Women In Ancient Greek Celebration Essay, Research Paper
Women in Celebration
There is a saying that is well known, What is good for the gander is good for the goose. Ancient Greek religious festivities seem to only concern what is good for the gander, or in their case the men. The Greek civilization was extremely male dominated and Greek religion and its activities are looked upon as being androcentric. Very little is known about women s festivities in the ancient Greek religion, even though women were prominent in religious activities and had celebrations and festivals of there own.
Women very rarely went outdoors, and were confined to their houses. But the aspects of Greek religion that revolved around women and the practices included in them did not refuse their admittance. Many cults had priestesses, and women were normally involved in festivals and sacrifices. Some festivals and gatherings were even reserved for the women (Nilsson 96). Just as men had a great amount of merrymaking, in which they would socialize, so did the women. I plan to show that women did participate in religious festivals and have festivals of their own in ancient Greece, by writing about such festivals and giving specific examples.
Quite often women would attend feasts and festivals that were thought to be aimed towards men. Warriors of elite standing established banquets in great halls during the Homeric times. These banquets were held to increase the number of possible allies. Not only did respectable women attend these dining and drinking parties, but they also played some very strong roles at these gatherings. In this next passage, Helen of Troy provides us with a wonderful example of how women played strong roles in parties where men are present. In this case Helen is even using her key role, as hostess, in her favor.
Helen, in her Spartan home after her return from Troy, offers a key example of a woman who actively participates in drinking parties that include male strangers. When two male strangers arrive at her home, Helen takes the lead in the drinking party: she directs the serving of wine and suggests storytelling for the entertainment . Helen uses the forum of the dinner party for political purposes: to try to rebuild her reputation (Burton 45)
Along with the matron of the house, well-thought-of women also made appearances at dining and drinking assemblies in the Homeric world. As the heroic world is portrayed by Greek tragedies respectable women also took part in the feasts attended by men. Also among the Homeric gods, male and female deities commonly dined together at festivals (Burton 46).
Women played key roles in certain ancient Greek religious rituals and cult practices. When performing civic sacrifices at the Panthenaia at Athens and the Hyakinthia at Sparta, it was the women who carried the lustral water, the women who bore the basket of grain in which the sacrificial knife was concealed, and stood around the altar to participate in the act of ritual slaughter (Pantel & Zaidman 35). The sacred implements and provisions were carried by the virgins (Nilsson 96). The grinders of grain were the girls who prepared the flour and the bread for the sacrifices in the cult of Athena (Gordon 179). At the moment of the slaughter, all women in attendance would let out the indispensable ritual scream (Pantel & Zaidman 35).
Not only were women important in sacrifices and certain rituals, but they also held highly important positions in religious processions. Such processions as the funeral cortege, which conveyed the dead person from his or her house to the graveyard, were led by a woman while the mourners (both men and women) followed (Pantel & Zaidman 72). The kanephorois , or Virgins that carried the sacrificial instruments and appeared in almost all of the processions, had the obligation to carry baskets in the Panathenaic procession (Gordon 179) (Nilsson 96).
Women also had their own parties in the ancient Greek world. Most of these festivals incorporated a women s feast and gave evidence of at least a temporary opposition to men. During the Skira, a summer festival exclusively for women that was held in honor of both Demeter and Athena, women would eat garlic, a very odoriferous food affiliated with sexual abstinence. Haloa, more of a lewd festival in which women feast, is an all-night festival in midwinter associated with both Demeter and Dionysus. Burton states that during the Haloa at Eleusis,
the archons provided the celebrant women with wine and foodstuffs, which included dough shaped like genitals, and the women feasted together within the sanctuary, supposedly telling ribald jokes to one another, while the men stayed outside (Burton 46).
In Archediato during the women s feast of Tegea, which was held in adoration of Ares Gunaikothoinas ( feaster of women ), women carried out the sacrifice of the feast and none of the sacrificial meat was disbursed to the men (Burton 46).
One of the most expansively dispersed Greek women s festival was that in honor of Demeter, the autumn festival of Thesmophoria. Women alone celebrated the Thesmophoria and some other festivals of Demeter; men were excluded. Nilsson disagrees with the idea that the reason for this was that the Thesmophoria had come down from very ancient times when the cultivation of plants was in the hands of the women (Nilsson 26). The Thesmophoria is one of the most significant festivals (along with the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Proerosia) connected with the autumn sowing of cereals (Hauley & Levick 102). This festival, in Athens, lasted for three days, and on the third day a state sponsored woman s feast was held to elect female administrators to officiate (Burton 46). The Thesmophoria was a fertility festival in which the women prayed for fertility not only for the fields but also for themselves. The parallelism of sowing and begetting is constant in the ancient Greek religion. The reason why women alone celebrated this festival may simply be that the women seemed especially fit for performing fertility magic (Nilsson 26). Women sacrificed and feasted together at other celebrations of Demeter.
The Dionysiac religion was subdued in the ancient times of Greece, but there are indications to show that the Dionysiac frenzy had once spread like fire in dry grass and distinctively had influenced the women (Nilsson 95). Dionysus himself was a male deity, but had many feminine characteristics. His devotees were the Maenads, all women. At first the Bacchic rites belonged to the women, and it was customary not to admit men (Rice & Stambaugh 199). Two female cult-societies (the Leukippides and the Dionysiades) were the original and primary participants in the festival of Dionysia. In our text, Sources for the Study of Greek Religion, we are provided with how the women who took center stage during this festival acted.
the cults of Dionysos were distinguished by chases, flagellations, ecstatic dancing, sacrifices, and orgia (secret ceremonies) in which women were the principal participants. It was the women, too, who occupied center stage during the Theoinia and Iobakkheia celebrations at the Anthesteria festival at Athens. (Pantel & Zaidman 200)
Among these ceremonies the Basilinna, wife of the King or Basileus, along with her entourage of fourteen priestesses, performed several secret rites including a sacred marriage with Dionysos himself, a highly important public function (Nilsson 34).
All of these rituals, celebrations, feasts, or festivals in which women lead or participated in have a strong relation to growth of some sort, or fertility. The name Haloa is derived from helos, which means garden. Also the portrayal of the festival of Haloa fits in with what is known about the work in the vineyard. Anthesteria, meaning festival of flowers, is held when the wine is ripe for drinking. Girls were also swung in swings, a custom which was often found in pastoral festivals, and can possibly be interpreted as a fertility charm (Nilsson 33). Woman s festivals and feasts were often held in honor of Demeter who was goddess of the harvest, which also signifies growth and fertility.
It is evident that women did actively partake in religious activities such as sacrifices, feasts, and festivals. Along with this, they also took charge in establishing their own religious ceremonies and feasts. Even though there is not much known about these festivals, celebrations, and such, there is enough to know that women were important in the celebration of the ancient Greek religion. Therefore, what was good enough for the gander (men) was also good enough for the goose (women).
Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Ed. P.G. Walsh. New York: Oxford, 1994.
Burton, Joan. Women s commensality in the ancient Greek world. Greece and Rome. Vol. 45, Issue #2. Oxford, 1998.
Gordon, R.L. Myth, religion, and society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Hauley, Richard and Barbara Levick. Women in Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Nilsson, Martin P. Greek folk religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.
Pantel, Schmitt and Bruit Zaidman. Religion in the ancient Greek city. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Rice, David G. and John E. Stambaugh. Sources for the study of Greek religion. The Society of Biblical Literature, 1979.