Breaking out of the footnotes

Portrait of a Priestess
May 18, 2007

Women were at the heart of the Greek city-state, finds Ralph Anderson

When Apollonis, priestess of Artemis in the Greek city of Kyzikos on the Sea of Marmara, died in the early 1st century AD, temples and shops were closed for her funeral and her corpse, dressed in gold and purple, was escorted through the streets by the free population of the town. Some 400 years later, when saint-to-be Melania the Younger died after many years of retreat in the monastery she had founded on the Mount of Olives, her burial, though stately, was devoid of such pomp, despite her aristocratic origins and a career that had seen her hobnobbing with bishops, founding monasteries and converting her steadfastly pagan uncle whom even Saint Augustine had failed to win over.

The contrast between the burials of these two women encapsulates two of the central theses of Joan Breton Connelly's lavishly illustrated study of priestesses in the Greek world from the archaic period to the coming of Christianity. The two theses are these. First, that priestesses in the Greek world, especially from the Hellenistic period onwards, enjoyed a prominence in religious, social and political life that is far greater than has hitherto been recognised. Second, that far from providing women with opportunities denied to them in pagan Greece, Christianity spelt "the end of the line", as, from the 4th century AD on, church edicts progressively excluded women from holding office in the established structures of the Christian ministry.

The first of these arguments is developed over seven of the book's ten chapters, which cover aspects of women's religious roles in archaic, classical, Hellenistic and Roman Greece. Inscriptions and textual evidence are brought into play but, as the title of the book implies, priority is given to visual materials. These, Connelly argues, provide much-needed correctives to the biases inherent in the literary record. Accordingly, a wide range of iconographic evidence is presented for the status and activities of Greek priestesses: vase-paintings of priestesses at work in all areas of Greek ritual practice, votive statues commemorating priestesses in the sanctuaries they had served and carved funerary monuments from all periods that suggest a high level of pride in the status of priestess. Although Connelly focuses on those women who held the formal office of priestess, she also examines lower-level female "cult agents". Girls aged between five and 11, for example, helped weave the robes that clothed the ancient cult statue of Athena on the Athenian acropolis and "played the bear" for Artemis at a still poorly understood ritual at Brauron in eastern Attica. Young, unmarried women played very public roles as kanephoroi , for example, carrying baskets of sacred and sacrificial paraphernalia in procession at the great religious festivals of the Greek cities. These sub-priestly roles were intensely honorific and sought after in their own right, but could also be the prelude to a career as a full priestess. Connelly traces the careers of a number of women who began with such posts and went on to hold prominent priestesshoods in major civic cults.

However, mention of priestly careers should not blind us to differences between ancient Greek and modern Christian notions of the nature of religious office. In the Greek world, there was no centrally organised clergy and no formal training for religious service. Greek religion was embedded in every aspect of Greek life: the teaching and learning of religious practice could not be separated from the practices of everyday life. All girls and women, Connelly points out, and all boys and men for that matter, could adopt the priest's role, playing their appropriate parts in making dedications, offering prayers and conducting animal sacrifice. It was one of the distinctive oddities of the Persians, according to Herodotus, that they required an official priest to be present whenever a sacrifice was performed. Moreover, Greek priesthoods, as befitting an embedded religion, were not founded on a special sense of vocation and few were held for life. Virginity or even celibacy were not usually required. Virgin priestesshoods were typically held by young women for only a short period before marriage, while those requiring permanent celibacy were usually held by older women or widows. In between, many priestesses pursued their religious roles while maintaining full "normal" lives including husband and children.

This is not to say that there were no special qualifications for priestesshood at all. Besides health and physical wholeness, wealth and family were significant factors: many of the most prominent priestesses came from extremely well-connected, aristocratic backgrounds and probably had more in common with upper-class men than with lower-class women. Such families could even establish hereditary claims to particular offices. The aristocratic Eteoboutadai clan of Athens successfully monopolised the two most prestigious religious offices in the city for an astonishing 700 years. High-profile religious offices not only brought immense prestige to the holders and their families, but could prove lucrative through the exploitation of priestly perquisites, such as the sale of skins from sacrificial victims. Feminine priesthoods, Connelly maintains, were jealously guarded privileges, just like their masculine counterparts.

In arguing that feminine priesthoods were so highly valued, Connelly challenges what she claims is an anachronistically narrow definition of the political and an equally anachronistic prioritisation of the political over the religious or social sides of life. This modern construction, she argues, presents religious activity as marginal to what the ancient Greek city was about, and plays a part in a more far-reaching scholarly deprecation of women's contributions in antiquity. Nineteenth-century classicists, reading their material through their own gender ideologies, judged that the sphere of activity of Greek women had been restricted to the household. Feminist scholars of the 1970s, coming from a very different direction, took a pessimistic view and reached a similar conclusion. For both, priestesses represented the exception to the rule. But since religion was regarded as marginal to the central project of the Greek city-state, the religious roles of women represented at best a position of dissidence or an escape into the margins of an otherwise oppressive system.

Instead, Connelly contends, religion was central to the life of the city-state. In Athens, for example, the citizen assembly met on 145 days a year, whereas there were 170 religious festival days. Far from inhabiting the margins of the system, priests and priestesses were at its very heart. Religious office provided women with the opportunity to advance personal and family interests, which benefited them as much as their male kin. Priestesses, Connelly argues, had a real stake not in fleeing the system but in making it work. Written in admirably accessible style, Connelly's study is an excellent introduction to the lives of ancient Greek priestesses, with many reflections on current debates on women and religion in classical antiquity. The rich body of literary, epigraphic and, above all, iconographic evidence that she presents makes the book a valuable resource in its own right. Connelly remarks in her conclusion that in studies of women in antiquity their most publicly visible roles have often been "relegated to footnotes advising us: 'except in the case of priestesses'." This volume shows how undeserved that relegation was and how much can be concealed by a footnote.

Ralph Anderson is a lecturer in ancient history at St Andrews University.

Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece

Author - Joan Breton Connelly
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 415
Price - £26.95
ISBN - 97806911460

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments