Origins of Namelessness in Women
Women of Ancient Greece

It is difficult to attain an accurate image of the life of women in Ancient and Classical Greek history because, aside from some scraps of lyric poetry, almost all of the formal literature of classical antiquity has been written by men, and as a result reflects the attitudes and misogyny of the male writers of the period. I will begin this section with a portrayal of the Greek deities of early antiquity who are already demonstrating evidence of the transition from Goddess worship to the characteristics of a powerful male deity indicative of a patriarchal society. This will be followed by an account of the relative freedom enjoyed by the women of the Dorian peninsula from 700BC onward; and will be concluded with a description of the stifling control and effacement of identity which women of the Ionian classical period (Athens) experienced from about 600BC onward.

Although ancient history deals primarily with the ruling classes, there are a few glimpses into the occupations and activities that the laws permitted freewomen and slaves to work at.

Around 700BC a poet named Hesiod wrote the Theogony which became the standard Greek version of divine evolution. His views probably not only shaped but corresponded with the ideas of the population as a whole. His descriptions of the Greek deities were already showing evidence of the Mother goddesses being vanquished with the introduction of Zeus by Greek speaking invaders from the north. Hesiod hated women. He described the transition from the female-dominated deities to the “superior and rational monarchy of Olympian Zeus who is credited with establishing a patriarchal government on Olympus." Zeus introduced moral order and culture by fathering the Hours, the Fates, the Muses and the Graces. However, by denying power to females even to the extent of taking away their sole claim as bearers of children by giving birth to Athena through his head and Dyonysus from his thigh, Zeus accomplished the subordination of the feminine deities. Hesiod’s unsympathetic view of women is expressed in the story of the creation of Pandora who was described as the first woman. There is a dual meaning to her name being: “giver of all gifts” which is the description of a benevolent fertility figure or “recipient of all gifts.” By choosing the latter interpretation Hesiod created an “Eve” out of Pandora by blaming all the woes of mankind on the first woman.

When Zeus defeats his father, the Gods of Olympus take over. The male deities, Zeus and Appollo exhibited the characteristics of male deities who function as rulers, intellectuals, judges, warriors, fathers and sexual partners in both homosexual and heterosexual affairs.

The five main goddesses of Olympus: Athena, Artemis, Hestia, Aphrodite and Hera appear to have narrowly defined functions despite their major importance to Greek cities. The goddesses display ideal characteristics of human females as envisaged by males. As a result, three of the five goddesses are virgins. Athena is warrior, judge and giver of wisdom but she is denied sexual activity and motherhood. She is considered a virgin born not of woman but of man, for she was born out of the head of Zeus. Artemis is a huntress and warrior, admired for her chastity. Hestia is respected as an old maid. Aphrodite represents physical beauty, sexual love and fertility, but was also given a frivolous, deceitful character. Hera represents wife, mother and powerful queen, married to her brother Zeus. The ideal characteristics exhibited by these goddesses are distributed among a number of females, for to have them all combined in one woman/deity would represent a threat to the patriarchal society. As a result of their patronage of women’s activities in society, the goddesses retained an important ceremonial veneration by women, for they paid attention both to women’s needs and to the delineation of their proper roles in society.

Dorian women, in contrast to Ionians, enjoyed many relative freedoms (as reflected by the laws of Lycurgus in the 7th Century BC until about the 4th Century BC) and among the Dorians, the Spartans were the most liberated of all. The freedom of Spartan women seems to be a result of the Dorian tradition with its communal social structure and separation of the sexes. Very little is known about the status of women in Sparta with the exception of the Description of Sparta by Xenophon. This portrayal described a system where there was much more freedom granted to women under the laws of Lycugus (7th Century BC). The bearing of children and the production of warriors was considered to be the most important function of Spartan women. Slaves were responsible for household duties while free women, in order to more completely fulfill their biological role, were better nourished and more involved in physical fitness. As a result, citizen women were trained in gymnastics, music, household management and child rearing. As the husband was away in battle so much of the time, the state encouraged Spartan women to have children with men other than their husbands, as long as the father was a Spartan citizen.

In Gortyn, another Dorian city state with customs similar to Sparta, free women had the right to possess, control and inherit property, though the inheritance of a daughter was less than that of a son.

The only mention of naming customs in Sparta is a reference to the law of Lycurgus which forbade the inscription of the name of the deceased on a tomb except for a man who had died at war or a woman who had died in childbirth.

Barely 100 years later in Ionian cities (Athens), women had lost their freedom to the extent that their very identity became unknown. In the sixth Century BC the Athenian lawgiver, Solon, instituted legislation that influenced many aspects of Athenian life. One of these changes instituted was the custom that women were to be kept out of public view and their influence limited. It is debatable whether women were totally excluded from social life, but it is clear that both politically and legally they were given an inferior status. In the eyes of history, women became invisible.

In Athenic culture, for any individual, family membership was a critical factor in determining a citizen's identity. Upon the birth of a child, before the conferring of an individual name, gender identity was established. Next, the head of the household admitted the child into the cult of the hearth which signified acceptance into the family. Children, whether male or female, were lifelong members of the family cult.

A personal name was an important indication of family membership. Children were identified by their own name and patronomic. The first son was usually named after his paternal grandfather and the second after his maternal grandfather. The little evidence that exists indicates that the first daughter in a family was usually named after her paternal grandmother. Very few Athenian families raised more than one daughter.

It is usually difficult to detect a woman’s links with her birth family because she spent the major portion of her life with her husband’s family, and was usually identified with his clan. Also, rules of etiquette required the suppression of respectable women’s names, at least while they were living.

On rare occasions, young upper class Athenian girls were taught to read and write by tutors hired for their brothers. After marriage husbands, who were typically fifteen or twenty years older, managed the educational training for girls. No formal education existed for lower class or slave women.

From childhood, Athenian women were required to be invisible to the public eye. A girl would spend her childhood years under careful supervision so that she might see, hear and speak as little as possible, until she became a bride at the age of fourteen. A mother is not identified by name, only as a daughter, wife or mother. As such a woman would be identified as the daughter of so-and-so or the wife of such-and such. Married women were valued as a link between two families of men.

Women’s invisibility was promoted even to the division of private space between male and female within the home. There were quarters especially devoted to women and the female slaves, and an andron, or a room for men. A visitor to an Athenian house would meet only the male members of a family. If strangers were present female members would withdraw to the secluded parts of the home and not even be mentioned by name.

During the Hellenistic period several centuries later, after the Macedonian invasions, Greek women enjoyed a much greater status in home and in society, even to the extent of there being several very powerful and well known queens. One of the main reasons for the increased importance of women was the acquisition and utilization of economic power. However, the works of such Athenian writers and philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch and Xenophon have thousands of years later continued to exert an influence over the structure, morals and philosophies of our society.

Home
The Journey
Women of Ancient Greece
Women of Rome
Women of the Early Christian Era
The Story of the Goddess
Journey's End
Works Consulted