BMCR 2009.05.45

Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens

, , Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens. New York: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), 2008. 367 (pb). ISBN 9780977659845

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The multiplicity of meanings hidden in the title of this sumptuously illustrated exhibition catalogue hints at its expansive and multifarious treatment of both ritual and the female sex in Classical Athens. The editors emphasize this ambiguity in their introduction, explaining that the exhibition and accompanying book were conceived with the purpose of providing a counter argument for the more popular view of Greek women: rather than focusing on their perceived seclusion and isolation, the objects chosen shed light on how ritual can serve to illuminate the roles and lives of women, otherwise invisible or misconstrued.

The book (following the exhibition layout) is divided into three parts. The first section examines the worship of goddesses and heroines in Attika, the second focuses specifically on women’s roles in rituals and festivals, and the last turns to women and the rituals involved in the cycle of life. Each chapter within the sections is followed by a brief bibliography and then a selection of catalogue entries (each catalogue entry with its own selected bibliography, as well).

After the Introduction by Nikolaos Kaltsas and Alan Shapiro, there is a brief essay by Mary Lefkowitz concerning the textual and literary evidence for the roles of women in ritual. This chapter is a curious inclusion at the start of the book. Although the title, “Ancient Greek Women and the Gods,” would indicate a more generalized overview of women and ritual as presented in ancient texts, Lefkowitz instead focuses almost exclusively on Euripidean drama, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it ignores the richness and variety of other available sources.

The first section, “Goddesses and Heroines,” contains five chapters, divided by divinity and with a concluding chapter on heroines. Olga Palagia begins the section with a chapter on Athena, focusing primarily on the cult of Athena Polias. Palagia discusses different aspects of the cult based on the jobs or duties performed by girls and women, with especial detail regarding the arrhephoroi. This focus on young girls is interesting, particularly in juxtaposition with the later discussion of adult female priestesses by J.B. Connelly. Palagia covers previous scholarship and interpretations, most notably in relation to the Parthenon frieze, but there is no mention of Connelly’s own theory on this matter.

Evgenia Vikela writes an insightful and well-documented chapter on Artemis. Vikela stresses the connections between the cult of Artemis and well-being of the community, drawing attention to the ways in which a structured and supervised passage from girlhood through puberty to marriageable age, via the rites of Artemis, helps ensure in turn the structured hierarchy and social relations in the polis. In her analysis, women are necessary for the healthy functioning of the polis, a theme picked up in various other chapters as well. Vikela discusses not only the sanctuary at Brauron, but also the cult of Artemis and the role of the goddess more generally.

The subject of the next chapter, written by Angelos Delivorrias, is Aphrodite. There is a brief discussion of the different epithets of the goddess, Ourania and Pandemos, and Delivorrias wisely avoids lengthy discussion of their much-debated meanings, focusing rather on the various shrines, sanctuaries, altars, and temples to Aphrodite throughout the city. There is some treatment of the goddess’ Near Eastern origins and transmission to Attika, and a brief discussion of the relationship between Aphrodite and Athena that is unfortunately more confusing than clarifying.

Michalis Tiverios contributes an interesting chapter on Demeter. The beginning and end of the entry focus on the Thesmophoria, flanking a central investigation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as read through an iconographical analysis of the Ninnion plaque (represented in the exhibition and catalogue via a cast, cat. no. 66). This approach, although an interesting method for the study of the Mysteries, occasionally becomes bogged down in lengthy historiographical concerns.

The first section concludes with a chapter on heroines by Alan Shapiro. There is cursory treatment of Iphigenia and Helen, but the primary focus is on the Kekropidai: Pandrosos, Aglauros, and Herse. Shapiro deftly weaves together the recurring motifs of duty, loyalty, and self-sacrifice to show how heroines served as paradigmatic exemplars of proper female behavior with respect to gods and family. His chapter is full of ancient textual examples and cross-references with other entries, admirably tying together the overall themes of the book.

The second section, “Women and Ritual,” begins with a chapter by Joan Connelly on women and priesthoods. It is, in essence, a detailed yet concise summary of her recent book.1 Connelly reviews the evidence, textual and visual, for the appointment of priestesses and their functions, both in cult and state affairs. Perhaps the most important contribution of this chapter lies in Connelly’s discussion of precisely why an evaluation of priestesses is important: it provides a useful counterpart to the more typical or popular ideas of Greek women; it indicates a greater level of visibility for women, and it demonstrates that priestesses could serve as pseudo-state officials, the near equals of their male political counterparts. Priestesses played an integral role in ensuring the health, safety, and functionality of the polis.

Jenifer Neils’ chapter focuses on women and festivals, a loose heading and unfortunately one that creates overlaps and repetitions, particularly with the chapters on Athena and Artemis from the previous section of the book. Neils succeeds in providing a general and helpful overview of several festivals, the Arrhephoria, Arkteia, Adonia, Thesmophoria, Panathenaia, and possibly an all-female festival of Dionysos (often associated with the Lenaia and treated in more detail in the following chapter). Neils’s main contribution, however, lies in her discussion of the frequently nocturnal and secret or initiatory rites associated with women, particularly in contrast with the more familiar state-sponsored festivals like the City Dionysia and Great Panathenaia.

The second section is rounded out by a chapter on women and the worship of Dionysos by Stella Chryssoulaki. Chryssoulaki emphasizes the correlations between the ambivalent and elusive nature of the god and the role of women in Greek society, a discussion that raises more general questions regarding rites of reversal and transgression. An overview of the various Dionysiac festivals and rituals, the Haloa, Lenaia, Anthesteria, Rural Dionysia, and Great/City Dionysia, takes up most of the chapter.

The third and final section, “Women and the Cycle of Life,” opens with a chapter on women and the rituals associated with the cycle of life from birth to marriage and childbirth, by Victoria Sabetai. Sabetai posits a type of “cultic citizenship” for women, whereby their social identity is defined vis-à-vis their role in private and public ritual. She goes on to provide an overview of the various rituals associated with birth, early childhood, puberty, marriage, and childbirth. It is in her discussion of loutrophoroi, however, that Sabetai’s most powerful contribution to the book can be found: Sabetai analyzes the form and function of these vases, in addition to their wedding iconography, using the preceding discussion to underscore the implications and importance of marriage as a fundamental civic value and necessary part in the maintenance of the proper social order and equilibrium of the community.

John Oakley contributes the final chapter, an examination of women and the rituals of death that begins with Geometric scenes of the prothesis and ekphora and processes through white-ground lekythoi and grave monuments from the fifth and fourth centuries. Oakley draws connections between the rites associated with marriage and those of death, nicely tying together his and Sabetai’s chapters into a coherent whole for the final section. In his treatment of the sudden explosion of images of women on grave monuments after the mid-fifth century, Oakley does not directly mention Perikles’ citizenship law of 451/0, but that certainly seems to be what he implies when he suggests that this visual change is reflective of a more broadly construed change in the status of women.

There are few drawbacks to this expansive book. The lack of a glossary is an inconsequential matter, as many of the chapters and catalogue entries provide translations of Greek terms. Likewise, while a map of Athens and Attika would be useful, it is not crucial for the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the contributions. Some readers might find the sorting of catalogue entries awkward and unclear in certain cases; each chapter is followed by several entries not always readily apparent (e.g. grave stelai can be found in the entries following the chapter on birth and marriage, rather than after the chapter on death and funerary rituals). There is a general lack of internal cohesion among the chapters. For example, Greek terms and quotes are sometimes transliterated, sometimes printed in Greek, and frequently but not always translated. Similarly, references to ancient literary sources are, in the more successful chapters, cited within the body of the text (e.g. “Euripides, Bacchae, l.404″), whereas in other chapters, sources are not cited at all or only partially (e.g. “according to Thucydides” but without chapter and section references). These are primarily minor issues, however. The more pressing concern, and the only serious problem with the book, is the reliance on the gynaikonitis model and the assumptions throughout regarding the so-called “women’s quarters.” The topic of female seclusion within the house recurs repeatedly and without qualification (the most egregious examples being cat. nos. 131, 134, and 148, and the discussion of the festival of Adonis and symbolism of the ladders in the chapter on Aphrodite). Neither the selected bibliographies at the end of each chapter nor the all-encompassing one at the end of the book (which is otherwise an extensive and useful addition) mention the recent work done by Lisa Nevett and Bradley Ault, to name only the two most prominent scholars on this issue.2 This reliance on the assumption of domestic isolation weakens the overall argument of the book by tacitly reinforcing the normative dichotomy and popular conception of women in ancient Greece. The contested space of the gynaikonitis would have been best dealt with by means of an introductory chapter, such as Lefkowitz’s regarding the literary sources. That there is no direct acknowledgement or discussion of the debate among archaeologists and classical scholars regarding the presence, (or absence), of a secluded “women’s quarters” within the domestic setting is an unfortunate error in an otherwise well-conceived and executed exhibition and book.

The overall product, despite these quibbles, is ultimately successful in rendering Athenian women more visible. The chapters are brief and approachable for a non-specialist, but often contain hidden gems of analysis and raise thought-provoking questions. Both Vikela and Delivorrias, in their chapters on Artemis and Aphrodite, respectively, bring up the topic of Near Eastern origins and transmission: how and why did this seemingly gendered adoption and adaptation of Eastern goddesses occur? The catalogue entries following the chapter on Athena include a number of inscribed objects, prompting questions of female literacy and ability to dedicate objects in sanctuaries. Neils espouses a recent but questionable theory regarding the matronly women depicted on the Parthenon frieze: could they perhaps represent the eponymai, the wives of the eponymous heroes? A previously unpublished red-figure Type C pyxis with lid, attributed to the Meidias Painter or his workshop and dated to ca. 420-400, is presented as cat. no. 76, depicting the climactic moment in the story of the Kekropidai and the infant Erichthonios. Likewise, cat. no. 153 is a black-figure loutrophoros-amphora, attributed to the Sappho Painter and dated to the early fifth century, which shows the lowering of the coffin into the grave, a rare image, here illustrated with a number of detailed views. The catalogue entries, all beautifully photographed and thoroughly documented, are supplemented by figures included within the texts of the chapters, often including site photographs that aid in situating the cults and rituals within the physical environment. These additional images make the book even more comprehensive and significantly richer in detail. The evidence presented and analyzed, both in the catalogue entries and chapters, details a multifaceted and nuanced interpretation of Athenian women in the Classical period, one that focuses on festivals and rituals as seen from a female perspective. The worshipped and worshipping women illuminate female participation in the polis, thereby rendering visible a segment of the population too often confined to darkness and ambiguity.

Table of Contents Introduction – Nikolaos Kaltsas and Alan Shapiro
Ancient Greek Women and the Gods — Mary R. Lefkowitz
Part I: Goddesses and Heroines
Athena: Women in the Cult of Athena — Olga Palagia
Artemis: The Worship of Artemis in Attica: Cult Places, Rites, Iconography — Evgenia Vikela
Aphrodite: The Worship of Aphrodite in Athens and Attica — Angelos Delivorrias
Demeter: Women of Athens in the Worship of Demeter: Iconographic Evidence from Archaic and Classical Times — Michalis Tiverios
Heroines: Cults of Heroines in Ancient Athens — Alan Shapiro
Part II: Women and Ritual
Priestesses — Women in Cult: In Divine Affairs-the Greatest Part: Women and Priesthoods in Classical Athens — Joan Breton Connelly
Festivals: Adonia to Thesmophoria: Women and Athenian Festivals — Jenifer Neils
The Participation of Women in the Worship and Festivals of Dionysos — Stella Chryssoulaki
Part III: Women and the Cycle of Life
Birth, Childhood, and Marriage: Women’s Ritual Roles in the Cycle of Life — Victoria Sabetai
Death: Women in Athenian Ritual and Funerary Art — John H. Oakley


1. Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

2. E.g. Lisa C. Nevett, House and Society in the Ancient Greek World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; Bradley A. Ault and Lisa C. Nevett, eds, Ancient Greek Houses and Households: Chronological, Regional, and Social Diversity, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.