits show that the practice of commemorating priestesses and lesser sacred servants in this fashion was widespread, at least in the Hellenistic period. The group of priestesses and young girls whose portraits quite literally surrounded the cult statue of Artemis Orthia at Messene merits the extensive attention it receives here (147-157), as do isolated examples from Priene, Samos, Rhamnous, and Aulis. (Contrary to what Connelly implies on page 140, however, the group of statuettes dedicated by a priestly family at Kyparissi on Kos in the early Hellenistic period were not portraits: they represented Demeter, Persephone, and Hades). What I find more difficult to explain is the amount of space Connelly spends in Chapter 5 trying to identify priestess portraits that might predate Lysimache’s mid-fourth century portrait on the Acropolis. The following statement is typical: “Since religious tradition was one of the most conservative aspects of Greek culture, we might surmise that this practice began much earlier” (118-119). Some of these attempts at identification are more far-fetched than others, but arguably none advances our understanding of ancient Greek priestesses. It seems not unreasonable to suppose that the female figures carved in relief on Archaic column drums at Ephesos, Didyma, and Kyzikos in Asia Minor represented “young cult attendants” (122-124). Connelly’s suggestion, however, that the Archaic marble kore statues from the Athenian Acropolis were kanephoroi who originally supported gold and silver baskets on their heads (128-129) is another matter. A strictly practical objection is that precious metal objects were invariably stored inside locked buildings, on the Acropolis and elsewhere, and with good reason: they were prone to theft and breakage. Connelly is on far more secure ground in Chapter 8 when she lays out the evidence for funerary monuments commemorating priestesses. The Athenian series begins with an inscribed epigram for Myrrhine, the first priestess of Athena Nike to be chosen by lot 4. There follow several fourth-century stelai from Athens showing priestesses holding their temple keys; once the more elaborate Classical stelai were replaced by the austere kioniskoi of Hellenistic Athens, the symbol of the key alone was sufficient to signify the burial of a priestess.

How we get from here to the lavish public burials for priestesses of the Greek East in the Roman imperial period is really not clear, but surely the intervening Hellenistic tradition of female euergetism (a term Connelly doesn’t use until the conclusion) had something to do with the amplification of public display by priests, priestesses, and their families. Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the role of priestesses in performing religious rituals (prayer, libations, and sacrifice), and the perquisites they in turn received. The latter ranged from the skins of sacrificial animals to the portrait statues, gold crowns, inscribed theater seats, and funerals at public expense of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Here the yawning gap between the practices attested in the fifth century B.C. and the elaborate public honors of later periods becomes particularly apparent. Connelly rightly spends far more time on late honors for priestesses, with a long and carefully researched section on the seats in the Theater of Dionysos in Athens inscribed in the Roman imperial period with the names and titles of priestesses (205-213). All the same, the gushing statement that “celebrity seating catapulted priestly women to a level of visibility that identified them as chief players within their home cities” (212) gives the impression that Connelly thinks this was already the case in the fifth century B.C. A different form of overreaching emerges in Connelly’s treatment of the iconography of prayer and libation (173-179). Connelly suggests that we can see clearly what priestesses looked like when they prayed from two red-figure vases (figs. 6.5 and 6.6), each showing a woman holding both hands upward at about the same height with palms flat, a precursor of the orans pose in early Christian art. Yet hundreds of votive reliefs show worshippers approaching the gods in prayer while raising the right hand only. Maybe two hands really were better than one, but the available evidence gives no reason to suppose continuity in the prayer gesture from paganism into Christianity. Later on, in Chapter 8, Connelly refers to priestess figures on Attic gravestones that hold temple keys in their right hands while “raising their left hands in a fistlike gesture that is commonly seen on Greek votive reliefs showing devotees approaching a divinity” (232). In a footnote (350 n.32), she compares this gesture to that of Hellenistic Cypriot statues of votaries holding incense boxes, and concludes that the gesture itself, even without the incense box, reinforces the “sacral status” of the Athenian priestesses so depicted. We need look no farther than Athenian votive reliefs of the Classical period to find examples of votaries and gods alike making this gesture because they were depicted holding objects (spears, staffs, branches) once added in paint, but now lost.

In Chapter 9, “The End of the Line,” Connelly concludes with a brief, but eloquent and thoroughly researched, consideration of the fate of female sacred servants in early Christianity and late antique Judaism. This is also the end of the line for the illustrations, which stop with Chapter 8.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove that the artistic representations of women collected here, apart from marble portrait statues and gravestones, really represent priestesses. Though Connelly acknowledges this problem more than once, she still stakes the significance of her study on the archaeological evidence. The broader classification “female cult agents” allows more evidence in, some of it clearly relevant to female priesthood, but important distinctions are lost in the process. For example, the typical pattern we see in Greek religion is that goddesses were served by priestesses rather than male priests; indeed, the exceptional nature of this pattern in the Mediterranean context is what motivates the writing of this study in the first place. Still, though the rule itself was exceptional, there were many exceptions to the rule, and at times Connelly seems unwilling to acknowledge them. The cult of Artemis at Ephesos is a case in point. In Xenophon of Ephesos’s novel mentioned above, the heroine Anthia was priestess of Artemis. Yet sources earlier than the second century A.D. (some of them cited by Connelly on page 121) imply that Artemis was served in the fourth century B.C. by a eunuch neokoros called Megabyzos, and not a female priestess. The Athenian historian Xenophon ( Anab. 5.3.6-7) entrusted his money to one of these Megabyzi for safe keeping, and there are two early Hellenistic attestations of portraits of Megabyzi at Priene ( I. Priene nos. 3 and 231). Thus it would appear from the literary and epigraphical evidence that Artemis’s eunuch priest was replaced at some point with a more normal female priestess. This problem becomes important in Chapter 5 when Connelly discusses two Archaic ivory figures, originally attached to libation vessels, found in the foundation deposit of the temple of Artemis at Ephesos (119-122). One of these (fig. 5.3) has long been identified as a eunuch neokoros, but the second (not illustrated here) is clearly female. Connelly identifies both as representations of female “cult agents,” and later on (278) decries the “subtle bias” of those who would argue that Artemis at Ephesos did not have female cult agents before the second century A.D. The real problem is one of evidence, not bias; it may well be, as some scholars have suggested, that the Archaic ivories represent the goddess Artemis herself.

And what of the missing Pythia portraits? The Delphic Pythia was not a civic figure in the sense that the priestess of Athena Polias in Athens was; more importantly, her family did not acquire status and prominence as a result of her sacred service. Neither of these considerations implies that the Pythia herself was not important. The great majority of the portraits and gravestones for priestesses considered in this book were erected not by the priestesses themselves, but by members of their families. To say that Greek priestesses tended to be honored in public and commemorated for posterity because of their family ties does not diminish their accomplishment as individuals. In my opinion, Connelly’s scholarly accomplishment in this book would emerge with greater clarity if she were willing to concede this point, and to accept the primacy of the epigraphical evidence in the book she has written: after all, how many of the 150 priestesses mentioned here would we know by name without inscriptions?

This book relies heavily upon bibliography cited in individual footnotes rather than the bibliography at the end. Most of the citations of bibliographic items and of inscriptions in the footnotes are helpful and accurate. Readers should beware, though, of some references that got garbled somewhere along the way. These are the following:

327 n.85 should read M. Payne, Aretas heneka

331 n.155 should read Jüthner in RE s.v. Leibsübungen

348 n.8 should read D. Potter

362 n.1 should read Magie, not Maguire.

Patton, K. 2006 in the bibliography has not yet been published as of early August 2007.

There are also problems with some of the English translations of Greek inscriptions: on page 254, only part of the inscription quoted in Greek has been translated; on page 243, Βερενικίδου in IG II 2 6232 is translated “of Berenikidou”.


1. Susan Guettel Cole, Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: The Ancient Greek Experience (Berkeley 2004); Barbara Goff, Citizen Bacchae: Women’s Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece (Berkeley 2004); M.P.J. Dillon, Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (London 2002).

2. Anne Jacquemin, Offrandes monumentales à Delphes (Paris/Athens 1999)

3. A.G. Mantis, Προβλήματα της εικονογραφίας των ιερέων στην αρχαία ελληνική τέχνη (Athens 1990).

4. For a correct text of the Myrrhine inscription and a thorough discussion, see now Julia Lougovaya-Ast, “Myrrhine, the First Priestess of Athena Nike,” Phoenix 60 (2006) 211-225.