I’ve recently finished reading Joan Breton Connelly’s Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. It’s an academic book, and delves into the role of priestesses in ancient Greek cultures: their responsibilities and rights, their involvement with ritual, even their fashion choices. In short: priestesses were powerful people, and women’s religious roles in ancient Greece were both variegated and important. Despite their lack of overt civic authority — and I say “overt” because religion carried its own type of authority, which was deeply involved in civic life and which women shared in equal measure with men — women were sacred, and had opportunities to serve throughout their lives. Nor did they need the temple priests or priestesses as intercessors; every woman had the right and the ability to offer prayer and sacrifice at home — which, in fact, was a smaller version of the temple with its sacred fire.
Among the many things that interest me is the bastardization of priestesses’ roles and value by later, and mostly male, scholars. In one case, a French scholar claimed that women were forbidden to participate in animal sacrifices, even touch the animals, because they, too, bled via menstruation. This contention boggles my mind, since priestesses certainly do take part in sacrificial rites; they are shown decorating and leading the victims, and even sacrificing animals themselves in rites such as the Thesmophoria. It’s documented both in literature and in physical artifacts, such as vase paintings. But despite all this, some dude comes to that bizarre conclusion.
Now, it’s possible that women could be prohibited from participating in the sacrifice when they were menstruating — but there is no evidence of that, anywhere. Pliny the Elder pretty much said that menstrual blood was icky (albeit not in those words) and could sour milk and damage crops — although he also claimed that it made a handy insecticide (take that, RoundUp!). There is no mention, however, that Greek women were banned from sacred acts during this period, either in the temple or at home. To assume that they were is to project the taboos of historic Hindu, Hebrew and Christian societies backward in time, assuming that the ancients must have viewed matters in a similar way.
Which brings me back to the issue at hand: why conceal or deny the importance of priestesses? In her conclusion, Connelly does explore this issue. By denying women’s role in ancient faiths, Christians were able to argue that their system represented a liberation for women — which most assuredly was not the case. Consider the resistance today to female priests in Catholicism and female ministers among Baptists; consider that even the denominations that allow women in ministry often had to face great and heated division in order to get there.
Interestingly enough, I have seen modern Muslims make the same argument; years ago, one handed me a flier on how Islam represented a step forward for women, in contrast to pagan times. When you consider that the three main deities of the pagan Arabs were female and that pagan Arab women had a whole host of rights currently denied them — including the right to divorce — I repeat, that is most assuredly not the case. The only way to claim that it is involves suppression of evidence.
Since this is a Druid blog, that brings me to Jean Markale. This French author’s books were on the ADF recommended reading list, and I could never understand why; Markale iwas no scholar in an academic sense. He was, quite simply, a high school teacher who thought he knew a lot about the Celts and wrote accordingly.
I only managed to make it through one of his books, Druids: The Celtic Priests of Nature. I no longer have it, but remember it well. He claimed that the Veneti, a Gaulish tribe, were not in fact Celts, but from Atlantis. He claimed that the Celts were decidedly not seafaring people, but entirely pastoral — a contention that would have confused many an Irish fisherman, I’m sure. And, above all, he claimed that women were never, ever Druids.
This contention is untrue. Rather than get into this, I will instead refer the reader to an excellent summary put together by my friend Ed Chapman. The image of Druid as a robed old man with a lengthy beard comes not from ancient times, but from the revivalist Druids, whose organizations began in the latter half of the 1600s. At that time, Druid orders were social clubs for men, by men, that had little to do with ancient religion; their customs had more to do with national pride than any sort of spiritual impulse. Revival Druidry ultimately became a spiritual movement, but that was much later and due to the efforts of individual visionaries or crackpots, depending on how you’d like to view them. Today, Revivalist Druids come in both genders.
Of course, this has little to do with ancient Druids, or the “reconstructionist” Druids of today. (And I use this term lightly — not in the CR sense, but in the sense of Druidic groups that are inspired by the ancient Gods, and not the system invented by Iolo Morganwg.) But it’s interesting, nonetheless.