Nora Brown


Historically women and western culture have not been compatible with one another. This is probably due to the fact that most of history has been recorded under a patriarchal rule. Western society has been made to look as if it was always been a patriarchal one. This has influence how history was recorded and preserved. As time has passed evidence has been found that the Ancient Mediterranean societies have not always been based on a system in which men held all high positions of power. Despite this knowledge, present day historians have been reluctant to accept the idea that perhaps Mediterranean Women in ancient history were highly educated and many held high positions of power (Gosline, 25). Many women during this period were writers, philosophers, or lawyers. Others even held positions of power in religion. Yet little can be found in more contemporary history books regarding these women. This paper will focus its attention some of the literature on woman in the Priesthood.

More recent research has shown that Mediterranean(Egyptian, Greek, and Roman) women of all periods participated extensively in the most sacrosanct aspects of worship. But in order to minimize the effects of their titles, historians have discounted the significance of women holding titles of priesthood by passing them off as honorific, or by associating them with brothels (26-27). Despite their efforts, evidence into this area shows that women who were given priestly titles were required to be educated and to carry a high status position in society in order to be able to complete the duties required by these positions (Torjesen, 13). These findings dispel any diminishing of the titles held by those women. Examples of positions that required education are that of "God's Wife of Amon" or "God's Wife", which were positions held in Egypt, prophetess, "ruler of the synagogue", elder, deaconess, and priests. Further discussion of these positions will show how well educated women of the Mediterranean were during the Ancient Period.

The title of God's wife of Amon can be dated as far back as the Eighteenth Dynasty in Egypt but was still used throughout the third Intermediate and Late Periods (747 B.C.-332B.C.). According to Barbara Lesko, Pharaohs during the early Dynasties in this period developed this role out of need for representation in South Egypt. Women who carried this title (usually the Pharaohs daughter) held a chief role as a priestess in the national cult center (Lesko, 12). During the Twenty-first to the Twenty-third Dynasties, the main function for these women to represent the pharaohs' interests in south Egypt. God's Wife of Amon was to carry out the official religious functions that were usually reserved for the king (13). Evidence of these women's great ability to fulfill their title, is apparent in the fact that they were able to maintain their presence as the chief sacerdotal authority through a civil war, an invasion, an several attacks (14). Obviously no woman could successfully carry out this role without an education. Knowledge in how to run a country or community was necessary.

The title of Prophetess was give to women in the Montanus movement (movement in which women held high office in the church). One source (the Didache) groups prophetesses groups with apostles and teachers (Witherington, 192). Prophetesses were thought to be blessed with the revelations of "the Spirit", and they also had the power to baptize (Rossi, 76). This title was only given to those who carried great wisdom because other great leaders looked to them for advice, they were "interpreters of a divine will" (Torjesen, 28). In order to be considered true prophetesses, these women had to prove themselves. They were constantly being observed for any signs of false prophecy. If a prophet asked for food or money, or did not practice what he or she taught, then that was seen as a sign of false prophecy. If none of these signs were present, then no one could challenge what the prophet or prophetess was saying. Anyone who did was accused of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Witherington, 192). One Example of a woman prophet is given in the Bible. Luke talks about Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who gave a prophetic witness about Mary and the uniqueness of her pregnancy. Other accounts of women prophets are given in the book of Mark (27). There is no mention of these women being educated but they were given authority in the Greek and Roman religions.

In the Jewish communities women held the office of "ruler of the synagogue", elders, and "mother of the synagogue". The education these women received provided a foundation for their leadership role in the community. Torjesen gives an example of a Jewish leader (Priscilla) who used her knowledge of Law to further the early Christian movement. Other Jewish women devoted their time to communal scholarship in which they studied, discussed and debated with other men and women (20).

The title of deaconess had a very specific and short-lived significance in the eastern regions of the Mediterranean. This was a ministry with both a pastoral and liturgical function. Every where else the title of deaconess was used as an honorific title for the wife of a deacon, a widow of distinction, or for the superior of a convent (Rossi, 78). Of the three positions, only that one reserved for the superior of a convent required education because of the leadership responsibilities.

Finally, educated women of the Mediterranean also held high positions in the Priesthood. A priests duties consisted of teaching, collecting and distributing money, representing the interests of their community, finance communal feasts, and arranging marriages. These types of duties were similar the roles women had at home. According to Torjesen, householders directed and supervised the men and women who worked under them. These women also supervised the production and distribution of the family wealth. In addition to these chores, household women also acted as businesswomen. They traveled, bought, sold, and negotiated contracts. Aside from their duties at home, women of social status during this period offered financial assistance, offered advice and political protection to those of lower social standing (Trojesen, 12). Women's experience as householders provided them with the experience and status necessary to fill the positions of priesthood (15).

Despite all the evidence about women in religious positions, historians have gone to great extremes to exclude women of high positions from historical documents. Some have even denied their existence: "there has never been any mention of women filling strictly sacerdotal offices." (Rossi, 74). According to Gosline, some Egyptologists do not consider the title held by women in religion, as professional (Gosline, 26). Western Culture views of women have been placed upon women in ancient times perhaps to discourage western women from seeking the equality or status that women of the Mediterranean had during the Late Dynastic era. Even after the development of feminism in Europe and America, anthropologist ignored and discredited any evidence that women in other societies held positions of power (29). Not only have religious facts been omitted, but also work done by writers, philosophers and many other women in politics. Perhaps this is another attempt to control "the other" (the Unknown or Unwanted).

It is up to us Modern Women to make sure that our Ancient sisters are no longer ignored or forgotten. Demands need to be made that more research on women be published and made available to the general public. Women should not allow their history to be erased any longer.

Works Cited:

  1. Gosline, Sheldon L. "Female Priests: A Sacerdotal Precedent from Ancient Egypt." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. V. 12 (1996): 25-39

  2. Trojesen, Karen Jo, When Women Were Priests. New York, NY: Harper Collins P, 1993.

  3. Lesko, Barbara S. "Women's Monumental Mark on Ancient Egypt." BiblicalArchaeologist. V. 54 (1991): 4-15.

  4. Witherington, Ben III. Women in the Earliest Churches. New York, NY: Cambridge University P, 1988.

Rossi, Mary Ann. "Priesthood, Precedent and Prejudice." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. V. 7 (1991): 73-93.

Other Links:

Diotima: Women and Gender in the Ancient World:

Women and Religion

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