‘Chrysis the Hiereia having placed a lighted torch near the garlands then fell asleep’ (Thucydides Iv.133.2)

Priestesses serving the gods and goddesses in Classical Greece

Authored by: Matthew P. J. Dillon

Women in Antiquity

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138808362
eBook ISBN: 9781315621425
Adobe ISBN: 9781317219910


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While there were many priesthoods and priestesshoods in ancient Greek cities such as Athens, there was in no sense a collective organisation of these. Most priestesshoods in ancient Greece (the sources, as usual, focus on Athens) had originated in pre-democratic days as aristocratic dominances of various cults. There was no official attempt to ensure that all the gods were worshipped, as there was no need to do so, because the gods and goddesses since the misty past had had their priests and priestesses. These cult personnel were responsible for the correct and traditional worship of deities. They were distinct from other religious functionaries such as diviners (the manteis and chresmologoi: oracle-singers), in most cases, with the major exception of the Pythian priestess who did serve as the prophetic mouthpiece of Apollo at Delphi, and the priestesses of Zeus at Dodona, who answered questions put to them on lead tablets by enquirers, usually with a simple affirmative or negative. Priestesses could be so prominent that they served as chronological markers: Hellanikos the historian used the priestesses of Hera at Argos as a dating system (Hellanikos FGrH 323a) and Thucydides read his work (Thuc. 1.97.2). This is reflected when the latter dates the commencement of the Peloponnesian War by giving the name of the ephor at Sparta and of the archon at Athens, and by noting that Chrysis was in the forty-eighth year of her priesthood (Thuc. 2.2.1, cf. 4.133.2–3). 1 Priestesses were known as hiereiai (singular: hiereia), as priests were hiereis: (singular: hiereus); the typical lack of Greek specialist religious vocabulary is apparent here: this term simply means ‘ones to do with sacred things (hiera)’, which neatly identifies what they did, if only in a very broad sense. Priestesses, like priests, underwent no special training (Isokrates To Nikokles 6), presumably learning their tasks ‘on the job’ or, when possible, from the previous incumbents. There were no books of ritual in traditional Greek religion, unlike in ancient Rome, so all knowledge of ritual was verbal, especially in the case of the various secret rites priestesses presided over in honour of goddesses.

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