Kaitlyn Waller, Staff Writer
The Hellenic Government-Karakas Family Foundation Professorship in Greek Studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis presented its 20th annual Catherine Pelican Memorial Lecture in MSC Century Room C last Friday at 7 p.m. Joan Connelly, a professor of classics and art history at New York University, and also a field archeologist who has conducted numerous excavations, presented her lecture “Unearthing the Lost History of Greek Priestesses” based on her book “Portrait of a Priestess,” which compiles her research from her studies abroad.
Connelly discussed the importance of women in ancient Greece as priestesses. She said Greek women have long been neglected and have slipped through the cracks of history.
She argued that the complicated realities of Greek women have long been misunderstood because of privileged ancient Greek texts, such as the often-cited misogynistic comments made by Greek male orators.
“These familiar quotations when read without regard to larger context, voice and intent of the author, have for the last two centuries not only dominated but distorted our view of women in antiquity,” said Connelly, while acknowledging that Greek culture was not “without its misogyny.”
“My work,” said Connelly, “on Greek priestesses can be seen as a larger paradigm shift that has emerged in recent decades, moving away from the long accepted belief that Greek women held wholly second-class status as silent, submissive, invisible figures restricted to the confines of the household where they obediently attended to domestic chores and child-rearing, hidden away upstairs.”
She marked this transition as occurring at the end of the 20th century because of found artifacts. “Archaeology has played a very important role in shifting our perspectives here, providing critical evidence that contradicts what we’ve learned from the privileged and often-cited Greek texts that are dominated by male voices,” she said.
Connelly argued that women in ancient Athens, Greece, were not marginalized and on the fringe of power, as often supposed, but rather held power as Greek priestesses.
These women, Connelly explained, became priestesses either by inheritance, allotment, election or purchase. As priestesses, these women were invaluable in the leading of sacred processions. They also looked after treasures, led prayers and presided over animal sacrifices during rituals. In return for their services, Greek priestesses held high honors and rights, including land and expensive gold laurel wreaths often reserved for men.
“Women functioned virtually as public office holders equal to the men who oversaw the cults of male divinities,” Connelly said.
She showed many images of Greek artwork and explained how the women depicted in these paintings and statues proved Greek women as powerful, public and active women in Greek culture. These priestesses held temple keys or stood in sacred religious spaces by governing ritual fires. Priestesses also had prominent public seats in outdoor Greek arenas and statues of priestesses mirrored their prominent roles in sacred processions.
“Surviving material evidence bears witness to realities neglected in the literary texts that come down to us,” said Connelly. “This is true for the larger study of minorities in general. And this is why we must pay such careful attention to every small fragment of sculpture, pottery and decorative arts that survives to give us a tiny glimpse into how lives were actually lived.” She said the complex realities of ancient Greek women are now well testified by this “material evidence.”
In conclusion, Connelly explained the funeral processions held for the priestesses and the funeral columns erected in their honor to show how these elaborate ceremonies testify to the esteem the priestesses were held in.
“I think we need no further evidence to show that ancient Greek women were respected for their intelligence, their virtue and their beauty inside and out,” said Connelly.