Daily Life and Culture of Women in Ancient Greece

 

Index


Daily Life from Homer

Homer gives hints as to the daily routine of women at the time of the Trojan war. This picture from Homer’s Odyssey book VI is of a washing day:

“In due course they reached the noble river with its never failing pools, in which there was enough clear water always bubling up and swirling by to clean the dirtiest clothes. Here they turned the mules loose from under the yoke and drove them along the eddying stream to graze on the sweet grass. Then they lifted the clothes by armfuls from the cart, dropped them into the dark water and trod them down briskly in the troughs, competing with each other in the work. When they had rinsed them all till no dirt was left, they spread them out in a row along the sea-shore, just where the waves washed the shingle clean when they came tumbling up the beach. Next, after bathing and rubbing themselves with olive-oil, they took their meal at the riverside, waiting for the sunshine to dry the clothes. And presently, when mistress and maids had all enjoyed their food, they threw off their headgear and began playing with a ball, while Nausicaa of the white arms led them in their song.”

Homer describes no morning meal, but evening meals are also
described. He does not describe women carrying water, but this was a daily chore as was cooking and waste disposal. As Odysseus was returning to his house he was recognised by his old dog Argos layin by the front door “in the deep dung of mules and kine, whereof an ample bed was spread before the doors, till the thralls of Odysseus should carry it away to dung therewith his wide demense. (Book XVII)” The King of Ithaca had a compost pile by his front door. The maids in the house probably made it a daily ritual to add all waste to this pile. Bathing was a common ritual, but perhaps not daily. Women bathed men even guests as Homer relates in book III of the Odyssey: “Meanwhile she bathed Telemachus, even fair Polycaste, the youngest daughter of Nestor, son of Neleus. And after she had bathed him and anointed him with olive oil, and cast about him a goodly mantle and a doublet, he came forth from the bath in fashion like the deathless gods.”

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Food of Ancient Greece

An article in the Science News, Vol. 158, Nov. 4, 2000, p. 296
is especially relevant. An archeologist has realized that food residues were included in the tomb of Midas in western Turkey from 2700 years ago. These residues were analyzed to produce a menu for the burial banquet for Midas. For appetizers Turkish meze of goat cheese, juliened cucumbers, asparagus, arugula, olive and garbanzo spread, dried figs, and cornelian cherry vinaigrette. The entree was a spicy lamb and lentil stew. The drink was a mixture of honey mead, beer, and wine with saffron added as a spice. The desert was a honey-carmelized fennel desert tart.

The book by Robert Garland contains a discussion of ancient Greek
foods starting on page 91. Libations could be performed with either olive oil or wine. Sacrifices involved animals which usually resulted in cooked meat. Harvest festivals would involve the harvested food, perhaps wine, olives, barley, or wheat.

Staples of the diet included cereals and vegetables, such as lentils,
peas, beans, cabbages, asparagus, and garlic. Fish was plentiful but other meat was scarce. Honey was used but sugar was unknown. Flocks of goats and sheep furnished milk and cheese. Figs, and of course grapes, were the principal fruits but mention is made of apples, pears, pomegranates, and quinces. Citrus fruits, such as oranges and lemons, were unknown.

A statuette of a group of four women bakers being entertained by a flute player is at:
Louvre CA 804.

An example meal from ancient Greece could consist of a flatbread containing barley and a shishkabob with lamb, beans, cabbage, apples, and pears would work. Use olive oil and red wine to marinate the lamb. Thyme is a likely herb. Baklava for dessert. Bon appetit.

Here is the oldest surviving recipe: “Take a wrasse. Wash it and cut into slices. Pour cheese and oil over it.” Now cook it. (A wrasse is a fish)

In Book IX of the Iliad Achilles has a meal prepared for Aias(Ajax) and Odysseus. He instructs Patroclus “Bring out a bigger bowl,…, put less water in the wine, and give every man a cup.” Later (Patroclus) “put down a big bench in the firelight, and laid on it the backs of a sheep and a fat goat and the chine of a great hog rich in lard. Automedon held these for him, while Achilles jointed them, and then carved up the joints and spitted the slices. Meanwhile, Patroclus, the royal son of Monoetius, made the fire blaze up. When it had burnt down again and the flames had dissapeared, he scattered the embers and laid the spits above them, resting them on dogs, after he had sprinkled the meat with holy salt. When he had roasted it and heaped it on platters, Patroclus fetched some bread and set it out on the table in handsome baskets; and Achilles divided the meat into portions.

In Book XXIV of the Iliad Achilles has a meal prepared for Priam.
“The swift Achilles now bestirred himself and slaughtered a white sheep, which his men flayed and prepared in the usual manner. They deftly chopped it up, spitted the pieces, roasted them carefully and then withdrew them from the fire. Automedon fetched some bread and set it out on the table in handsome baskets;….”

Then a handmaid bare water for the washing of hands in a goodly golden ewer, and poured it forth over a silver basin to wash withal, and drew to their side a polished table. And a grave dame bare wheaten bread and set it by them, and laid on the board many dainties, giving freely of such things as she had by her. And a carver lifted and placed by them platters of divers kinds of flesh, and nigh them he set golden bowls, and a henchman walked to and fro pouring out to them the wine.(Book I, Odyssey)

Slave-girl washing in a basin

Even so they spake one to another, while the guests came to the palace of the divine king. They drave their sheep, and brought wine that maketh glad the heart of man: and their wives with fair tire sent them wheaten bread. Thus were these men preparing the feast in the halls. (Book IV, Odyssey)

And a handmaid bare water for the hands in a goodly golden ewer, and poured it forth over a silver basin to wash withal, and drew to his side a polished table. And a grave dame bare wheaten bread and set it by him and laid upon the board many dainties, giving freely of such things as she had by her. (Book VII, Odyssey)

Moreover a woman, a grinder at the mill, uttered a voice of omen from within the house hard by, where stood the mills of the shepherd of the people. At these handmills twelve women in all plied their task, making meal of barley and of wheat, the marrow of men. (Book XX, Odyssey)

Slave-girl grinding grain

You can grind grain in the way of the ancient Greek women. You need two rocks: one concave and the other round as follows:

Stone gain-grinding equipment

The round rock is a smooth piece of granite about 4 inches in diameter and weighs about 5 pounds. It is not heavy enough to crush the gain by just moving it around. So you must crush individual gains by pounding them with the rock. You must be careful with this because the pounding will cause grains to fly out from the depression and you will loose them. You can use a strainer to separate the flour from the unground grain but the repeated pounding will also separate the flour. The flour actually creeps up and over the edge of the lower rock as you pound leaving the unground grain behind. You might try to find bigger rocks that grind the gain without pounding.

In this case rye is being ground. The rye seeds are in the bag to the right and the flour ground by this process is in the bag in the front.

Men seemed to cook meat and women seemed to prepare bread, at least during the period of the Trojan war.

Slave-girl cooking a family meal

In Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae line 838 a feast is described. I provide the following translation to indicate what food was prepared and how it was prepared:

“The tables are being prepared; the klines (couches) are covered with blankets of stamped down goats hair; The kraters are mixing the wine and water; The scented oils are busy; Sliced fish is being grilled over an open flame; The hares are spitted; The round cakes used at sacrifices made of honey and ground grain are baking; Wreathes for the head are being woven; Dried fruits and candies are being roasted; and fresh pea soup is being boiled.”

An image of such a feast is at click here The tables set with food are in front of the klines on which the guests recline. Wine and water was poured into the krater and served from that container. The scented oils may have been used in the food or rubbed on the bodies of the guests. The wreathes are not evident in this image. They are in this image click here. The context of this feast would put both men and women at the feast.

Food Resources

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Babies in Ancient Greece

The average family had 5 children.

Healthy babies could be sold into slavery. Unhealthy ones or otherwise defective ones would be exposed. This meant they were left out in the elements to die. Some exposed babies were taken in by other people. A few were taken care of by animals. Some babies were exposed simply because a soothsayer forcast an evil from the baby. Some exposed babies were taken in by other people. A few were taken care of by animals such as bears or wolves.

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Children in Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks regarded children as little people. They did not regard them as different from big people. By the time a person was about 13 years old, he or she was considered an adult in every respect. Boys were educated separately for their duties as citizens of the state. Girls were educated by their mothers in the home.
Children of both sexes were kept naked while they were very young and boys spent a lot of time naked in athletic training. Greek boys had to contend with an open attitude toward homosexuality. Plato talks about the education of children in his Republic.

The following picture is of a young Minoan girl being initiated into
womanhood:
Fresco of female initiate from Xeste 3 in Akrotiri, Thera (after Marinatos)

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Women in the Home

Life was much more primitive for ancient women. There was no plumbing, and in most cases floors were dirt. Cooking was done over an open fire usually out of doors. Houses were masonry built around and open court. Most of the necessaries were produced in the home. Within the home the women worked at cooking, cloth and clothes manufacture, and child bearing. Much of the work would be done under the roof of the porch around the court. The wife of a citizen might have several women servants for help. The women would do many of the supportive tasks such as weaving, spinning, sewing, grinding of grain, fetching water, washing, and bathing. The work was hard, they didn’t have the amenities of today like modern office furniture to rest on or modern appliances to use for their chores. Women would leave the house, in some cases, only for religious festivals. These were fairly frequent, however.

Slave-girl carrying human waste to the fields for use as fertilizer.

If you were a wife of a citizen you spent your time secluded at home having babies, cleaning, cooking, spinning and weaving. Since your needs were taken care of you led a pretty easy life. The husband had to work outside the home, shop, attend political meetings and go to war. Women slaves did more menial work including carrying water and wastes, grinding grain, serving, and in some cases providing sex for their masters. But a pregnant slave was not viewed as an asset.

Women’s tasks varied greatly but there are commonalities that can
be identified as daily. Since few houses, if any had running water, water had to be fetched. This task was done early in the morning so the others in the househould could drink and wash. Bathing by hand was a later activity.
Women bathing, Louvre F203

Morning activities might include food preparation and baking. The first food was served at the middle of the day. Afternoon activities might include spinning, weaving, and sewing of clothes. Evening activities would include any entertainment, and serving of food. Since women in ancient Greece were secluded, there were no trips to the market, but the market might come to the women as street vendors. Festivals, though not daily, were very common. The ancient Greeks did not have a weekly schedule as we do, but their monthly
schedule allowed for plentiful festivities and religious observances. It is safe to say that part of each day involved religious observances, while perhaps six or seven days of the month were entirely so involved.

A veiled mistress and her naked slave at the market stall of a foreign woman in foreign dress. Wome might have been able to venture outside the home if they were dressed. Slaves were often nude to distinguish them from the masters. The amount and quality of clothing often determined status.

Women were supposed to be confined to the home but there are reports that they are found outside the home. One possible solution to this contradiction is that the women are veiled when they wan to be outside the home when it is not appropriate. There is some suggestion that the men felt the women were invisible in this situation. In the previous picture there are three classes of women illustrated. The high classed citizen is shown veiled. The merchant
is a foreigner in foreign dress, while the lower class slave is shown mostly naked.

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Men Outside the Home

There was a strict division of labor with the men working outside
the house on farming, mining, manufacture, trade, and war. Men slaves did the heavy industrial work. Some of their work was
especially brutal, such as work in the mines. Slaves often had short lives because of the severity of their tasks.

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Rituals

The Greeks spent a lot of energy making sacrifices. There were many needed as there were many deities. Many features of the natural world had their deities, such as streams, springs, trees, rivers, air, winds, etc. There were liquid libations, as well as animals that were killed and cooked. Some of the cooking involved the burning of fat to provide a plesant smell to the gods. Seers cast fortunes. Most of the signs that were read involved the flights of birds, with raptors such as eagles and owls being the most important. In the Iliad Homer describes an interesting scene as present on the shield of Achilles. “Next the god depicted a dancing-floor like the one that Daedalus designed in the spacious town of Cnossus for Ariadne of the lovely locks. Youths and marriageable maidens were dancing on it with their hand on one another’s wrists, the girls in fine linen with lovely garlands on their heads, and the men in closely woven tunics showing the faint gleam of oil, and with daggers of gold hanging from their silver belts. Here they ran lightly round, circling as smoothly on their accomplished feet as the wheel of a potter when he sits and works it with his hands to see if it will spin; and there they ran in lines to meet each other. A large crowd stood round enjoying the delightful dance, with a minstrel among them singing devinely to a lyre, while a couple of acrobats, keeping
time with his music, threw cart-wheels in and out among the people.” Note that this last is in contrast to the story of the Minotaur to whom the children of Athens were sacrificed on the same floor that Dedalus built.

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Games Played in Ancient Greece

  • Ball
  • Hoop and stick
  • Board games with dice
  • Blind man’s bluff
  • Athletic competitions including races

Pictures:

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Resources

An interesting article on the daily life of women titled “Divided
Consciousness and Female Companionship: Reconstructing Female Subjectivity on Greek Vases1″ is available at:

Click here
.
This article is illustrated with scenes from ancient Greek pottery.

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Pictures of Daily Life

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Including Amazons, Goddesses, Nymphs, and Archaic Females from Mycenaen and Minoan Cultures