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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Women in Classical Greece

In Classical Greece, young girls usually grew up in the care of a nurse (25.78.26) and spent most of their time in the gynaikon, the women’s quarters of the house located on an upper floor. The gynaikon was where mothers nursed their children and engaged in spinning thread and weaving (31.11.10). In addition to childbearing, the weaving of fabric and managing the household were the principal responsibilities of a Greek woman. Young women, however, had some mobility in antiquity. For example, retrieving water from the local fountain house was considered not only a woman’s task, but it also offered a woman the opportunity to socialize with other women outside of the house. It was also the responsibility of women to visit the tombs of family members. Typically, they brought offerings and tied sashes around the grave stelai, a custom that is well attested on a number of white-ground Greek lekythoi. Women could attend public speeches and visit certain sanctuaries, such as those of Artemis at Brauron and the Sanctuary of the Nymph at the foot of the Akropolis. However, during any occasion outside of the house, a young woman was expected to be inconspicuous and to be covered around the head to obscure most of her face and neck.

Women of various ages also took part in specific religious festivals, some of which even included men—the Panathenaia in honor of the goddess Athena, the Eleusinian Mysteries that honored Demeter and Persephone, and the Anthesteria sacred to Dionysos (17.190.73). Other festivals were restricted to women, such as the Thesmophoria, the Haloa, and the Skira, all of which emphasized the correlation of a woman’s generative capabilities with the renewal of vegetation and, thus, the survival of society. Religious rituals reserved for young girls probably had the most significant impact on young unmarried women. For example, young girls between the ages of five and puberty were selected to serve the goddess Artemis in her sanctuary at Brauron. As “little bears,” they acted out the role of untamed animals that eventually would be domesticated through marriage. Thus, the self-perception of a young girl in Classical Greece was manipulated through behavioral instruction in the home, through the myths that reiterated social values, and through their participation in rituals that educated them in the values and mores of their community.

The culmination of a young woman’s socialization was her marriage (56.11.1), which usually took place at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Marriage did not require a young bride’s consent, as she was simply passed from the protection of her father to that of her husband. A young woman in Classical Athens lacked any rights of citizenship, and could only be described as the wife of an Athenian citizen. However, a bride brought to her marriage a dowry that was not available for the husband to spend. In fact, on the rare occasion that the marriage failed, the dowry was returned to the wife’s father. The consummation of marriage signaled the end of a young woman’s status as a kore, or young maiden, as she was then classified as a nymphe, or bride, until the birth of her first child, when she became a gyne, or woman. The life expectancy of the average woman was about forty years old.

Despite the extreme social restraint on women in classical antiquity, it is interesting that they had a number of powerful female goddesses of the type that were never available to Christian women. Demeter was able to retrieve her daughter Persephone, Artemis could send a fatal arrow, and Athena had the ability to resist marriage and motherhood, and to provide advice to respected Greek heroes. Aphrodite, Hera, Hestia, and Hekate were also powerful goddesses, intensely honored and greatly admired by women and men alike.