women in cult

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Women played a prominent part in the public religious life of Greek cities. Most cults of a goddess were served by a priestess rather than a priest, each local sanctuary following its own tradition here. A few cults of gods, as often those of Dionysus, were also served by priestesses. Some cults stipulated that the priestess must be virgin (thus a little girl), a few that she have ‘finished association with men’, but most made no such stipulation: Lysimachē was priestess of  Athena Polias in Athens for 64 years in the 5th cent. bc. The role of a priestess was parallel to that of a priest. Both sexes mediated between worshippers and worshipped, mainly by presiding over sacrifices. Women other than the priestess also had a role in the sacrifice: the basket containing the sacrificial knife was carried in the procession by an unmarried girl (see kanephoroi), while the moment of the victim's death was marked by ululation from all women present.

Some women who were not strictly priestesses had special religious roles to play, most conspicuously the Pythia at Delphi, a woman who, probably in a trance, appeared as the medium for Apollo's prophecy; see delphic oracle. In Athens the wife of the basileus (see archontes) performed various sacred functions, including becoming in some way the bride of Dionysus at the Anthesteria. Quite different were the ‘women's festivals’, annual celebrations from which men were rigorously excluded. Some of them, like the Arrephoria and the Brauronian bear‐ritual in Attica, involved unmarried girls and probably developed from initiation ceremonies in which the girls in ritual seclusion were symbolically prepared for marriage and motherhood. Others, of which the widespread Thesmophoria may be seen as typical, were largely the concern of married women and seem to have been esp. concerned with fertility—vegetable, animal, and human. Other types of celebration, such as some of the wilder forms of Dionysiac ritual (see maenads), or the ‘unofficial’ Adonia (see adonis), which became popular in Athens at the end of the 5th cent., seem to have involved women in a more overtly emotional, perhaps sometimes ecstatic, form of religious experience. Cults open to both sexes are amply attested by votives and literary references.

The religious organization of the Roman state was radically different, and the place of women was correspondingly different. Most of the major priesthoods, even of female deities, were held by men. In contrast to normal Greek custom the wives of some of these priests held a quasi‐sacerdotal office by virtue of their marriage; notable is the wife of the flamen dialis, known as flaminica, whose assistance was necessary at certain public rituals and whose death compelled her husband to relinquish office (see flamines). An even more clearly priestly role was taken by the Vestals, unmarried women who served the cult of Vesta for 30 years from before puberty, whose peculiar status gave them elements akin to both married women and to men. Their presence was required at many public religious rites, at some of which they undertook parts of the sacrificial process which normally seem to have been barred to women. Like the Greek cities, however, Rome had its women's festivals, although such celebrations were perhaps marginal to the city's religious life. One was the festival of the Bona Dea, celebrated with great secrecy in the house of the highest magistrate present in Rome, which attained notoriety when Clodius Pulcher gained entry to Caesar's house on this occasion. Women were often more conspicuous in cults with a ‘foreign’ tinge, ranging from the Aventine cult of Ceres (originating from southern Italy) which was served by a priestess, to the prominence of female devotees of Isis. Mithraic initiation was confined to men, but there is ample testimony of the interest many Graeco‐Roman women took in Judaism (see religion, jewish) and Christianity. The epistles of Paul show the difficulties faced by the new religion in assigning an agreed role to women.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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