In ancient Athens, women had actually no life outside the house unless castle were prostitutes or were involved in spiritual activities such as festivals. Every Greek divine being in every city-state had their very own cult (sect) but the cult the Athena available women positions of power and autonomy in a city-state that routinely denied lock both.

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Other Greek cities, notably Sparta, allowed women much greater freedoms 보다 Athens. Spartan women controlled estates, might inherit and own property, and were educated. Athenian women can hold floor in trust for a male, managed the household, spun wool, and also education because that them was taken into consideration a waste of time due to the fact that they would never ever be given an opportunity to usage it.

The cult that Athena, however, permitted women to completely participate in the life that the city from the time they to be young girls. Part women ongoing on together Athena’s clergy while others left energetic service once they got married but, one of two people way, they ongoing to take part in the festivals honoring the goddess and were maybe to enjoy positions that respect and also considerable power.


The colossal statue of Athena which once stood in the Parthenon included the serpent i beg your pardon was assumed to protect the city.

In Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess that wisdom, war, family members crafts, and also cooking that was known by numerous epithets including Athena Polias ("of the city"), Athena Nike ("of victory"), Athena Ergane ("the industrious") and also Athena Promachos ("who fights in front") as well as others. She may have emerged from the earlier Mesopotamian goddess Inanna (also a warrior goddess and far better known together Ishtar) but, according to the old Greek myth about her birth, she sprung completely grown indigenous the forehead of her father Zeus, king the the gods. Athena to be Zeus’ favourite daughter and among the most popular with mortals transparent Greece. There to be shrines and temples devoted to Athena in numerous city-states, not simply in Athens, as she epitomized a number of the central values that Greek culture: skill in warfare, wisdom in one’s business, martial, and personal affairs, courage, independence, and also female virginity.

Athena to be a devout virgin and one of she epithets to be Athena Parthenos ("the virgin" i beg your pardon is exactly how the Parthenon, her most renowned temple, obtained its name). She was additionally known together Pallas Athena ("she that brandishes weapons") and was maybe to defend herself versus male aggression. In one story, Athena goes come Hephaestus, the god that the forge, come ask the to do her some weaponry. Overwhelmed by her beauty, Hephaestus tries come rape her, yet she fights the off. During their struggle, a autumn of his semen drops on she thigh i beg your pardon she quickly wiped away and also flung onto the fertile earth, thereby offering birth to Erichthonius, a legend king the Athens, while remaining a virgin. Erichthonius is the mythical founder the the Panathenaic Festival and, owing to a later on myth, associates Athena with the serpent.

Although she best-known totemic animal is the owl (signifying wisdom) she is also associated through the snake (a symbol of transformation) i m sorry guarded Erichthonius once he was an infant enclosed in a casket. The colossal statue the Athena which as soon as stood in the Parthenon included the serpent which was believed to safeguard the city. The travel writer Pausanias (l. 2nd century CE) defines the statue:

The cult statue is made of ivory and also gold. In the center of that is helmet is a sphinx and also on either next of the helmet are sculpted griffins. The statue of Athena stands upright in an ankle-length robe, and on its chest is an ivory representation the the Gorgon Medusa. Athena hold in one of her hand a win , about four cubits tall, and also in the various other a spear. At she feet lies a shield and, by the spear, a snake which can be Erichthonius. (Greece, 1.24.5-7; Athens,Waterfield, 95)

Erichthonius, as a serpent, came to be the protector that Athena’s temple on the Acropolis and, through extension, of Athens. He was assumed to it is in a living reality who, despite unseen, to be still a potent force guarding his virginal mom city.


According come legend, she came to be associated with Athens after winning a competition v Poseidon, god of the sea. She and also Poseidon both want to end up being the patron deity of the city and so available the civilization gifts. Poseidon to win the rock of the Acropolis with his trident and brought soon fresh, cool water, but Athena presented the people with the olive tree which they well-known would be more valuable. Interestingly, in one version of this myth, it is the women of the city who recognize the value of the olive tree and vote because that Athena as the city’s patron. The offering of gifts and hospitality were very valued in ancient Greece, and Athena was famed for both.

She was the patron goddess the a number of famous heroes whom she helped achieve their goals, amongst them Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles, Orestes, and also Diomedes, among the heroes that the Trojan War. In the Iliad of Homer (8th century BCE), which make that conflict famous, she also helps Achilles loss Hector, and in the Odyssey, she is the main figure to assist Odysseus when he finally reaches his home on Ithaca. In all these tales, Athena is depicted as a an effective woman guys listen to and learn from, enabling them come succeed. She exemplified armed forces prowess, the martial ideal, and was also respected together a goddess of counsel. She was understood this means in Athens as elsewhere but, for whatever reasons, the males of Athens did not watch the goddess reflected in the ladies of the city that lived as second-class citizens.

Women in ancient Athens

It was only in the spiritual sphere that women can share same in the life that the city &, in Athena’s cult, enjoy positions that respect & authority.

Athenian women were relegated come their very own quarters within the home, which can be locked from the outside, and were supposed to marry, be affected by each other children, progressive the children, store the home, and also do so together quietly as possible. Although there are records of lower-class women that were potters, craftspeople, and also merchants, and also of upper-class females who functioned as courtesans (hetaira), females who appeared outside of the home were largely female slaves, prostitutes, or metics (foreigners). Female, and male, prostitute were a continuous feature that the streets and also alleys of Athens, yet not maidens, wives, or mothers that were retained at home and under the control of a male guardian, either a father, a husband, an adult son, or an additional male relative. Scholar Louise Bruit Zaidman comments:

Athens, the course, to be not all of Greece. As far as the place of ladies is concerned, the case there was unusual, even extreme. Mistrust of women, misogyny in rhetoric and also law, were higher in Athens than anywhere else. Indeed, Athenian misogyny was so extreme that a myth was needed to explain why ladies there were no to be called Athenians and also children were no to take their mother’s name. Varro tells united state that it to be to quell Poseidon’s ire, aroused when the females of Athens poll to name the city after ~ Athena rather than himself. According to the Periclean legislation of citizenship (451 BCE), citizenship was granted to any type of man who can prove he was the kid of both a citizen and also “the daughter the a citizen”. When a young was registered the surname of his mother’s father was recorded yet not the of his mother. If the dad swore the the kid was the product the a marital relationship with a “woman the the city” the mother’s name was not mentioned. (Schmitt Pantel, et. Al. 339-340)

The patriarchy the Athens identified the function of women in culture as kid bearers, and it was interpreted that this to be all the a woman needed to be fulfilled. Marital sex to be for procreation; pleasurable sex for men was extramarital through younger men, masculine or female prostitutes, or hetairai. Scholars proceed to debate whether women were even permitted to attend the Greek theatre and, if castle were, they were segregated from the men. That was only in the religious sphere that women could share same in the life the the city and, in Athena’s cult, gain positions the respect and also authority. Zaidman notes:

Of the thirty festivals celebrated in Athens each year, countless of which continued for two or three days, females participated actively in almost half. Different celebrations affiliated different aspects of women’s lives. Young girls carried baskets that offerings come Athena in the Arrephoria and also Plynteria; married women took part in the Haloa and Thesmophoria of Demeter; ladies of a canonical age waited top top the queen the the Anthesteria, end which Dionysius presided. The culmination to be the Panathenaea (celebrated every year and also with greater pomp every fourth year), in which women of every ages and conditions take it part. (340)

Even though, because that the greater part of the time, females were intended to stay at home, quietly spinning wool, making garments, and also tending to the house and children, spiritual festivals offered them an possibility to emulate the goddess in courage and independence and also especially therefore as active members in the cult the Athena.

The women of Athena’s Cult

Between birth and the period of seven, girls and boys were increased by your mothers much more or less the same, yet after seven, boys were taken in hand by your fathers to learn his trade and become Athenian citizen while girls were prepared for marriage, motherhood, and housekeeping. This, as much as the documents indicate, was how the upper class of Athens operated, yet it is assumed that all classes followed approximately the exact same paradigm together the upper class collection the version for exactly how the lower course would live.

Among the aristocratic top class, in between the periods of seven and also eleven, the masculine assembly of Athens would select four girls, recognized as arrephoroi ("sacred basket bearers"), because that a one-of-a-kind honor. Two of them would take part in weaving the big peplos (garment) which would certainly be available as a gift to Athena and would clothe her well known statue in the Parthenon. The various other two would participate in a ritual during which they brought sealed caskets, i beg your pardon they were forbidden to look into, on their heads to a specific spot in the gardens listed below the Acropolis and also exchange everything was in castle for other objects inserted in the caskets i beg your pardon were climate either carried up to the Acropolis or returned to their source.

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Greek Peplos Dress
Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

This ritual reenacted the story the Erichthonius who, as an infant, was inserted in a small casket through Athena to store him safe and keep his bear a secret. She gave the casket to the 3 daughters the King Cecrops that Athens for safekeeping, charging lock to never ever look inside. Among the girls, Pandrosus, heeded the warning, but the other two, Herse and also Aglaurus, could not contain their curiosity and peeked right into the casket. There they witnessed either the infant Erichthonius sheathe in the coils of a snake or the half-infant-half-serpent the was Erichthonius. The girls were so horrified by the vision that they walk mad and also hurled themselves off the height of the Acropolis to your deaths. In the reenactment, the young virgins selected to bring the caskets redeemed the sin that the daughters of Cecrops by no looking into the caskets and delivering them faithfully to your destination.

Girls between, roughly, the period of 11-14 were honored as kanephoroi who brought a basket (kanoun) of sacred barley to be put on the altar that blood sacrifices that animals. Females were not permitted to take part in blood sacrifice in Athens and so this was an enviable position amongst the maidens the the city. Scholar sarah B. Pomeroy comments:

The kanephoroi were virgins selected from noble families. Their virginity to be a potent factor in securing the propitious usage of the sacred offerings and sacrificial instruments carried in their baskets. To protect against a candidate native participating in this event was to cast aspersions on she reputation. (75-76)

The many famous instance of how serious the rejection of a candidate might be is the 514 BCE rebuff of the sister that Harmodius. In ~ this time, Athens was ruled by the two sons that Peisistratus (d. C. 528 BCE), Hippias (r. C. 528-510 BCE) and also Hipparchus (r. C. 528-514 BCE). Hipparchus propositioned a young man named Harmodius who already had a lover, Aristogeiton, and also was rejected. In response, Hipparchus dismissed Harmodius’ sister together a kanephoroi there is no explanation, in order to questioning she virtue and also insulting the family name. Harmodius and also his lover Aristogeiton assassinated Hipparchus throughout the Panathenaic Festival that 514 BCE which led to Hippias come become much more tyrannical and, in 510 BCE, resulted in his fall and also the restoration and advancement of Athenian democracy.


The kanephoroi might continue to offer the goddess with their beforehand teens till they to be married. Women can be chosen, based upon family relationships or noteworthy virtue, as hiereiai, high priestesses, who might serve just until they were married, serve for only one year, or could serve because that life. The high priestess that Athena was among the most prestigious positions in Athens, and the mrs who organized it was thought to convey to the human being the will of the goddess. As soon as the Persians invaded Greece in 480 BCE, follow to Herodotus, the high priestess the Athens had actually the human being evacuate the city simply prior to the battle of Salamis by telling them the the serpent Erichthonius, and also therefore Athena, had already fled the Acropolis and also they must follow suit (Histories, VIII, 41). The Athenians listened to her warning and evacuated the women and children and various goods before the men returned to defend the city.


Women participated in the Rites the Demeter, the Eleusinian Mysteries, openly with guys and, as noted, in many other Athenian festivals but the ladies who actively participated in Athena’s cult, even after they to be married and relegated to the women’s soldier of the home, continued to contribute and were recognized and also honored. The peplos i m sorry was begun by the girls selected in your youth was continued and completed by those who had performed the same function when they were young. The gigantic peplos to be carried, every 4 years, by the women that had developed it increase the Panathenaic method to the Acropolis during the greater Panathenaic Festival.


The cult the Athena noted women in old Greece not just with a purpose exterior the home and also childbearing yet a significant role in the life the the city. In the Athenian culture, which on regular basis suppressed feminine energy, even while celebrating it v their patron deity, Athena’s cult was an possibility for ladies to refer themselves, be recognized, and contribute come the spiritual and social life of the city. The cult continued until at some point in the 4th century CE when, after the rise of Christianity in Greece, it lost adherents as women came to be Christians.

Christianity, in ~ first, encouraged women’s participation at every levels and enabled the very same kind of freedom and an individual recognition they had obtained from Athena’s cult. In ~ the the supervisory board of Nicaea in 325 CE, however, i beg your pardon sought come unify the Christian vision and also standardize its practice, the men determined to monitor the previously lead the Pope Clement i (l. C. 35-99 CE) who had decreed that just men can hold location of government in Christianity due to the fact that Christ had actually only liked male apostles. The decision at Nicaea relegated women to secondary status in the new religion and, through the waning the the cult of Athena - as well as those that other an effective female deities who had also noted opportunity for social key - the females of Athens again assumed the only role allowed them by the males of the city as child-bearers and homemakers.

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A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of philosophy at Marist College, new York, Joshua J. Mark has actually lived in Greece and Germany and traveled v Egypt. He has actually taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy in ~ the university level.