As a woman and self-proclaimed feminist, the questions I get asked most by outsiders about my choice of religion are how I, as said woman and feminist, can worship a pantheon of raping Gods and why I would want to recreate the religious (and partly social) practices of a masochistic society. If that is your view of ancient Hellas and the Hellenic Gods then I doubt this post is going to change your mind. I will give explaining myself a try, though, because I find the subject very important. Much of this negative view stems from the percieved role of women in ancient hellas--which I, as a woman and feminist--should be against, obviously. The thing is, there is a lot of misinformation about the virtues of women in ancient Hellas.

Now, I am the first to be critical of our mythology, and have done so publicly on this medium as well; mostly here, in my post about the gender-roles in ancient Hellenic mythology. I will also be the first to assure you that I believe mythology--although taken literally by me to discover more about the Gods--is reflective of the culture they were formed in only in so much as The Real Housewives of [insert city]' is of ours; it shows daily lives of beings, but in a dramatized and overtly shocking manner. Not that I am equating anyone on The Real Housewives to the Gods, let me assure you.

Because much of what has remained from ancient Hellas was written, created, or otherwise preserved by men, it's easy to get a lasting negative impression of women in the ancient Hellenic society. In fact, until a couple of decades ago, that was the prevalent notion in the scholarly community. I grew up believing all women in ancient Hellas were good for was breeding strong sons. It's a very one-dimensional view, and one that has been proven incorrect again and again and again in more recent years.

Well-off women--the women wo could actually afford to stay at home--were generally married to well-off men with high functions. With their future's finances secure, they could strive for the ideal of an ancient Hellenic woman. Especially in Attica, these women tended to write and publish poetry. They came together with other women to socialize and increase the standing of their husbands, they kept the oikos well-stocked and the serfs under control. Women who were less well-off worked alongside their husbands on the fields, in the shops, and in any other capacity.

Semonides, an ancient Hellenic iambic and elegiac poet who is believed to have lived during the seventh century BC, in his 'Types of Women' gives us many negative qualities of women, speaking of the good in only a hand full of lines quoted below. Yet, in his negativity, he also notes all the virtues of women--women who are active, smart, clean, skilled, even-tempered, quiet, loyal, religious, modest (especially with her hair), beautiful, and ready to carry her share of the work--

"In different ways god [Zeus] made the mind of woman in the beginning. [...] [He made a]nother from a bee. Anyone getting her is lucky. To her alone cleaves no blame, but livelihood flourishes with her and increases. She loves her husband, and he loves her. She bears him noble and renowned sons. They grow old together. Conspicuous among all women is she, and divine grace surrounds her. She takes no pleasure in sitting among women when all they talk about is sex [or love, depending on translation]. Women like her Zeus gives to men. They are the best and most accomplished women."

There are more records of what a good woman should be like that have survived from ancient Hellas. The most telling, perhaps, were eulogies for women--and some for men by women--which describe the marriages of these women and the good they did in life. A somewhat later example I am fond of because it gives excellent examples is from the eulogy of a woman named Murdia. Her son praises her after her passing:

"For these reasons, praise for all good women is simple and similar, since their native goodness and the trust they have maintained do not require a diversity of words. Sufficient is the fact that they have all done the same good deeds that deserve fine reputation, and since their lives fluctuate with less diversity, by necessity we pay tribute to values they hold in common, so that nothing may be lost from fair precepts and harm what remains. Still, my dearest mother deserved greater praise than all others, since in modesty, propriety, chastity, obedience, woolworking, industry, and loyalty she was on a equal level with other good women, nor did she take second place to any woman in virtue, work and wisdom in times of danger."

It seems ancient Hellenic men were looking for someone many men today are also looking for: someone who they got along with, who supported them in all ways possible, who cared for them, and who had a good head on their shoulders. It didn't hurt if they were pretty. It helped if they were sensible and wise--not wasting away their time chatting about nothing while they should be working. It is not odd to think that women aspired to be this person, to be soft-spoken, kind and when it was called for, smart and loyal. A gender stereotype? Sure, but one that seems to have been embraced willingly by women--presumably partly because that was society as it was, and partly because life called for it. I am willing to bet that many women in ancient Hellas were free to strive for greater influence in their own lives than they actually did. This is why I always warn against enforcing modern ethics on ancient civilizations; it will put neither society in a good light.

Marriage in ancient Hellas was often a forced affair, arranged by men for women. Evidence suggests, though, that many women were happy in their marriages--not all, surely not all, but many. In a good marriage--which was often one where both parties carried their weight, there was financial stability, mutual respect, and a desire to work towards unified goals--women tended to be happy. I want to share another eulogy, this one recorded on the tombstone of first century BC Roman woman Turia, which is slightly out of my bounds, but remains one of the most moving testimonials from a husband to his wife. It's a long message--which can be read in its entirety here--but here are some of the important bits concerning their undeniable love. Keep in mind the importance of children within a marriage and the laws that surrounded them.

"Marriages as long as ours are rare, marriages that are ended by death and not broken by divorce. For we were fortunate enough to see our marriage last without disharmony for fully 40 years. I wish that our long union had come to its final end through something that had befallen me instead of you; it would have been more just if I as the older partner had had to yield to fate through such an event.

Why should I mention your domestic virtues: your loyalty, obedience, affability, reasonableness, industry in working wool, religion without superstition, sobriety of attire, modesty of appearance? Why dwell on your love for your relatives, your devotion to your family? You have shown the same attention to my mother as you did to your own parents, and have taken care to secure an equally peaceful life for her as you did for your own people, and you have innumerable other merits in common with all married women who care for their good name. It is your very own virtues that I am asserting, and very few women have encountered comparable circumstances to make them endure such sufferings and perform such deeds. Providentially Fate has made such hard tests rare for women.
[...] You generosity you have manifested to many friends and particularly to your beloved relatives. On this point someone might mention with praise other women, but the only equal you have had has been your sister. For you brought up your female relations who deserved such kindness in your own houses with us. You also prepared marriage-portions for them so that they could obtain marriages worthy of your family. The dowries you had decided upon Cluvius and I by common accord took upon ourselves to pay, and since we approved of your generosity we did not wish that you should let your own patrimony suffer diminution but substituted our own money and gave our own estates as dowries. I have mentioned this not from a wish to commend ourselves but to make clear that it was a point of honour for us to execute with our means what you had conceived in a spirit of generous family affection.
[...] Why should I now hold up to view our intimate and secret plans and private conversations: how I was saved by your good advice when I was roused by startling reports to meet sudden and imminent dangers; how you did not allow me imprudently to tempt providence by an overbold step but prepared a safe hiding-place for me, when I had given up my ambitious designs, choosing as partners in your plans to save me you sister and her husband Cluvius, all of you taking the same risk? There would be no end, if I tried to go into all this. It is enough for me and for you that I was hidden and my life was saved.
[...] It is true that we did wish to have children, who had for a long time been denied to us by an envious fate. If it had pleased Fortune to continue to be favourable to us as she was wont to be, what would have been lacking for either of us? But Fortune took a different course, and our hopes were sinking. The courses you considered and the steps you attempted to take because of this would perhaps be remarkable and praiseworthy in some other women, but in you they are nothing to wonder at when compared to your other great qualities and I will not go into them.
When you despaired of your ability to bear children and grieved over my childlessness, you became anxious lest by retaining you in marriage I might lose all hope of having children and be distressed for that reason. So you proposed a divorce outright and offered to yield our house free to another woman's fertility. Your intention was in fact that you yourself, relying on our well-known conformity of sentiment, would search out and provide for me a wife who was worthy and suitable for me, and you declared that you would regard future children as joint and as though your own, and that you would not effect a separation of our property which had hitherto been held in common, but that it would still be under my control and, if I wished so, under your administration: nothing would be kept apart by you, nothing separate, and you would thereafter take upon yourself the duties and the loyalty of a sister and a mother-in-law.
I must admit that I flared up so that I almost lost control of myself; so horrified was I by what you tried to do that I found it difficult to retrieve my composure. To think that separation should be considered between us before fate had so ordained, to think that you had been able to conceive in you mind the idea that you might cease to be my wife while I was still alive, although you had been utterly faithful to me when I was exiled and practically dead! What desire, what need to have children could I have had that was so great that I should have broken faith for that reason and changed certainty for uncertainty? But no more about this! You remained with me as my wife, for I could not have given in to you without disgrace for me and unhappiness for both of us. But on your part, what could have been more worthy of commemoration and praise than your efforts in devotion to my interests: when I could not have children from yourself, you wanted me to have them through you good offices, and since you despaired of bearing children, to provide me with offspring by my marriage to another woman.
[...] What you have achieved in your life will not be lost to me. The thought of your fame gives me strength of mind and from you actions I draw instruction so that I shall be able to resist Fortune. Fortune did not rob me of everything since it permitted your memory to be glorified by praise. But along with you I have lost the tranquility of my existence. When I recall how you used to foresee and ward off the dangers that threatened me, I break down under my calamity and cannot hold steadfastly by my promise. Natural sorrow wrests away my power of self-control and I am overwhelmed by sorrow. I am tormented by two emotions: grief and fear-and I do not stand firm against either. When I go back in though to my previous misfortunes and when I envisage what the future may have in store for me, fixing my eyes on your glory does not give me strength to bear my sorrow with patience. Rather I seem to be destined to long mourning."

Turia was a counselor to  her husband, someone who would sacrifice her own happiness for her husband's, someone who dreaded not being able to provide for her husband what he desired most. She was the personification of a good ancient wife, echoing much of Semonides' virtues, and without claiming to be a good wife myself, I do find in her many of the things I aspire to be.

I feel best about myself when keeping a clean and tidy oikos, when providing my partner with all she needs, by sacrificing of myself on her behalf, and when I can stand by her as her equal and trusted companion. It's as much a selfish as a selfless pursuit and I make no apologies for that. I am saying this as a feminist.

I applaud ancient Hellenic women who were homemakers, artisans, farmers, doctors, poets, mathematicians, athletes, wives, priestesses, and who could become nearly anything they aspired to become. They had say in legal and marital affairs, owned property, cattle, and slaves; they counseled their husbands on the affairs of state, and were influential in society in their own way. Theirs was a complicated and multifaceted role in society and I am infinitely grateful we are slowly beginning to see just how multifaceted it was. I, as a woman and feminist, am proud to emulate the lives of ancient Hellenic women, and I can do this while having a job, while paying my own way, while speaking up, while carrying my own weight. I am completely unlimited by anything outside of my personal skill set--and neither were women in ancient Hellas.