Classics 242 Summary Notes on the Virgins

There are at least two interesting questions raised by the Olympian virgins: 1) Why are half of the Pantheon's goddesses, and the vast majority of the subsidiary divine females, virgins, when marriage is the central focus of the Greek woman's life, and perpetual virginity is not an option?
2) Among the three Olympian virgins, does 'virginity' function distinctively in each?


ATHENA [or Athene; identified with the Roman Minerva]

Epithets identify her as Pallas, Tritogeneia (born at Lake Triton [Tritonis]? on the 3rd day? as the 3rd child?), grey-eyed, resourceful, defender of cities, the spoiler, aegis-bearing (like her father). (The aegis is a goat-skin covered shield or breastplate; in Athens the sacrifice of goats was a special part of her cult; her aegis is often bordered by snakes, and has Medusa's head in its center.) Her name may derive from the place since -ENE is a place-name suffix: thus, Athena, the goddess from Athens.

Associations: One of Ovid's myths associates her with the owl; everyone also knows she brought olive trees to Attica. In the contest to determine who will be patron deity for Athens, Poseidon offers a salt-water spring for the Acropolis, but Athena's olive tree is deemed the more valuable gift. Indeed, the olive tree was the staple of Athenian economy and prosperity--an Athenian necessity. The Oresteia associates, more broadly, Athena with Athens' cultural and political advancements: the communal administration of justice, e.g.

Other inventions, in addition to the olive tree: bridle and chariot (to make use of Poseidon's horses?--another example of Athena's superiority over her uncle), ships (likewise), the flute (wooden reeded variety--she was said to have thrown it away when she discovered how distorted one's features become when playing the flute; thus, Pan could claim the invention). And of course her major household association was women's work in weaving, the textile-industry; hence Athene Ergane 'Workwoman.' Arachne, perhaps significantly, comes from the major textile area of Lydia in Asian Minor.

Origins/Roles: she has been variously explained as the Snake Goddess of Minoan palaces/houses and as the Shield Deity of Mycenaean fortresses. In numerous locations, her temple is centrally located on the fortress hill. Her virginity parallels the impregnable condition of the citadel and the polis that springs up around the citadel. Thus, at Troy the Palladion or Palladium (her small cult image) was the guarantee of Troy's continued existence; its theft by Diomedes and Odysseus meant destruction for Troy--or perhaps, as the Romans later said, the Greeks only took away a fake Palladion, and Aeneas rescued the real one and brought it with him to Italy. She is thus a deity of the city, and her inviolate nature is that of the defended polis. Many of her activities place her within the masculine world of power: military defense, economic productivity, political managment, law-courts. Though she shares virginity, then, with Artemis and Hestia, she shares complementary and overlapping responsibilities with Ares, Apollo, Hephaestus, Poseidon, and of course, Zeus.

Paradoxes and Problems: her 'masculinity'--a gender-bending or 'bi-gendered' goddess--

  • female, yet (from an ancient perspective) 'masculine'--or, as some think, a peculiarly androgynous, almost asexual nature. Yet she was still at least once the object of sexual attraction
  • active in male realms, but providing no precedents for mortal women to assume 'male roles'
  • Her temple, the Parthenon, her 'Maiden's Chamber,' depicts victory for the immortal female (Athena over Poseidon), but defeat for the mortal Amazons and for the famous mythic violators of marriage--Centaurs, Trojans (Blundell 191-3).
  • a dedicated virgin, resisting marriage and thus subordination to any male (except the father), yet voicing the patriarchal line in marriage and the subordination of the ancient female Furies to the new male regime of Olympian Zeus (Eumenides).
  • virginal, yet 'mother' or 'foster mother' to Erichthonius, the autochthonous parent of the Athenian race, and nurturer of numerous young male heroes;
  • fiercely aggressive and defensively virginal, yet an ever-present helpmate to the heroic generation of noble males; Walter Otto calls her the goddess of nearness and intimacy. This would make her a contrasting complement to the twins of distance: Apollo and Artemis. And she also should be associated with Hermes as a god of nearness, invention, cleverness, and sometimes deceit.


ARTEMIS [identified with the Roman Diana]

Epithets: arrow-pouring, goddess of golden shafts, horse-riding, huntress, Dictynna(goddess of the chase or nets), Phoebe (after her Tutanness grandmother), Letogeneia or Latogeneia (daughter of Leto), Cynthia (in Roman texts, associating her with Mr. Cynthus on Delos, her birthplace)

Artemis frequents shady mountains, windy peaks, groves (where she dances with the Graces and Muses or leads a dance of her numerous woodsy nymphs). She of course loves the wild chase and wilderness in general, but is still a most appropriate comparison for a young girl like Nausicaa (who has marriage on her mind, Odyssey 6).

Burkert says she is one of the oldest, most individual, and widely-worshipped of the Greek deities. Her name is obscure (healthy? butcher? bear?). She has close connections with the Asian Mistress of Animals (Cybele). If Aphrodite wants to appear in disguise, unlike Athena (who appears as a man or a little girl or an old woman), she incongruously impersonates a follower of Artemis; when Aphrodite attracts and leads a train of wild animals, she is in part 'playing Artemis' -- perhaps showing that Aphrodite and Artemis were much more similar in their Asian origins than they appear to be in their Greek manifestations.

If Athena's virginity defends impregnable citadels and women's quarters in the oikos, Artemis' defends inviolate, untamed nature (meadows, groves, virgin forests, the open country beyond the ploughed fields). Patron of wild animals (as opposed to her brother's domesticated herds/flocks), she also delights in the 'kill' and has deadly aim. She may share the wild mountain with Hermes and Dionysus, but, among the gods, only Apollo is her close associate. Among the goddesses she complements Hera as patroness of women, but relatively late in the mythic traditions she also becomes identified with Selene (moon), and thus also with Hecate (cross-roads, esp. at night); the three sometimes coalesced as Trivia (properly Hecate's epithet as 'goddess of three roads').

In myth [Callisto, Actaeon, Niobe] she frequently (as also her brother) punishes human presumption and trespass of divine prerogatives. Like her brother, Artemis is a deity who keeps her distance--especially from men. [Hippolytus is an obvious exception, but note that despite their claimed intimacy, she can't weep at the end or attend his death, and even at the beginning, Hippolytus makes observes that he has heard the goddess, but can never expect to see her face to face. Likewise, Apollo is nowhere around when Hector finally dies in Iliad 22.]

If Athena's virginity is an 'asexuality' or a masculinizing of the feminine, Artemis's virginity is quite different: untamed, undomesticated, unmarried, and reserved sexuality. Despite her role as hunter, she doesn't move in men's circles (as Athena does), but avoids them. She has a particular and paradoxical importance for girls and women as they go through their life-cycle; Artemis is important for the physical aspects of female experience: menstruation, loss of virginity or consummation of sexuality (wedding nights), childbirth, and death. [This is perhaps complementary to Hera's association with more institutional, familial, and wifely aspects of marriage, but the two goddessess' spheres are overlapping.] Artemis is associated with choruses of girls who are approaching the age of marriage (14 or so), the goddess of the turning points in girls' lives--a function brother Apollo seems to serve for boys. Since these moments all have an element of fear and cruelty inherent in them, she can also be a cruel goddess, threatening girls and women who are going through those very turning points--every god is both alluring and frightening. What person--male or female--approaches marriage or childbirth as an unambiguous pleasure? Contradictory demands are not limited to conflicts between gods (like Hippolytus' Artemis/Aphrodite), but are present in the paradoxical nature of each god. As a virgin, therefore, Artemis both supports and endangers women entering maturity and assuming familial functions. In this the goddess reflects the way things are--or are experienced to be. Women pray to her when they undergo childbirth; if they die in childbirth, they are called her victims. [Likewise, though the nurturer of young animals, she 'raises' them to be hunters' prey, and herself delights in the kill.] In some myths she seems to demand cruel and bloody sacrifices; at Tauris in Asian Minor she demands human blood, as she also seems to have done in Iphigenia's case--unless Artemis substituted an animal at the last moment and whisked the maiden away to be her priestess in Tauris. As Burkert says, she brings something of the un- or pre-civilized life into the civilization of the polis. We can never be fully tamed?

Paradoxical associations, therefore, with fertility--in animal nature and women--and with the resistance to giving up the resources of that fertility: the patroness of adolescent women (and one man) on the point of becoming mature--both the transition and the resistance to the transition.



Hestia sits at the center of every household and every city and state (in the 'town hall' or prytaneion, a place women did not normally enter) and even at the center of Delphi, the very navel of Greece and the world. She attends all Greece's hearth. Hestia in fact means 'hearth'--another god (like Hermes) who gets her name from a stone structure or piece of topography. Hymn 29 presents a rather surprising association of Hestia with Hermes, calls them 'neighbors' who are related by place and function. What do you make of this?

Both are considered 'epichthonic' deities, i.e. dwelling or acting primarily on the earth rather than above (the Uranian/Olympian ones) or below (the chthonic ones) or inside the earth. Both act as mediators between the regions above and those below. Both dwell in or at the house, but she never leaves it, and he is always leaving it.

What follows here is a summary of an article by Vernant ('Hestia-Hermes: the Religious Expression of Space and Movement among the Greeks'). The article uses the significances of these two deities to show how the Greeks created a mental organization of 'space' along gender lines.

The household hearth was a circular stone structure anchored to the ground within the square megaron or common room; hence it was the center of the domestic sphere of domos (house as building) and oikos (house as family and property). Hestia is therefore the locus, the point of orientation and organization in the human sphere (private household and public temples/civic centers). Rooted to the earth, she is immobile at the center of life; she is that which is fixed and dependable at the center of things--fixity, immutability, permanence. Dwelling on the earth's surface, she links the household with the both the underworld and (through the hole in the roof through which her smoke ascends) the heavens. She is the immovable axis through which all parts of the universe are joined together--the place of contact. [Perhaps this can be seen as a role she derives from, and shares with her grandmother Gaia, the mother root of all that is, foundation of life.]

 [By contrast, HERMES is not at all stable, fixed, permanent, definite, but elusive and ubiquitous. Located at the door or threshhold, at gateways and other entrances,he is a wall-piercer and boundary-crosser. Wherever exchange takes place--in theagora, stadium, etc.)--he is present--wherever men go when they leave the oikos everyday. The venture forth to work, war, trade, social contact, politics --in the great outdoors. They go out to acquire--to acquire 'hermes-fashion' by hook or by crook--to acquire goods which those inside the oikos store, preserve, prepare, and consume. (Hesiod's metaphor of 'devouring belly' for women?) He is the transition between sleep and waking, life and death. He is passage, not permanence, but equally a connector of heaven, earth, and hell.]

Hestia and Hermes are associated, therefore, as the world of the interior and the world of the exterior: retreat, safety, stability vs. passage, venture, opportunity.

So, in the polarity of the divine neighbors Hestia and Hermes, the Greeks can say and think, women are made for indoors--permanently rooted within the oikos--men, on the other hand, for outdoors--for moving freely within the larger social structure of the polis.

But there is an interesting contradiction: In patrilocal marriage (the norm in Greece), women, not men, are the mobile element--moved from father's house to husband's--and yet still belonging in a sense to the father's, whither they return if the marriage is dissolved for any reason. Daughters are uprooted from their parental oikos and established at the hearth of their conjugal oikos. Vernant thinks Hestia has an important role in addressing this contradiction. She represents both what women are and what they cannot be. She is the immobile virgin, the stable female element in the patriarchal oikos.

Hestia's role is to ensure the continued existence of the household in time; she fosters the generation of legitimate offspring though she herself is divorced from sexual relationship. As the household's fixed and secure hearth, she represents the paternal line of descent--both in the role as virgin daughter of the house and as the procreative capacity of the women brought into the house to give birth to its offspring. Since children of the household are considered children of the hearth (the stable permanent female), Vernant sees Hestia's function as actually giving some credence to the patriarchal dream of producing offspring without having to resort to real women (the sentiment expressed by Hippolytus, Jason, the Eumenides' Apollo). Sure, 'foreign women' have to be brought in for procreation, but in Hestia Greek patriarchs, in a sense, 'incarnate' the dream that the household can be self-sufficient. The children belong to the house (and hence, to the father).

The two roles (virgin daughter of household and maternal procreation) come together in the Greek institution of the epikleros, literally 'with the property' or 'heiress.' This term refers to the daughter of a father who lacks sons. At the father's death she must become married to her father's nearest male relative in order to produce a 'son' for her now dead father. Her son will be considered her father's child and not her husband's. Thus, she functions as the (virgin) daughter preserving the father's line and the continuation of the hearth in that she is still now more her father's daughter than her husband's wife. The epikleros is then both virgin daughter and procreative maternal 'vehicle.' Vernant thinks Hestia is the mythic/divine analogy to the epikleros.

In the rites of 'child-integration,' the Amphidromia, the official naming of the child and acceptance into the family, the family members formed a circle around the hearth while dancing and holding the child, and then they laid the child on the ground next to the hearth. This perhaps represented the closed circle of the oikos and the legitimization of the mortal offspring of the house. [Laying the child on the ground--or throwing him in anger on the ground--occurs in the Hymn to Demeter as a result/sign of failed immortalization.] Hence, the ground near the hearth represents both mortal nature and household membership. In the practice of child exposure (casting out from oikos), the child is placed on the untamed, undomestic ground outside the oikos and polis. Integration into the oikos means verification of paternal descent; rejection of the child necessitates exclusion from oikos and Hestia. [However, shepherds, wolves, etc. appear in myths to save the exposed children, raise them, and then send them off to be integrated into someone else's oikos--or perhaps eventually and secretly into their own true one, Oedipus' devious path to tragedy.]

Note also, that the hearth has special significance both in maintaining the household as a closed circle (the private family meal from which outsiders are barred) and in opening the household hospitably to the outside (strangers are led to the hearth, received, feasted, and then asked their name and story--likewise in the city's prytaneion, where foreign visitors are received).

Hence, the Greeks have organized 'space' into a static, enclosed interior (women's space, yet maintained for the paternal line of descent) and a mobile, open exterior (associated with men, business, politics, etc.).

As a focal and integrating point for the oikos, Hestia is a powerful female presence at the center of patriarchal life. Surrounded by women, she nevertheless enforces paternal control. Her virgin sexuality, 'subdued' for the purposes of the home, but not 'tamed by Aphrodite and sexual desire, is then complementary to, but different from, Athena's and Artemis'. I think we can get a sense, in all of this, of the unique features of the three goddesses' virginal natures, and perhaps the beginning of an answer to the question of why the Pantheon includes--even needs--so many virgins. Blundell, in the conclusion to her chapter on the goddesses (to be read for Monday's class session), continues to develop this answer.

Return to Supplements Page