Women in the Greco-Roman Context

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.

Ross S. Kraemer
Ross S. Kraemer

One particular problem for establishing an adequate understanding of the Greco-Roman world constitutes the paucity of source materials and then, of course, the difficulties of interpreting that source material. This is especially true with regard to source material specifically pertaining to women, which is less plentiful even than general evidence. Cultic practices, however, offer one avenue into better understanding the social space of women in the Greco-Roman context, or at least so argues Ross S. Kraemer in her article “Ecstasy and Possession: The Attraction of Women to the Cult of Dionysus” (The Harvard Theological Review 72, 1/2 [1979]: 55-80.). In the summary and response below, I reflect on Ross Kraemer’s argument concerning the “social space” afforded women by the Dionysiac cult.

In this article Kraemer contends that the visibility of women in the cult of Dionysus should be interpreted as “a product of much more complicated processes and circumstances than any inherent female characteristics, psychological or biological” (56). After situating her study within existing scholarship on the Dionysiac cult, Kraemer outlines the basic portrait of the antique understanding of the fertility cult and celebratory festivals for agrarian abundance. She then turns to a detailed examination of Euripides’ play entitled The Bacche and the portrayals of “divinely-induced madness, which causes the women to engage in various unusual activities” therein. After consulting the confusion between Sabazios and Dionysus, Kraemer concludes that early evidence surrounding the Dionysiac cult remains highly ambiguous. What can be ascertained, however, is that the cult likely operated around the “motif of the reversal of normal states” (67), where the themes of insanity and possession freed women to move beyond the sharp social delineations of their socio-biological roles and cultural mores. Following an excursus on the place of men in Dionysiac activities, Kraemer employs I. M. Lewis’s sociological schemata for examining ecstasy cults. In this model, the reversal of social norms enabled by cultic activities allowed women to avoid moral judgment and redress their grievances against the male-dominated society. Thus, Dionysiac orgia functioned as the means by which Greek women could express their frustrations with society, granting them the freedom to temporarily defy their socio-cultural norms through experiences of amoral and irresistible possession and ecstasy.


The argument that Kraemer outlines concerning the Dionysiac cult as an opportunity to “reversal” of social norms is generally persuasive and useful. This article offers especially helpful context for understanding the social role of women in the early Christian era, and may assist in perceiving early Christianity as a similarly subversive “reversal” opportunity for women to push back against male norms and domination. Kraemer also illustrates the complexity of the socio-religious situation in late antiquity and the difficulty of sorting sources. For although she draws upon performative material (Euripides), epics (Homer), poetry (Hesiod), general literature (Plato and Plutarch), and material culture (red-figure vases depicting Dionysiac scenes), she admits that this evidence remains ambiguous at best. Finally, this article presents a future opportunity for comparison of female-gender roles in early Christianity and the Dionysus Mystery Cults, a field of comparison typically explored on a different level.

Despite this article, however, I remain curious about cross-cultural and (as in class two weeks ago) cross-chronological anthropological and sociological comparisons. This is not to problematize Kraemer’s use of Lewis or dispute her findings, only to again note the sizeable role this assumption plays in a social-scientific approach to the study of late antiquity and early Christianity. Additionally, Kraemer’s concluding caveat—that the cult of Dionysus likely did not arise to serve this “reversal” function but rather came to fill that role—is, though admittedly accurate given her marshalling of the evidence, somewhat unsatisfactory. While Kraemer’s model convincingly explains the social function of cultic activity, it does so at the expense of explaining origins. Although this presentation would have benefited from further exploration of how one social phenomenon took on different meaning (and why that meaning was accepted), these issues ultimately do not in the end detract from an informative presentation on the context of gender in the ancient world.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

One thought on “Women in the Greco-Roman Context

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: