Issue 12, September 2009
homepage > Worshiping Women, a symposium in New York
Worshiping Women, a symposium in New York
On the panel Dr. Alan Shapiro and professors (from the left) Susan Rotroff, Olga Palaggia and Carol Lawton.
On the panel Dr. Alan Shapiro and professors (from the left) Susan Rotroff, Olga Palaggia and Carol Lawton.
The Director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, Dr. Nikos Kaltsas, during his opening speech.
The Director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, Dr. Nikos Kaltsas, during his opening speech.
The Alexander s. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) organized on May 2,2009 an international conference entitled The Feminine and the Sacred in Ancient Athens in conjunction with the exhibition “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens” at the Onassis Cultural Center. After the welcoming remarks of Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation USA, the co-curator of the exhibition Dr. Nikolaos Kaltsas, Director of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens introduced the related conference, which attracted a plethora of distinguished scholars and an audience of more than 250 people, among whom were several dignitaries, ambassadors, museum directors, curators, professors, archaeologists and many university students.

Athenian Artemis and Euripides Iphigeneia in Tauris was the theme of the first lecture by Dr. Jan N. Bremmer, Professor of Religious Studies at theUniversity of Groningen in the Netherlands. Artemis was an important and many-sided Athenian goddess. As Artemis Agrotera, she was worshiped by the huntsmen who wandered the Attic mountains but also by the military in pre-battle sacrifices. As Artemis Aristoboule, she was honored for the good counsel given to Themistocles in the dramatic year 480 B.C., and as Artemis Phosphoros, she was remembered not only literally as “she who provides light in the night,” but also symbolically as the rescuer of Athens in difficult situations. Her primary function in Athens, however, was educational. Artemis Brauronia was the goddess who protected mothers when they gave birth and then looked after their children, especially the girls but also the boys, until they grew up and were married.
If these functions of Artemis are generally benevolent, her relationship to Iphigeneia is much more problematic, an issue that Euripides explored in his plays Iphigeneia in Aulis and Iphigeneia in Tauris. In the latter play, on which we will focus, Athena seems to recognize the right of her sister Artemis to human victims, as she says that the people in Halai must enact a pseudo human sacrifice in recompense (apoina) for the slaughter of Orestes, which had not taken place. Yet at the same time, we hear in the play the necessary protests against such a sacrifice. There is a polyphony in these passages that is difficult to miss and that is strengthened by the very figure of Iphigeneia, who herself had been sacrificed by the Greeks but now helps to abolish the Taurian practice of human sacrifice. In the end, Euripides leaves us with the clear impression that the Taurian sacrifice is unholy, but that Artemis is still a respectable goddess. It is a balancing act that may be less persuasive for us than it was for the ancient Greeks.

Dr. Lydia Palaiokrassa, of the University of Athens, talked about Dedications to Artemis Brauronia. Artemis Brauronia was worshiped as a fertility goddess who protected the health and well-being of infants and children, especially girls, virgins, and women. She was believed to be a guardian of females during the most important transitional periods of their lives, from childhood to puberty, and on to motherhood. In order to be prepared for marriage, Athenian girls took part in the arkteia, a maturation rite of transition from childhood to adolescence.
For the above-mentioned reasons, as well as in cases of illness, women offered garments to Artemis Brauronia. The inscription on a recently found statue base refers to one of the dedicators of garments to the goddess, Kleino of Exekestos. From this find, along with several other indications, one may conclude that at least in the fourth century B.C. there were strong family binds and equality between men and women in the oikos, as well as in matters of cult.

The Acropolis of Athens was the focus of the second session.  Dr. Eva Stehle, Professor of Classics at the University of Maryland talked about Athena and the Akropolis in Cult and Dram. In recent scholarship Athena is described as having “multifarious” aspects and combining “antithetical” qualities. The most obvious opposition is between her female and male sides, but other antitheses that define her in art and literature fall on the male side, in connection with war, politics, and crafts (e.g., horsemanship and metal working). She was the patron of weaving, but the peplos that women wove as an offering for her represented her doing battle. In visual depictions that do stress her female nature, which often take the form of votive offerings, she could adopt any of several identities: parthenos, mother-goddess, kourotrophos. Even in these images, however, she sometimes wears a helmet and/or an aegis. Helmet and aegis identify her as Athena, so one might want to dismiss their significance. Yet she is sometimes shown as having set her helmet aside or displaced her aegis, which means that each functioned as an active sign of her warlike character. Thus Athena was portrayed in art as retaining her identification with the male side even in situations that required her female qualities to be operative. As for drama, she famously asserts in Aeschylus’ Eumenides 737–738: “I approve the male in all things, except marriage for myself, with my whole heart and am emphatically on the side of the father.”  Women prominently served her on the Akropolis, and many dedicated offerings to her there, but their perspective is to a large extent lacking in artistic and literary works.
It is therefore startling when two late-fifth-century plays—Aristophanes’ Lysistrata of 411 and Euripides’ Ion of about. 410—treat Athena as standing on the side of the woman and depict the Akropolis as female space. This paper focuses on the treatment of helmet and aegis respectively in these plays as signs of the new alliance between Athena and women and on the correspondingly new portrayal of the Akropolis. Lysistrata represents the Akropolis as fostering female citizen sexuality and links the helmet with birth-giving in a city at peace. Ion connects the Akropolis and the Gorgon and snakes that protect Erichthonios/Ion with Athenian renewal of autochthony through the female. It thereby reverses Eumenides’ alignment of Athena with the male. Each play promotes an Athens-centered view of the global political realm, but presents it as a product of Athena’s alliance with women. Both playwrights were able to think through new ideological representations of Athens by drawing on Athena’s strong cultic connection with women on the Akropolis.

The Akropolis Votive Offerings from the 8th to the Early 6th Century B.C. and the Formation of the Athenian City-State was the title of the second relevant lecture given by Dr. Andreas Scholl, Director of the Classic Antiquities Collection of the State Museums of Berlin. This presentation focuses on the votive offerings from the Athenian Akropolis in the Geometric and early Archaic Periods. The discussion starts with the oldest preserved dedications from the middle of the Geometric Period and terminates with the description of a radical change in Athenian votive practice in the early sixth century. The paper presents a short overview of the most important types of votive offerings known from the Geometric and early Archaic Akropolis. A brief attempt is made to link these observations with the few facts known about the historical situation of Athens and mainland Greece in the eighth and seventh centuries. It becomes evident that the Akropolis had come to be the central sanctuary of the emerging Athenian polis as early as the second half of the eighth century and was able to consolidate that position in the course of the seventh century. A full account may be found in Dr. Scholl’s recent article “Anathemata ton Archaion. Die Akropolisvotive aus dem 8. bis frühen 6. Jahrhundert v. Chr. und die Staatswerdung Athens“ (JdI 121, 2006, 1-173 Abb. 1–55).

The co-curator of the exhibition Dr. Alan Shapiro, W. H. Collins Vickers Professor of Archaeology at the Department of Classics of Johns Hopkins University, chaired over the second part of the conference, which focused on the Panathenaia celebration, and the goddesses Aphrodite and Demeter.
Dr. Susan I. Rotroff, Jarvis Thurston and Mona Van Duyn Professor in the Humanities and Chair, of the Department of Classics, at Washington University gave a lecture entitled Women Worshiping on the Panathenaic Way. The Panathenaic Way was the major artery in ancient Athens, leading from the boundary of the city to the center of worship on the Akropolis. This paper examines the evidence for women’s ritual activities along its length, particularly in the stretch between the Dipylon and the northwest corner of the Agora. At the elite end of the scale, the Panathenaic Way saw the highly public performance of the kanephoroi, who carried the sacred equipment to the Akropolis for the sacrifice to Athena. At the other end of the social scale were the women—weavers, barmaids, and perhaps prostitutes—who worked in Building Z, near the Sacred Gate. Links between objects discovered there and at two sites on the lower Panathenaic Way—the altar tentatively identified as that of Aphrodite Ourania, and the abaton at the junction of the Panathenaic Way and the western road of the agora (the so-called Crossroads Enclosure)—suggest that these women too made their way along the street for the purposes of ritual activity.
Dr. Olga Palagia, Professor of Classical Archaeology, University of Athens, talked about The Three Graces at the Panathenaia. A set of fragmentary reliefs found on the Athenian Akropolis represent the Three Graces alongside an arrhephoros carrying a peg with warp for the Panathenaic peplos or weaving at the loom; some reliefs employ the Three Graces as background figures in scenes that involve Nike. On the basis of this visual evidence, it will be argued that the cult of the Graces on the Akropolis was associated with the weaving of Athena’s peplos and with prize-giving at the Panathenaic games. 
Finally Dr. Carol L. Lawton, Professor of Art History and Ottilia Bueger Professor of Classical Studies, Lawrence University, presented the theme Women and Ritual in Attic Votive Reliefs. Much recent scholarship, including the research supporting the exhibition Worshiping Women, has demonstrated the inadequacy of the old idea that the Athenian patriarchy required its respectable women to lead lives of complete seclusion in the house, seldom or never venturing into public. This talk will explore the evidence for women’s religious activity provided by a particular class of artifact, Attic votive reliefs. Many Attic votive reliefs depict scenes of family prayer and preparations for sacrifice in which women play conspicuous roles. The scenes are frequently set in sanctuaries and appear to document the role of women in religious rituals that indeed took place outside the home but that did not place them in the kind of publicly scrutinized official space of the major public festivals. The reliefs offer evidence for women as dedicators and perhaps as the initiators of the prayers and sacrifices they depict. The reliefs also illustrate religious behavior that is particular to women, such as kneeling, and they occasionally reveal the concerns that led to the rituals and the dedications. 

Aphrodite on the Sacred Way and in the City of Athens: Her Companions and Her Attributes was the theme of the lecture of Dr. Vasiliki Machaira, researcher at the Research Center for Antiquity, Academy of Athens. With the publication of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite on the Sacred Way, we had the good fortune of being able to find the dedications from the Sanctuary in the storerooms of the National Archaeological Museum and to attribute a good number of them. The monumental topography, the sacred dedications, and the inscriptions have made it possible to understand for the first time the morphology of the cult: What can the attributes reveal, what other divinities are honored together with the main divinity worshiped in the cult, and what is her essential nature? With these tangible finds, moreover, we will be able to search for parallels and differences with other sanctuaries of Aphrodite and/or other deities whose cults show similarities and correlations. On the basis of the existing evidence, it may be possible to learn what sort of public frequented all these sanctuaries: men or women, citizens of a higher or a lower social order, slaves or freedmen.

The last lecture given by Dr. Sarah Iles Johnston, Professor of Greek and Latin and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at the Ohio State University was entitled  Demeter and Her Worshipers. This paper takes as a starting point two festivals of Demeter that were celebrated in Attica, the Proerosia and the Haloa. In each case, it has generally been understood that agricultural welfare is the festival's primary focus, but here the presenter will explore the extent to which two other concerns—human fertility and the mysteries performed at Eleusis—made themselves felt in each case, sometimes subtly. In the course of this exploration, it will be argued that methodologically, we need to appreciate more keenly the multivalence of these and most other ancient festivals, which served diverse groups of the population.  The key to understanding festivals lies not in seeking a way in which their interests can be harmonized into a more or less coherent whole, but rather in allowing their disparate interests to co-exist.

- top of page -
Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation | Tel. +30 210 3713000 | Fax. +30 210 3713013 | Email: