A. Chaniotis, ‘From Woman to Woman: Female Voices in Dedicatory Inscriptions’ (Oxford, May 2, 2009)

Paper delivered at the British Epigraphy Society Spring Colloquium, May 2nd, 2009, Oxford.

The third paper of the Spring Colloquium was an exploration of female voices and emotions in sanctuaries. Chaniotis began by examining the literary evidence for typical female ritual behaviour, noting that authors including Diogenes Laertius (Vit. Phil. VI, 37-38), Theocritus (Id. II, 66-74; XV, 84-86) and Herodas (IV, 1-13) tend to ascribe certain (often negative) characteristics to women’s ritual behaviour. Amongst these characteristics are the wearing of special garments and make-up; vanity; chattering and gossiping in loud voices; exaggerated gestures; pushing past one another; and disorderly behaviour in general. Such behaviour is not in fact exclusively feminine, but is presented as such in the literary sources.

Inscribed dedications provide us with a rich source of information on female ritual behaviour. The emotions expressed in these dedications cannot be ignored, but must be contextualised. Chaniotis chose two sites as case studies for examining female voices: the sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods at Leukopetra, and the sanctuary of Demeter at Knidos. In each case he identified the standard formulae used for these dedications and explored the nature and significance of each of the deviations from the stereotypical formulae.

At Leukopetra, three main deviations from the standard form of dedication occur: entreating an angry goddess; displaying affection; and displaying trust or faith in the deity. In the case of dedications entreating an angry goddess, the gender of the dedicator appears to be irrelevant. However the gender of the god is significant, as such mentions of anger of the deity are only found in sanctuaries of goddesses. Several of these dedications entrust a stolen or lost item (and even a missing slave: I.Leuk. 53) to the goddess, thus making the theft or loss in essence her problem, and forcing the deity to act to punish a wrongdoer through her own anger. Where dedications display affection, such as in dedications of slaves and children to the goddess, it it notable that those composed by women are considerably more emotional and verbose. In the case of dedications expressing faith, trust in the ability of the god to affect the lives of the dedicators in a positive way is shown: thanks are given for miracles and for helping in specific situations, for instance in the case of a woman having problems with her husband (I.Leuk. 20). Men’s voices are not absent in this sanctuary: a text which describes the delivery of a deed of sale into the arms of the goddess (I.Leuk. 3) expresses piety and emotionality, which is perhaps more common when men are dedicating to goddesses.

A space particularly dominated by female rituals is the sanctuary of Demeter at Knidos, at which strong expressions of piety take the form of deviations from the standard formulae, aiming to emphasise worshippers’ individual devotion as distinct from that of other dedicants. However, the expressions used in prayers for revenge reveal a certain amount of interaction amongst groups of women, and between female worshippers and priests, in discussing their grievances and composing these texts. Concerns include being the victims of injustice (I.Knidos 148B, ll.4-5; 154, l.6), particularly where conflicts cannot be resolved in court because of lack of evidence. In these cases, dedicators turn to prayers of revenge in which curses against perpetrators are common. Chaniotis noted that these texts would have been recited aloud, with women’s voices heard displaying strong emotions. Jealousy, hatred, suspicion, curses and theatrical gestures are all evident as types of female ritual behaviour at this sanctuary.

The dedications at Leukopetra and Knidos concern the displays of emotion that take place during communication with deities. This inevitably unequal conversation necessitates the use of a strategy of persuasion on the part of mortals, who interact with each other as well as with the deities in sanctuaries, particularly at times of festival. The dedications reveal how such gatherings can influence emotions: voices are loud, angry and sometimes sad. Where men are also present at sanctuaries, they express sentiments that they might not otherwise have displayed, an example of such ‘unmanly’ behaviour being their total surrender to the authority of the goddess (Arkesine curse tablet, IG XII.7, p.1). These texts show that religious practices are dynamic processes due to the real interaction among worshippers, including communication of personal experiences to others, and the believed interaction between deities and mortals.

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