It is taught throughout history books that women were not in the early stages of Greek theatre. As theatre developed in Greece, the role of women in the theatre was greatly diminished. Scholars believe they were banned from the stages, and even from attending the performances.
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Is this true, or did women play a bigger role than once thought? Women were once the leaders of multiple religious rituals and ceremonies. What provoked the removal of them? Were they really not allowed to attend or perform in these festivals? Women in ancient Greece had a wide variety of religious duties. Most were tied to the women’s role in the home. They performed in and supervised rituals pertaining to a new birth, marriage, and death. Considered the most important of these was birth. Before giving birth, a pregnant bride had to travel to the Bride-room in the temple of Artemis to perform a sacrifice. This was to ensure a safe and non-problematic pregnancy and delivery. The birthing process had a high ritual element, many deities were considered to be over childbirth, and the act of giving birth required the participation of many women. They performed a ritual cry called the ololuge, this was cried by all attending women. The involvement of the women in these rituals added to their sociability and gained them more access in the community and the temples. The second important ritualistic activity was marriage. In Greek culture, marriage has a major symbolic weight.
While men were also involved in the ritual of marriage, the bulk of ritual obligations fell on the bride. Like in the birthing rituals, a bride to be must go to the temple of Artemis and perform a sacrifice. This could be done at any time before the wedding, but if not completed before the marriage, she must then perform the sacrifice of a full-grown victim at the Festival of Artemis. In addition to the bride’s sacrifice, the mother of the bride also makes a sacrifice to Aphrodite at the wedding ceremony. While weddings took place in other places, it is known that in Athens, the wedding is followed by a procession of many women, including the bride, her mother, and mother-in-law, walking from the bride’s natal house to her marital house carrying torches. The wedding celebrations also included choruses of young women performing song and dance. Lastly, but still a very important ritual headed by women, was funerals. The women were in charge of washing and tending to the body. They were also responsible for the ritual lamentation of the corpse. Women took a large physical presence at the funerals themselves. Women were often seen as better at emotional expression than men, so they took over the role of articulating both grief and joy, on behalf of themselves and the men.
In Plato’s Laws, he forbids the hiring of women to perform as professional mourners in private funerals. This leads to the belief that hiring women for funerals was a practice done frequently in Greece. Aspects of the funeral ritual occur so frequently in tragedy that some scholars believe the earliest drama sprang from these performances. In fact, the funerals and weddings of Greece were often perceived as performances where private and public practices intertwined and both men and women alternated between becoming actors and spectators. In a way, everything done by the people of Greece was a performance, a performance for the Gods and Goddesses they tried to appease in all aspects of life. Continuing with this notion, were festivals. Women even had their own festival. The festival of the Thesmophoria. This was a religious festival to honor the goddess, Demeter. It was held to promote fertility of crops and was reserved for women only. During the festival, the women would move into huts outside the city, fast, and abstain from sex for three days. They Sacrificed piglets and threw them in an underground pit. From this pit the women retrieved the remains of the piglets sacrificed the year before.
They mixed these remains with seeds and each woman buried a portion of the mixture in the fields. While women had roles in other rituals and festivals, the festival that paved the road for theatre we know today is still considered by many to be a male-only event. The festival of Dionysus, where theatre was born. However, according to Greek Tragic Theatre written by Rush Rehm, Most civic festivals were open to everyone men, women, slaves, children, resident aliens, visiting foreigners. There were exceptions men were excluded from the all-women festivals associated with Demeter, for example but generally speaking, the city gathered in all its variety, providing both performers and audience for the various events The earliest pre-dramatic celebrations in honor of Dionysus were known as revels. Revels were performed by a selected person singing an improvised dithyramb which was answered by a conventional reply from a group of revelers. This is paralleled to the funeral lamentations where appointed women leaders would sing a dirge that was joined by the ritual wailing of the other women. The dithyramb later became the theatrical presentation of a choral hymn sung and danced by fifty men. These theatrical dithyrambs became the first to be judged in contest. The poet Thespis is credited with the introduction of an individual character becoming a part of the choruses. Over the span of the next hundred years western theatre was introduced, polished, and perfected. Playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides appeared and began writing tragedies to be performed as apart of the Dionysian festival and thus changing the festival forever. The new Dionysian festival added three days for the tragic performances, and one day for comedies.
Almost everything else about the festival remained the same. It began with a torchlight procession of the statue of Dionysus from outside the city, after this the citizens prepared for the bigger procession to come. At the same time, the playwrights would introduce the plays that would be performed later in the festival. The following day, the great procession of the statue of Dionysus to the temple near the theatre took place. Men and women bore various ritual vessels and offerings during this procession. Before the competitions began the theatre was purified by the sacrificing of a piglet and carrying the corpse around the performance space, almost like the Thesophoria festival. On the next day, the dithyramb competitions began, this consisted of ten choruses of boys and ten choruses of men, each chorus consisted of fifty members. The athletic competitions were also held on this day. The following three days were devoted to the tragic competitions. Each of these days consisted of a tetralogy, which is three tragedies followed by a satyr. On the seventh day of the festival, five comedic plays were performed. There were no exclusions on who could attend the festival or the performances, but it is still believed women were not allowed on stage in ancient Greek theatre. This was most likely due to several factors, including, politics, education, and the overall perception of women. Women had absolutely no voice in politics. Married women could have some influence over their husbands regarding political opinions, depending on their individual relationships.
Without rights, they couldn’t vote or hold a political office, and considering most theatre is derived from religion and politics, its possible it was a factor keeping them from the stage. Education or lack thereof is another possible deterrent for women in theatre. Women were educated at home if they were educated at all, and with very limited teachings. Men were allowed to attend formal schools. Without access to proper knowledge of reading and writing, and probably eloquent speaking, it is hard to imagine them being able to participate in a play. Aside from political standing, and education, Greece had a very poor view of women in general. They were perceived as strange, emotionally unstable, and mad in most cases. This is shown through the art, stories, and teachings from the era. An example of this is the maenads in Greek mythology. The maenads were female followers of Dionysus who sacrificed and performed ecstatic dances in his honor. At the climax of their mad dances the maenads, with their bare hands would tear apart an animal after nourishing them from their own breast. They would then eat the raw flesh. On some occasions, it was said, they tore apart a tender child as if it were a fawn. It is possible that the perception of women played a part in not being included in the plays. It’s almost certain that the by the time Aeschylus introduced the second character and Greek drama was fully established that women were removed completely.
The question is, why wouldn’t women be allowed to perform? We know that women indeed danced and sung in the dithyrambic and cyclic choruses that preceded the tragic chorus. They were apart of the dramatic mysteries of Eleusis and led the Bacchic orgies in the mountains of Boeotia and Thrace. Greek philosopher Plutarch talks of the women of Elis who summoned Dionysus with their hymns. Mimetic dances were a well-known part of Greek expression, as well as monodies where a woman would sing and dance alone accompanied by cymbals. Songs were written for two voices that actually became miniature dramas. There were also larger choruses of girls and boys who sang and danced together in honor of the Gods. These are the expressions that gave way to the development of classic Greek theatre. This leads some to believe that women were at the birth of tragedy, even though they were eventually pushed out. Some scholars suggest that women could have formed part of tragic choruses. That means the ocean nymphs, the mourning women, the furies, and the maidens in classic choruses would have been played by women and not actually men in disguise. There is still no definitive proof of this, but it’s a logical assumption to make considering the roles of women preceding tragedies. In reality, the stones recovered from this time with actor’s names etched on them, no woman’s name accompanies them. In the same way, the vases, and art pieces depict men in women’s costume portraying the female characters. Perhaps there is just still not enough historical research on the notion that women performed. There is only one valid instance of women performing in ancient Greece during the time of these tragedies, and that was as courtesans.
They were called Hetaera and were a special class of Greek women, who were trained to serve as a companion to upper-class men. They were, in a way, freer than the married women of Greece. Hetaera women were influential and served as advisors, entertainers, and courtesans. While some hetaerae were slaves, most were freeborn citizens who took to the trade as a means of support. Some women played an instrument such as a harp or flute, and some were gymnasts and dancers. These women were also recorded as educated, literate, and even witty. While their occupation closely resembles what we know of today as prostitution, sex was not always the end result of their performances. In a society were “respectable” women had to depend on their fathers or husbands entirely, a talented hetaera was able to live on her own terms and make enough money to live in style and comfort. It’s believed that these women were the best dressed in the society and wore lots of expensive jewelry and the latest fashions. This was also a way for women who were slaves to pay for their freedom. The event where they performed was called a symposium and contained song and dance much like those in their festivals.
They had drinking competitions, meals, and revels to honor Dionysus, the God of wine. Could this have been the response of women being excluded from theatre practices? Even if women were not allowed to perform in ancient Greek tragedies, it is inadmissible that women still had quite a presence on the stage, through the characters written by the renowned playwrights of the time. Characters such as Electra, Clytemnestra, Antigone, and Iphigenia. Characters that are incomparably noble, and passionate, and probably each based on a real woman to some degree. This proves that even if women weren’t permitted to perform in some aspects of society, that they were still able to be portrayed as strong figures in Greece. It is hard to believe that Greek women who had such an active part in religious ceremonies would tolerate being excluded from the theatre. These women who took part in Eleusinian mysteries and who returned to the temple barefoot with offerings, songs, and dances to honor Demeter. It’s hard to believe that women who were intimately connected to the worship of Dionysus, would not partake in greatest of all celebrations in his honor. The fact is there is just not significant evidence to prove that they had a part on stage. However, we can take solace in the fact that women had a strong presence in other religious ceremonies, were allowed to attend these festivals and have their own, and be a presence on stage, while if not by a woman, at least by a well-written portrayal of one. Perhaps one day the women of ancient Greece will get the acknowledgment they very much deserve.
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