Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Mycenaean Women and the Megaron

In researching the Mycenaean Palaces of the Greek Bronze Age, I came across a paper discussing the purpose of the megaron (by Jarrett Farmer), primarily arguing that it was less a throne room, and more a center of ritual -- in spite of evidence suggesting a throne -- and only an occasional space, rather than one in every day use as a political audience chamber. His theory is based on a number of things, from the wear of the floor tiles to the limited access to the physical space itself, but one part of the argument is the real dearth of imagery of MEN sitting upon thrones of any kind:
Rehak compared images of seated figures from frescos (Fig12), sealings (Figs 13, 14), rings (Fig 15), and sealstones to the fresco motifs in the megaron, and put forward the startling observation that almost all seated figures of identifiable sex in Aegean art are female.

Mycenaean Ring with a Seated Goddess
By Zde (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wiki Commons
In particular there's discussion of a few processional images, in which men are carrying cups toward a seated woman on a throne, and how these images are most often interpreted as goddesses receiving honors or offerings. But, Farmer says, why couldn't they be reflective of just the standard operating procedures of ritual at the time? Why COULDN'T the throne in the megaron have been meant for a woman? Especially if the space was NOT in fact a throne room for the king, but rather, a ritual/cult/religious space?

Well, for that matter, why couldn't women, as priestesses, have been running the place -- but okay, maybe there isn't a lot of support for that in the linear b tablets, so I can see why no one would want to make that claim.


It does, perhaps, put a slightly different spin on the whole "Helen's husband would become King of Sparta" element of the mythology, doesn't it? Because what if Helen weren't just a princess -- what if her role was something greater than that? Something related to the megaron as a ritual and religious space? What if that throne in the megaron was going to be hers?

And not just the myths involving Helen, either, but also the story of Ariadne and Theseus -- Ariadne, the princess of Crete, daughter of Minos. The woman who helped Theseus escape, only to be abandoned on Naxos and made a goddess by Dionysus. Dionysus, who himself may or may not have been related, at that time, to the hearth and the fire and the ritual drinking taking place in the megaron. A priestess Ariadne as the consort of such a god makes an incredible amount of sense.

I'm not sure we'll ever really know one way or the other what the roles of women were in Mycenaean Greece, but theories and discussions like these definitely provide some food for thought.

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  1. How Mycenaean women were treated seems to have varied from location to location. From the Linear B archives that exist, women in Pylos were heavily regulated, and the only way a woman could gain status and/or property (and be named in the tablets) was through religion; the only named women in the Pylos archive are priestesses and their female subordinates. In Knossos, it was different. Female workers are individually named (but not, strangely enough, the priestesses or noblewomen), and seem to have had greater freedom than their Pylian counterparts. That may be a holdover from Minoan times.

    How things stood in Mycenae or Thebes, their Linear B documents aren't extensive enough to say, and I don't think there's anything from Sparta.

    1. No, there's nothing from Sparta, but I think the fact that Sparta was inherited through Helen in myth is significant, or should be treated so -- even if she's an exception, owing to whatever reason (the belief she was a daughter of Zeus perhaps, or some omen/religious sign), I've yet to uncover another instance in which a woman of that period is the custodian of that much power. It wouldn't surprise me, however, if the treatment and significance of women was highly localized, and their position/status, particularly if it was tied in any way to religion, might well have been subject to whichever local cults were in ascendance in that particular area or region. In later Greece, we see that not every city did things the same way -- the easiest example being the difference between how Sparta treated its women/organized its culture and politics vs Athens, and there's certainly no reason to believe that Bronze Age Greece was really any more homogeneous, palace-center to palace-center. Or at least there's no definitive proof stopping us from allowing for a similar level of variation!


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