Classical Hellenic culture was strongly marked by gender segregation. Generally speaking, the public sphere was associated with men and the domestic sphere with women. It's a well known fact this is true, but it's less known (but much speculated about) why this was the case. One particular interesting angle to consider is the idea that this segregation arises from Hellenic ideas about the human body and the biological differences between males and females.

In the Greek tradition, mortal men and mortal women were created at different times and for different purposes, and indeed are different races of humans. According to Hesiod in his Works & Days, men were created first and lived free of evil, turmoil and the need to work. Then Pandora was created as a weapon in the contest against the Titan Prometheus and the race of women was born (the 'genos gynaikôn'). When she opened the pithos, she created the world we know today: a place where hard work has to be done, where life was hard and humanity became mortal because sexual reproduction began.

The ancient Hellenic medical writers differed in their ideas about male and female bodies. Roughly speaking, there are two 'schools' of thought: the 'two sex model' and the 'one sex model'. The Hippocratic school, as an example, saw men and women as separate species (two sex model), whereas Aristotle, for example, considered women imperfect or defective men, but men none the less (one sex model).

Hippocrates is credited with creating the theory of humoralism. Humoralism is a now discredited theory of the makeup and workings of the human body, positing that an excess or deficiency of any of four distinct bodily fluids in a person directly influences their temperament and health. The four humors of Hippocratic medicine are black bile (melan chole), yellow bile (chole), phlegm (phlegma), and blood (haima), and each corresponds to one of the traditional four elements. A person suffering from fever and sweats, for example, was diagnosed with an excess of blood, and was treated with instruments that were considered dry and cold.

Somewhat in line with this theory, men’s bodies were considered hot, dry, and compact where women’s bodies were cool, moist, and spongy. Women’s bodies were considered to be more open to outside influences (because of their spongy nature) and women thus lacked the firm control of bodily boundaries that men had. Because women's bodies changed during pregnancy and because they leaked (blood during their periods and tears when they got emotional), ancient Hellenic men figured that women ritually polluted (in the form of miasma) the world around them.

While women worshipped both male and female divinities and acted as priestesses in cult like as men acted as priests, performing many of the same activities, women’s bodies and voices were strictly controlled or semi-secluded in most areas of ancient Hellenic public life partly because of this potential to pollute. These were biological factors, created by the Gods and women were not faulted or blamed for them. The men simply acted according to this understanding of the female body and its properties.

The male body (and mind) and the female body (and mind) made them especially capable of maintaining relationships with the divine in different areas of life. War, athletics and politics were considered hard, dry subjects and thus men were best suited to undertake them, both in execution and in honouring the Gods connected to these subjects. Life-cycle rituals and especially rituals of reproduction and family were spongy and wet, far better suited for women.

Even in joined rites, men and women had different tasks, tabboos and specialties. One example: the ololygē, the ritual scream, that only women could perform during sacrifice. We are supposed to feel friction with our emotions when we take a life, animal or otherwise. Our instinct to preserve life is one of the strongest we have. As such, the moment within ancient Hellenic ritual when the animal's life was actually taken was marked with a scream. It was a joyous scream, one that marked the moment of giving to the Gods, the moment of closest connection and highest tension. After that the tension would wane and the sacrifice turned festive.

Only women could scream. Why? The ancient Hellenes had a masculine virtue called 'sophrosyne', which roughly translates to 'prudence (or soundness) of mind'. Men were expected to control their speech and utterances. Women lacked sophrosyne by nature and were especially suited to voice emotional cries Euripides writes in 'Andromache':

"There is in women is an inborn pleasure in having their present misfortunes always on their tongues." [94-95]

So, while women in public were ideally silent (much safer for everyone!), women’s voices played an important part in Hellenic ritual--critical, even. The same held true in other (but all connected to life and death, like the ololygē) areas of life. Women were actively involved in burials while men stayed away, fearing pollution. Women expressed their grieve loudly and lamented. Thought their cries and stories everyone could hear and remember the person who had passed--which was the way through which the ancient Hellenes claimed some sort of immortality: if their lives were forever remembered, they would never truly die.

The ancient Hellenes concluded that Hellenic men and women related differently to the Gods. Women had a more direct relationship with Them because they were more open (spongy) to Their influence and were thus expected to intercede with the Gods on behalf of their families and their city-states. Women’s behavior in ritual and situations related to life and death reflected these ideas.

The perceived polluting qualities of women’s bodies meant that they had to be tightly controlled, ideally even contained within the domestic sphere and veiled when they emerged into the public sphere. The perceptions of women allowed them special prominence in ritual even as it justified their marginalized status in society as a whole.