Women's Roles and Religious Observance in Classical Athens


Much of the little that we know about women’s lives in the classical period was written by men. Although Herodotus and Thucydides were prolific, they had little to say about the role of women in society. Many later historians who examined women’s roles did so through a misogynist lens, viewing women, in only their traditional roles as wife and mother. However, as women’s studies programs have developed, there has been renewed scholarship about the lives of women who served in roles other than that of virgin/prostitute and wife and/or mother. However, just as modern women do not only fulfill one role in society, neither did Athenian women. Women’s lives in ancient Athens were extremely limited as either, virgin, prostitute, wife, mother or priestess, but they were neither completely included nor excluded from society.

Gender Roles in Myth

The earliest examples of gender roles are evinced through mythology. As the historian, Sarah Pomoroy reminds us, “myths are not lies, but rather men’s attempt to impose a symbolic order upon their universe.”[1] In Hesiod’s Theogony, we understand the progression from “female-dominated generations, characterized by natural, earthy emotional qualities, to the superior and rational monarchy of Olympian Zeus.”[2] This evolution of thought was reflected in society in traditional male patriarchal family structures. According to myth, the first reigning earth goddess, Ge, involved in patricide/fratricide provided an example of the stereotypical impetuous nature of women when she convinced her son Cronus to castrate his father, Uranus (who is also her son). Later, King Cronus who had fathered children with his sister, Rhea, swallowed his children. Then, aided by her mother, Ge, Rhea helps her son Zeus overthrow his father, Cronus.[3] At this Zeus steps in to restore order and establishes a government on Mount Olympus. Zeus takes childbearing power away from females as he gives birth to Athena through his head and Dionysus through his thigh.[4] This myth is both a reflection of, and explanation for patriarchy in ancient Greek society.

Later, Athena becomes powerful in her own right, but not for her feminine qualities. She is the archetype of the masculine woman, strong in battle, who uttered a war cry at her birth. Women are said to have received their abilities to weave and spin through Athena’s graces. Although Athena interacts with both males and females, she always takes the male side in conflict. Athena’s birth from the head of Zeus lends credence to patriarchy, in society, fathers are legally affirmed as the true parents of their children.

Other goddesses, like Artemis and Aphrodite are more concerned with the physical functions of females. Artemis, although frequently depicted with bow and arrow, is primarily concerned with female rites of passage; childbirth, menstruation, and the virgin. Aphrodite is the goddess with perhaps the most stereo-typical feminine characteristics. She is seductive and beautiful, but because of her marriage to the ugliest immortal, the lame Hephaestus, she amuses herself with human love affairs and is associated with infidelity. As the goddess of fertility and adultery, she was sacred to prostitutes.[5]

’Bad Women’ and ‘Good Women’ in Society

In the sixth century B.C. the lawmaker, Solon codified the separation of ‘good from bad women.’ These regulations had lasting effects on society and served to maintain the separate spheres of men and women.[6] In order to keep “good women” apart from “bad women,” brothels were established which were staffed by slaves and regulations concerning “feasts, trousseaux, and food and drink” were enacted to curb women’s behavior.[7]

Even in prostitution, there was a social hierarchy. Those at the top of the scale were called hetairai, or “companions to men.”[8] These women lived as constant companions to men, had artistic and intellectual abilities and experienced a greater degree of movement in society than legitimate wives. Pericles’ lived with one such hetairai, named Aspasia.[9] According to Plutarch:

Sources claim that Aspasia was highly valued by Pericles because she was clever and politically astute. After all, Socrates sometimes visited her, bringing along his pupils, and his close friends took their wives to listen to her – although she ran an establishment which was neither orderly nor respectable, seeing that she educated a group of young female companions to become courtesans.[10]

Clearly, at least the women who served in these roles, as hetairai, experienced a certain degree of freedom and respect if learned men visited with their students in order to listen to her. These women had extensive training which was likely passed on from mother to daughter. The chance to escape this lot in life was virtually non-existent. Pomoroy explained that infanticide was widely practiced by prostitutes.[11] Without male relatives to care for their children, these women were more likely than citizen women to expose their children. The exception seems to have been female children who were sometimes kept and trained in the trade of their mothers. However, not only slave women participated in prostitution. According to Pomoroy, many “freedwomen and free noncitizen women [living in Athens] practiced the profession.”[12] In order to do so, a license had to be acquired and maintained and these women were required to pay a special tax to ply their trade. Of all the women in Athens, they were able to control sizeable sums of money, so at least economically, some exercised more freedom of movement and financial independence than other Athenian women.

For the ‘good women’ of Athens, marriage and motherhood were the primary goals. Women and men lived in separate spheres of influence. Historian Nancy Demand, made this clear, “men lived in the dual word of polis and oikos (home, land, people and animals owned by the male landowner), but women’s status and role was determined entirely in terms of membership – or lack of membership – in an oikos.”[13] Fathers determined the optimal age for marriage and childbirth and daughters moved to the oikos of their future husband. Citizen women were under perpetual guardianship by their fathers or older brothers, and “responsible fathers in Classical Athens did not raise female babies unless they foresaw a proper marriage for them at maturity.”[14] Female children were exposed more often than male children who were prized and had the right inherit the oikos.

Life in and around the oikos afforded women some freedoms.[15] They undoubtedly attended to births, illnesses and death; visited imprisoned relatives, and made appearances in courts to engender sympathy for an accused male relative or neighbor. Lower class women, worked outside of the oikos out of necessity as previously discussed, or sometimes as prostitutes or as merchants in the markets. The other area where women were expected to participate was in ritual and festival; especially those devoted to fertility or the harvest. Their duty was to the city-state, so participation was required to appease the gods and maintain the power of the city-state.

Women Excluded: Violence, Methods of Control

For citizen women, there is no consensus amongst historians about whether they were kept in seclusion or enjoyed certain freedoms. Italian classicist, Eva Canterella wrote that, “In a society, such as that of the Greeks, which completely excluded women from social, cultural, and political life, feared them, and scorned them, misogyny not infrequently reached levels of particular intensity.”[16] To illustrate her position, Cantarella used a quote from Euripides’ tragedy, Hippolytus:

“Oh Zeus, whatever possessed you to put an ambiguous misfortune amongst men by bringing women to the light of day? If you really wanted to sow the race of mortals, why did it have to be born of women? How much better it would be if men could buy the seed of sons by paying for it with gold, iron, or bronze in your temples and could life free, without women in their houses…”[17]

Is this an honest example of how truly women were looked down upon in Greek society, or an example of men expressing frustration at women in art and devotion? The language is strong. Euripides question, ‘why did Zeus bring women into the light of day?’ is harsh. Cantarella follows this quote from a classical tragedy by a discussion about female hangings, both suicide and murder, some within a sacrificial context. She used these myths to push forward her viewpoint that women were completely excluded, undervalued and expendable members of society.

Women were most definitely subjugated members of society. Although necessary to the cycle of life, women were disposable and undervalued. Cantarella brought to light the frequency of rape in Greek myths and poses this as a justification for these attitudes towards women.[18] After all, these myths are “men’s attempts to impose a symbolic order upon their universe”[19] and so, rape became a way for the gods and man to powerfully control women through sexual and symbolic violence. Hanging, as a way for men to both punish women and women to escape their fate in life, in myth shaped religious observances as in this example. A feast called chytroi in which maidens sit on swings in imitation of Erigone. Erigone’s parents, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, had been killed by Orestes. She followed him to Athens in the hopes of punishing him. When she arrived, he had been tried and acquitted. In her distress, she hanged herself.[20] The maidens of Athens followed suite, en masse resulting in a lack of marriageable women. An oracle was consulted and recommended that a swing be built to appease the gods and to avoid Athens’ demise. This swing, symbolic of the hanging death of the young girls, became the ritual action of the feast.

Women Included: In Religious Observance

One area of agreement amongst historians is that women had a fulfilled an important function in religious observance. The nature of Greek religion was based on the idea of reciprocity. Humans built monuments to gods and goddesses to honor them, and in turn gods and goddesses were supposed to grant the wishes of the Greeks. Martin provides an example of this principle of reciprocity from a bronze statuette, now housed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The inscription says, “Mantiklos gave this from his share to the Far Darter of the Silver Bow [Apollo]; now you, Apollo, do something for me in return.”[21] The prosperity that was experienced by the Athenians during the classical period was thought to have been because the gods were pleased with them. However, the gods were not “good.”[22] They didn’t love humans, except in some mythological stories where gods and humans mated to produce semi-divine children.[23] They were credited with providing support in good times and blamed for calamities like famine, war or natural disasters.

The gods were believed to live carefree lives but were easily offended by human actions as evidenced by Solon’s summary of their nature in Herodotus, History 1.32, “I am well aware that the gods are envious of human success and prone to disrupt our affairs.”[24] Greek religion lacked a moral code or concept of sin. If one committed an act that was seen as displeasing to the gods, a ritual act of purification, such as offering or sacrifice could be performed to provide some remediation for the polluting act.[25]

The gods were fully integrated into the lives of the Greeks. Each household featured a household god at the hearth. It was the women’s role in the oikos to keep the observances of the household gods. Upon entry to the home, the gods were to be visited first. Families marked rites of passage with prayers, rituals and sacrifices. Later, it became common for ordinary citizens to bring gifts to the grave sites of their relatives, previously something that only the elites did.[26] Publicly, worshippers offered prayers, sang hymns, offered sacrifices and presented gifts to the priests and priestesses at their shrines. Priests and priestesses lived apart from the rest of society and did not seek influence in social or political matters. They were not considered the repositories of doctrine or theology because there was no codified doctrine or theology to speak of.[27] Paul Brulé says that there were roles to serve the gods for many different categories of the city-state. According to him, Hesiod expressed these rules; “old ones are better prayers, and another that caused heroes and gods to have priests, while heroines and goddesses has priestesses.”[28]

Festivals to honor the gods were held frequently. Both men and women provided sacrifices to the gods during festivals. They sought out seekers, oracles or others who were thought to have the power to interpret dreams or the will of the gods. In Athens, about half of the days each year featured a festival. Some were small, others were quite large, like the Panathenaic Festival were there were not only processions and sacrifices, but contests in dancing, music, athletics and poetry.[29]

According to Demand, “the most widely celebrated of the occasions that allowed women a temporary respite from the routines of the oikos was the annual festival of Demeter, the Themosphoria.”[30] This festival was entirely for women and lasted from three to ten days, and commemorated Demeter’s loss of her daughter Persephone through rape/marriage to Hades. This festival served dual purposes. It served to keep the women in check by reinforcing social norms, and it allowed the women the space to mourn the troubles of their daily lives while providing a release valve to let go of tensions caused by a regimented and restricted life.[31]

The cult of Athena held special roles for women.[32] Her festival, celebrated annually on her birthday, the Panathenaea, welcomed participants from all over Greece. This featured ritual sacrificial offerings of animals which were brought to an altar by virgins who were selected from noble families. (Men were not excluded from these processions, but had a subordinate role). Vindictive families or women could prevent a particular virgin from participation by casting aspersions on ones claim of virginal status.[33]

Some women from upper class families served as priestesses. According to Demand, “forty such positions were available, as well as lesser offices.”[34] Forty is a small number when you consider that the population of ancient Athens was approximately 140,000[35] at this time, but it still shows that they wielded a considerable amount of power. Classicist, Sue Blundell argued how important women were for the linkage they provide from the oikos to the polis through the private and public religious observances they were responsible for. She said, “religion was the one area of public life in which women played an acknowledged part.”[36] The performance of these rituals were governed by gender roles. Slaughtering a sacrificial animal was the role of the male priest, whereas, weaving a garment was the providence of the women.[37] But even considering women’s essential role in religious observance, there is some evidence that would suggest that women were excluded from receiving a portion of the meat.[38] Robin Osbourne quoted M. Detienne, “just as women are without the political rights reserved for male citizens, they are kept apart from the altars, meat and blood…When women had access to meat, the roles of the cult are careful to specify the precise terms and

Though women played a role in the religious observances of the day, they had nowhere near the freedom of movement outside the oikos as enjoyed by men. conditions.”[39]


Although Athenian women were not powerful publically, they did exercise power and status in their role as wife, mother and priestesses.[40] Their exalted role was, however, limited in scope. Men and women occupied different spheres of influence. Men could move freely between the polis and oikos, whereas women were primarily restricted to the oikos. Men controlled the oikos, so therefore, they controlled women. Women had the duty and obligation to offer sacrifice and participate in ritual appeasing the gods and goddesses in order to maintain societal norms. These rituals recalled the violence against women expressed in myth. Some believe that the violence of myth served as a powerful reminder to women to fulfill dutifully their obligations as virgin, prostitute, wife, and/or mother. Their inclusion in society was strictly for religious observance and reproduction and citizen women wives were expected to fulfill their duty of producing a male heir, prostitutes were tasked with serving the sexual needs of the men, and maidens were tasks with virginal purity.

Works Cited

Blundell, Sue, Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Brulé, Pierre. Women of Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

Cantarella, Eva. "Dangling Virgins: Myth, Ritual and the Place of Women in Ancient Greece." Poetics Today 6, no. 1/2 (1985): 91-101. doi:10.2307/1772123.

Demand, Nancy H. Birth, Death and Motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Euripides, Hippolytus, 616 sq.

Hesiod, Theogony

Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. "Ancient Greek Religion." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145, no. 4 (2001): 456-64. http://www.jstor.org.proxylib.csueastbay.edu/stable/1558184.

Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Osborne, Robin. "Women and Sacrifice in Classical Greece." The Classical Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1993): 392-405. http://www.jstor.org.proxylib.csueastbay.edu/stable/639178.


Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

“Two Faces of Greece: Athens & Sparta,” PBS, accessed Feb 17, 2018, http://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/educational/lesson1.html

[1] Pomeroy, Sarah B., Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 1.

[2] Hesiod, Theogony, quoted in Pomeroy, Sarah B., Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 2.

[3] Pomeroy, Sarah B., Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 2.

[4] Pomoroy, Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves, 2.

[5] Pomoroy, Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves, 7.

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] Ibid., 57.

[8] Ibid., 89.

[9] Ibid., 89.

[10] Plutarch, quoted in Pomeroy, Sarah B., Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 89.

[11] Pomoroy, Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves, 91.

[12] Ibid., 89.

[13] Demand, Nancy H., Birth, Death and Motherhood in Classical Greece (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 2.

[14] Pomoroy, Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves, 62.

[15] Demand, Birth, Death and Motherhood, 22.

[16] Eva Cantarella, “Dangling Virgins: Myth, Ritual and the Place of Women in Ancient Greece,” Poetics Today 6, no. 1/2 (1985): 91–101, https://doi.org/10.2307/1772123, 91.

[17] Euripides, Hippolytus 616 sq, quoted in Canterella, “Dangling Virgins,” 91.

[18] Canterella, “Dangling Virgins,” 92.

[19] Pomoroy, Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves, 1.

[20] Canterella, “Dangling Virgins,” 93.

[21] Martin, Thomas R., Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 125.

[22] Hugh Lloyd-Jones, “Ancient Greek Religion,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145, no. 4 (2001): 457.

[23] Martin, Ancient Greece, 125.

[24] Ibid., 126.

[25] Lloyd-Jones, “Ancient Greek Religion,” 459.

[26] Martin, Ancient Greece, 128.

[27] Ibid., 127.

[28] Hesiod, as quoted by Brulé, Pierre, Women of Ancient Greece (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 17.

[29] Martin, Ancient Greece, 127.

[30] Demand, Birth, Death and Motherhood, 24.

[31] Ibid., 24.

[32] Pomoroy, Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves, 75.

[33] Pomoroy, Goddess, Whores, Wives, Slaves, 76.

[34] Demand, Birth, Death and Motherhood, 24.

[35] “Two Faces of Greece: Athens & Sparta,” PBS, accessed Feb 17, 2018, http://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/educational/lesson1.html

[36] Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 160.

[37] Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece, 160.

[38] Robin Osborne, “Women and Sacrifice in Classical Greece,” The Classical Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1993): 394.

[39] Osbourne, “Women and Sacrifice,” 394.

[40] Martin, Ancient Greece, 128.