Worshiping Women in Greece

Steven Mandis, Columbia University

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The role of women in Classical Athens are examined in a novel exhibition: “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens,” at the Onassis Cultural Center at the Olympic Tower Building in Midtown Manhattan. This marks the first major exhibition in the tenth anniversary season of the Onassis Cultural Center, used principally for temporary art exhibitions related to Hellenistic culture.
In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian general Pericles suggests that one of the key principles responsible for the greatness of Athens’ democracy was the involvement of its citizens in political life. And yet, in Pericles’ time, only Athenian men were considered citizens. Interestingly, Pericles does go on to mention women specifically, but he neither discusses their role nor their involvement in civic life or democracy. Instead, Pericles focuses on women’s virtue, declaring that the greatest virtue for a woman is to be talked about the least amongst men – whether for good or bad.
Ancient written sources from the Classical period rarely mention women and, when they do, these fleeting references nearly always only allude to the protection of their virtue. Consequently, we have limited knowledge from textual sources about women’s role in the public life of Classical Athens – leading us to misconceptions about their exclusion from public life altogether. To both correct these misconceptions and fill the gaps in the textual record, the curators, Nikolaos Kaltsas, Director of the National Archeological Museum of Greece, and Alan Shapiro, Professor of Archeology at Johns Hopkins University, have collaborated in the exhibition: “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens.”
The artifacts in the exhibition speak to us from over two and a half millennia. A comprehensive collection, the exhibition’s many objects, made in the Classical period for everyday and ritual use and later deposited as tomb offerings, provide vivid documentation of women’s roles in Athenian society. The exhibition unfurls a story about ancient Greece that cannot be read in texts, but which can only be extracted from careful observation of the artwork and other artifacts. The curators examine these objects with fresh eyes, revealing heretofore unknown facets of women’s lives in ancient culture that have long been overlooked or misinterpreted. Indeed, it has been over a decade since such a significant exhibition in America has taken a serious and fresh look at women in the ancient world (the 1995 ”Pandora’s Box: Women in Classical Greece” at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and the 1997 ”Women in Ancient Egypt” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
With over 155 rare archaeological objects, the visually-rich exhibition brings together collections from seven countries with three primary aims: to shed light on an under-studied and rarely discussed topic, to re-examine and revise existing outdated views or misconceptions about the exclusion of women from public life in Classical Athens, and to show how women’s participation in cults and festivals contributed to their civic identity.
Much of life in fifth century B.C. Athens involved maintaining a balance and harmony between mortals and gods. Religious life, then, wove both these strands together into public and private spheres of life. The exhibition’s artifacts document the religious practices of Classical Athens and reveal the complex intersection of women’s roles in that society, particularly in relation to religious cults and festivals. Most importantly, these objects reveal that women were not completely removed from public life.
However, the exhibition does not suggest that women in Classical Athens were treated as equals of men or maintained the power of citizens. Instead, the exhibition points out that not only did women not possess citizenship, but they also could not vote. Still, the exhibition uses material culture to present a subtle but important nuance: that within a system of restrictions, women carved out key roles in public and civic life.
“Worshiping Women” is thematically arranged into three main sections, each with its own well-written, concise introductory wall text and dedicated space. “Goddesses and Heroines” introduces the principal female deities of Athens and Attica, whose cults and festivals most actively engaged women – namely Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Several painted figured clay pots used to hold water for bridal baths are on display in this section. Crowd-pleasing marble statues of various goddesses are also shown. One of the most moving objects in the collection is a ritual water basin found inside the Parthenon offered to a god by a proud woman who not only had her name inscribed upon it but also identified herself as a washerwoman. The inscription is personal and connects us to the object; it also lets us know that even women of modest means participated in rituals.
The second section, “Women and Ritual,” explores the practice of ritual acts such as dances, libations, sacrifices, processions, and festivals in which women were active in the Classical period. This section includes a dazzling group of red-figure vases, shards, and votive reliefs that display scenes of the rituals in which women participated. Additionally, there are several memorable small cases and containers used for offerings. In some of these, remnants of burnt offerings can almost be imagined, providing a sense of intimacy and immediacy, connecting us in a physical, tangible way to the past.
In the final section, “Women and the Cycle of Life,” the exhibition explores how religious rituals defined moments of transition (birth, marriage, child bearing, and death). These transition moments were often recorded on vases made especially for the occasions. In this section, one of the highlights is a wedding bowl; its vivid imagery is almost exclusively nuptial. The painted scene on the bowl idealizes the bridal couple as beautiful young adults, surrounded by small Erotes to symbolize the erotic attraction of the couple. This section also displays several marble gravestones and white funerary vases. The gravestones and vases show women preparing the deceased for burial and tending their graves.
As challenging exhibitions often do, this show makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of ancient society. Women are almost invisible in written sources from this era, therefore, by presenting this story through artwork and material culture of the Classical period, the exhibition corrects or at least revises common misconceptions about the lives of Athenian women. Ultimately, we come away from the exhibition discovering that even though women’s participation in the political process was, indeed, limited, their participation in cults and festivals allowed for some degree of civic identity for women in Classical Athens.
The ideals of democracy in Pericles’ Classical Athens included equality as a founding principle. And yet, although women in Classical Athens had a civic identity, they were certainly not equal to men. The exhibition does remind of us of this major contradiction in the democracy of Classical Athens.
“Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens” continues through May 9 at the Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue, near 52nd Street; (212) 486-4448, onassisusa.org.

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