Gender and Religion: Gender and Ancient Mediterranean Religions

views updated


Scholars reading ancient texts from a feminist stance have long identified the problematic of studying women's experience through men's records of history and male accounts of religious beliefs and practices. In naming the problem, or deconstructing how history has been presented, the way is made open to allow for reconstructions that are not necessarily inscribed with the "male gaze." Knowledge of the ancient world is fragmentary not only because it lacks a credible picture of women's lives but also because there is a void when it comes to those who belonged to anything other than an elite class or to specific geographical areas. In attempting to overcome these restraints, a variety of methodologies need to be employed to read the variety of ancient ethnographic evidence available to reconstruct women's experiences. The method of "reading against the grain," for example, can be employed to examine prohibitive legislation aimed at women's behavior and ask what were women actually doing that prompted such prohibitions. In addition certain types of evidence (e.g., epigraphic data from tombs, art, and artifacts; domestic archaeological finds) become central rather than peripheral. These can be studied as primary sources alongside written texts.

A pioneering classical scholar in the field of gender and religion and in the use of alternative methodologies for research was Jane Ellen Harrison (18501928). She argued, for example, in her original thesis (1882) that the evidence from ancient Greek vases offered commentaries on myth and ritual comparable with that of Homer's Odyssey. As second-wave feminism began to make inroads into the academic world from the late 1960s and to gain credence in the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, studies of gender in the ancient Mediterranean world began to emerge. The publication in 1975 of Sarah B. Pomeroy's social history text Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity set a milestone for the subject and clearly demonstrated how religion cannot be separated out and studied in a vacuum apart from other matters, family, economics, politics, law, and so on. Religion in all its forms was an intrinsic part of life, intertwined with the seasons, birth, marriage, and death, and it resonated with the hopes and fears of men and women throughout their lives. The Roman Mother by Suzanne Dixon and The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives by Beryl Rawson are examples of subsequent studies that demonstrate this intimate relationship among religion, family, and society. Mary Beard's work on Roman religion, particularly the cults of Magna Mater and Vesta, marks the convergence of the "third wave" in terms of gender study and classical studies. Informed by contemporary gender theory, Beard has uncovered the complexity of gender roles and how they were constructed, both male and female, in antiquity and demonstrated their divergence from the bipolarity of gender as played out or at least recounted in modernity.

In attempting to reconstruct women's lives in the ancient world in the light of sparse hard evidence, religious cults and their accompanying myths and rites represent a vital piece in the jigsaw. Religions reflect the experiences and expectations, fulfilled and unfulfilled, of their adherents and thus present mirror images of particular times and places, albeit on a cosmic scale. Religion thus can offer another insight into women's lives in the ancient world as the rich variety of beliefs and practices in effect act out society, politics, and legislation of the day.

The rich variety of beliefs and practices that make up the religions of the ancient Mediterranean reflects a long relationship of intermingling of the Egyptian, Hellenistic, and Roman worlds. This intermingling can be traced to the ascendancies of the great empires of the ancient world, beginning with Alexander the Great in the fourth century bce and the engagement between Egyptian and Hellenistic cultures and seen to culminate in the rich tapestry of religion that was woven during the zenith of the Roman Empire. Some of the oldest beliefs and practices of the ancient Mediterranean stem from Egypt, and these reappear throughout ancient history as they are adopted and adapted for new contexts across the various empires.

Gender in the Ancient Worlds

When one examines Egypt itself, one discovers that the evidence is particularly scarce regarding the lives of women in ancient Egypt except for those at the pinnacle of this highly stratified society. In the time of the Middle Kingdom (21251650 bce), for example, the wives and mothers of the pharaohs could wield significant influence and power, as witnessed by the evidence from their tombs. From the early dynastic period the pharaoh was identified with the sky god Horus and the son of the sun god Re. His Great Royal Wife was fully human, and her role of producing the royal heir was of supreme importance. The future king would be endowed with the unique divinehuman nature that would enable him to act on behalf of both gods and human beings. In the time of the New Kingdom (16501069 bce), Queen Hatshepshut succeeded in claiming the throne on the death of her husband and half brother. She based her claim to the throne on her own divine birth, which is detailed on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir al-Bahri. The mural shows how the god Amun-Re, in the form of her father, Thutmose I, approaches her mother Ahmose, who conceives the goddess-king, the female Horus. Hatshepshut was depicted in the same manner as a male pharaoh, with a bare chest and short skirt (a guise used in the Hellenistic period to depict Cleopatra VII).

Less specifically, ancient Egypt was a rich resource for later empires that wished to broaden their religious as well as territorial boundaries, and the Roman Empire in particular was eager to import Egyptian religious practices into its cities across the empire and into the heart of Rome itself. Thus Egyptian myths with their accompanying cults offer windows into the lives and expectations of men and women not only in ancient Egypt but also throughout the ancient world. Their influence lasted until accession of Christianity as the dominant religion (but also beyond that time, when their influence on that religion is taken into account). A key example is the myth of Osiris and Isis, which can be traced back at least to the time of the first dynasty (beginning of the fourth century bce).

Within the Hellenistic world, women in ancient Greek society led secluded lives, residing in the private domestic sphere and protected from the public arena. In the upper echelon of Greek society women who were not slaves and who were married to a head of a household led lives of seclusion away from male company, spending most of their time in the gynaikonitis, the women's quarters. However high their social ranks, women had no political voice or means of participation as citizens. Religious rituals, however, were an exception to the norm and provided a public function for women and a context in which they could contribute to the welfare of the city-state. Moving down the social ladder, one finds the sexes mingling more freely in the public arena, where female slaves, for example, worked alongside and served men. Foreign women worked as entertainers for male audiences, providing music, dancing, and escorts as well as sexual pleasures.

In contrast to at least the women of high social rank in Greek society, women living under the sociopolitical system of the Roman Empire enjoyed relative freedom. In the third century bce the notion of "free marriage" as one of the legal forms of marriage was introduced. In this new system a woman remained attached to her former family, she retained her own property, and she had the freedom to divorce her husband. This is in contrast to earlier types of marriage in ancient Rome, in manu, for example, which literally means "in the hand of," that is, a wife was under the full control of her husband. A Roman wife could have a high profile not only in household management, where she had the task of overseeing male servants and slaves, but also in the education of her children. Prior to coming of age, sons and daughters of noble families were educated together, but as adulthood approached a sharp distinction was made between the sexes when boys were prepared for citizenship and a public career. Roman society remained patriarchal to the core, but in negotiating its boundaries, women within the nobility could realize a limited emancipation that blurred the distinction between domestic and public. A woman could develop a home-based industry in a larger household, for example, managing slaves in the production and distribution of cloth. Furthermore the Punic Wars of the third century bce resulted in a huge death rate among men of the Roman Empire and left many women the sole heirs of the father's, brother's, or husband's estate. However, a noblewoman's power, wealth, education, and relative freedom were a world away from a slave woman's powerlessness, poverty, illiteracy, and servitude. For many women living in Roma society, life was little different from women in ancient Greek society, and thus the myths and rituals of the gods and goddesses resonated with their life experiences and their hopes and fears.

Demeter and Persephone

One goddess cult of ancient Greece that belonged to the great mystery religions and was particularly popular with women, although not exclusively so, was that of Demeter. Athenians celebrated the mysteries of this great cult at Eleusis as well as in the ancient Greek colonies of Sicily and southern Italy. This religion tended to remain limited to the religious experience of Greeks and Greek colonists possibly because the central myth and ritual of the cult reflected so closely the lives and expectations of women in Greek society. This feature is illustrated by the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, composed most probably in the late seventh century or early sixth century bce at Eleusis, which describes a young girl's journey from puberty to womanhood. It describes how Demeter grieves for her daughter Persephone (also called Kore, "maiden"), who was first abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld and then given to him in marriage by Zeus. The stricken mother deserts Olympus, the sphere of the gods, for the world of mortals and goes to Eleusis, where she asks the people to build a temple for her. Unappeased, Demeter brings devastation to crops and cattle, ignoring the intercessory pleas from Zeus's divine envoys. She asks only for a glimpse of her daughter. Zeus has no choice but to agree to Demeter's terms, and he sends his messenger Hermes to the underworld to negotiate with Hades. Hades agrees to allow Persephone to see Demeter. Persephone pours out her heart to her mother and is consoled. Zeus decides to let mother and daughter remain together for two-thirds of each year, but Persephone must return to Hades for the remainder of the year. Content, Demeter allows the earth to be fertile once more, and the people of Eleusis continue their worship of her.

The importance of the Demeter and Persephone myth to Greek religion has been thought to stem from its connections with the seasons and the crucial issue of fertility. The centrality of female characters reflects the obvious links between women and birth. The depiction of marriage as beginning with rape is a common feature of Greek myth, as is the traumatic separation of young daughters from their mothers. The fathers are usually the instigators of this painful process, and although the anguish is well documented, marriage itself as the normative institution within society is not questioned.

The Roman Empire

The actual content of the Eleusinian mysteries remains hidden from the scrutiny of modern scholars, but there is evidence for many religious activities and devotions that focused on Demeter, some of which continued in popularity down into the Roman Empire. The Demeter myth reinforces traditional Greek practices regarding women's lives, in particular their rite of passage from daughter to wife, mirrored by the Demeter myth. The myth is a commentary on the way life is in Greek society, and by remembering it in the religious rites and devotions associated with it, the values of that society are reinforced.

Whereas the Demeter and Persephone devotions served the needs of women progressing from girlhood to womanhood, the devotions to Artemis and Hera focused on protection and success in childbirth and these cults were prohibited to slaves and foreigners. The third age of womanhood is represented by the goddess Hecate, regarded in negative terms as a haggish, cronelike demon and in positive terms as a goddess who could protect, grant success, and act as an advocate.

In contrast, the Greek myth of the Amazonian women seems then to contradict one general presumption concerning the lives of Greek women. It is about women who reject marriage and the confines of domesticity. It describes a society that prefers matrilineal descent to patrilineal and a society in which liberated women even engaged in active warfare. In its earliest forms the myth may have functioned as a mirror of a preclassical society. For instance, in the archaic epic of the sixth century the Amazons are described as female warriors who, with their Queen Penthesilea, who was killed by Achilles, battled against Bellerophon and Herakles. However, the status of the Amazon stories clearly changed by the fifth century as they began to fulfill a role within Athenian society of representing an inversion of the natural and preferred status of women. The Amazon women are now depicted as the female counterparts of the centaurs, the mythical, bestial, and violent rapists. Their representations in later centuries depict how alien such ideas would be to the patriarchal nature of Greek society. They are said to live in a totally female society, only venturing out for sex so they can conceive children. Only female babies are welcome, male offspring are offered for adoption or castrated or even killed. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century bce, describes how Amazon men behave like womentending home and children and cultivating women's skills, such as weaving. Thus the Amazonians are held up as the antithesis to Athenian society.

Adonis and Dionysos

The popularity of the Demeter and Persephone myth and the religious devotions associated with them as goddesses testifies both to the close bonds between women in Greek society and to how society sacrificed those bonds to the "higher" cause of marriages arranged by men. The participation of women in the male cults of Adonis and Dionysos could suggest a certain dissatisfaction among women with their given status and role. Neither Adonis nor Dionysos belongs to the essentially Greek hierarchy of gods, the Olympians; both have foreign pedigrees. Adonis has a Semitic name and is regularly associated with the dying and rising deities of the ancient Near East. In the male cults gods were closely associated with goddesses, Adonis with Aphrodite, his consort, Dionysos with Semele, his mother. Some of these cults had ceremonies designed to encourage women to be uninhibited. Dionysos, for instance, was the god of wine, and his worship naturally provided occasions for uninhibited behavior. Rituals associated with Dionysos range from the rather sedate Lenaia (from lenai, another name for Dionysos's devoted maenad), in which food and drink offerings accompany the ceremonial entry of the god's mask into the sanctuary for worship, to the more erotic Anthesteria, the winter wedding festival between Basilinna, the wife of the archon basileus, and Dionysos.

The Rites of The Bacchae

More extreme, however, were the rites recorded in The Bacchae, a play written as early as the late fifth century bce by Euripides (c. 480406 bce). The Bacchae are the women followers of Dionysos, and they are also known by the more pejorative term maenads, from the verb mainomai, meaning "to be driven mad." The myth of Dionysos is recounted in many ancient sources, but Euripides drew the classic description of Dionysiac ecstasy, the source for accounts in later centuries.

According to Euripides' Bacchae, Dionysos introduced his rites in Thebes to avenge the injustices perpetrated against his mother Semele, who had been dishonored by the lies spread about by her sisters, Agave, Autonoe, and Ino. On hearing that Semele was pregnant, the sisters discounted her own truthful account that she had conceived through Zeus and instead told the story that she had been impregnated by a mortal. They said that her father, Cadmus, had persuaded her to lie and say it was Zeus. This, the sisters explained, was why Semele had been struck dead by one of Zeus's thunderbolts. However, Dionysos explains that his mother had in fact been the victim of the jealous Hera's thunderbolt. This was shot while his father Zeus grabbed him from his mother's womb, saving him from being a victim of Hera's jealous plot.

The revenge of Dionysos for his mother's honor is directed at his aunts. He induces insanity on them, and they and bands of women followers dance off to the countryside, wearing fawn skins with snakes around their necks, leaves and branches in their hair, and each with a wand (thyrsos ) in her hand. They feed wild animals with their breast milk before they behave wildlyripping animals apart, wrecking villages, abducting children. They are impervious to the missiles hurled at them by the men of the villages, who suffer terrible wounds from the women's wands. There are many such details recounting the anarchic behavior of the Bacchae as they maniacally devour the countryside.

Dionysos's revenge reaches its climax when his aunt Agave dismembers what she perceives to be a wild animal but is actually her own son Pentheus in disguise. She is allowed to regain her sanity in time to recognize the torn body of her son just as she brings it to her father. The outcome is that the dynasty of Cadmus is destroyed, Agave is exiled, and the city of Thebes becomes a center for the worship of Dionysos.

The account of Euripides implicitly details many of the features associated with Dionysiac rites known from artistic impressions on vases down the centuriesthe lively dancing and dressing up in animal skins and various types of vegetation. The actual ceremonies remained the secret knowledge of initiates, and this secrecy motif was intensified by the rites being practiced at night, attracting many rumors and exaggerated imaginings from those outside the cult. The sexual nature of these rites seem to belong to the fantasies of external perception rather than the reality of the religion itself.

Classical scholars have had to weigh the evidence of the written accounts of the Dionysiac myths against what has been discovered from classical representations in various artworks. There is insufficient external evidence from Euripides' time to determine whether he based his account of the myth on the actual practices of the Dionysos cult as he knew it. It may be that his work actually provided the descriptions on which later rites were based. According to the myth, women are the main participants, the Bacchae. Pentheus is the only man mentioned, and he appears not as a man but disguised as a wild beast.

The Hellenistic Period

The evidence increases during the Hellenistic period. Plutarch (before 50after 120 ce) refers to women's ecstatic rites associated with Dionysos, describing how some women got trapped in severe weather while they were celebrating winter rites for Dionysos. He also described how a group of maenads, in their ecstatic state, had strayed in to the territory of the enemy, but thanks to the protection of the women of that town, Amphissa, they survived. It is also at this time that the cult of Dionysos spread to Italy and then to Rome, noted later, in negative terms, by Livy (59 bce17 ce). Livy's account of one particular episode that occurred in 186 bce gave Bacchae-type rites their debauched, orgiastic, and corrupt reputations. Livy recounts how a young man had to flee to avoid initiation into the cult at the shrine of Semele, which had introduced male participants. Livy's descriptions of the Dionysian Bacchae included the practice of male self-castration and gross ornamentation for its male priests. Livy wrote his account some 150 years after the events he described, and it is heavily dependent on the work of earlier Roman historians, conservative characters such as the elder Cato (234149 bce). Livy's later reconstruction of the bacchanalian scandal betrays many traces of the moral outrage of his historian forefathers.


Isis was the focus of another Oriental cult imported into Roman culture. It had particular associations for women in terms of both its priesthood and its popularity. The Egyptian myth that lies at the heart of the rites of Isis is a familiar one of sibling rivalry. According to Plutarch's version, a king of Egypt, the god Osiris, has a brother, Typhon, and two sisters, Isis and Nephthys. Typhon conspires against his brother to gain power, luring him into an ornate treasure chest, which he then seals and throws into the Nile. Isis, who has been incestuously involved with Osiris since they shared the same womb, goes looking for her lost brother. In her search she discovers that Osiris has also been on sexual terms with their sister Nephthys, who has given birth to a son. Nephthys left this baby exposed to die because she was actually married to her other brother, the villain Typhon. Isis saves the child, named Anubis, who remains with her and becomes her attendant and protector. Continuing her search for Osiris, Isis finds the treasure chest on the river shore at Byblos, and she becomes pregnant, presumably by her dead brother, or she may have already been pregnant by him (Plutarch does not clarify this detail). Their child is Horus, a popular and significant figure in the rites associated with Isis and Osiris. Meanwhile Typhon comes across the treasure chest again, opens it, and cuts up his brother's body into fourteen pieces, which he scatters over the waters of the Nile. Distraught with news of this act, Isis combs the river marshes for the pieces and finds them all save for the penis, which some fish have eaten. Osiris then returns from the underworld and trains his son Horus to avenge Typhon on his behalf.

During the Hellenistic period, the Greeks identified Isis with Aphrodite, although she was much more than the goddess of love. Transported to Rome, the Isis and Osiris rites understandably lost their connections with the Nile. One dramatic rite in which the image of the river setting survived, however, was the March festival of Navigium Isidis, richly described by Apuleius (c. 123c. 170 ce) toward the end of the second century ce. A great procession of women and men, mostly dressed in white linen, followed by priests carrying the sacred objects and the gods themselves (i.e., a person dressed as Anubis and a cow representing Isis) made their way to a nearby riverside (in Apuleius's account it was at the port of Cenchreae). A grand sailing boat was then purified by the high priest and launched by the devotees. Other rites (e.g., the Festival of Isia) retained the clear pattern of the myth, reenacting the death of Osiris and the mourning and searching of Isis, culminating in the joy of resurrection. In addition to the festivals there were daily rituals at the temple in which the figure of Isis was cleaned and dressed.

The Isis cult was not exclusive to women, but because two of the central characters, Isis and Nephthys, were female, women were given prominence in any ceremony that reenacted the myth. Apuleius's description from the second century ce makes it clear that the cult of Isis was popular among women of all classes in Italy and the western provinces: "Then followed a great crowd of the Goddess' initiates, men and women of all classes and every age, their pure white linen clothes shining brightly" (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 18, in Graves, 1951). Pictorial evidence also exists. For example, in a first century ce wall painting from Pompeii, a ritual at a temple of Isis is depicted, and the popularity of this cult among women is reflected by the number of female figures represented.

The central focus of the cult of Isis is the relationship between a man and a woman. Its incestuous nature serves to intensify the bond. It embodies perfect heterosexual love that triumphs even over death, and as such it supports the Greco-Roman ideal of the foundation of the family. It is tempting to interpret civic support of this cult as an attempt to endorse the family and the status quo of society and women's devotion to it as their acquiescence. Alternatively the cult so perfectly represented the expectations of Greco-Roman women that it provided sanction and sanctification for their lives. Another factor to explain the cult's popularity among women may have been linked to the countless military campaigns that characterized the years of the late republic and early empire, which left so many married women as widows. Living in that reality, rites that focused on a couple separated by death yet reunited by a love stronger than death would surely have special significance for women.

Magna Mater

The goddess Magna Mater, or Cybele, was imported into Rome from Pessinus in Asia Minor in 204 bce and became one of Rome's foremost cults. It was equally popular among men and women, although its rituals, which revolved around the jealously of the goddess over her lover's infidelity, more explicitly reflect women's experiences. As was the practice in the case of foreign cults, it was given legal status in Rome through recourse to the Sibylline Books. It was a cult traditionally associated with the city of Troy, to which the origin of the Roman race was traced, and therefore could be regarded almost as an ancient Roman religion. In Rome an image of Magna Mater was set up in the heart of the city on the Palatine Hill. Although not her consort, Attis is the individual most closely associated with the goddess. The central theme of the many and varied legends describing Attis's relationship with Magna Mater focuses on the young mortal Attis, caught up in an ecstatic frenzy instigated by the goddess because she was jealous of his relationship with another woman. When in this frenzy Attis castrates himself and dies, the goddess brings him back to life.

One well-recounted aspect of the Magna Mater cult was the taurobolium, the killing of a bull. This was a particularly gory practice in which the animal was sacrificed in such a way to ensure the sacrificer was spattered with its blood. This messiness distinguishes the Magna Mater cult from the normal cultic practice of Roman religion in which the priest remained unstained throughout the sacrificial slaughter.

Vestal Virgins

In the context of women's participation in religion in the Greco-Roman world, Vestal Virgins have furnished popular images and language down the centuries of Western culture, and this familiarity has tended to give them a prominence out of keeping with the religious situation of their time. Their numbers, for example, were minimalsix in total. They were a crucial factor, however, in Roman perceptions of the relationship between their city and the deities who protected it. The Vestal Virgins were chosen for their unique office before they had reached puberty, between the ages of six and ten. Once chosen they were celibate for thirty years and devoted to the task of tending the sacred fire of the round temple of Vesta at the center of the Forum. This shrine was the oldest of the Forum andaccording to the account of Pliny the Elder (2379 ce) who noted, however, that as a man he would have had no access to the shrineit had no image of the goddess Vesta but contained a sacred phallus (fascinum), the Di Magni (i.e., household gods of Troy), and a sacred Trojan image of Athena known as the Palladion. The Vestal Virgins as a group are unique in social, political, and religious terms. Beard (1980), in recognizing their distinctive status, has noted similarities between them and aristocratic males as well as affinities with unmarried women and matrons. The celibacy of the Vestal Virgins was jealously guarded, and Plutarch described that if any of their number was discovered to have broken her vow, she was ceremonially buried alive.

The high priest of the cult was male. In fact the first emperor, Augustus (c. 27 bce14 ce), was elected high priest in 12 bce, and when this happened he created a shrine to the goddess Vesta in his own home on the Palatine. Even the emperor, as high priest of the cult, could not enter the shrinethat privilege was reserved for its female virginal attendants. He could as high priest, however, carry out their execution. This office could be seen as yet another element in Augustus's search for infinite power and immortality.

The power of the Vestal Virgins was a visible reality in many aspects of the lives of these females, but these were in effect young women without any sexual autonomy. They were offered in the selection process for the Vestal Virgins at the age of six by their parents, and if chosen they were committed to that life for a minimum of thirty years. As noted, their sexuality was controlled or rather restricted by the state, and any independent act to exercise their own wills in this respect was met with execution by the hand of the male high priest. They did receive abundant privileges, such as attending senatorial dinner parties, going to the theater with the imperial women, and guarding precious documents of state. These privileges reflect the belief among Romans that these women were the true guardians of Rome, its purity and its potency.

Bona Dea

Another popular cult in Rome, associated with Roman matrons, was the cult of Bona Dea, the "good goddess." Her proper name was Fauna, understood as the daughter or sometimes the wife of Faunus, otherwise known as Pan. She was worshipped exclusively by women, and her official annual nocturnal rite was celebrated in early December in the house of the chief magistrate, led by his wife and assisted by the Vestals. This was a cult particularly associated with the matronae, who were distinguished as a group by their respectability; that is, they were legally married and therefore able to produce rightful heirs, and they were freeborn. They wore particular clothes: a long dress (stola) and a distinctive headband. They were involved in many religious festivals in Rome, but the Bona Dea cult was a particular focus for them. In fact the Bona Dea cult seems to have been elitist not only in terms of gender but also in terms of its popularity among the freed classes. Knowledge of the Bona Dea cult is, as so often, restricted to male descriptions, which are suspect because men were excluded from all the preparations and celebrations. One detailed account comes from Cicero (10643 bce), who was directly involved because his residence as magistrate was the venue for the December rite. His account is highly subjective because at the time (63 bce) he was involved in a political struggle, and he interpreted particular happenings as signs to himself from the goddess. The next year a man tried to infiltrate the festival, this time at the house of Julius Caesar, who held the praetorship that year, by disguising himself as a female harp player. The infiltrator was recognized as Clodius, a prominent member of Roman elite society whose aim, it was alleged, was to seduce Caesar's wife during the celebrations. He denied the charge and was found not guilty, a result, according to Cicero, that came from a bribed jury.

This event formed the basis of Juvenal's (c. 55130 ce) lively and erotic pastiche, which may be seen as a lurid undermining by male commentators of female religious practices (Juvenal, 1991, Satire 6). It would seem to be the case, however, that these rites did allow women an opportunity to behave in a more free and unrestrained manner than public events would normally allow. Hendrik H. J. Brouwer paints a convincing picture from all the available evidence of the December rites, at which women could drink undiluted wine, for example, and have boisterous songfests accompanied by female musicians. This party atmosphere developed when the ritual part of the eveningthe sacrifice of a pregnant pig in front of the cult statue of Bona Dea brought from the templewas completed.

Greco-Roman religious practices are filled with diversity and variety on a huge scale. It is impossible to make general observations about religions in the light of the extreme diversity, including a great number of variables, such as local political interest, geographical features, and fusion of residual culture with imported practices. It is clear, however, that religion expressed women's experiencesemotional and physicalfrom becoming young women to their lives as mature matrons. Religion is not only a reflection of those experiences but a prescriber and reinforcer of them.

Influence on Contemporary Women's Spirituality

Religions of the ancient Mediterranean not only resounded with the experiences of men and women in the ancient world. In modern times the myths and cults of antiquity have furnished contemporary religious trends. In the context of the West, along with its colonial history, the monolithic religious system of Christianity was in the ascendancy from the time of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century until modern times, and it gave shape and form to Western civilization and served as a means of defining tradition. In sum, religions of the ancient Mediterranean provide a "pretraditional" range of religious expression that is reflected in the contemporary period of the "posttraditional." This has been true especially in the context of feminist spirituality, where traditional religion, identified as patriarchal, has often been rejected or radically transformed. The goddess, who takes various forms in ancient Mediterranean religions, has been a particularly rich resource for women attempting to construct a spirituality with women's experience at its core. Key feminist scholars who have drawn on goddess mythology from ancient Mediterranean cultures for contemporary women's spirituality include Carol Christ, Starhawk, and Charlene Spretnak. These writers originally experienced traditional religion but use the resources of ancient goddess spirituality, that is, pretraditional religious experience, to take them beyond those traditions to posttraditional goddess spirituality.

See Also

Cybele; Dionysos; Egyptian Religion, overview article; Goddess Worship, article on Goddess Worship in the Hellenistic World; Greek Religion; Hellenistic Religions; Isis; Thealogy.


Beard, Mary. "The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins." Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980): 1227.

Beard, Mary. "The Roman and the Foreign: The Cult of the Great Mother in Imperial Rome." In Shamanism, History, and the State, edited by Nicholas Thomas and Caroline Humphrey, pp. 168169. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1994.

Beard, Mary, John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome, vol. 1: A History, vol. 2: A Sourcebook. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Beard, Mary, and John North, eds. Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World. London, 1990.

Blundell, Sue, and Margaret Williamson, eds. The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. London, 1998.

Brouwer, Hendrik H. J. Bona Dea: The Sources and a Description of the Cult. EPRO 110. Leiden, Netherlands, 1989.

Christ, Carol P. Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to the Goddess. San Francisco, 1987.

Christ, Carol P. Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality. New York and London, 1998.

Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow, eds. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. San Francisco, 1979.

Dowden, Ken. Religion and the Romans. London, 1992.

Fantham, Elaine, Helen Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H. Alan Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. Oxford, 1995.

Graves, Robert. Apuleius: Transformations of Lucius. New York, 1951.

Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903). Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Hawley, Richard, and Barbara Levick, eds. Women in Antiquity: New Assessments. New York and London, 1995.

Heyob, Sharon Kelly. The Cult of Isis among Women in the Greco-Roman World. Leiden, 1975.

Juvenal. The Satires. Translated by Niall Rudd. New York, 1991.

Just, Roger. Women in Athenian Law and Life. London, 1989.

Plaskow, Judith, and Carol P. Christ, eds. Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. New York, 1989.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York, 1975.

Robinson, Annabel. The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison. New York, 2002.

Sawyer, Deborah F. Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries. New York, 1996.

Snyder, Jane. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale, Ill., 1989.

Spretnak, Charlene. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths. Boston, 1984.

Staples, Ariadne. From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion. London, 1998.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco, 1979.

Turcan, Robert. The Cults of the Roman Empire. Oxford, 1996.

Ward, Julie K. Feminism and Ancient Philosophy. New York and London, 1996.

Deborah F. Sawyer (2005)

About this article

Gender and Religion: Gender and Ancient Mediterranean Religions

Updated About content Print Article


Gender and Religion: Gender and Ancient Mediterranean Religions