Inhabiting/subverting the norms: Women’s ritual agency in the Greek West
Introduction During the Classical and Hellenistic periods in South Italy and Sicily, women performed rituals that involved transgressive behavior. Their actions fell outside the gender norms that operated in their nonritual contexts. While conducting festivals for water nymphs, for example, or for Persephone and Demeter (although more commonly Persephone alone), the women often engaged in activity that fell under the category identifi ed by ritual theorists as “rituals of inversion.” Some of these analysts have proposed that religious performances of this sort can confer on the participants a type of agency that has the potential to carry over into nonritual contexts. This theoretical position differs substantially from that taken by functionalists, who see these transgressive cult-related activities providing a pressure valve by temporarily releasing tensions that accumulate in the lives of disadvantaged members of the population, such as women living under patriarchal control. On this reading a temporary relaxing of the rules would lessen the risk of destabilizing the normal social order. 1
This chapter makes the claim that certain festivals of the Greek West empowered women in other social contexts, enabling them to compose erotic songs, for example, or to enjoy the parody of comic theatre and even playfully to denounce wrongdoers in public venues. Examples of this will follow, but I begin with a look at the theoretical insights that have informed my reading of the evidence. This theoretical material will draw upon work in performance theory, anthropology, ritual theory, and social and gender theory that argues for particular rites being sites for contestation of the norms operating in the participants’ broader social context. This work challenges not only functionalist approaches to ritual but also other widely accepted interpretations of rituals of inversion.