The While there may be partial truth

The position of women in Classical Athens has often been described as subordinate in comparison to men. Women were categorized in very particular ways: Athenian women were wives, while those who migrated to Athens from other city-states were slaves or prostitutes. Countless literature, from tragedy to comedy and political texts, reinforces the notion that citizen women were meant to serve their husbands within the confines of the oikos and produce legitimate sons in order to further the glory of men while non-Athenian women served their purpose towards men through sexual pleasure. While there may be partial truth to these views, Athenian women played a crucial role in the religious sphere. Religion was directly linked to civic identity and was a fundamental and sacred element of not only a city-state, but to Greece as a whole during the Classical period. Surviving documentation has demonstrated that Athenian women played a vital part to specific religious traditions, such as the participation in the festivals of Thesmophoria and Adonia. Furthermore, there exists evidence that proves women could also acquire the position of priestess for particular cults, a position that increased their reputation and status in a culture that considered them inferior. These marginalized women used religion as a way to carve out a sacred and protect space for themselves, using it to create a sense of freedom in their lives and to bridge the gap in equality between them and the dominant men.Religious festivals were a much easier and accessible way for citizen women to involve themselves in the civic sphere and many of these festivals required the inclusion of women because male involvement was forbidden. The religious festival of Thesmophoria was among the largest to occur, spanning three days every year in honour of the female deity Demeter, requiring female participants to travel outside of the city into the countryside, usually at a sanctuary. Each day was dedicated to a particular act: growing up, fasting, and fair birth (Parker 2007, 272). The festival involved women only, most likely women who were married citizens, and it was considered a religious violation if any of their husbands bore witness to the rituals involved (Stallsmith 2008, 29). According to Stallsmith, “. . .women celebrating the festival inside the sanctuary maintained celibacy. . . women camped out in tents inside the sanctuary, fasting and mourning (schol. Ar. Thesm. 658) and also observed some specific taboos related to the myth of Kore. . .” (2008, 29). These women may have engaged in obscene and racy language because within the context of the ritual, it was meant to encourage and promote the idea of fertility amongst women (Stallsmith 2008, 30). While much information regarding specific rituals of the Thesmophoria are unknown, there is a known ritual that women performed that ultimately linked them to an important aspect of the civic sphere. Before the festival was to take place, women called antletriai (“bailers” or “pumpers”) deposited sacrificed piglets in underground megara (lit. rooms) or adyta (innermost shrines) inside the sanctuary. . . During the Thesmophoria the same women descended into these underground pits and emptied them of their contents. . . These remains were then ceremoniously deposited on the altars. From here, any farmer who wished could take some mix with his seed grain before sowing. They (the female performers?) believed that the use of this mixture guaranteed a good harvest (Stallsmith 2008, 31-32).It has been suggested that this ritual was incorporated because it was a form of “sympathetic magic, intended to renew the fecundity of the exhausted earth by their symbolic prolificity” (Stallsmith 2008, 34). Agriculture was a large part of every city-state and when harvests suffered due to weather conditions, the entire city-state felt the repercussions. The dedication of this particular festival to the goddess Demeter, who was strongly linked to harvest and growth, was crucial not only in keeping the deity satisfied, but for the well being of the city-state. The concept of sacrificing particular items to symbolize larger concepts in order to achieve fertility has been linked to many religious traditions and cults and thus has been applied to the cults of ancient Greece by most scholars (Stallsmith 2008, 34). As a woman’s only festival, there appears a great level of trust and confidence given to these citizen women in order to properly perform the rituals to ensure a good harvest and provide proper respect to the gods. In this way, by allowing the Thesmophoria to be a private woman’s only festival, men were indirectly providing them a sense of stature within the civic sphere. The festival itself created a community for these women and allowed them, if only for three days, to take partial control of their freedom since they were outside of the city and away from the ruling of their husbands. It presented an opportunity for citizen women to connect with one another on a different level from the one assigned to them and enjoy not only each other’s company, but celebrate their religion in a way that benefited them and made them feel part of something divine and more important than producing legitimate heirs for their husbands.While the Thesmophoria provided citizen women the opportunity to partake in an important religious festival and temporarily remove themselves from the masculine confines of their city-state, the Adonia festival presented a similar opportunity and extended it beyond the citizen – foreign women and courtesans were also welcomed (Parker 2007, 283). The festival was dedicated to the lover of Aphrodite, Adonis. If the understanding of the status of women in classical Greece is correct, it seems unusual that an event as important as a religious festival would allow foreign women and prostitutes to participate. However, “this freedom was possible because the Adonia had no public component except that many women participated; the celebrations were privately organized in private houses. . . the Adonia had not just a name but also a recognized if informal place among the festivals of the state. . .” (Parker 2007, 284). The oikos has long been considered the woman’s sphere, and since nothing pertaining to the Adonia rituals took place in the civic sphere, it may have been more acceptable to allow non-citizen women to participate in the events. The festival was not sponsored by the state and thus was not heavily regulated by men of the civic sphere, they had no financial claim to the festival which reduced their level of authority and regulation over it. Once again, little information exists on what the ritual entailed, however scholars have pieced together an idea of what rituals these women may have performed inside their homes based on primary sources from ancient authors. During the festival, “seeds of quick-growing plants (lettuce and fennel) were planted. . . to create the so-called gardens of Adonis. At a certain point the women took the gardens up on the roofs of the houses and there. . . lamented for Adonis” (Parker 2007, 284). The point of the ritual was to demonstrate the death and rebirth of Adonis, a symbol for the cycle of life in plants and harvest (Parker 2007, 287). This ritual called for intense emotions from female participants so it was often met with disapproval by Athenian men because these women were expressing unbridled emotion without any form of supervision (Parker 2007, 286). The fact that foreign women and courtesans were in attendance may have worried Athenian men as well due to suspicion that their citizen wives were being corrupted by those who did not hold Athenian values. Regardless of how Athenian men may have felt, this festival provided women with the opportunity to gather together and express their emotions in a safe place with other females without any judgement. The inclusion of foreign women and courtesans may have also provided an opportunity to share the female experience of different backgrounds and experiences within the city-state and outside of it. There were rarely men in attendance so these women could converse with one another about anything they desired, they did not have to comply with gendered expectations here.While festivals such as the Thesmophoria and Adonia provided excellent opportunities for women to experience a partial sense of freedom during specific moments of the year and allowed them to come together to formulate temporary sympathetic bonds with other women, the role of the priestess was one of the most prestigious and more permanent opportunity for women to obtain a sense of religious power and respect in Athens. Religion was such a fundamental and sacred element of a city-state that the position would only be granted to aristocratic citizen women. It is difficult to determine whether or not this position allowed women to independently support themselves, but what can be determined is that “priestesses enjoyed particular respect, which stemmed from their role as intermediaries between mortals and the divinities” (Kosmopoulou 2001, 292). The position of a priestess, especially for lower class women, meant opportunities in which their previous social status could never offer. The position offered many things, among them a salary appointed during particular rituals or events, the opportunity to live at a sanctuary, and the luxury of honour that would transfer not only onto the priestess, but her family as well (Kosmopoulou 2001, 292). The occupation of priestess was relatively prestigious and did require a certain amount of money in order to obtain the position, often only allowing upper-class women to do so. However, over the course of many political and social changes within the polis, the requirements of a religious position did change and sometimes women were drawn from a lot or election (Kosmopoulou 2001, 293). This random lottery provided lower class women the opportunity to achieve something great on multiple levels, including personal, social, and legal. The priestess Myrrhine provides an excellent example of a woman who was drawn from a lot and offered the position of the first priestess of Athena Nike. Her funerary monument reads “this is the conspicuous memorial of the daughter of Kallimachos who was the first to serve as attendant at the temple of Nike. She had a name that was a companion to her good reputation, since she was aptly called Myrrhine by divine chance. Myrrhine was the first to serve the sanctuary of Athena Nike, and, out of all, she was chosen by the luck of the draw” (Lougovaya-Ast 2006, 212). According to Julia Lougovaya-Ast, Myrrhine received a position as an attendant at a sanctuary for Athena Nike around 450-445 BC by lot and it was not until the temple of Athena Nike was built in the 420s that Myrrhine was allotted the position of priestess (2006, 212). It is thought that Myrrhine had been “divinely ordained. . . and chosen by favourably inclined fate. . . Her service as priestess had been a happy event attended by good fortune and success” (Rahn 1986, 203). The praise of Myrrhine demonstrates how highly regarded this position was and how it provided a unique opportunity for lower-class women to gain a more equal position in the civic sphere, carving out their own space of respect amongst the oppression of gender and class.As Myrrhine demonstrates, the role of priestess was a well respected and highly honourable area in which citizen women of all stature had the opportunity to escape the strict definitions the male citizen body had constructed for them. Scholars receive most of their information regarding what a priestess was required to do from visuals such as vases and paintings, which depict these women “engaged in every stage of ritual, from leading processions, to offering prayers and libations, to adorning animal victims, to presiding over sacrifice, to consuming sacrificial meat” (Connelly 2007, 166). These women were fully emerged in every process of a ritual, reiterating how important their position was to the function of a religious cult. Regarding processions, the priestess became responsible for carrying holy things in sacred processions, which gave visibility, not just to the instruments of worship, but also to the priestess herself. . . Processions provided highly visible, dramatic displays in which leaders and participants understood their roles. . . Women who led these processions marched in a spotlight that underscored their agency and highlighted their symbolic capital within the larger group (Connelly 2007, 167). In addition to the public display of stature, priestesses gained many benefits that were mostly appointed to the men of the city. Among these privileges included the possibility to live in a holy sanctuary (Connelly 2007, 202), and “by the Hellenistic period, three standard public honors were awarded to the priestesses: gold crowns, reserved seats in the theatre, and portrait statues” (Connelly 2007, 203). Even greater, a priestess “held powers in the selection of other sacred officials” (Connelly 2007, 218) which meant that her opinion was highly valued. The fact that a priestess had the authority to aid in the selection of such important officials demonstrates the level of respect that was given to her, setting her on a more equal level with the male population. The role of priestess provided citizen women an excellent and privileged opportunity to escape the strict regulations administered to them based on gender and sometimes class, to have their voice heard among the dominating male authority, and to carve out a space for herself where her importance went beyond that of being a good wife and creating legitimate sons. Her position made her a valuable participant in a religious sphere that was crucial to the life of Athenians.Religion provided a crucial opportunity for women in Athens during the Classical period, allowing them access to a civic sphere where men dominated and wanted no female presence to infiltrate. Furthermore, religious festivals like the Thesmophoria and Adonia and the role of priestess created a safe space for women to unite with one another and share their experience, to create a form of freedom for themselves, and to obtain a sense of empowerment among such strong oppression. These women were able to carve a space for themselves among the oppressive environment of Athens through the scope of religion, subtly gaining a more equal standing to men through the necessary female roles that the religious sphere required.


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