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.

When the matter was put before the people, the men voted for Neptune, the women for Minerva; as it happened, the women outnumbered the men by one; thus, the victory was given to Minerva. Then Neptune was outraged and devastated the territory of Athens flooding it with sea-water (...). To appease his anger (...) the women suffered a threefold punishment: they were never to have the vote again; their children were never to take their mother's name; and no one was ever to call them "Athenian women.”[1]

Athena depicted on an amphora from Athens, her favored city. 340-339 BCE, Getty Villa. (Photo by author)This amazing myth reveals a telling connection between religion and politics. Also, it states quite bluntly that there was a time when women had significant rights: they participated in the decision-making in a democratic way, they had the legal status of Athenian citizens, while the naming of children was likely to be matrilineal. The essential truth of this legend is confirmed by archaeological and anthropological evidence, showing that egalitarian societies did exist in prehistoric times, while in some parts of the world they survived even until recent years.[2]

Furthermore, the matrilineal naming of children is attested among several ancient peoples, such as the Lykians of southwestern Anatolia, the Egyptians and the Etruscans. It is also evident in Lokroi Epizephyrioi, a Hellenic colony in Southern Italy, as well as in the area of Western Lokris in Greece.[3] Even in modern Greece, where, as a rule, children take their fathers’ surnames, a number of surnames clearly originate in female names.

The tale preserved by St. Augustine also demonstrates that Athena was worshipped mainly by women—it was their vote who made her patron (or rather matron!) of the city. Yet at the same time this story shows how religion was used to justify women’s oppression: their subordination was presented as a kind of punishment inflicted through the wrath of a male deity, as plainly stated by St. Augustine. Far-fetched as this may sound, it is also reminiscent of another story used to marginalize the female sex in more recent times: the punishment of Eve, who is portrayed as angering God within both Judaism and Christianity…

Women were indeed deprived of many rights in class-divided, patriarchal Athens; yet the power of the goddess never failed. Athena remained strong and independent—unlike other goddesses, she was never defeated, raped or forced into marriage. The best-known monument of ancient Greece, a testimony to the glamour and wealth of classical Athens, is none other than her temple, the Parthenon. The word derives from Athena’s title Parthenos, “Virgin,” a term originally denoting a woman’s unmarried status rather than her physical virginity.[4] The goddess’s huge statue, made of gold and ivory, was the work of Pheidias, one of the most famous sculptors of antiquity.[5]Athena was worshipped since Mycenaean times (1400-1200 BCE). In this picture from the Museum of Mycenae two of her sacred animals, the bull and the snake, are shown, along with female figurines (goddesses?). (Photo by author)

Many were her titles and attributes in ancient Athens: Polias, “Goddess of the City,” Promakhos, “Defender,” Boulaia, “Of the City Council,” Ergane, “Industrious” etc.[6] Splendid festivals, like the Panathenaia, were organized by the state in her honor. Women always retained a special place in her rituals, as her priestesses and worshippers. They took part in formal processions, wove her peplos (mantle), carried her sacred objects and ceremonially washed her wooden statue. They also tended the fertility of the earth in festivals like the Skira and the Arrephoria, since women always maintained a mystical connection to the land and the magical energy of the goddess.[7]

Although, according to myth, they suffered the loss of many rights because of their devotion to her, they knew better than to hold that against her. Besides, oppression is usually rooted in political, social and economic conditions rather than in religious beliefs used to justify it. The wealth and power of ancient Athens was largely based on the exploitation of women and slaves—female as well as male ones.[8] Aristophanes, the greatest comedy writer of antiquity, pointed in his own way at women as the possible solution to the problems of social injustice and war.[9] It seems that memories of a more egalitarian and peaceful world, in which the female gender played a major role, were still alive in his time. Intertwined with these memories was old, wise Athena.[10] For the women of the city she was a mighty goddess of peace and freedom, dear to their hearts, rejoicing in their celebrations, or so grandpa Aristophanes tells us. Thus, the female chorus in his Thesmophoriazousai makes a touching invocation to her:

Athena Pallas, the dance-loving goddess,
it is custom to call to our dance,
the virgin, unmarried maiden,
holding our city,
she alone having evident power,
she, the keeper of its keys.
Appear, you who properly despises tyrants.

The womenfolk are calling you;
come to us bringing Peace,
who loves festivities.[11]

©Harita Meenee

NOTES

[1] This account was given by Varro, the great first-century BCE Roman scholar; it was preserved by St. Augustine in his City of God, 18-9. Translation by Harita Meenee.

[2] Sotiris Dimitriou, The Development of Human Beings: The Origins of Social Organization, vol. 4 (Athens: Kastanioti, 1996), 127-30. Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World (London: Bookmarks, 1999/2002), 3-31.

[3] Panaghis Lekatsas, Matriarchy and its Clash with the Greek Patriarchy (Athens: Kastanioti, 1977/1996), 9-14. See also the epigram of the poet Nossis from Lokroi Epizephyrioi, in which she identifies herself only by the name of her mother and her maternal grandmother (Anthologia Palatina VI, 265).

[4] Athena Parthenos: Pausanias 5. 11, 10. For examples that a woman could be called a “virgin,” even though she had sexual relationships and sometimes had borne children, see Herodotus 5. 6 and Homer’s Iliad 2 512-15.

[5] For a description of the works of art adorning the Parthenon see Pausanias 1. 24, 5-7.

[6] Herodotus 5. 82, Alkiphron 3. 51, Antiphon 146. 35, Pausanias 1. 24, 3.

[7] Dimitris Karabouzis, The Ancient Attic Calendar and Festivals (Athens: Metaikhmio 2001), s.v. “Kallynteria, Plynteria,” “Skira or Skirophoria,” “Arretophoria or Arrephoria” and “Panathenaia.” For the festival of Arrephoria see also Pausanias 1. 27, 3.

[8] Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, translated by Eleni Asteriou (Athens: Odysseas 1974/2001), 25-9. G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests, translated by Yiannis Kritikos (Athens: Kedros 1982/1986), 139-45.

[9] Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Ekklesiazousai.

[10] I believe that the warlike attributes of Athena were a later addition, stemming out of her role as protectress of cities. The Virgin Mary underwent a similar transformation in Byzantine times; a famous medieval Greek Orthodox hymn called her the “Defending General” of Constantinople.

[11] Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousai 1136-47 in the original. Translation by Harita Meenee.

Harita Meenee

Harita Meenee

Harita Meenee is a Greek independent scholar researching women’s history, the Greco-Roman world and the Goddess. She lives in Athens, Greece, but spends part of her time in Southern California. She studied classical literature and language; her graduate studies were in the field of counseling. She has translated poetry, published in several literary magazines, as well as prose, such as W.K.C. Guthrie’s Orpheus and the Greek Religion.Harita has delivered talks in many parts of her country, as well as in Britain, Uzbekistan (Central Asia) and the USA. Her articles have appeared in many Hellenic and American magazines. She is the author of four books:- Neo-Paganism: The Rebirth of the Old Religion - On the Path of Aphrodite - The Women’s Olympics and the Great Goddess - The Sacred Feminine and Mary MagdaleneHarita teaches the online seminars "Myths and Archetypes" and "Discovering the Wisdom of Dreams." For more information visit www.hmeenee.com.
Harita Meenee