The Violence of These Women Blazes at Our Door: A New Approach to the Violent Rituals of Ancient Greek Women
The religious experience of women in ancient Greece is a difficult reality to uncover. There is very little in the way of epigraphical and historiographical evidence that preserves the voice of women themselves and our evidence is heavily defined by the male authors of the time. This issue of inadequate evidence is further problematised when one is to consider the rare and extreme cases of violence performed by women within a ritual context. The traditional methodological approaches to these violent cases have often understood women via these ideologically androcentric accounts which tend to reduce the actions of women to aberrant and scandalously extreme outliers, unwelcome in their polis communities.
This thesis aims to add to the existing corpus of methodological approaches by proposing a new lens for the interpretation of women’s violent ritual practices, one that attempts to re-legitimise the violent rituals of women as necessary components of their poleis and authentic aspects of women’s ritual reality. This lens understands that ritual violence might be best understood as a ‘rupture’ to the social fabric that encircles the institution of religious practice. Building on the valuable framework of the traditional ‘functionalist’ approach to women in religion, the theoretical schema proposed in this thesis synthesises two pre-existing methodologies. Barbara Goff’s lens of an ideological theory of agency proposed in her 2004 publication Citizen Bacchae, combined with Pierre Brulé’s ‘safety-valve theory’ of religion in his 2003 work Women of Ancient Greece, come together to accept that women could exercise agency within their ritual spaces in a way that served to reconcile their own subjugated position in society. When the agency exceeds the expectations of the androcratic polis (who administer the tangible aspects of ritual practice), however, the evidence of male unease directed toward these violent cases indicates that something more than simple female agential activity is taking place. Women’s violence in ritual, therefore, might be considered an agentially forced widening of the safety-valve boundaries, here defined as a ‘rupture’. By interpreting women’s ritual violence by way of a ‘rupture’ to the safety-valve, we stand to re-legitimise the rare and extraordinary violent rituals of women.