This post is the first in a short series that I will put up about goddesses and female icons. I find it very bizarre that although goddesses with all kinds of skills and powers were worshipped in the ancient cultures, the real women alive at the time were not permitted to emulate them. In this post I will look at the goddesses and women of Ancient Greece and Rome.
A short history lesson first, though. Both the Greeks and the Romans were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped many gods and goddesses. They believed that each of these deities controlled one aspect of nature or was responsible for a certain time of year, type of person or action. For example, Neptune or Poseidon ruled the sea and was the god to whom a sailor would pray when at sea. Also, the Greek and Roman gods are very similar, but the two cultures gave them different names. For example, Athena, who was the Greek goddess of wisdom, was known as Minerva to the Romans.
Athena or Minerva
As I said earlier, I am perplexed by the way that these people could openly be so hypocritical by venerating goddesses for having abilities that they did not encourage or allow in real women. Athena, or Minerva, is a good example of this contradiction. She was the goddess of knowledge, war, literature, courage, justice, arts and crafts and reason, among other things. How much of this has a grounding in fact?
Looking at Rome first, girls would have had basic education, although this depended on how much money the girl’s family had. Only very wealthy families would have given their daughters education in literature, philosophy and the other areas prized by the Romans. Roman women would not have had much to do with war either. They could appear in court and some women did fight their own cases, however this was rare and not widely approved of.
Moving on to Greece, the situation is a bit more complicated. Athens, the city most associated with Athena, was full of hypocrisy. Women were given little freedom and were certainly not permitted to fight. A woman was under the guardianship of a kyrios, a man who protected her and also owned all her property and dealt with legal matters on her behalf. Some Athenian women would have been educated, but as with Rome the extent of their teaching depended on their families’ income.
However, Athens was quite unusual in Greece and most cities did not place the same restrictions on women. In Sparta, women were not permitted to join the famous army but they could own land. There are records of Spartan women owning and administrating their own land as well as that of their male relatives who were at war. Similar records can be found in Delphi, Thessaly, Megara and Gortyn. Spartan women’s formal education was probably not of a very high standard but they would have at least been able to read and write.
Therefore, we see that despite worshipping Athena’s, or Minerva’s, talents, very few Greek or Roman women were permitted to develop the same skills. Arts and crafts was virtually the only area of life that Athena was responsible for that Greek and Roman women did en masse. It would have been seen as a wife’s duty to spin and weave fabric for her family or, in the case of poorer women, to sell.
Artemis or Diana
Another example of the contradiction between goddesses and women can be seen in the Greek goddess Artemis, called Diana by the Romans. She was the goddess of hunting, archery, the moon and childbirth. She also had a special connection with animals and woodlands. Here perhaps is a goddess who is not quite so bizarre. The connection with childbirth is realistic, although somewhat backward in a virgin goddess, who would not have had any experience in the matter!
In Greece, Sparta again gave women most freedom to participate in riding and hunting. Spartan women were encouraged to do physical exercise and may have ridden in hunts. They trained with the Spartan boys, but did not go to war so they were unlikely to use weapons very much. However, Roman women would not have hunted at all, and probably did not use bows and arrows.
I have only discussed two examples here, but there are others. Even Aphrodite, or Venus, is somewhat of a conundrum. She was the goddess of love, lust and beauty. While Greek and Roman women would have been expected to please their husbands with their good looks, they would have been supposed to be loyal and leave the philandering for which Venus is known to their husbands.
All of these examples raise the same question. Why were goddesses revered for possessing abilities that would not have been acceptable in real women at the time?
I don’t have a definitive answer but I’ve got a few ideas (which you can argue with in the comment box if you are so inclined). It seems unlikely that having talented goddesses was a way to inspire and set an example to women, because any women who followed in their idols’ footsteps seem to have been disliked. Scrap that idea then. Perhaps the idea was to have something to which unfavourably to compare women: an ancient ‘look at all the things you can’t do’. Also unlikely in any direct or intentional way though it was perhaps an effect of these personifications.
Next theory: the ancient Greeks and Romans were so used to the status quo that most people, both men and women, didn’t think about what it meant. If so, then the goddesses must have come from even older cultures.
It’s true that the Greek and Roman religions came from even further back. The polytheistic religions were the result of piecing together many tribal deities and worshipping them all at once. We saw that Athena’s, or Minerva’s, areas of patronage included arts and crafts and that Greek and Roman women engaged in these. Therefore, is it not possible that if we broke down all the elements of the goddess and re-assigned them to the different goddesses from whence they came, everything would make a lot more sense? For example, Athena is the goddess of war. Perhaps in a certain pre-historic tribe or clan, women were free to participate in fighting and a female deity was worshipped because of that. It’s very difficult to put together a coherent explanation of the minds of people who lived so long ago. There is a distinct possibility that this is all wrong and that the Romans and Greeks would cry with laughter if they could read it. So much knowledge has been lost in the ‘mists of time’ that even with a lot of archaeological material available, it’s not always easy to find an answer.
This is only the first of several posts I’ll be putting up on this subject. The next post will discuss women representing ideals or morals in society, such as justice and peace.
Photo Credits: Wikipedia, with thanks!