Women and Religion in Athens

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Where is not the time for an in depth look at Greek religion, and understanding of a few principles is essential as their view of the divine was quite different from that of the great monotheisms in the modern world. Deities varied considerably in power, through the least of them was stronger than any mere human. They demanded worship and respect from the community as a whole and were quick to strick down any who became self-righteous and overconfident, but otherwise they had no particular interest in bonding with individual men and women. There were a few stories of gods and goddesses siding with a particular person, but when they interfered in human affairs it was for their own entertainment, playing with humans in much the same way a child would play with dolls or toy soldiers. A Greek women might have prayed for a happy marriage or for a male child, but she did not seek or expect to find a personal relationship with a god or goddess. Insulting a deity or getting self-righteous and overconfident invited divine retribution, but beyond that morality and religion were unrelated concepts. Humans, not gods, decided what was proper and what was improper behaviour. Worship was a collective act by means of which society as a whole sought the favour of a god or goddess. Individuals sought favours but they did not try to build a personal relationship with an individual god or goddess. There were no denominations or school of theology, and no-one ever said, "My god or goddess is better than your god or goddess."

There were religious festivals on about half of the days of the year. Some were quite minor and involved only a few celebrants, while others went on for two or three days with everyone taking part. Since worships was a community affair, not a personal matter, and women made up a full half of the population, their involvement inthese festivals not only signified that they were an integral part of the fabric of society but gave them an opportunity to live, be seen, and even play a starring role in the outside world well beyond the confines of family. Perhaps the simplest way of women to participate was in the formation of a chorus where all ages would gather together as a choir that would recount through songs and dance stories from the lives of the gods and goddesses and perform in small groups before friends and relatives at weddings, funerals, and other family get-togethers. Through these events could hardly be called public affairs, they did give women the opportunity to be seen and perhaps admired by people outside their own home.

On a more formal basis there were a number of cult activities that gave young women and girls exposure to the entire community. Some were open only to a handful of privileged, upper-class girls while others accepted all who were at the right age. The Kanephoros was the maiden selected to lead the procession…


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