Today I am doing a good, old-fashioned post on ancient Hellas, and in particular the practice of veiling. For the last year or so, veiling has gained popularity in the Hellenistic and greater Pagan community. It's not a large part of my practice; I might do it on occasion when engaging in ritual--mostly when divining--but the closest I get is binding my hair, which I have done for nearly two years now. It is, however, a very interesting topic to me as it says a lot about ancient Hellenic society.

In ancient Hellas the word for veil was 'kalyptra' (καλύπτρα), or 'kalyptrē' (καλύπτρη) in Ionic Greek. It comes from the verb 'kalyptō' (καλύπτω), 'I cover'. Veiling was a huge part of social life in ancient Hellas, and retained its importance well into the Roman era. While we don't know how many men and women veiled--because veiling was important for men as well, especially in the Roman era--we can assume that especially in ancient Hellas adult women tended to veil whenever they left the house. The fact that so few ancient writers mention the veil is indicative of one of two things: either it rarely happened, or it happened so often that it was not worth mentioning. Seeing as we have a lot of depictions of veiling on statues and other forms of art, we can only assume the latter to be true.

While we cannot accurately establish the frequency of veiling, we can most definitely try to discern 'why'. I say 'try' because veiling was a very complicated practice and it was done (and not done) for a great variety of reasons. Let's start with religious veiling: during rites to the Ouranic Gods at least, women tended to veil. At least in Roman times men did as well, but because of the words of Plutarch we can assume that the ancient Hellenic men frequently did not. Veiling during religious rites was seen as an act of dedication. By veiling, women--and by Roman times, men--put themselves below in status to the Gods as an act of piety. As Plutarch says in his 'Quaestiones Romanae':

"[T]here is only one matter that needs investigation: why men cover their heads when they worship the gods; and the other [why men uncover their heads when they meet any of their fellow-men worthy of honour] follows from this. For they uncover their heads in the presence of men more influential than they: it is not to invest these men with additional honour, but rather to avert from them the jealousy of the gods, that these men may not seem to demand the same honours as the gods, nor to tolerate an attention like that bestowed on the gods, nor to rejoice therein. But they thus worshipped the gods, either humbling themselves by concealing the head, or rather by pulling the toga over their ears as a precaution lest any ill-omened and baleful sound from without should reach them while they were praying. That they were mightily vigilant in this matter is obvious from the fact that when they went forth for purposes of divination, they surrounded themselves with the clashing of bronze. " [10]

Plutarch (Ploútarkhos, Πλούταρχος) was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist, who later in his life became a Roman citizen. As such, he was extraordinarily qualified to write two standard works: the 'Quaestiones Graecae' (Αἴτια Ἑλληνικά, or 'Greek Questions'), and the 'Quaestiones Romanae' (Αἴτια Ῥωμαϊκά, or 'Roman Questions'). These essays are part of the book series 'Moralia' (Ἠθικά, loosely translatable as 'Matters relating to customs and mores'), and can be found in book IV of the series. The Greek Questions contain fifty-nine questions, the Roman version hundred-thirteen, and all pertain to matters concerned with their respective culture. Many of the answers are names or customs, and because Plutarch often refers (back) to Hellenic customs, both are extremely valuable for research on ancient Hellenic life.

This dedication extended into the social as well: veiling and unveiling was a large part of wedding ceremonies for both men and women--who were both veiled for the ceremony. In ancient Hellenic times, men veiled during funerary rites, while women unveiled (in ancient Roman times, this was reversed) as anything associated with the underworld and death required a reversal of the usual. Plutarch, again in the 'Quaestiones Romanae' questions 'why do sons cover their heads when they escort their parents to the grave, while daughters go with uncovered heads and hair unbound?' and answers, partly, with the following:

"Is it because fathers should be honoured as gods by their male offspring, but mourned as dead by their daughters, that custom has assigned to each sex its proper part and has produced a fitting result from both? Or is it that the unusual is proper in mourning, and it is more usual for women to go forth in public with their heads covered band men with their heads uncovered? So in Greece, whenever any misfortune comes, the women cut off their hair and the men let it grow, for it is usual for men to have their hair cut and for women to let it grow." [14]

Now, for women in ancient Hellas, there was another obvious--although very much linked--reason to veil: as a way to move freely outside of the oikos. Ancient Hellenic homes were simple structures, made from clay, wood, and stone. In many cases, a large wall with a single door connected the house to the street, while insuring maximum privacy to the occupants of the house. Women and men lived almost entirely separately within the home. Male-only rooms were called 'andron' (ανδρών), female-only rooms were called 'gynaikon' (γυναικῶν). Men were not allowed to enter female-only rooms, and a visiting male guest would be punished most severely if he entered the gynaikon.

Women, at least while in the gynaikon, were likely not veiled. When a married woman was alone with her husband, she most likely was not veiled either. When surrounded my other men, however, she most likely be veiled without fault unless the social rules dictated she must go unveiled. There was a good reason for this: women, for men, were near-mythological creatures; they didn't see many of them in their daily lives--safe for their mothers and wives, and even them, they hardly saw because they spent most of their time separate. Men feared women a little; they were closer to their primal nature because they bled once a month. That made them unpredictable.

Females started veiling around their first menstrual cycle: from that point on they were viewed as women and they developed their appeal on men. Ancient Hellenic men viewed women as having an uncontrolled sexuality, as well as a natural miasma linked to that sexuality, both of which posed serious threats to the social order. Men were attracted and aroused by women, who shook their self-control and their ideals of temperance. Instead of looking inward, changing their own behaviour and controlling their own desires, they lay the fault with women. As such, the veil shielded males from the female's dangerous gaze, controlled her enticing hair, and symbolically contained her siren's voice.

In ancient Hellenic society, women were regarded as being the property of the men in their lives--first their father, then their husband. They rarely had interactions with men not from their oikos. This was explainable: lawful and legitimate parentage was extremely important in ancient Hellenic society. A man who caught his wife cheating could bring the man she was cheating with to court. Plutarch, in a discussion of law, says that Solon gave 'to the one who catches a moichos (an adulterer) the right to kill him, but if anyone seizes a free woman and forces her, he assigned the penalty of one hundred drachmas’.

Veiling, like sexual separation, helped to preserve the Hellenic female's chastity, which, in turn, ensured both the legitimacy of her husband's heirs and the highly valued honour of her husband and family. When the woman left her home and the protection of her male guardians, the veil rendered her both socially invisible and sexually inviolate and marked her as the property of the male whose honour was reinforced by both her invisibility and chastity. The veil, essentially, served as an extension of the oikos: when women left the house veiled, they were safe. They became untouchable.

Veiling, however, was not simply a cultural mandate that underscored the woman's powerlessness relative to men. While women's adoption of the veil supported the male ideology that advocated female subordination, veiling also gave women a certain degree of authority by allowing them to claim both respectability and assert their own position in the social hierarchy. Because of this it is not surprising that the practice of veiling for women increased as their power in society increased.

Veiling for religious reasons is a pious act, one that speaks of dedication and devotion. If veiling outside of ritual in a modern context makes sense to you, I applaud it. I think it's a beautiful practice. For those of you who veil or are thinking of veiling, now you also have a bit of information on the traditional precedent.