Women and worship in antiquity

Most people know that the role of Greek women in antiquity was a limited one. They stayed mostly in the house – there was no real reason for them to be out much, not to mention their total lack of participation in politics and public offices. Hesiod describes how women were responsible for the household, while Aristotle and Xenophon considered marriage to be a commercial agreement. Women were powerless: They went from their father’s protection to that of their husband’s. The only area in which women appear to have had some power was worship. This is the focus of the exhibition titled «Worship, Women’s Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens,» to be organized by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in New York in December, in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum. The exhibition will present a profile of women in classical antiquity through 158 exhibits on loan from Greek and foreign museums. Of the exhibits, 102 come from the National Archaeological Museum, while others are on loan from the Acropolis Museum, the Ancient Agora, the Kerameikos Museum and elsewhere in Greece, as well as New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Louvre. «We wanted to present an aspect of women’s life in antiquity. Attempts that have been made in the past were rather generalized, so we thought of public life. Women’s only chance to get out of the house was worship,» National Archaeological Museum director Nikos Kaltsas told Kathimerini. After New York, the exhibition will come to Athens in the summer of 2009. «As a priestess, a woman had certain powers and that is why during celebrations and rituals she could do what she wanted. Otherwise, there were strict limitations,» said Dimitra Yiannopoulou, who is working on the exhibition. «We are sending unique objects, some of which are unknown to the public, but also to scientists, because it is the first time they will come out of our storerooms. As researchers, we also handled them for the first time.» The exhibition is divided into categories that cover goddesses, priestesses, women in worship, celebrations and women in the circle of life. It will start off with the goddesses, including Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis, Artemis of Brauron, Demeter and Persephone and others. Mythical priestesses, such as Theano, will follow, gradually leading to the actual practice and rituals of worship. The display will end with the cycle of life – birth, coming of age, marriage and death – where all the different stages of life in relation to religion and women will be portrayed. Highlights among the exhibits will be the base of a statue bearing the signature of Praxiteles, as well as a red-figure wedding vase of the so-called Athens Painter. Two statuettes found near the Ilissos river, a statue of Artemis from the House of the Diadoumenos on Delos and a black-figure vase depicting the funeral ritual of an unmarried man also stand out. Equally impressive is the fragment of a vase depicting a scene from the Adonia, a celebration held each summer in honor of Adonis, at which women mourned his death.