Divine secrets of the sisterhood

Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greeceby Joan Breton ConnellyPrinceton University Press £26.95, 415 pagesFT bookshop price: £21.56

Democracy, freedom of expression and equality before the law: these principles, now invoked as universal human rights, were first enshrined by the ancient Greeks. Their other great contribution to world culture - thanks to the likes of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle - was the founding of western philosophy. And yet this “classical civilisation” is widely perceived to rest upon two obnoxious and unquestioned assumptions: first, that a large subgroup of humanity existed for exploitation; second, that women were physically feeble, emotionally unstable, and intellectually worthless - and, consequently, not fit to participate in the business of building and maintaining a political community.

It is this second assumption that is addressed by Joan Breton Connelly, professor of fine arts at New York University and director of archaeological excavations on the Cypriot island of Yeronisos. Portrait of a Priestess offers a generously illustrated survey of the archaeological and literary evidence for the importance of priestesses in the Greek world from the late Bronze Age to the establishment of Christianity.

The quantity of illustrations is revealing: if women were excluded from public life, why were their images everywhere? Connelly argues that the authority entrusted to women as priestesses made them far from subordinate in the Greek state and that they were in fact often prominent and indispensable executives in the civic sphere.

This is a reinterpretation of antiquity that works. We may have known that at least some men in ancient Greece harboured “feminist” sympathies. Here, however, we are presented with a mass of evidence beyond literary sources - predominantly inscriptions and vase paintings - that accumulates into a comprehensive revision of how women were occupied outside of child-rearing and domestic chores.

The inscriptions from sanctuaries and other sites enable us to trace the career paths of certain women who had priestly offices and duties from girlhood to old age. The visual imagery requires more careful treatment. Sometimes it seems very simple: a figure is shown holding the large key signifying the fact that she controls access to a temple. At others, it offers subtle allusion to how priestesses supervised the sacred activities of procession, libation, sacrifice and feasting - indicated by garlands, special vessels and so on.

At the heart of it all is the fact that no clear boundaries prevailed between the sacred and the secular. Deities ruled in temples, courts and marketplaces. Only men could become magistrates and judges - but such powers were useless if detached from a system of sanctions that relied upon divine action from Zeus, Hera, Athena et al.

An element of social distinction is clearly apparent. Many priestly offices were hereditary and lucrative - and, therefore, jealously guarded by the families that filled them. So when Christianity arrived, a significant part of its successful diffusion lay in the potential it offered for even menial slave- girls to become deaconesses or officials of the faith. Although such liberal attitudes did not survive into the established church, it marked, for Connelly, the “end of the line” for the classical tradition. More than 2,000 years would have to pass before women in the western world regained a comparable status.

Nigel Spivey is the author of Songs on Bronze: Greek Myths Retold (Faber).

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