Women, Power and Religion in Ancient Athens

by Harita Meenee

Statue of Athena from the famous sanctuary of Asklepios, the patron of medicine, in Epidaurus (Peloponnese, Southern Greece). The goddess was also known for her healing powers. (Photo by author)

If there ever was an intimate connection between state and religion, we can see it quite clearly in ancient Athens. The very name of the city is attributed to a goddess—Athena, its protectress and guardian. There are different versions of how this came to be as she competed against Poseidon, the angry god of the sea and earthquakes. A fascinating story about this fight comes surprisingly from a Christian writer, St. Augustine:

At the time of Kekrops [legendary king of Athens] an olive tree suddenly sprung up on the hill of the Akropolis and a spring gushed out near that spot. Kekrops asked the oracle for advice and received the response that the spring suggested Neptune [Poseidon], while the olive tree pointed to Minerva [Athena]. Kekrops called an assembly of all the citizens, male and female, to vote on the question; for at that time and in that place the custom was that women as well as men should take part in discussions about the affairs of state.

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Eating the Flesh of the Goddess: Demeter and the “Bread of Life”

by Harita Meenee

Two stand foremost among humans:
Goddess Demeter—call her Earth if you like—
who nourishes mortals with solid food;
the other one came later, Semele’s son,
who discovered the liquor of the grape,
and brought it to mortals, giving
the poor fellows surcease of sorrow…[1]

Euripides, Bacchae

The Mycenaean Earth Goddess holding ears of wheat (photo by the author)Strange as it may sound today, religion and food were once intimately connected. Ensuring adequate provisions for survival has been a major concern since the dawn of humanity. Since all food ultimately comes from the Earth, it came to be regarded as a generous Mother Goddess who nourishes her offspring, human or otherwise. As such, she had to be propitiated and thanked, in order to continue providing. It is barely stretching the imagination to think that rituals and offerings may have first been invented for this purpose.

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