THE GETTY VILLA: FOREVER SHROUDED IN CONTROVERSY?

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As a USC student I am generally skeptical of everything I encounter in life. Whether ultimately good or bad, this means I do not take anything at face value (especially after this class). I think it is important to enter every museum with this mentality. The Getty Villa is famous for its Villa dei Papiri inspired architecture and carefully manicured gardens. It is also infamous for its history of scandalous acquirement of artifacts, though I doubt the general public is aware of this ignominious past. In fact, before the resource presentation on Monday, I was completely unaware of its questionable and messy history, which further illustrates my cynicism. After an in depth analysis of the museum’s collection, the question at large remains: What can we take away from a museum that was born as a tax write off?

I would first like to touch upon some interesting and I think very important points that were made in class discussions this past week and then I will examine some specific pieces in the museum. It could be argued that the complicity of the museum begins even before you walk in. The design of the entrance is intentional. It is supposed to imitate the process of walking into an archaeological dig. Was this done to lend more credence to the artifacts that visitors may enjoy once they complete the inane ascension and subsequent declension into the museum’s main grounds? One could assume so. But what does this analogy say about the abundance of artifacts with no known provenance? Furthermore, while we are on the subject of archaeological digs, wouldn’t it make sense to further emulate a dig site by arranging the museum in a stratigraphic manner? Digs are usually sorted by general context, chronology, and interrelationships. However, the Getty Villa’s organization of their collection appears more haphazard and somewhat thoughtless. Is its thematic organization targeted towards the masses in an effort to make the material more digestible? The objects that are in the collection are at the whim of the collector and Jean Paul Getty often chose pieces for their aesthetic quality. The museum’s lack of organization may also stem from the hodgepodge manner in which many of the antiquities were acquired.

On that note, who is the museum targeted for? It seems to me that the answer to this is: the general masses. Is there anything wrong with this? Is it okay for those who have only superficial knowledge of Classics to have a place where they can simply enjoy the “art” and splendor of a period in the distant past? A place where they can feel like they are spending a cultured afternoon? I personally believe that the mentality of only acquiring superficial knowledge is detrimental. What is the point? Whether Classics is your field of study or not you should go to a museum with the intent of extending your knowledge base. You should be encouraged to seek more in depth information. When objects are removed from their contexts they lose their importance and many of the objects are not simply “art.” Visitors may walk by and appreciate the beauty, but they cannot hope to understand the cultures at large. The Villa is illustrative. Its gaudy architecture and lush gardens are supposed to offer an insight into what it would be like to live an aristocratic life. In this sense, the collections are reinforcing the idealization of a time period that is already highly fantasized. Additionally, the representation of women in the collection is weak and though it may be due to the questionable way in which the antiquities were acquired it serves to reanimate and reaffirm the male dominance of the period.    

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I chose these figures because this room was my favorite in the museum. I think these sculptures are incredibly beautiful (Hey, they inspired Picasso). It was also nice to see a room that has a large female presence and interesting to note the apparent regression of the female’s place in society over time. It seems that there is still so little we know about these cultures and apparently cannot hope to learn much more in the future. It is disheartening to know that all the sites containing Cycladic figurines have been looted and that we will essentially never be able to recover the history of prehistoric women. Have these figures then been reduced to novelty status in museums? Is all that we are left with a guessing game?

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Σαπφώ

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O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night
                                         
                       – William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”; Act One, Scene 5

 

I memorized this passage from Romeo and Juliet for an English class when I was thirteen years old. To this day, I can recite it without hesitation. Despite my unfailing ability to recall the words, I am less sure about the significance of their meaning to me. What is Shakespeare saying and why is he saying it? What does it tell us about him? Why has it stuck with me all these years? Who is the real man (or woman) behind the pen? It is often hard to extrapolate clues to the identity of writers from the distant past. Even to this day, people argue the authorship of Shakespearean literature. Those who contest believe that Shakespeare’s reported humble origins and obscure life seem incompatible with his poetic eminence and his reputation for genius. William Shakespeare’s lack of education, aristocratic sensibility, or familiarity with the royal court is at odds with the abundance of nobility present in his plays. This controversy aside, next to Charles Dickens, Shakespeare is the most cited author in the world.

I opened my post with Shakespeare because I feel that a parallel can be drawn to Sappho. Who is Sappho? To whom was she writing for? Why was she writing? Was she really a lesbian? All these questions come to mind when (appropriately) piecing together Fragments of Sappho. We know that she was alive in the 6th century BCE and was living on the island of Lesbos. We know that she was a poet and (as is extant in her work) was educated. Scholars have deduced that her work was divided into three groups: choral wedding songs, female symposium poems, and love poems. Despite her abundant use of “I”, we cannot assume that she is speaking about herself in every poem. This is, after all, poetry and Sappho appears to make great use of personification and metaphors. I am hesitant to assume that I really know anything about her. To me, she remains shrouded in a cloud of ambiguity. Whether she was a actually a lesbian or not is not necessarily evident in her poems either. I can see how it is rather easy for someone to mythologize her as a great lesbian poet. It adds to the allure of her writings. Yet, perhaps that part of her life has been magnified to the point where the beauty and diversity of her poems have been forgotten. In general, people cite her first and foremost because of her “taboo.” As Jody writes in her article Lesbians are from Lesbos: Sappho and Identity Construction in “The Ladder”, to the Daughters of Bilitis, “Sappho was a sensuous poet who had not been ashamed of being a lesbian, and a lesbian whom society (at least sometimes and in some ways) respected, and so she was a projection of the image they wanted for themselves” (158). Sappho was singled out not for her poetry, but for her symbolic lesbian identity. Interestingly enough, Sappho was initially used to promote the Daughters of Bilitis’ assimilation to the norm, which I found upsetting. Why would you want to assimilate to the norm when the norm is imperfect and discriminate? Why would you not want to create a new norm where everyone is accepted? Why not create a world, reportedly like Sappho’s, where women were able to speak freely without being judged? It became clear that this ideology was, in fact, adopted later on by the Daughters of Bilitis.

Poem 94 of Sappho’s is one we looked at more closely. At first it appeared to be a love poem about Sappho lamenting the loss of a female from her circle to marriage. After further examination, we decided that it may have been recited at a wedding. This did not make sense in a contemporary context. If this was the case, the poem would be incorporating into the ritual of marriage what seems to us to be a contradiction. Performance context aside, I think the poem also shows that the strength of the patriarchal society was incredibly strong.

I would like to end on my favorite poem, Poem 55, which appears to be a lament over the loss of life. Who has died? Why was Sappho writing this? To whom was she speaking? These are just some questions that are difficult to answer.

Dead you lie and never memory of you                                                                                                will there be nor desire into the aftertime–for you do not                                                           share in the roses                                                                                                                                            of Pieria, but invisible too in Hades’ house                                                                                   you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out.

An aside….

This is what Sappho has come to represent in contemporary times:

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AN IMAGE OF WOMEN

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This week’s readings were incredibly interesting and somewhat perturbing. I’d like to approach them on two fronts. First, I would like to examine the way men viewed women from a biological standpoint. Second, I would like to take the biological construct of female inferiority and see how it was superimposed ideologically through culture (i.e. literature). Men in antiquity reasoned female biological inferiority as the root of their sociocultural inferiority. At the beginning of this class we talked about how men equate women with nature and that it is their proximity to nature that makes them inferior. In the medical texts, we can see this reasoning being deconstructed a step further. Men believed that women’s inferiority began from conception. They point to various phenomena that they observe, but appear to have no real understanding of the female anatomy from which to lend credibility to their argument.

Ancient male physicians believed that a woman was less perfect than a man due to the fact that she was colder, more porous, and possessed more blood. A woman’s parts are within her body compared to a man’s, which are outside of his body. This must indicate female inferiority, right? After all, Eve was made from Adam, wasn’t she? In Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, 2nd century physician Galen writes about why women are less perfect than men: “That the parts of the female cannot escape to the outside; that she accumulates an excess of useful nutriment and has imperfect semen and a hollow instrument to receive the perfect semen” (245). I have highlighted these two words because similar words describing the deficiency of the female body are used in abundance in the medical texts. Words such as failure, inability, and weak are equated with the female menstrual system. Women were compared to children and eunuchs; all thought to be less than a man, ‘stymied’ in their growth. By comparing a woman’s body to a child’s, men were inherently assuming the woman’s less intelligent and undeveloped nature. Other fallacies that permeated the ancient world were that “stronger” sperm created boys and “weaker” sperm creating girls: inferiority originating in conception. Men also believed that when the fetus was male, the mother had an easier delivery. Is there any scientific evidence to this date to suggest this reasoning is true? Of course not. Hippocrates also believed that during intercourse a woman “experiences pleasure throughout the whole time, until the man ejaculates” (230). A little presumptuous, no? If you take into account that young teenage girls were likely marrying much older men who were strangers to them, I think it’s safe to say that not all sexual experiences were enjoyable.

Addressing the supposed presence of more fluid in women, the Hippocrates suggested that, “the fact that a man works harder than a woman contributed greatly to this; for hard work draws off some of the fluid” (234). Again, is this assertion found in anything other than scanty empirical evidence of the time? The fact that many physicians believed in the “wandering fetus” that was attracted and repelled by smells is alarming. However, taking into account the mythology subscribed to during the classical era, it is understandable. We see in Pliny the Elder’s writings that he believed, “Yawning can be lethal during delivery, just as sneezing after intercourse can cause abortion” (260). To contemporary humans these assertions may seem laughable, but during a time when medicine and anatomical knowledge of the body were not abounding, it is understandable that people would extend mythology to the human genome. Lesley Dean-Jones, author of The Cultural Construct of the Female Body, believed that biological polarization of the sexes was at the root of female subjugation in the sociocultural sphere. “Once a cultural archetype was shown to be grounded in nature, a man or woman who deviated from this norm could be viewed as aberrant” (112), Dean-Jones writes, suggesting that a woman or man who did not display typical behavior or physiology was deemed lacking in femininity or masculinity. The medical text Epidemics talks about the veins running to each breast that are the seat of consciousness. The author deduced that blood would collect in the breasts if a person was about to be mad. Dean Jones responds to this: “That women would always be more susceptible to having more blood in their breasts than men, would give a scientific basis to the belief that women were always closer to the irrational than men” (115). Supposedly women’s skins are loose and spongy while men’s are tight and impermeable. Which one denotes superiority to you? Soranus, a Greek physician from Ephesus, believed that “if women lived more like men, their bodies would become more like men’s” (117), hence promoting the idea that men’s bodies are the ultimate goal and thus superior. Dean-Jones suggests that even the wandering womb theory (it was wandering because they thought the body had no special place for it – another impediment of the female’s anatomy) served to deprive women of their control over their own sexuality. The womb was a separate animal, which was a danger to the woman’s life without help from a man (am I sensing a theme?). Ancient physicians also promulgated the idea that the path from the vagina to the womb was blocked in young girls and the only way “to remove the impediment is to be married as soon as possible” (121). What a way to promote women having sex! To me, this all sounds like a patriarchal society attempting to promote AND maintain control over women’s procreation. Men constructed an image of the female body as inherently weak. This weakness influenced women’s emotions, which promoted the idea that women needed male subordination. Dean-Jones says something important that ties back into my first post on women as “other.” Commenting on the Hippocratic view of women she says, “Because they thought woman was a completely different creature and not simply a substandard man, the Hippocrates did not have to look for a correspondence between all male and female body parts. They felt woman was inferior, of course, but her “otherness” allowed her body to be defined more by its own parameters” (130), while men’s bodies served to promote their strength and intelligence.

As we turn our attention to the portrayal of women in literature, let’s examine it with an understanding of the male view of the female body. Knowing that their inferiority was thought to be biologically inherent, how were women fantasized in the world of the play? Suzanne Dixon writes in Reading Roman Women, “In Latin literature generally female desire is played down, ridiculed, or associated with transgression” (29). How interesting, considering we know that some physicians of the classical era were fabricating myths to encourage women to have sex for their biological benefit! Or was it just young women, as older women who tried to impose their sexual will were thought to be repellent (while the rapes performed by the male author and hero were not stigmatized)? Were these portrayals of uppity, gossiping, flaunting, vain, and frivolous women giving a false impression of cultural consistency? Were women behaving like this? Were men actually thinking these things about women? Why were women demonized in more than one respect? Catullus writes about Lesbia, his muse who he depicts in a sensual, erotic, and yet unobtainable way, forcing his relations with her to become voyeuristic. In the end, she becomes a prostitute. What does this transformation mean? Is she simply a metaphor for Catullus’s own persona, devoid of any personality? Was she a poetic device? What about in Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus where the prostitutes are astute and intelligent women? Was this a breaking from convention? Or is Plautus only undermining the social hierarchy of Rome through his characters, while the play in its entirety reaffirms it? Is the male failure to give the female a voice a result of narcissism or fear? Dixon writes, “It is notable that women who appear in the historical narratives as transgressing in one way, for example by intruding in the masculine political sphere, are usually credited with sexual transgressions as well” (33). Were powerful, outspoken women demonized as a form of social propaganda? Did men fear what they did not understand? Are these authors emulating literary conventions or pervasive cultural norms? Was a woman merely an object of chastity whose worth was diminished if she willing or unwilling allowed another man sexual access to her? Whether there are concrete answers to all these questions or not is up for debate.

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THE AMAZONS

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Who were the Amazons? Did they really exist? Modern day interpretations of the Amazons equate them to giant, nude, sex symbols, who frolick with wild animals and despise men.  We have fantasized them in order to create a larger-than-life myth. Was a similar myth extant in ancient times? Herodotus, a fifth century Greek historian, wrote about the origins of the Amazons. An incredible storyteller, he talks about the wild women who escaped their Greek captivity and raided the Scythian lands. Interestingly enough (according to Herodotus) the Scythians wanted their men to have children with the Amazons because they believed they would produce strong, warrior-like offspring. The Amazons learned the men’s speech before the men learned theirs. They ended up leaving the Scythian lands with the men to become the women of Sauromatae. This picture Herodotus paints of strong, independent, and intelligent women is divergent from the portrayal of Amazons by other Greeks.

What did the Athenians think of the Amazons? Pictures of the Amazonmachy adorn Attic pottery, the metopes of the Parthenon, and the shield of Athena. This iconography was significant in ancient Athens. What symbolic purpose did it serve? As Fantham and her colleagues suspect in Women in the Classical World, “Athens repeatedly used Amazons to serve its own ideology” (129).  Perhaps depictions of the Amazons were purely propagandistic. By showing the defeats of strange women from foreign lands, Athens was able to reaffirm its dominance in the Mediterranean. After all, this does appear to be a running theme: everything Athenian is right and everything foreign is wrong. Those who rose against Athens were, ultimately, defeated. In fact, “shortly after the Persian and Greek wars from 490 to 480 BCE, Athenian art made a point of suggesting analogies between the eastern Amazons and the defeated Persians” (131). In ancient times the Amazons were associated with “foreignness” and foreigners (Trojans, Giants, Centaurs, and, later, Persians) had to be suppressed.

The collective representation of the Amazons is one of androgyny. After all, they were thought to have cut off their right breast in order to eliminate any impediments to their archery. Was this androgyny due to their ambiguity or their status as females? Were powerful women only allowed to be represented in an androgynous fashion? Athena, patron goddess of Athens, is arguably a bit androgynous. According to myth, she emerged from her father’s head. Are any of the ancient iconographic symbols of women in power purely feminine? The Greeks did not view the Amazons as real women. They represented the “androgynous state of life between childhood and adulthood” (134). They were depicted as virgins who were untamed and aggressive. Like the bacchantes, they were imbued with “barbarian” like qualities. Their idiosyncratic lifestyle was the antithesis of the Greek woman. They were an anomaly, not the norm. Nor were they revered for their power as women. Their repeated defeats in battle with the Greeks, “hinted at the feminized nature and incapacity for self control” (131). Their failure in battle was  accorded to their femininity. Whether purely myth or fact, these women represented a female challenge to the order of civilization, suggesting that a women’s rightful place was in her subordinate position in the oikos.

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THE REMAINS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD: MYTH OR FACT?

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When surveying remnants of the past, how do we assemble the pieces of the puzzle to create a complete picture? How do we know that the picture we have created is the right one? Will there not be some bias? Some idealization? Consciously and unconsciously, every historian shapes his/her narrative and judgments as to convey a perception of his/her subject in a persuasive manner. Ammianus Marcellinus was a Greek historian who wrote in Latin during the 4th century CE. He wrote an eyewitness account of the Siege of Amida. His work was inescapably biased in favor of the Romans. Procopious was also a Greek who wrote in the 6th century CE. He was a witness to the Persian wars and his views in The History of Wars were skewed towards the Romans as well. Pseudo Joshua the Stylite, a Christian monk from Edessa, wrote about the conflicts between the Byzantine Empire and the Persians. His accounts were religiously biased and morally motivated. He wrote to warn future readers of the punishments the Romans endured for their sins. All the works of these historians served to paint Persia in a negative light.

As we can see, even ancient historians were somewhat propagandistic. Can we really trust Plutarch, Cicero, Hesiod and Livy? Were they not biased against women? What about the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle? They made no effort to hide their disdain for women. With all these biased written accounts, can we turn to the artifacts left behind and hope to find some semblance of verity? Or are most of them possible fakes, like the surreptitiously procured “Queen of the Night”? (Side note: If you Google “Lilith”, the Queen of the Night plaque comes up in abundance).  Considering that the majority of the artifacts of ancient civilizations are works of art, even if they do serve a functional purpose, one can assume that there is a certain level of idealization done by the artist.  Is it all just circular reasoning? How do we know what we know?

“Projecta’s casket,” an artifact Jennifer Neils uses to begin her book Women in the Ancient World, is of known provenance. The casket is a large silver object with relief scenes on all nine of its sides. It is unique in its female centered imagery, suggesting that it served “feminine” purposes and was owned by a woman. The inscription on the casket says that it belonged to Projecta, presumably an aristocratic woman of some wealth. Unfortunately, not much is known about the activities of lower class women. Presumably, their possessions were more degradable and thus have not survived the centuries. Neils claims that the importance of the casket lies in the fact that “we find three archetypes of the most characteristic imagery of women in antiquity: the wife, the mistress of the household, and the sex goddess” (13). This assessment appears to be in conjunction with previous readings. We learned about the importance of a woman’s transition from parthenos to gyne. A woman was seen primarily as a wife to her husband. She was only recognized in the community in conjunction with a man. On pages 60 and 66 of Women in the Ancient World we see the importance of marriage symbolized in plaques. In the Roman sarcophagus and the Old Babylonian plaque, the men and the women are grasping hands; a gesture believed to symbolize the marriage bond. With over a thousand years between these two artifacts, the marriage symbolism holds true for both. But how do we know that the woman depicted on the casket is Projecta? Is that what she really looked like or has she been idealized?

Another artifact that calls into question its own authenticity is the Roman portrait bust at the end of Women in the Ancient World. Neils uses it to sum up what she believes was the idealized woman of antiquity: “young, beautiful, demure, and sexy” (204). The bust in itself is strange. Its provenance is unknown. It’s thought to represent the daughter of Mark Antony. Why is the breast exposed? Why is she coming out of a flower? What was her purpose? Was she purely decorative? On page 119, there is an Athenian hydria that has stumped historians. The women are filling up water jars, a job that would have been done by slaves, yet these women are not depicted as such. They are well dressed and wearing jewelry.  The confusion this hydria elicits is endemic to the preconceived notions of women in antiquity. Do we really know who they were or will they forever remain shrouded in ambiguity?

I believe the most important thing to take away from this week’s readings is that women did not have a voice in antiquity. It is highly likely that they were not the talent behind any of the art and artifice scholars have found thus far. Therefore, it is hard to firmly pin down their place in the ancient world. Most of what we have to go on is the biases of men. Just like the historians I mentioned earlier who painted a picture of Persia under the bias of Roman imperium, it is hard to discern who these women truly were.

(For people in our class: Did you know that in the Babylonian Talmud, Lilith was the first woman? She was created at the same time as Adam. Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam and left the Garden of Eden to mate with the archangel Samael. She is portrayed in Mesopotamian culture as a female demon. How interesting that a women’s reluctance to be subservient demonized her!)

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The Vestal Virgins: A Symbol of Rome

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What do we know about the Vestal Virgins? We know from the potentially biased primary and secondary sources of Cicero, Plutarch, Varro, and Cassius Dio that the Vestals were priestesses of the goddess of the hearth, Vesta. The priestesses were chosen from the ages of six to ten to participate in an almost life long religious commitment. Six virgins from ‘complete’, aristocratic families (displaying no deformities) were taken by the Pontifex Maximus to serve the goddess Vesta for thirty years; after which time they were allowed to live as they so choose. Most, understandably, remained in the cult. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome stipulates that upon removal from their families, the Virgins have “the right to make a will during their father’s lifetime and to conduct their business affairs without a guardian” (Lefowitz & Fant 2005). The Vestal Virgins were charged with protecting the sacred fire of the city, which was never allowed to go out. During the Vestalia, the Virgins would sweep out the ashes of the fire and use water to purify the temple. They were the only people to participate in the creation of the mola salsa – the ground meal sprinkled over sacrifices. The rights the Virgins gained upon indoctrination into the cult, including the only instance of female possession of lictors, was equally as unique as the severe consequences faced for their religious impiety. If a Virgin allowed the fire to go out, they would be whipped. If a Virgin was found to be unchaste, they were subject to a ritual of live internment. Ariadne Staples writes in her The Uses of Virginity: The Vestals and Rome, “In no other instance that we know of was the transgression of a ritual injunction ever punishable by death” (132). If a Virgin was unchaste she was ritually buried alive publicly in the city of Rome.

There were many anomalies surrounding the existence of the Vestal Virgins. First was the fact that they were (arguably) the only women to wield power in the city of Rome. In effect, they were the symbolic center of Rome. They were tasked with keeping the fire ‘alive’ – the life of Rome. As Staples writes, “a single lapse by a single priestess threatened the very existence of the state” (135). Why choose a woman and not a man to symbolically represent Rome? It’s quite possible that the position was not ideal for men. An aristocratic man taking on the responsibilities of a Vestal Virgin would be a downgrade from his position of power. It’s also likely that women were considered inherently more pure then men and therefore more of a ‘blank slate’. Women, without the guardianship of a man, did not enjoy a consequential status. When you project meaning onto something, it must not already have meaning. The Vestals were pure and unattached vessels. The Romans were able to imbue them with the symbolism of the state as a whole. The fact that they were the only people allowed to live in the Forum is a testament to their connection with the city. In addition, they were the only people buried inside the city. Their virginity was intertwined with their symbolic connection with Rome. Staples writes, “A Vestal’s virginity represented life, death, stability, and chaos for the Roman state” (135). In a sense, the Vestals retained an ambiguity outside the realm of Roman citizens. They became vessels onto which the ideals of Rome were placed. Their ambiguous nature allowed them to better represent the collective as a whole. A Vestal’s ideological virginity de-sexualized her.

I am skeptical of the circumstances surrounding the supposed internments of the Virgins. According to Staples, there are “only two recorded instances of Vestals being punished for unchastity during the period between the first Punic war and the end of the Republic” (134). Both of these noted burials took place during times of emotional upheaval and were subsequent reactions to the news of great losses to the Roman legions. Staples posits that “The religious measures taken to quell the panic were not merely extensive, they were extreme, even to the point of human sacrifice” (136). It is quite possible that the burials were a form of political propaganda. The city was in a state of unrest and the Virgins became a safeguard upon which to place the blame. Their ritualistic deaths could have placated the public and quite possibly had no real conjunction to the Vestals’ chastity. In addition, according to archaeological finds, we have no evidence of bodies being buried within the city. It’s also possible that the burials were purely symbolic and that none of the Virgins were interned.

Could the Vestals’ privileges be a product of their status outside the system in the same way that female festivals were marginalized in Roman society? It’s interesting to see that in both contexts, these events are exceptions to the rule only because of their marginalization.

I am also curious to see if there is a real connection between the Vestal Virgins and Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion centered on the worship of fire and the god Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrians believed that water and fire were the agents of ritual purity. Once it was properly consecrated, a temple fire was never allowed to go out. The Avesta is a collection of the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. There is an additional etymological similarity between Vesta and Avesta that is incredibly interesting.

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The Myths of Demeter and Persephone: Women as Sacred or Impure?

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This week’s readings were incredibly interesting. Further elaboration on women’s roles in rituals sheds light on their place in society and religious practice in Ancient Greece. Paralleling the story of Demeter and Kore, most of the ritual activities women performed in were connected by the interwoven themes of female maturation, birth, and death. As in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, maiden Kore is snatched from her youth and taken to the underworld by Hades. Before she can return, Hades tricks her into eating a pomegranate seed. In her commentary on the Hymn to Demeter, Helen P. Foley suggests that by eating the pomegranate Persephone becomes, “symbolically committed both socially and sexually to her future husband” (57). Maiden Kore’s persona is changed as she undergoes a transformation — her marriage to Hades. Emerging from this ‘rite of passage’ she is seen as Persephone; wife of the god of the underworld. As noted in the Hymn to Demeter, it is from this moment on that she is called daiphron (wise). A young girls passage from adolescence to adulthood (as marked by her marriage) is seen as part of her cultivation. Is this to suggest that women are not cultivated unless they are tied to a man? The Panathenaea procession, the great festivals of Dionysus, the procession of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and other festivals provide evidence for women mingling with men in important rites of passage. However, despite their often-significant roles in these rituals, they were still under the jurisdiction of the men who oversaw them.

Women in Ancient Greece were excluded from political life. They did not enjoy the perks of citizenship. Rather, they were seen as a possession of their husbands. One of the few times that women were allowed to enjoy what Louis Bruit Zaidman calls in Pandora’s Daughters and Rituals in Grecian Cities “cult citizenship” (338) was when they participated in the religious life of the city. Although this is true, the parts women played in the rituals were still governed by men. Priests oversaw most rituals. Women were not allowed to participate in the sacrificial part of the processions. The majority of rituals were centered around parthenos (virgins) leaving childhood where they ‘act like bears’ to become a gyne (married woman). This act results in the ‘cultivation’ of the parthenoi. The myths of the maenads depict the carnality of women who refuse marriage (implying that those who do not marry will run rampant). Even priestesses (who were from the aristocracy) were elected by men!  Although women exercised some power in the oikos (household), the oikos was governed by the rules of society, and thus was still dominated by the man.

What I find most interesting is the role of prophetess, which was primarily a feminine one. A prophetess was, arguably, the closest thing on earth to the gods. As an oracle whose jurisdictions lay outside the realm of men, her role in society could be seen as one of the most important. As Zaidman writes, “Direct contact with the sacred was a frightening thing, and men were more than willing to assign the task to women” (375). How interesting that this important task was assigned to a woman! If men were the more powerful, more important of the two sexes why did a man not take on the task? Men go to war. Is serving as a medium between the gods and the mortals more courageous than fighting on the battlefield?

Also interesting to note is the dichotomy between the two views of women. On one side, they are seen as impure in accordance with their proximity to birth and death (both of which were on par with murder). Women were impure once they gave birth and could not be touched by men. Women were also the ones to “oversee the purification of the body prior to its display to family and friends” (368).  Women who assisted in childbirth also aided in the preparation of a corpse. These ties to impurity are sharply contrasted with their ties to the sacred. As Zaidman writes, “The Greek idea of woman was ambivalent: it allowed for the possibility of contact with the impure, and it was this possibility that enabled women to serve as intermediaries to the sacred” (375). How is it possible that women can be at once impure and sacred? Virginity was a necessity for the prophetess who acted as Apollo’s intermediary. Men are the ones who strip woman of their virginity. Taking this into account, can we not then assume that women are pure until a man penetrates them and thus men are the ones who are impure?

Clearly there is also an underlying (and somewhat unspoken) theme of the power women possessed in Greek society and perhaps the reason for men’s dominance – their fear of feminine capacity? Zaidman writes, “The sacred required the presence of women because they alone possessed certain keys to the renewal of life and therefore to the perpetuation of the city” (376). Women were powerful entities; closely connected with nature and the gods. Men kept them under close surveillance because they feared their power. I keep coming back to this in my posts, but I think this is one of the main reasons for female subjugation throughout the centuries.

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