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7-10-2015, 16:58

Women as Home: Rites of Transition

Women also become visible in our sources at religious rites that change the composition of the family, at births, deaths, and marriages. Women can be central to the rites as bride, mother, or deceased. They can also assist the passage of others through the transition: by bringing a child to birth, marking the passage of the bride across the city, from natal hearth to marital hearth, and by lamenting the dead (Garland 1990:61; Oakley and Sinos 1993:26; Stears 1998). Life-cycle transitions rupture the normal harmony of life. The world becomes a dangerous place: the dead mix with the living, the future of the household is placed in jeopardy as the wife risks death in childbirth and the vulnerable bride, neither girl nor yet wife, walks the streets of the city. Women’s religious behavior on these occasions is concerned with restoring harmony: their actions remove the ritual pollution and danger associated with rites of transition. They heal both family and community.

Birth, death, and marriage are intensely private occasions yet they are also of vital importance to the community. Political communities and families both need a supply of babies and they both need order to be restored on death to ensure their survival. This mutual need dissolves the separation between private and public, between house and city. Women must become visible. The body and movements of the citizen wife on these occasions articulates the changes taking place within the family; they also bring those changes into the community and integrate them into the social and ritual landscape. Rituals at birth, death, and marriage therefore follow a similar process, which acknowledges the dependency of household and community while allowing changes in status to occur.

Rites of transition begin in the public sphere. As the symbol of their household, citizen women move out into the community, and their behavior advertises the commencement of the ritual process by bringing private rituals to public attention. At childbirth and before marriage, women come out of the house to make offerings, propitiating deities and seeking a successful resolution to the life-cycle change that they or a family member are approaching (Demand 1994:87, 89; Llewellyn-Jones 2003:219). At birth and marriage women seek to propitiate Artemis for fear of incurring her wrath (Cole 1998). The dependency of household and city on female fertility is reflected in the geopolitical landscape of Athens where the community provided the sanctuary in which the family placed its gifts (Linders 1972; Travlos 1971). The goddess had to be appeased and the ritual conducted appropriately; the consequences could be infertility, death, or infant mortality, and both household and community would fail.

The second stage of life-cycle rites sees the women move back into the house as the family withdraws from the social and religious life of the city. Yet neither the women nor the house becomes invisible. Instead, the home is marked in a manner that advertises the changes taking place within. At weddings, the house is decorated with ribbons and foliage (Llewellyn-Jones 2003: fig. 153). It stands out from the other houses in the city. At funerals, a pot ofwater is placed at the door (Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae 1032-3; Euripides, Alcestis 98-104; Menander, Shield 225-9). While it is possible that this is for visitors to wipe away pollution, it mirrors the placement of water vessels at the boundaries of sanctuaries and shrines. At births and deaths the markings offer protection through the containment of pollution. These signs separate the household from others in the city. They are sufficiently clear that those who are afraid of ritual pollution can avoid the homes where birth or death is taking place (Theophrastus, Characters 16.9).

The family and its women withdraw into their separated and marked house. Attention now focuses on the individual in transition. The women wash and adorn the central body. The corpse is crowned and wrapped, the bride dressed, and the woman in labor protected with charms. This washing purifies the central individual. It offers them protection and separates them from the family around them in a visual and metaphysical sense: their purity contrasts with the family’s pollution. The attendant women form a ritual circle around the individual in the same manner as a chorus (Lonsdale 1993:250). They chant and move in a ritual manner. The bride is surrounded by the nympheutriai, the girls whose company she leaves behind to become a wife (Llewellyn-Jones 2003:219; Oakley and Sinos 1993:16-21). The woman in labor is surrounded and helped by other mothers, who sing and chant to exhort the goddess to come. Their actions create a ritual space suitable for her arrival in the household, bringing the baby (Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 507-9; Euripides, Hippolytus 166-8). Women of the family encircle the corpse and mourn (Boardman 1955). In each case, the movement of the women creates a ritual space, enclosing and protecting the vulnerable individual. Despite the fact that they are withdrawn from the community at this stage of the process and located within the house, the women continue to write the family changes into the social landscape of the community as the noise of lamenting and singing fills the streets.

Ritual pollution arises when persons or things are out of their proper context. The dead are out of place in a house with the living, the bride no longer belongs in her natal home, and the baby needs to be born. The next stage in the ritual process requires that the individual must be placed in their new context. This is a time of danger; the individual is separated and vulnerable. As the corpse begins its journey to the grave, the women of the family come out of the house, accompanying the procession and lamenting as the procession traverses the streets of the city. The bride travels from old home to new home, from hearth to hearth under the protection of torches and song. At birth, the movement comes from the birth goddess as she is called to the house, enters, and brings the baby. The participation and visibility of women at rites of transition is a feature of their unique ability to create ritual boundaries, separating individual from city and protecting both at a time of danger.

As the individual is rehoused, the ritual process reverses to restore the community and take into account the changes to the household (Goff 2004:27). The family returns to its house. There is a ritual feast which acknowledges the changes that have taken place in the family, and after a suitable period of time the family rejoins the city. The ritual process ends as it begins: gifts are left at public sanctuaries by or on behalf of bride and mother. Gifts are also taken to the corpse at the grave; images on white-figure hkythoi, the flasks used to carry oil or perfume to the grave, show that women played an important part in placing these gifts (Shapiro 1991). As the symbol of house and family, women may become visible at the graves of deceased relatives.

The visibility of women at rites of transition reinforces their role as symbol of the household and their ability to change the meaning of space. They come out of the household and into the community, bringing household interests to public attention (Goff 2004:27). Their movement reflects the mutual concern of house and family at birth, death, and marriage: the shared desire to ensure that the family endures and the need to maintain order.