In the summer of 423 B.C., Chrysis, the priestess of Hera at Argos, fell asleep inside the goddess’s great temple, and a torch she had left ablaze set fire to the sacred garlands there, burning the building to the ground. This spectacular case of custodial negligence drew the attention of the historian Thucydides, a man with scant interest in religion or women. But he had mentioned Chrysis once before: the official lists of Hera’s priestesses at Argos provided a way of dating historical events in the Greek world, and Thucydides formally marked the beginning of the Peloponnesian War with Chrysis’ name and year of tenure, together with the names of consequential male officeholders from Athens and Sparta.
During the same upheaval, in 411, Thucydides’ fellow Athenian Aristophanes staged his comedy “Lysistrata,” with a heroine who tries to bring the war to an end by leading a sex strike. There is reason to believe that Lysistrata herself is drawn in part from a contemporary historical figure, Lysimache, the priestess of Athena Polias on the Acropolis. If so, she joins such pre-eminent Athenians as Pericles, Euripides and Socrates as an object of Aristophanes’ lampoons. On a much bigger stage in 480 B.C., before the battle of Salamis, one of Lysimache’s predecessors helped persuade the Athenians to take to their ships and evacuate the city ahead of the Persian invaders – a policy that very likely saved Greece – announcing that Athena’s sacred snake had failed to eat its honey cake, a sign that the goddess had already departed.
These are just some of the influential women visible through the cracks of conventional history in Joan Breton Connelly’s eye-opening “Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece.” Her portrait is not in fact that of an individual priestess, but of a formidable class of women scattered over the Greek world and across a thousand years of history, down to the day in A.D. 393 when the Christian emperor Theodosius banned the polytheistic cults. It is remarkable, in this age of gender studies, that this is the first comprehensive treatment of the subject, especially since, as Connelly persuasively argues, religious office was, exceptionally, an “arena in which Greek women assumed roles equal … to those of men.” Roman society could make no such boast, nor can ours.
Despite powerful but ambiguous depictions in Greek tragedy, no single ancient source extensively documents priestesses, and Connelly, a professor at New York University, builds her canvas from material gleaned from scattered literary references, ancient artifacts and inscriptions, and representations in sculpture and vase painting. Her book shows generations of women enjoying all the influence, prestige, honor and respect that ancient priesthoods entailed. Few were as exalted as the Pythia, who sat entranced on a tripod at Delphi and revealed the oracular will of Apollo, in hexameter verse, to individuals and to states. But Connelly finds priestesses who were paid for cult services, awarded public portrait statues, given elaborate state funerals, consulted on political matters and acknowledged as sources of cultural wisdom and authority by open-minded men like the historian Herodotus. With separation of church and state an inconceivable notion in the world’s first democracy, all priesthoods, including those held by women, were essentially political offices, Connelly maintains. Nor did sacred service mean self-abnegation. “Virgin” priestesses like Rome’s Vestals were alien to the Greek conception. Few cults called for permanent sexual abstinence, and those that did tended to appoint women already beyond childbearing age; some of the most powerful priesthoods were held by married women with children, leading “normal” lives.
The Greeks don’t deserve their reputation as rationalists. Religion and ritual permeated the world of the city-states, where, Connelly notes, “there was no area of life that lacked a religious aspect.” She cites one estimate that 2,000 cults operated during the classical period in the territory of Athens alone; the city’s roughly 170 festival days would have brought women out in public in great numbers and in conspicuous roles. “Ritual fueled the visibility of Greek women within this system,” Connelly writes, sending them across their cities to sanctuaries, shrines and cemeteries, so that the picture that emerges “is one of far-ranging mobility for women across the polis landscape.”
These aspects of Connelly’s well-documented, meticulously assembled portrait may not seem that remarkable on the surface, but they largely contradict what has long been the most broadly accepted vision of the women of ancient Greece, particularly Athens, as dependent, cloistered, invisible and mute, relegated almost exclusively to housekeeping and child rearing – a view that at its most extreme maintains that the names of respectable Athenian women were not spoken aloud in public or that women were essentially housebound.
Connelly traces the tenacity of this idea to several sources, including the paradoxically convergent ideologies of Victorian gentlemen scholars and 20th-century feminists and a modern tendency to discount the real-world force of religion, a notion now under powerful empirical adjustment. But another cause is a professional divide between classicists and archaeologists. In their consideration of a woman’s place, classicists emphasize certain well-known texts, the most notorious being Thucydides’ rendition of Pericles’ great oration over the first Athenian dead of the Peloponnesian War, which had this terse advice for their widows: “If I must say anything on the subject of female excellence, … greatest will be her glory who is least talked of among men, whether in praise or in criticism.” Connelly, though, is an archaeologist, and she insists that her evidence be allowed to speak for itself, something it does with forceful eloquence. Far from the names of respectable women being suppressed, it seems clear that great effort was made to ensure that the names of many of these women would never be forgotten: Connelly can cite more than 150 historical Greek priestesses by name. Archaeology also speaks through beauty: “Portrait of a Priestess” is an excellent thematic case study in vase painting and sculpture, with striking images of spirited women, at altars or leading men in procession, many marked as priestesses by the great metal temple key they carry, signifying not admission to heaven but the pragmatic responsibility that Chrysis so notoriously betrayed in Argos.
Greek religion is a vast and complex subject, and “Portrait of a Priestess,” by concentrating on one of its most concretely human aspects, offers an engrossing point of entry. It’s not clear how far this lavishly produced book was intended for general audiences; a map, a glossary and expanded captions would surely have been welcome. But Connelly’s style is clear, often elegant and occasionally stirring. And while she shows a fertile disregard for received wisdom – her astonishingly radical reinterpretation of the Parthenon’s sculptural frieze, conceived in the early 1990s while she was researching this book, helped her win a MacArthur fellowship – she is no polemicist, a fact that has the effect of strengthening her more provocative points. Polytheism’s presumed spiritual failures may eventually have led to the Christian ascendancy, but Connelly shows that the system long sustained and nourished Greek women and their communities. In turn, women habituated to religious privilege and influence in the pre-Christian era eagerly lent their expertise and energy to the early church. But with one male god in sole reign in heaven, women’s direct connection with deity became suspect, and they were methodically edged out of formal religious power.
“There may be no finer tribute to the potency of the Greek priestess than the discomfort that her position caused the church fathers,” Connelly writes in her understated way. Her priestesses may be ancient history, but the consequences of the discomfort they caused endure to this day.
Steve Coates is an editor at the Book Review.