For people of Ancient Greece, religion was present both directly and personally in all areas of life. Whether it took the form of rituals including animal sacrifices, creation myths that explained human origins and humanized gods, or temples and festivals to worship gods, religion was never far. Although individuals had their own degrees of religious belief, some even being completely skeptical, there existed basic truths to the ideas of Ancient Greek religion that must have been widespread in order for Greek government and society to function. Among these truths were the ideas that the gods existed, they could influence human affairs, and they welcomed and responded to acts of piety and worship. Because the Greek religion was also polytheistic, it included many gods, each representing a certain facet of the human condition, and even abstract ideas such as justice and wisdom could have their own personification. This paper examines the hierarchy in the religious structure of Ancient Greece and determines that the presence of a hierarchy in Ancient Greek religion switched from more matriarchal to patriarchal, subsequently resulting in female goddesses having a smaller influence in Ancient religion than that of their male counterparts, and other effects on society and religion.
Looking into the balance of matriarchal and patriarchal structure, for many religions, the origins of life and religion are found in maternal figures. For the Egyptians, one was Isis, for the Hindus it was Devi, and so on. In Ancient Greek religion specifically, Gaia was the mother Goddess. Although another God, Chaos, came before Gaia, Gaia was the earth itself, making her the source of all life(Press, 2012). However, while the Greeks worshipped Gaia, a matriarchal figure, as the main source of life, the pattern of worship among the people in Ancient Greek religion is one that is not very matriarchal. Many of the main Gods that were worshipped in the
Ancient Greek religion were in fact, male. Gods like Apollo and Zeus were given powers of strength, such as the ability to shoot lightning bolts for Zeus, whereas female goddesses were given powers of knowledge or beauty and emotion, such as Aphrodite or Athena. These types of characteristics created a larger distinction between the power dynamics of male and female gods in Ancient Greek Religion. They reinforced the fact that in Ancient Greek religion, goddesses did not have a strongly political role, and that the right to rule was not in their hands(Thomas, 1973). Because this idea was reinforced, the structure of Ancient Greece was made to be very clearly not a matriarchy, even though those were its roots.
On a base level, there is very little agreement on what characteristics are necessary to define a matriarchy, and as a result, it seems wise to define the matriarchy as a society where women enjoy economic, social, and religious privilege that ultimately gives them a greater power than men in society(Thomas, 1973). However, even with this result, there are palpable differences in the way that different gods are portrayed in Ancient Greek religion, and then, the subsequent actions that occur as a result of this.
Some scholars, after examining general theories of matriarchy in the past have suggested that a Bronze Age that occurred from 3200 to 1200 BCE consisted of matriarchal culture was overthrown by other patriarchal elements. Although justified, the theory has been challenged by those who say that myths about matriarchy could be used to justify the patriarchal control that also exists and that the matriarchy is actually compatible with male power. However, looking at the mythology itself, the Greek pantheon is controlled by Zeus, making it patriarchal. Additionally, although the pantheon includes goddesses such as Athena, who are known for more masculine qualities, such as combat, the Olympian myths that create these gods often times include male parthenogenesis, and Athena herself was actually born from the head of Zeus. This being said, although there are clear examples of women deities that wield strong and powerful personas and characters, the culture that follows the Bronze Age ultimately reflects a heroic one with unabashed male dominance in virtually all spheres(Pembroke, 1967). Thus, it is evident that a matriarchal structure in Greek religion, although once present, was not upheld due to the presence of male dominance that ultimately took over.
As it was said earlier, scholars were thought to have theorized about a Bronze age where the presence of matriarchy in religion was very strong. However, moving past this era in Ancient Greece, we see the Dark ages. According to Volume 6 of Arethusa, although Mycenaean Greeks were influenced by Minoan religious ideals, other religious ideals began to become important to them during the dark ages. In the absence of their ability to suppress the practices of earlier Ancient Greeks, dual religious practices evolved over the course of this period and began to create a religious conception of God that was based off the supremacy of the male god Zeus. These concepts existed in an uneasy balance with religious views that upheld the practices which emphasized the importance of the mother goddess, Gaea. Thus, patriarchal elements in religion in these societies started to become just as important as the original matriarchal ones that existed, and go to show that there existed a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy in Ancient Greek religion(Thomas, 1973).
These ideas of patriarchal elements becoming more important in religion were observed in classical literature. Classic works like the Iliad and the Odyssey acted as evidence for the happenings of the Dark ages as their time period. In these epics and poems, Zeus is portrayed as the ultimate god, the supreme being, and essentially the father of the Olympians. Ultimately, female deities are depicted as subordinate to Zeus himself, a trend that does not go unnoticed in classical literature.
The trend of female deities being portrayed as subordinate is something that can be observed even more in classic works like the Homeric Hymns by Homer. Relating to the lack of matriarchal structure of religion and society, female deities are portrayed much more differently than those of their male counterparts, even on a base level. Taking a look at literature that depicts gods and goddesses, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite portrays the goddess Aphrodite and a voyage she takes to meet a mortal. She is described as one who brings about “sweet desire for gods, and who subdues the races of mortal humans, and birds as well, who fly in the sky, as well as all beasts— all those that grow on both dry land and the sea”(“Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite”, 2-5). The hymn then describes how Aphrodite makes Zeus fall in love with others who are not his wife, Hera, even though she “is the best among all the immortal goddesses in her great beauty”(“To Aphrodite”, 41). In return for frequently putting a desire for mortal women in his heart, and in anger that this makes him ignore his own wife, Hera, Zeus makes Aphrodite desire a mortal man, and she develops an infatuation with the beautiful Trojan cowherd Anchises.
Although the main purpose of a hymn would be to praise or celebrate something, in this case, Aphrodite, this hymn is something strange because instead of being heavily littered with words of devotion and praise for Aphrodite, it paints her in a rather antagonistic light by narrating a revengeful action Zeus took against her. Perhaps instead of singing praises about Aphrodite, the hymn was intended to reveal the nature by which she takes advantage of those around her, including other gods, and makes them fall in love with others.
After reading the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, it is interesting to examine the role and portrayal of women in Ancient Greece. The creation of Aphrodite came before that of Zeus, but in this situation, the respect commonly given to elders that one would expect is ignored in place of status. Zeus was lord of the Olympians, which gave him a sense of superiority, as well as self-righteousness, to take matters into his own hands and enact revenge on Aphrodite. Additionally, by looking at the content of the hymn, it is clear that a negative bias exists in the way that women are portrayed. The hymn is the exact opposite of what it is supposed to be, and even evokes shame in Aphrodite, leading her to say that “her mouth will no longer be capable of mentioning this among the immortals” (“To Aphrodite”, 52), and that she “was struck out of [her] mind” (“To Aphrodite”, 53). By blatantly misusing the hymn and turning it into something that creates a bad opinion on, and reputation for, Aphrodite, Homer blatantly displays a lack of regard for Aphrodite as a goddess and perpetuates this negative bias. Finally, even more surprising is the fact that Gaia was the mother goddess of Ancient Greece, yet goddesses such as Aphrodite are mistreated like this, in what should be devotional works. This contradiction speaks volumes about the values of the Greeks and their past, versus their actions.
Another hymn that depicts a female deity is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Demeter is the goddess of harvest and festival, and the hymn says that she is a “holy goddess with the beautiful hair”(“Homeric Hymn to Demeter”, 1). The hymn depicts the story of how Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, was taken by Hades, and how Demeter goes to find her. When Demeter initially hears that Persephone has gone missing and she sets out to find her, “no one was willing to tell her the truth, not one of the gods, not one of the mortal humans, not one of the birds, messengers of the truth”(“To Demeter”, 44-45). Although she is a goddess that is responsible for bringing life to the earth and managing the seasons, something that, if not done would have a huge impact on gods and mortals alike, she is not even being respected enough for people to be willing to help her in the slightest. These actions highlight the lack of respect and regard that are given to these female deities, and in this case specifically, Demeter. The fact that the hymn is devoted to a tragic event in Demeter’s life also shows that Homer, just like with the hymn to Aphrodite, has no regard for Demeter as a goddess.
Even more so, in the acutal hymn, the fact that Persephone was taken by Hades “against her will, at the behest of Zeus, by her father’s brother, the one who makes many sēmata, the one who receives many guests, the son of Kronos, the one with many names. On the chariot drawn by immortal horses”(“To Demeter”, 19-21) shows that there is also a lack of regard for the feelings of Persephone as well. For her to be taken to the underworld against her will and for no one “not one of the immortal ones, or of human mortals, [to hear] her voice”(“To Demeter”, 22-23) shows that not only are these actions being extended to her mother, but because Persephone is her daughter, the same actions apply to her as well, even though she is considered a goddess as well. The carelessness that is taken with mother and daughter emphasizes the fact that gods like Hades feel as if they have more rights in this patriarchal society, and this mindest leads to them treating other female goddesses as subordinate, which leads them to commite actions like the ones described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Additionally, just as in the Hymn to Aphrodite, the main purpose of a hymn would be to praise or celebrate something, but the one that is dedicated to Demeter simply tells the story of a tragedy where no one was very willing to help. For this to be the image that the deity receives suggests that there is not much care that is being put into making the hymn very devotional, which highlights the lack of importance given to matriarchal figures in Ancient Greek religion.
Additionally, for both female deities that have been analyzed through their Homeric Hymns, the power dynamic between their male counterparts has been quite noticeable. In my interpretation, this comes as a subsequent result of a hierarchical shift in religion. Because the religious structure has shifted from more matriarchal to patriarchal, the societal depiction of gods has as well, and the power dynamic of these gods is imbalanced(King, 1990). For example, the leader of the Olympians, Zeus himself, is known for being massively powerful, and in the patriarchal society that resides in Greek culture after the Dark ages, this is respected. However, taking a look at female deities, one will notice that the powers that have always been allotted to them, ones related to knowledge and emotions, although being just as important to gods and mortals alike, are depicted as weak and unimportant. Even in devotional hymns, these goddesses are portrayed as things like sensitive, in a negative light, and thus, the resulting attitude surrounding female deities shifts entirely from the one that surrounds male ones. Due to this shift, the resulting influence of female dieties is lessened because of their portrayal and treatment in patriarchal religion and society.
Ultimately, by evalutaing primary sources like these Homeric Hymns, one can understand that the shift from a matriarchal to patriarchal society that took place in the dark ages caused cascading effects that are observed in the way that other male gods treat their female counterparts, how this is portrayed in classic literature as well, and the resulting influence that female gods are left to have.
Overall, matriarchy and patriarchy are very complex, multifaceted things to observe in the structure of religion, and can bring about other subsequent changes in society and religion. Ultimately, this paper has looked in depth at a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy in Ancient Greece, how this is related to how female goddesses are portrayed, and how this relation and shift goes on to affect different aspects of religion and society, such as the influence female goddesses have. With the depth and history that the Ancient Greek religion has, it comes as no surprise to me that there were changes in hierarchical organization and that these changes caused a cascade effect of other changes to occur that drastically affect the overall view of Ancient Greek Religion.
- “Homeric Hymn To Aphrodite.” Homer, the Homeric Hymns, 700 B.C.
- “Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” Homer, the Homeric Hymns, 700 B.C
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