Wednesday, January 7, 2009


A woman’s place has never been just in the home — not even in ancient Greece. The proof is in an exhibit at the Onassis Cultural Center titled “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens” — a collection of artifacts that correct the cliched idea of Athenian women as passive, homebound nurturers of men and children.

In the display covering Greek life, art and religion, women play important, vibrant roles, as do their goddesses — from lover to priestess to political peacemaker to protagonist of festivals.

“Today’s woman has more in common with the woman of ancient Athens than one imagines,” says curator Stella Chryssoulaki. She points to a vase showing a group of women who escaped city life, getting together in the countryside for a three-day festival honoring their beloved god Dionysius.

Contrary to the popular perception of Athenian female rituals as wild orgies, “There was no sex,” Miss Chryssoulaki says.

It was a religious rite but also “a way to get out of the house and talk and exchange feelings,” the curator explains. “It was kind of like group therapy - and then they went home relaxed and ready for the stresses of daily life.”

Resentful husbands gave these gatherings a bad name, but Dionysius actually “was a gentle god, both somewhat masculine and feminine,” Miss Chryssoulaki says.

The 155 artifacts illuminated in cases and on pedestals in the Manhattan exhibit are mostly from Greece, with contributions from the Vatican, Russia’s Hermitage Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and other top art sources in Italy and Germany.

Just steps from Fifth Avenue, “Worshiping Women” is located in the Onassis Cultural Center in the basement of a modern Manhattan skyscraper, Olympic Tower, which on a higher floor also houses the American offices of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation. It’s named after the son of the late Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who was married to Jacqueline Kennedy; his son and heir, Alexander, died young in a plane crash.

The center’s mission is to promote Hellenic culture, and it sponsors exhibitions such as “Worshiping Women” in the underground gallery. The exhibit opened Dec. 10 and runs through May 9. The show was conceived by Nikolaos Kaltsas, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece in Athens, and Alan Shapiro, professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University.

Though women in Athens couldn’t vote and were told whom to marry, the exhibit is packed with objects that attest to their roles in everything from food and sex to birth and death.

Women were part of both politics and religion, which in those days overlapped.

A large earthen vessel depicts a scene from Homer’s “Iliad” in which a Trojan priestess receives Greek warriors who have come to recover Helen from Troy. “The priestess secures the peace,” the curator says.

A key depicted on another vase was kept only by a woman who opened the door to the treasures in the temple of the priestesses.

A small bronze statuette of Athena shows her as armed and dangerous, leading Athens’ warriors against Troy. On a black vase, she’s a thinker, etching words onto the waxen surface of a “laptop” notebook with a sharp wooden stick that served as a writing tool.

A tiny vase to be filled with wine for ritual tastings could be carried by a girl.

“Women in Athens, were they invisible?” asks Miss Chryssoulaki. “No!”

Greek myths, with all their blood and guts, are not for the faint of heart — and neither are parts of this exhibit.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, came from the brain of her father, Zeus. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was born when Uranus was castrated by his son, who pitched his genitals into the sea. From the turbulence — “aphros” means sea foam in Greek — arose the erotic Aphrodite. She became both the lover and surrogate mother of the god Adonis, whom she shared with the goddess Persephone.

And we thought modern life was complicated.

Yet the mythical births of Athena and Aphrodite have real meaning to the modern mind: as a battle of emotion versus intellect. “Myths were a way to see human life,” Miss Chryssoulaki says.

In the exhibit, life is also reflected in sculptures and tiny objects such as a ritual bowl that a woman who baked bread for a living donated to a temple — representing about 10 percent of her meager income. Her name is noted on the bowl.

“You see, even poor, ordinary women left a mark; they played a role — and they were part of the life of the gods,” Miss Chryssoulaki says.

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