A Greek Woman: Socially Invisible and a Shadowed Personality

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

A Greek woman, who did not have great influence, was under the control of the male members in her family. Transitioning into a married woman from a young girl was just a crossover of her marital status. But did it change her personal situation in any way?

Painting on a vase depicting the marriage procession in a Greek family.
Greek marriage involved numerous rituals until a girl became a married woman. The marriage was attended by relatives of both the bride and the groom. (Image: British Museum/CC BY 2.5/Public domain)

Marriage Rituals in Greek Society

After being engaged for months, comes the day of the wedding for a Greek girl. On the day of her wedding, she takes a ritual bath from a special vase known as a loutrophoros, which marks her rite of passage from unmarried to married. She then sits down to a banquet in her father’s or legal guardian’s house. All the relatives and friends from the bride and groom’s side are present. The girl is veiled and sitting apart from the bridegroom. Toward the night, her bridegroom takes her to her new home. On arrival at his house, both of them are showered with nuts and dried figs, the Greek equivalent of confetti, symbolic of prosperity and fertility.

There was no state official or priest conducting the marriage ceremony or any form of words equivalent to an exchange of vows. It is not even known whether anyone pronounced them husband and wife.

The Context of Hymn to Demeter

Photo of a fresco of Demeter, Goddess of corn, whose daughter was abducted by Hades.
Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was married to an aged man, Hades. This was similar to what happened to young females in Greek society. (Image: Sovenok212/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Marriage created a much more violent disruption in her life as a woman than it did in the life of a man. Her husband was considerably older than her. The violence of the disruption she experienced was brilliantly conveyed by the anonymous seventh-century poem known as the Hymn to Demeter, which described the abduction of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the corn, by Hades, the grim god of the underworld.

Persephone, who was innocently plucking flowers in a meadow, was snatched away to become the bride of an aged and forbidding stranger who she had never seen before. In real life, too, the bride was often taken from her family when she was scarcely past playing with her dolls. There was a famous song by the British-born Gracie Fields, “Walter, Walter, take me to the altar,” which ended with a killer line, “Marry me, make all my nightmares come true.” Well, there was no altar involved, but the nightmares were just as real for some Greek brides, wrested from childhood and forced to submit to their husbands.

Learn more about the world of Athenian women.

Ordeal of Conception

Once married, the woman immediately took on a number of responsibilities, primarily producing a male heir toute suite to ensure that the family line did not die out. If she failed to become pregnant, they regarded her with grave suspicion or assumed that there was something wrong with her. No blame was attached to her husband. It was always the woman who was blamed for the failure to become pregnant.

Concerns About Infertility

Concerns about infertility featured prominently in the miraculous cures recorded at the healing sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus in the northeast Peloponnese. Snakes were sacred to Asclepius, who was supposed to have healing powers. The compulsion brought those women all the way to Epidaurus, a considerable distance across the Aegean, because of intolerable pressure from their husbands, a sense of personal worthlessness, or, that human instinct, a basic yearning for a child.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Taking Charge of the Household

As a married woman, she was also in charge of the running of the household. If well-bred, she did not do any housework as this was all done by the slaves but her job was to supervise those slaves and see that they did not get up to any mischief. Finally, she, her sisters, and her sisters-in-law would take the major part in preparing a corpse for burial, as women do to this day in Mediterranean countries.

Social Invisibility for Greek Women

Bronze sculpture depicting a veiled Greek woman.
Greek women would rarely go out of the house, and, if they had to, a veil was a mandatory part of their attire. (Image: Claire H./CC BY-SA 2.0/Public domain)

Married women, like single girls, rarely appeared in public. And if they did, they had to wear a veil. In other words, they were expected to be socially invisible. The women were expected not only to stay at home but also to keep themselves away from the gaze of men. The only men they had regular contact with were their close relatives.

Most of the time they would be in women’s quarters, the gunaikeiôn, situated in the most remote and sheltered part of the house or upstairs. Whenever her husband invited his friends, the woman had could not be present. There was a special part of the house designated for him and his friends, known as the andrôn.

Selective Social Permissions for Women

The women spent long hours in the company of their female slaves and children. It is not known whether Athenians or other Greeks went out much with their wives and daughters. There were, however, some occasions when they were allowed to appear in public to attend festivals, such as the Thesmophoria, held in honor of Demeter in the fall, which only women could attend. They also attended funerals. As a young Athenian girl, they spent much of their time eagerly awaiting the death of their relatives.

Learn more about the beauty and wonder of Greek civilization.

In Prosecution of Eratosthenes

A funeral was one of the few occasions when those females would catch the eye of a potential lover, as learned from the speechwriter Lysias. The husband called Eratosthenes for whom Lysias wrote the speech was facing a charge of homicide for having killed his wife’s lover.

He claimed that he killed the man in flagrante delicto. The prosecution claimed the killing was premeditated. It emerged that his wife’s adulterer first set eyes on her at a funeral. He subsequently suborned one of her slaves, who then acted as a go-between. The speech, known as In Prosecution of Eratosthenes, provided a wonderful insight into daily life, demonstrating how, even in the most straight-laced societies and when the penalties for violating the conventions were extreme, there were people who always found ways to break the mold, even at the risk of their own lives.

Learn more about being a sick or disabled Greek.

Customary Practices by Greek Women

In addition to festivals and funerals, the women were expected to make periodic visits to the cemetery to perform cult—what the Greek called ‘the customary practices’—on behalf of their dead relatives, tending their tombs and depositing food and drink. That is what life had to offer them: either being someone’s daughter or wife, without any independent identity of their own.

Common Questions About a Greek Woman

Q: How did Greek males regard Greek females?

Greek men regarded the females as inferior to them and they had no say in important matters including their own marriage which was arranged by their male family members.

Q: What was women’s role in Greek society?

The role of women in Greek society was limited to taking care of the household and bearing children, especially a male child. In case she could not bear a male child, the blame was put on her and never on the husband.

Q: At what age did most girls get married in Greek society?

When a Greek girl was aged 14, her parents would be on a lookout for a suitable match for their daughter. She would be usually married off to a man more than double her age.

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