BMCR 2010.07.15

La religion des femmes en Grèce ancienne: mythes, cultes et société

Lydie Bodiou, Véronique Mehl, La religion des femmes en Grèce ancienne: mythes, cultes et société. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009. 281. ISBN 9782753508828 €18.00 (pb).

The papers in this volume are based on a colloquium organised in Cork in honour of (more or less) 20 years since the publication of Pierre Brulé’s “La fille d’Athènes. La religion des filles à Athènes à l’époque classique. Mythes, cultes et société” (Paris 1987). One of the very interesting and innovative aspects of Brulé’s publication was the combination of various approaches and views on girls in classical Athens, exploring not only the contexts of cult, religion, myths, and ritual, but also of biology or, for example, physiology.

The first section of the conference-volume deals with female divinities and heroines. V. Sebillotte-Cuchet (p. 19-32) focuses on the Carian Artemis of Halicarnassus (Hdt. 6.68, 7.99-8.93) and questions the construction of an ‘historic’ heroine whose glory and memory was promoted by her fellow-citizens but who received no cult. The second paper deals with Callisto, a nymph of Artemis until she was metamorphosed into a bear and later into the constellation of the ‘Great Bear’. Sandra Boehringer (p. 33-50) is mostly interested in one of the variants of the myth of Callisto. It is the one in which Zeus, who raped Callisto, was able to come close to her and kiss her because he had transformed himself into the goddess Artemis. Boehringer argues that, because this female contact (the kiss of ‘Artemis’ and Callisto) was supposed to create positive feelings and not arouse suspicion, it demonstrates the predominance of a positive or at least neutral vision of female homosexuality in Greek culture. Philippe Monbrun (p. 51-64) compares the discourses on the beauty of the straight and high palm-tree on Delos, the straight and tall beautiful girl Nausikaa, and the parthenos Artemis, and the connections between the ‘virginity’ of palm trees, girls and goddess. The conclusions are rather weak; however, the connections among the assembled material are evident. Artemis is also one of the main subjects of Pierre Brulé’s paper (p. 65-80) in which he pursues Artemis’ various epicleses, connecting them with local variants of Iphigenia stories and Artemis myths. Artemis’ myths and epicleses are also the focus of Claude Calame’s examination of the material, mythological and narrative landscape of the Brauron sanctuary (p.83-92).

Although Hera is at the center of the next investigation (p. 95-109), it is included in the second section “Des noms et des mots feminins”. One of the ‘sources’ Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge and Gabriella Peronti have used is the database Banque de Données des Epiclèses Grecques. The one epiclesis which is unique to Hera as a female deity is Teleia, though Zeus Teleios is also attested. The exclusivity of an epiclesis is far from normal (there are only a few comparable cases, like Ourania for Aphrodite), and so the Teleia-concept is crucial for Hera. In the eyes of the authors, it characterises Hera as equal partner to Zeus. ‘Divine’ aspects are connected to human women by Jacques Oulhen’s paper on the theophoric names of women in Attica (p. 111-143). He uses the material presented in the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names for his statistical approach. Although his material base is not always large enough to support arguments in detail, Robert Parker1 has already demonstrated that female theophoric names are few and rarely attested in comparison to the male names. Even though names convey not only a meaning (the divine aspect in the theophoric name) but also tradition (family, preferences and personal choices), a discussion of such choices seems worthwhile. Oulhen presents lists with prefixes, names and combined parts of names and then discusses in detail combinations of one divinity with a river-god’s name. For other combined names his analyses seems somewhat far-fetched because of the extremely low numbers of attestations. He leaves the reader without an explanation for the low use of female theophoric names.

The following three papers do not seem to have much to do with the section’s heading: Pauline Schmitt-Pantel’s article pleads for the relevance of religion in the construction of and narrative on virtue in Plutarch’s Mulierum Virtutes (p. 145-159). Apart from women’s mourning-duty, there are few standardised contexts for the virtuous woman. In addition, the honours a woman receives in Plutarch’s narrative are often connected to her grave and a yearly ritual of commemoration. One of the less convincing pieces is Claudine Leduc’s on the myth of the Athenian autochthony (p. 161-170), which argues that Athena’s manoeuvre to escape Hephaistos, the white of his sperm on the Earth, the silver-white back of the olive-leaves, the olive-trees’ need for sun and heat, heat as fire, and the role of Erichthonios are all linked together to create a specific picture as a consequence of the political discourse in the times of Cleisthenes and Pericles.

The third and final part of this conference-volume consists of five papers under the title of “Passages et transmissions du féminin” and opens with Lydie Bodiou’s and Véronique Mehl’s rather panoptic treatments (three papers, p. 173-206) of all kinds of perfumes and scents connected to females and to transitory rituals and events, especially marriage-ceremonies and the birth of a child, with all their olfactory aspects. On a smaller subject, but still with the same panoramic approach, including all sources exhaustively, is Florence Gherchanoc’s text (p. 207-223) in which all kinds of gifts connected to the marriage-ritual (before, during and after the gamos) are listed. Most of the sources are related to mythological marriages and not to those of ‘real’ Athenian women. However, Gherchanoc argues for the predominance of one aspect of most of the gifts the couple or the girl alone receives: the wish for and necessity of sexual attractiveness of the engaged girl and the young married women, which are underlined by the kinds of gifts she receives from other women and from her family.

The final paper, written by Jérome Wilgaux (p. 225-237), deals with an important subject: the role of the women in the transmission of kinship and family identity; the execution is rather selective and impressionistic, and as a result it is not convincing in its arguments.

Although almost always thought-provoking, not all papers in the book are convincing. But the book is a good example of the research interests and way of thinking of French classicists who follow in the footsteps of Pierre Brulé, Claude Calame and others. The French way of looking at the ‘female side’ of Greek culture is completely different than Anglo-American or, say, German cultural studies or gender studies that deal with the same subject.

From the aesthetic as well as practical point of view, the book is a catastrophe. Before I had even reached the middle of the volume, the first part of the book fell apart and while writing the review I had to work with the detached parts of the book. This is of course not the editors’ fault, but of the Presses universitaires de Rennes, responsible for the choice of the binding material and technique.


1. R. Parker (2000). ‘Theophoric Names and the History of Greek Religion’, S. Hornblower, E. Mattthews (eds.), Greek Personal Names – Their value as evidence, Oxford, 53-80.