Finding Persephone: Women’s Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean

Edited by Maryline Parca and Angeliki Tzanetou. 2007. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 352 pages. ISBN: 978-0-253-34954-5 (hard cover), 978-0-253-21938-1 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Richard Martin, Stanford University

[Review length: 1094 words • Review posted on August 25, 2011]


Sophisticated studies of gender and ritual began to converge in Classics about thirty years ago, fostered by such scholars as Claude Calame, Bruce Lincoln, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, and Susan Guettel Cole. These fourteen essays, more than half by younger scholars, build on the findings of that founding generation while refining its methods and opening new questions. Originating in a 2002 conference at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), the volume spans nearly a millennium of the Greco-Roman world. It offers a snapshot of the best work in a burgeoning subfield. Especially welcome is the fresh attention paid to issues of female agency, local differentiation in cult practices, and the precise literary, material, and socio-political contexts of our evidence.

Angeliki Tzanetou’s introduction sketches the field from Bachofen’s “Mother Right” through the Cambridge Ritualists, adding an in-depth account of recent decades that nicely situates the volume’s leading themes. An anthropologically deft exploration of the knottiness of method comes in the second overarching essay, by Deborah Lyons, on the “scandal” of ritual. Facing the paradox that women’s rituals were essential to Greek city-states and to Rome, but also highly suspect in the male imaginary, Lyons carefully unpacks the multiple views of two Roman events—suppression of the Bacchanalia in 186 BC and male intrusion into a Bona Dea celebration held by Caesar’s wife—to produce an interpretation based on Butler-style performance of gender. She extends this elegant piece with suggestive ethnographic comparanda that highlight the ambivalence involved in any male reception of women’s rites.

Four essays comprise the section on “gender and agency.” Jenifer Neils provides a meticulous survey of rituals carried out by girls in classical Athens, as we see them depicted on Athenian painted vases, in particular grain-preparation, weaving, and the carrying of cult objects. Her high point is a bold reading of the iconography of a bowl by the Phiale Painter (circa 440 BC), which, Neils suggests, depicts four stages in the coming of age of a female sex worker (hetaira), in relation to ritual. A different expressive Athenian medium concerns Barbara Goff as she analyzes drama’s presentation of female ritual acts. Her key conclusion—that tragedy stages Hecuba, Cassandra, the women of Thebes and others improvising rituals out of the materials at hand is wisely balanced by the proviso that women’s actions, as conceived by this male art-form, do not always end well: Medea framing her child murder as “sacrifice” is an assumption of agency not to be celebrated. The two remaining essays in this rewarding section deal with Roman rituals—an admirable advance, as so much past work favored Greece. Celia Schultz makes excellent use of epigraphic and literary evidence to delineate how social categories configured women’s religious roles, whether in restricting cult participation or determining selection for office (where lineage meant much). Vassiliki Panoussi finds in the epic poetry of Vergil, Lucan, and Statius varied responses to the rituals of women, from anxiety about its potential for violence to respect for its peace-keeping possibilities. Both essays helpfully articulate the limits of their respective genres of evidence—another advance.

Those with interests in folklore and myth might read first the three essays in the “performance” section. Andromache Karanika offers an interesting case-study, based on her fieldwork, in which modern Greek women’s work-songs from the southern Peloponnese, and the study of performative utterances, combine to illuminate social critiques inherent in ancient Greek milling songs. Christopher Faraone focuses on another sort of performative utterance, ancient medico-magic spells, particularly texts for adjuring a woman’s “wandering womb” (cause of “hysteria”) to stay put—a case of male ritual doctoring against female agency. Eva Stehle, by contrast, investigates how the agency of women and their powers over fertility, in secret local rites to Demeter, became so desirable that the city-state expanded and transformed them into the sacred mysteries at Eleusis. Athenian men, in her rendition, craved the communitas produced by rituals celebrating the mother-daughter bond of Demeter and Persephone. If this sounds like contemporary gender psychology it could still be argued that modern ethnography (of the sort Lyons draws on) does offer parallels for gender-specific rites becoming broader community paradigms.

The final five essays in the book explore “appropriations and adaptations”—including interrogations of the very notion of the category “women’s ritual.” Maryline Parca delves into papyri in Greek and Demotic Egyptian to track the worship of Demeter in Egypt during the centuries after Alexander the Great. As in Stehle’s reading of the mysteries, women’s cult, she suggests, might have fulfilled a larger civic function, giving natives and newcomers a common religious experience, with echoes of (if not genetic links to) the indigenous worship of Isis and Osiris. Lauren Caldwell explicates an equally challenging set of ancient texts, the highly technical legal writings of Roman jurists, to understand their views on women’s marriage ritual. Surprisingly, it is not ritual, as time-fixed ceremony, that most exercises the Roman lawyers, but rather an extended process of consent, betrothal, transfer, and childbirth that completes a free-born woman’s change of status.

The pieces by Eve D’Ambra and David Leitao demonstrate the entanglement of male concerns with what are nominally women’s rites, in Roman Nemi and Greek Paros, respectively. D’Ambra cuts through not only the Frazerian romance of the “king of the grove” at the cult site famous for its golden bough and ritual murder, but also the modern assertion (influenced by parallel work on Artemis) that Diana’s cult was exclusively for women. D’Ambra’s fresh look at all categories of evidence leads her to see Diana as a symbol of Roman culture and male virtus paradoxically appropriate for young girls since they had not yet moved into the realm of matrons. Leitao makes explicit the methodological stakes in widening our focus to ritual actors—men and women—instead of dwelling with the founding generation on gender-exclusive rituals. His case study of a first-century CE dedication to the childbirth goddess Eileithyia initiates a rich journey into semantics and mythic paternity, ending with the persuasive idea that an adoptive parent manipulated the protocols of a primarily female cult to represent himself strategically as citizen and father.

Eileithyia’s own fate was to become one of several pagan “demonized baby snatchers,” in the words of Kathy Gaca, whose erudite coda piece explains early Christian opposition to Greek and Roman “women’s gods” in terms of Pauline views on mixed marriages and the threat that traditional women’s rites posed to monotheistic endogamy. Her conclusions reinforce the main theme that unites the expertly argued and richly sourced essays in this book: deeply embedded within the cult activities of girls and women lay a crucial source of power for Classical civilization.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.