Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece

Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece

by Joan Breton Connelly


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In this sumptuously illustrated book, Joan Breton Connelly gives us the first comprehensive cultural history of priestesses in the ancient Greek world. Connelly presents the fullest and most vivid picture yet of how priestesses lived and worked, from the most famous and sacred of them—the Delphic Oracle and the priestess of Athena Polias—to basket bearers and handmaidens. Along the way, she challenges long-held beliefs to show that priestesses played far more significant public roles in ancient Greece than previously acknowledged.

Connelly builds this history through a pioneering examination of archaeological evidence in the broader context of literary sources, inscriptions, sculpture, and vase painting. Ranging from southern Italy to Asia Minor, and from the late Bronze Age to the fifth century A.D., she brings the priestesses to life—their social origins, how they progressed through many sacred roles on the path to priesthood, and even how they dressed. She sheds light on the rituals they performed, the political power they wielded, their systems of patronage and compensation, and how they were honored, including in death. Connelly shows that understanding the complexity of priestesses' lives requires us to look past the simple lines we draw today between public and private, sacred and secular.

The remarkable picture that emerges reveals that women in religious office were not as secluded and marginalized as we have thought—that religious office was one arena in ancient Greece where women enjoyed privileges and authority comparable to that of men. Connelly concludes by examining women's roles in early Christianity, taking on the larger issue of the exclusion of women from the Christian priesthood. This paperback edition includes additional maps and a glossary for student use.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691127460
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/25/2007
Pages: 456
Product dimensions: 8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Joan Breton Connelly is Professor of Classics and Art History at New York University. She is the author of Votive Sculpture of Hellenistic Cyprus. A field archaeologist, she has worked in Greece, Kuwait, and Cyprus, where she is Director of the NYU Yeronisos Island Excavations. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of her work on Greek art, myth, and religion, including her reinterpretation of the Parthenon frieze.

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Portrait of a Priestess

Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece
By Joan Breton Connelly

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One


Time, Space, Source Material, and Methods

At the end of the second century b.c., Athenian worshippers set out in procession, marching from Athens to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi to celebrate the Pythais festival. The pageant was held in a grand manner "worthy of the god and his particular excellence." One individual stood out among the participants: Chrysis, priestess of Athena Polias. For her role in making the occasion one that befitted both Athens and Delphi, the people of Delphi bestowed upon Chrysis the crown of Apollo. The city also voted to grant her, as well as all her descendants, an impressive series of rights and privileges: status as a special representative of Athens to Delphi (proxenos), the right to consult the oracle, priority of trial, inviolability (asylia), freedom from taxes, a front seat at all competitions held by the city, the right to own land and houses, and all other honors customary for proxenoi and benefactors of the city.

Back in Athens, Chrysis's cousins, Dionysios, Niketes, and Philylla, set up a statue of their famous relative on the Acropolis. They themselves were prominent Athenians from a family distinguished by its numerous cult officials. Chrysis had a great-great-grandfather who was a sacred supervisor (epimeletes) of the EleusinianMysteries and a grandfather who was a priest of Asklepios. The decree set up by the people of Delphi and the statue base from the Athenian Acropolis provide a tantalizing glimpse into the life of an exceptional woman. While scores of inscriptions survive to honor men in this way, Chrysis stands out as one of the few women who received special privileges by decree. Her public record brought substantial rights for her and all her descendants. She further enjoyed the honor of having her statue set up on the Athenian Acropolis, ensuring that she would be remembered always in her priestly status.

Despite wide contemporary interest in the role of women in world religions, the story of the Greek priestess remains elusive. Scattered references, fragmentary records, and ambiguous representations confound attempts to form a coherent view of women who held sacred offices in ancient Greece. Yet the scope of surviving evidence is vast and takes us through every stage on the path through priesthood. It informs us about eligibility and acquisition of office, costume and attributes, representations, responsibilities, ritual actions, compensation for service, authority and privileges, and the commemoration of priestesses at death. Only by gathering far-flung evidence from the epigraphic, literary, and archaeological records can we recognize larger patterns that reveal the realities of the women who held office. This evidence provides firm, securely dated documentation from which we can bring to life the vibrant story of the Greek priestess.

This narrative is particularly important because religious office presented the one arena in which Greek women assumed roles equal and comparable to those of men. Central to this phenomenon is the fact that the Greek pantheon includes both gods and goddesses and that, with some notable exceptions, the cults of male divinities were overseen by male officials and those of female divinities by female officials. The demand for close identification between divinity and cult attendant made for a class of female sacred servants directly comparable to that of men overseeing the cults of gods. Indeed, it was this demand that eventually led to a central argument over the Christian priesthood, exclusively granted to male priests in the image of a male god. As Simon Price has stressed, the equality of men and women as priests and priestesses in ancient Greece was nothing short of remarkable. In a world in which only men could hold civic office and enjoy full political rights, it would have been easy enough for cities to organize their priesthoods on the model of magistracies. But the power of gender in the analogy between sacred servant and deity was so strong that it warranted a category of female cult agents who functioned virtually as public-office holders. Price has challenged us to consider the deeper question of why the Greeks so emphasized both genders for their gods. We will take up this line of inquiry in chapter 2.

Evidence for priestesses can be found in nearly all categories of Greek texts, from Linear B tablets to epic and lyric poetry, histories, tragedies, comedies, political speeches, legal documents, public decrees, and antiquarian commentaries. Inscribed dedications attest to the generosity of priestesses in making benefactions to cities and sanctuaries, their pride in setting up images of themselves, and their authority in upholding sanctuary laws. Inscriptions also provide evidence that these women were publicly honored with gold crowns, portrait statues, and reserved theater seats. Priestesses are represented in nearly every category of visual culture, including architectural sculpture, votive statues and reliefs, funerary monuments, vases, painted shields, wooden plaques, and bronze and ivory implements. In the face of this abundant evidence it is hard to understand how the prominent role of the Greek priestess has, until recently, been ignored by modern commentators or, worse yet, denied.

Never before has the archaeological evidence for priestesses been systematically examined within the broader context of what is known from the epigraphic and literary spheres. From the late nineteenth century, inscriptions have been the primary source for our understanding of ancient priesthoods. In her dissertation of 1983, Judy Ann Turner brought together wide-ranging epigraphic evidence for feminine priesthoods, focusing largely on the acquisition of sacred offices. In 1987, Brunilde Ridgway pioneered the study of material evidence for women in ancient Greece, including images of female cult agents. Alexander Mantis's comprehensive monograph on the iconography of priesthood, male and female alike, followed in 1990. This groundbreaking work brought together a wide corpus of images, many of which had been unknown. In the years that have followed, additional monuments representing priestesses have been published, and broader studies on women and religion have made some limited use of visual material. In her important study of priesthoods, dedications, and euergitism, Uta Kron has called for the viewing of archaeological and epigraphic data together with and in contrast to what we know from literary sources.

A central contribution of Portrait of a Priestess is the recognition of the authority of the archaeological record and its integration into our broader understanding of the women who served Greek cults. In this, I follow Anthony Snodgrass, Gloria Ferrari, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, and others who have emphasized the independent existence of the archaeological record from the textual tradition that has, in so many ways, subordinated it. As the long-neglected visual material has its own history, its own "language," motivations, and influences, we should not expect it to illustrate facts recorded in texts. Instead, it will be seen to reflect aspects of priestly service not preserved elsewhere, significantly broadening our understanding of sacred-office holding. In many cases, it contributes evidence for periods and regions that do not have the benefit of a surviving textual heritage. Beyond this, archaeological and epigraphic evidence sometimes can be seen to contradict the picture given in literary sources. It thus provides an important correction to the distorting effects of the voice, intent, and context of the author, as well as the accidents of survival and the benefits of privilege that have focused our attention on only a fraction of the original corpus of texts.

Two important developments in scholarly thinking have made conditions ripe for a seasoned and comprehensive review of the evidence for Greek priestesses. One is a reassessment of the alleged seclusion of women in classical Athens and the implications of this for our understanding of their public roles. The other is a new questioning of the validity of the category of regulations called "sacred laws," long viewed as distinct and separate from the larger body of legislation within the Greek polis. This opens the way for understanding female cult agents as public-office holders with a much broader civic engagement than was previously recognized. These two paradigm shifts make for a fresh and forward-looking environment in which we can evaluate the evidence, one that allows for a new understanding of the ancient realities of priestly women.

First, let us track developments on the question of the "invisibility" of women. Over the past thirty years, it has become a broadly accepted commonplace that Athenian women held wholly second-class status as silent and submissive figures restricted to the confines of the household where they obediently tended to domestic chores and child rearing. This has largely been based on the reading of certain well-known and privileged texts, including those from Xenophon, Plato, and Thucydides, and from certain images of women portrayed in Greek drama. The consensus posture of this view has, to a certain extent, been shaped by the project of feminism and its work in recovering the history of gender oppression.

While there have been some voices of dissent from early on, the chorus of opponents to this oversimplified position has grown steadily over the years, gathering strength from the economic, political, and social/historical arenas. Already in the 1980s, David Cohen stressed the importance of distinguishing between "separation" and "seclusion," and pointed out serious contradictions between cultural ideals and real-life social practices. Edward Harris has now elucidated the active role of women in the economic sphere, where they exercised informal, but highly effective, methods for influencing decisions about money. Lin Foxall has shown that women had considerable control over property within their households, particularly those women who brought large dowries, and took initiatives in economic matters in which they held a vested interest. Examining archaeological remains from domestic contexts, Lisa Nevett and Marilyn Goldberg have offered a new understanding of gendered space and the regulation of social relations within the Greek household. Josine Blok has shown that women's public speech in Athens had everything to do with where they were and when they were there.

Jeffrey Henderson and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood have made compelling cases for the presence of women at dramatic performances in Greek theaters, despite a modern reluctance to accept it. Early on in the debate, Cynthia Patterson considered the possibility of citizen identity for women described as hai Attikai. Josine Blok has now argued on linguistic grounds that Athenian women of citizen families were, in fact, recognized as citizens. Importantly, she has shown that their leadership roles in matters of cult were, in effect, political offices that directly engaged women with the broader enterprise of politeia.

Even those who persist in maintaining an "invisibility" for Athenian women recognize that cult worship offered the single stage on which women could enjoy some measure of prominence. But this religious stage has too often been dismissed as secondary and peripheral to the political and economic nucleus of the polis. This attitude is clearly a product of our own contemporary cultural biases and has nothing to do with the realities of the ancient city. By marginalizing the importance of sacred-office holding, interpreters persist in presenting a pessimistic picture of the possibilities for Athenian women, subjected to utterly passive roles in an entirely secondary status.

This is why new developments in our understanding of so-called sacred laws are so important. Each sanctuary had its own rules and regulations to direct the behavior of worshippers and the functioning of cult. Often, these were inscribed on stone stelai set up for all to see. Such regulations were first designated as "sacred laws" more than a hundred years ago; the validity of grouping them together as a fixed category of thought has now come under review. Robert Parker has demonstrated that these sacred laws differ in no way from other laws and decrees issued by ancient communities. Most meetings of the citizen Assembly at Athens had split agendas that first took up decisions on religious matters, followed by discussion of secular issues. Religious matters took up a large proportion of the Assembly's time, and the city spent great sums of money in financing cult affairs. Parker clarifies for us that sacred laws are simply laws of the state concerned with religious action, no different except in subject matter from any other laws.

The implications of Parker's insights are profound, particularly for our understanding of female office holders. If the Greeks did not distinguish between "church" and "state," then the long-standing binary model of "sacred" and "secular" is an erroneous construct that has outlived its usefulness. If things religious were not considered separate from things secular, then the positions of leadership held by priestly women were primary, not peripheral, to the centers of power and influence.

Just as the sacred/secular binary model is under review, so the construct of public/private will be revisited at several points in this study. To be sure, we can recognize cases in which the public/private model provides a valid and useful lens through which the Greek experience can be considered. Still, there are ways of understanding a more complex reality than this construct allows. When it comes to ancient women, it may be not only impossible but also inappropriate to make hard-and-fast distinctions between public and private life. Josine Blok has shown that public space and private space are relative concepts whose meanings are determined by use and, therefore, by time. She tracks the mobility of Athenian women through their city and on their own schedules, in which time dictates their experience of public space. Lin Foxall has long questioned the privileging of power in the public sphere over that of the "less important" power of the domestic realm. She has shown that "use" is just as important as "possession" when it comes to household property. By shifting away from the public/private binary construct and the "subordination theory" way of managing these terms, we can appreciate the more complex realities that characterized ancient life.

A central theme of this book is directly related to the public/private quandary. This is the correlation between domestic ritual, in the care of the house, and public ritual, in the care of the temple. The agency of the women who circulated between these two spaces is paramount in this. Some interpreters view women's work in the ritual sphere as a mere "rehearsal" for the conventionally sanctioned female role of subservience within the Greek household. But a case can be made that things actually worked the other way around. Since the temple was effectively the "house" of the cult statue, it needed to be cared for just like a private domestic space. Much of this care involved the traditional household work of ancient women: cleaning, decorating, weaving, and cooking. Social behavior experienced at home was thus codified in public ritual performed within the formal setting of the sanctuary. This process of codification will be examined in chapter 2.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

List of Abbreviations xiii

Chapter 1: Introduction: Time, Space, Source Material, and Methods 1

Chapter 2: Paths to Priesthood: Preparation, Requirements, and Acquisition 27

Chapter 3: Priesthoods of Prominence: Athena Polias at Athens, Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, Hera at Argos, and Apollo at Delphi 57

Chapter 4: Dressing the Part: Costume, Attribute, and Mimesis 85

Chapter 5: The Priestess in the Sanctuary: Implements, Portraits, and Patronage 117

Chapter 6: The Priestess in Action: Procession, Sacrifice, and Benefaction 165

Chapter 7: Priestly Privilege: Perquisites, Honors, and Authority 197

Chapter 8: Death of the Priestess: Grave Monuments, Epitaphs, and Public Burial 223

Chapter 9: The End of the Line: The Coming of Christianity 259

Chapter 10: Conclusions 275

Notes 283

Bibliography 365

Index of Monuments 383

Index of Inscriptions 387

Index of Priestesses 393

General Index 399

What People are Saying About This


There was a great need for a book of this kind. Through direct observation of artifacts, the author offers many original ideas, and even manages to correct some long-held erroneous readings of ancient texts. Her emphasis on the important role played by some women in classical antiquity is a welcome corrective to the stereotype of the subordinate female in the Greek world. The remarkably wide-ranging material will be of great interest not only to archaeologists but also to scholars in various fields.
Brunilde S. Ridgway, Professor Emerita, Bryn Mawr College, author of "Prayers in Stone: Greek Architectural Sculpture (c. 600-100 B.C.E.)"

Mary Lefkowitz

There has long been a need for a book devoted to the role of the priestess in ancient Greece. After reading Connelly, no one could fail to be persuaded that priestesses could play an important role in society or that they were given significant honors. This book will do much to improve and extend our understanding of the role of Greek women both in religion and in society.
Mary Lefkowitz, Wellesley College, author of "Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths"

From the Publisher

"There has long been a need for a book devoted to the role of the priestess in ancient Greece. After reading Connelly, no one could fail to be persuaded that priestesses could play an important role in society or that they were given significant honors. This book will do much to improve and extend our understanding of the role of Greek women both in religion and in society."—Mary Lefkowitz, Wellesley College, author of Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths

Colin Austin

Joan Connelly . . . has produced a fascinating book on the central role of priestesses in ancient Greek society. Her survey is fully documented and beautifully illustrated. One cannot but admire her enthusiasm for the subject and her deft handling of the evidence.
Colin Austin, University of Cambridge, coeditor of "Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae"


This is the first full presentation in English or in any language of the female priest in the ancient Greek world. Connelly adduces evidence that women all over the Greek world had, as priestesses, positions of great public influence in their communities. I predict this study will have a wide readership by general classicists as well as those interested in ancient religion, ancient society, and women in ancient Greece, not to mention by art historians. This promises to be a landmark study.
Stephen V. Tracy, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, author of "Athens and Macedon: Attic Letter-Cutters of 300 to 229 B.C."

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