Reconstructing the Female Experience in Classical Attica Through A Close Analysis of The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Nicholas P. Quill


The lives of ancient women are difficult to understand. Documentation is fragmented and often unreliable, given the polemic nature of the literary sources authored by men. Still, evidence from the fine arts, the objects used by women, and the festivals they attended are studied to reconstruct the private lives of females. There is a longstanding misconception that women of ancient Attica were sedentary victims of the patriarchy, incapable of self-governance or exerting influence. Modern scholarship, however, suggests that their lives were much more nuanced than is often portrayed in extant literature. A text that has proven uniquely helpful in the reconstruction of ancient female life is the sixth century poem the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Often misunderstood as a story of female acquiescence, the Homeric Hymn is in reality a testament to the tremendous responsibility and power of women and of the female communities of ancient antiquity. Through a comprehensive examination of several Demeter festivals, of objects used by women, and of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, I argue that the poem can be used to reconstruct the female experience in ancient Attica.