(Essay) Women, Power, and Religion in Ancient Athens by Harita Meenee

Harita Meenee, Writer

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 Poseidon, while the olive tree pointed to 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 [Poseidon], the women for Minerva [Athena]; 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]

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 archeological 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 the Hellenic colony Lokri Epizephyrii 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]

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 herpeplos (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 hisThesmophoriazousai 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]

Copyright by Harita Meenee

(This was originally published here: http://hmeenee.com/1794/8501.html)

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Glenys Livingstone
Guest

really like this Harita … good information. Thank you. And nice to see you here!

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