A Summary of 'Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece'

A Look at Connelly's Portrayal of Greek Priestesses Chapter-By-Chapter

Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece by Joan Breton Connelly uses photographs of artifacts and written texts to challenge the assumption that women in ancient Greece were truly as secluded and repressed as Victorian and feminist scholarship have suggested. Connelly's material covers a wide geographic area and a long period of time.

The book does not require much prior background but is not light reading. It's still a must-read for anyone interested in the role of women or religion in ancient Greece.

The following is a summary of each of the 10 chapters of Connelly's "Portrait of a Priestess."

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I. Introduction: Time, Space, Source Material and Methods

Portrait of a Priestess
Photo from Amazon

The first chapter of Connelly's book says that there is an abundance of evidence—especially from archaeology and epigraphy, but also from epic and lyric poetry, histories, comedies, tragedies, political speeches, legal documents, commentaries, and public decrees—to support a challenge to the existing paradigms about the role of women in ancient Greek public life and the separation of sacred and civil laws. In the area of the priesthood, women were the equals of men.

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II. Paths to Priesthood: Preparation, Requirements, and Acquisition

Temple Of Poseidon at sunset in Sounio cape in Attica region, Greece
Paul Biris / Getty Images

There were four paths to priesthood: inheritance, allotment, election/appointment, and purchase. Election, which may have spread from the civic to the religious spheres in the first half of the fifth century B.C., was used for the more important priesthoods. Some of the paths were combined, so an elected priestess might have to pay. Purchasing was usual in lifelong priesthoods. In the Archaic Period to the Hellenistic Period, a priestess needed good birth and financial resources.

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III. Priesthoods of Prominence: Athena Polias, Demeter and Kore, Hera, Apollo

Caryatids from Aphrodite temple on Parthenon, Athens Greece
Charalambos Andronos / Getty Images

The priestess of Athena Polias at Athens and of Demeter & Kore at Eleusis were so important events were dated according to their names just as in the civic area, events were dated by archons. Their names were inscribed on statues and funeral memorials. The lifetime position of priestess of Athena Polias was hereditary for the Eteoboutad clan for a married woman. Apollo's Pythian priestess had to be celibate for life. 9 months of the year she gave prophecies on 1 day. 600 hexameters survive of her oracles.

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IV. Dressing the Part: Costume, Attribute, and Mimesis

Minerva as Dea Roma
Crisfotolux / Getty Images

Priests/priestesses, kings, and gods all had sceptres. Dress codes were ordained locally and people appearing at the sanctuaries could be punished and turned away for improper attire. White was usually worn at healing sanctuaries. Some priestesses wore purple; others weren't allowed to. At Eleusis, shoes had to be of felt or the skin of sacrificed animals. Priestesses had a special temple key bent twice at right angles. Goddesses might impersonate priestesses and priestesses goddesses. Sometimes it is impossible to tell whether a woman is the priestess or the goddess.

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V. The Priestess in the Sanctuary: Implements, Portraits, and Patronage

The Pythia foretells the Oracle of Delphi
Nastasic / Getty Images

From at least the early 4th century, there were statues of Greek priestesses in the sanctuaries. Heads of the statues were carved separately from the torsos and arms. Paintings of the gods usually show them holding libation bowls to receive liquid offerings.

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VI. The Priestess in Action: Procession, Sacrifice, and Benefaction

Temple of Zeus in Nemea, Peloponnese, Greece
znm / Getty Images

In processions, priestesses carried the holy items.

Priestesses are depicted in prayer with their arms raised and palms facing upwards, usually standing. Libations of water, milk, oil or honey were made to reinforce prayer and were poured from shallow bowls onto the flaming altar. The animals sacrificed were inspected for omens, and were then cut up in pieces and placed on the altar fire. The end of the sacrificial ritual was the sharing of the cooked portions of the meat.

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VII. Priestly Privilege: Perquisites, Honors, and Authority

Caryatides, Erechtheion, Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
pulpitis / Getty Images

Priestesses received financial advantage, legal benefits, and social prestige. They might have freedom from taxation, the right to own property, and priority of access to the Delphic Oracle. Their personal safety was guaranteed and they could have front row seats at competitions (some reserved and inscribed). Some could pass on their rights to their descendants. Some could affix their seals to documents and could argue sanctuary law. They received a share of the sacrifices and of the price paid for sacrifices. Some received a fee from each initiate. They could be punished for over-charging.

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VIII. Death of the Priestess: Grave Monuments, Epitaphs, and Public Burial

Elevated view of the 'Temple of Olympian Zeus' colossal ruined temple in central Athens
Adél Békefi / Getty Images

Public burial was one of the highest civic honors and exceptional for women but was awarded to priestesses. The earliest funerary monument or a priestess is the stele of Myrrhine, a preistess of Athena Nike from the end of the fifth century B.C., in Athens.

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IX. The End of the Line: The Coming of Christianity

Meteora Monasteries, Trikala, Thessaly, Greece.
www.tonnaja.com / Getty Images

Christianity meant a gradual lessening of the prestige of women. In the early Church there were women elders/presbyters, deacons, deaconesses, and prophetesses. The Synod of Laodikeia in the mid -fourth Century eliminated women as presbyters and forbade women from entering sanctuaries. The Montanists continued to allow women importance, even ordaining them as priests.

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X. Conclusions

Emperor and his family & Chariot race (Obelisk of Theodosius)
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 3.0

Civic assemblies met only 145 days a year, but the religious calendar had 170 annual festival days and women participated in 85 percent of all religious activities in Athens. Priestesses were in charge of more than 40 major Athenian cults as well as minor ones. Women were important in the religious sphere, which made them important in public life, period.

In A.D. 393 Emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of all temples, cult images, ancient festivals, Eleusinian Mysteries, the Panathenea, and Olympics. This put an end to the important role of priestess.