Worshipping Women: Classical Athens’ Ritual and Reality

December 25, 2008 Updated: August 3, 2017

Though historians often saw the woman of ancient Greece as an anonymous crowd politically without rights, women were the ones who dominated the spiritual realm of life.

As priestesses they had to take care of religious issues and to communicate with the gods. What ancient women did, while their famous men were busy with setting the foundation of democracy and modern politics in Europe, is now displayed in the exhibition “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens” in the galleries of the Onassis Cultural Center in New York. Statuettes of marble end terracotta, carved gravestones and accessories of everyday life and in-depth explanations accompany delicately painted vases.

The Role of Women

The guiding hand from cradle to grave, women played the key role in family life and religion. There was a clear division between the political male realm and spiritual life the women’s duty in ancient Greece, and both parts worked harmoniously together to complement each other. The women were often honored for their merits as shown by the many gravestones found in excavations.

Most striking is the fact that in Athens’ excavations, the gravestones found for women significantly outnumber those for men. The Greeks used to put them up when they wanted the deceased to be especially remembered—and that was not simply everybody. This way, they honored the wives and mothers of the citizens. And here it was the woman’s duty again to mourn the dead and visit the graveyard regularly.

Contrary to popular belief, priestesses were usually married and had families. They were authorities in social life. A big temple key is their most popular attribute, indicating that they were the ones to keep the gods’ mansion safe. One of these curiously formed and astonishing bulky tools can be seen at the exhibition. Also a drum, needed in ceremonies and festivals, could have been a priestess’ object.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a marble statue of Artemis, the protector of childbirth. She received the permission of her father Zeus to stay a virgin and unmarried, thereby becoming venerated as protector of unmarried girls and chaste youths, who dedicated a curl of their hair to her before getting married.

There exist literary references of women who underwent painful or risky childbirth who offered their clothing to Artemis. Also, clothes of women who died during delivery were dedicated to her sanctuary. As mortality rate among mothers and children was very high in ancient times, votive gifts for the goddess to thank her for safe and easy birth were common use. The life size marble statue of a little girl, displayed at the gallery, was such a gift.

A common gift was also a krateriskos, a little painted chalice, which was filled with liquid or solid offerings. These are painted with motifs like palm trees, altars, deer, and little girls running or dancing.

Standing on the two big cross points of a woman’s life, marriage and motherhood, Artemis was center of much veneration. A grand white lekythos vase shows a delicate drawing of Artemis with a swan, drawn in dynamic and elegant lines.

The exhibit of about 155 antique masterpieces from international collections runs from Dec.10, through May 9, 2009.