WOMEN IN ANCIENT GREECE
As ancient Greek history has played such a pivotal role in subsequent cultures throughout time, that to learn about women in this society enhances our understanding of western civilization. Ancient Greece was not a united nation, but a collection of individual sovereign communities with a common language, and similar religious rituals and beliefs. Communication was difficult due to the numerous islands and mountainous terrain that bisected the communities of people. Democracy, classical art and architecture, philosophy, and drama all can trace their lineage to ancient Greece. Antique vases and statues abound with figures of women, some carrying over to modern times. The Statue of Liberty in New York harbor is based on the Greek style of depicting a female goddess. In front of the United States Supreme Court building sits justice, portrayed as a Greco-Roman female goddess. The state seal of Virginia shows a man fighting ancient female amazons, and classical Greek women such as liberty appeared on America dimes, quarters and dollars. While classical Greek culture, which flourished between 500-330 b.c.e., contributed the most to our knowledge of Greece, earlier and later periods are also worthy of attention.
Numerous problems present themselves in reconstructing the life of women in ancient Greece. Many of the historical sources have been lost, and histories preserved from the past were written by upper class men for their own edification. A few fragments of women’s writing exist, including lines from Sappho’s poetry. Controversy surrounds the interpretation of these and other artifactual evidence, and thus how women were viewed. For instance, many of the Greek vases depicting women show them handing warriors their helmets as they prepare for battle, and so some scholars point to the passive role of women. Reading the plays of the classical playwrights give us evidence of women as strong, central characters in Greek tragedies and epics. Not being frequently mentioned in ancient Greek sources does not imply that women were not vital to society. While lacking official political power, women contributed to the shaping of society, what anthropologists call liminal.
Before 1870, no one guessed that great civilizations had flourished in the Greek area before the rise of Athens in the seventh century. Heinrich Schliemann and his Greek wife excavated and found Troy, then went on to discover the Mycenae ruins, leading Arthur Evans to excavate the island of Crete.
Minoan Civilization circa 2000-1100 b.c.e. centered on the island of Crete, and is considered to be the oldest Greek society. Minoan derives its name from the mythical King Minos who kept a Minotaur, a half man half bull figure supposedly in his labyrinth or palace precinct. Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, volunteered to go to Crete as part of a tribute required by King Minos, where he had to find his way out of the labyrinth without getting killed by the Minotaur. With the aid of Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, Theseus succeeds, but faces additional trials. Minoan frescoes painted with leaping acrobatic males and females over bulls are reminiscent of American rodeo stars. Was this possible? Some scholars say absolutely not. Others cheer their feats. Was the bull or gymnasts drugged on opium? As the Minoan language has not been deciphered, perhaps we will never know the truth, but ongoing archaeological investigation may uncover more tantalizing clues to this ancient civilization that was a major commercial trading society.
Scholars have even debated whether this was a bona fide matriarchal society because in its surviving frescoes women are depicted more frequently than men. Detractors of this thesis point to America’s preoccupation with the female figure both nude and covered, and the United States is surely not a matriarchal society. On the island of Crete, numerous palaces have been found, but no fortified walls, indicating...
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