Maryline Parca and Angeliki Tzanetou, eds. Finding Persephone: Women’s Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean

Maryline Parca and Angeliki Tzanetou, eds. Finding Persephone: Women’s Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007. 289 pp. $65.00 cloth, $24.95 paperback.

Nichole Tramel
Indiana University

Finding Persephone: Women’s Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean sheds light on an oft-ignored issue in classical studies: women’s religious roles. Because of the stark division of male and female spheres of influence in the classical world, and the fact that the primary recorders of ancient ritual were men, the evidence for the religious lives of ancient women is scant. Finding Persephone is intended to fill this gap in scholarly literature.

The text is divided into five sections of unequal length. The introductory “Ritual and Gender: Critical Perspectives,” written by Angeliki Tzanetou, briefly surveys the available scholarly literature, both on gender and sex in antiquity and on religious ritual, and discusses how the authors in the volume fit into said research. Part 2, “sources and methodology,” is comprised of Deborah Lyons’ “The Scandal of Women’s Ritual.” In this chapter, Lyons notes the inherent complications of relying on the sources of ancient men to ascertain the religious practices of women. As the title suggests, she focuses on the notion of the “scandal” that surrounds the women’s rituals and strives to explain why accounts of women’s rites are exaggerated and misconstrued. [Lyons suggests that this scandal is a product of the “secrecy” of women’s cult; the slander of women based upon the male view of females as wildly emotional is due to male gender performance.] Furthermore, she uses a combination of primary sources and ethnographic data to reach her conclusions, which is representative of the methodology of the other authors.

Part 3 is devoted to examining “gender and agency.” The four chapters in the section explore the rituals of Athenian girls, the dramatic representation of women’s rituals, women’s rites in the Roman Republic, and the connection between civil war and female religious practices in Roman epic, respectively. Together, these chapters function to investigate the extent to which rituals functioned as a source of female autonomy while simultaneously reinforcing social norms that largely excluded women. Jenifer Neils’ chapter examines the largely artistic evidence confirming the four cult performances of girls listed in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. She argues that just as Athenian boys had rites of passage to socialize them for adult Athenian life, so did Athenian girls. Furthermore, Neils successfully demonstrates that religious rituals offered public visibility and recognition of marginal groups and that these same groups—girls, female dwarfs, prostitutes—were as involved in the sexual integrity and fertility of Athens as women “citizens.” Neils also illustrates how art can be used corroborate literary accounts of women’s ritual. Barbara Goff’s “Improvising on the Athenian Stage: Women’s Ritual Practice in Drama” notes the representation of women’s rituals in Athenian drama for both the harm and benefit of the polis. Rather than a historical account of ritual, Goff argues that women’s rites in drama serve as a discursive medium in which to figure out women’s problematic roles as subverted, but necessary, members of the polis. Celia E. Shultz proves the use of religious ritual by elite women to attain political power, replicating the social structure of Rome. In her chapter devoted to women’s rituals and their connections to civil war in Roman epic, Vassiliki Panoussi argues that women are empowered by their religious roles, but that there is some widespread anxiety about the boundaries of this power, especially as pertains to the traditionally male spheres of politics and war.

Part 4, considers the “performance” of ritual. In this section, Karanika compares the structure of women’s folk songs to that of magic spells, using both ethnography and ancient sources, in order to explore performance and ritualization in ancient women’s everyday life. Faraone investigates the demonization of the womb as a harmful and potentially fatal wild animal, requiring performative exorcisms to secure the womb’s proper placement. He postulates that this demonization is a result of men “displacing” female gynecological treatment with the result of guaranteeing a “patriarchal ideal” (Faraone 163). Eva Stehle examines the Thesmophoria and the Eleusinian Mysteries as mimetic performance of, and opportunity to commune with, Demeter that sparked male desire for divine rapport, ultimately resulting in male presence at the Mysteries, which in turn altered the experience for women.

Part 5, “Appropriations and Adaptations,” has two main divisions. Maryline Parca’s and Lauren Caldwell’s works deal with the dynamism of ritual. Eve D’Ambra’s, David D Leitao’s, and Kathy L. Gaca’s chapters focus on gendered appropriation of rituals. Parca’s research on Demeter worship in Egypt as a syncretic aspect of Greek, Roman, and indigenous populations point to women’s agency in negotiating ethnicity, identity, and religion. Caldwell contests the sole importance of marriage as Roman girls’ primary rite of passage into adulthood. Using legal documents instead of dramatic marriage accounts, Caldwell, rather, views marriage as a drawn-out process and instead poses emancipation through the birth of three children as a more likely “rite of passage.” Eve D’Ambra debates the common belief that Diana was an exclusively female goddess. The large number of male and female dedications to Diana at Nemi indicates that this transgressive deity instead protected both boys and girls prior to adulthood. She also analyzes funerary ornaments to determine that girls who did not fulfill their adult obligations as wife and mother were thought of as possessing male virtus; for this reason, it was common for female children to be represented as Diana in funerary art. Davi Leitao examines a case of male dedication to a goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia—a clear indication of women’s cult. Leitao argues that this instance of a dedication on behalf of an adoptive father and mother is an attempt to legitimize the paternity of his adoptive child in a manner similar to that of the male pregnancies of Greek myths. Finally, Kathy Gaca describes early Christian objections to goddesses in particular, who were instrumental in the sexual and fertility practices of women. Paul and other early Christians saw these female deities as the crux of pagan social order and therefore sought, and succeeded, in proselytizing women’s bodies and homes by demonizing women gods.

Finding Persephone serves as a successful compendium of research in the interdisciplinary field of ancient women’s ritual studies. Using examples from both Rome and Greece, this volume addresses the [complications of obtaining ancient women’s religious practices by using artistic, literary, and ethnographic methods. Persephone also acknowledges the implicit problems with using male sources to discover female religious practices and offers probable methodological solutions. This edition helps to better understand scholarship on ritual—how to research rites, how gender impacts ritual actors, how ritual is performed, and how ritual is manipulated and appropriated for various ends— and provides intriguing interpretations of specific religious cases. Finding Persephone accomplishes its goal of presenting innovative research and shaping methods to invite further fruitful research of women’s rites in the Classical world.


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