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A Picture of Women Weaving in the History, Art, and Literature of Ancient Greece
by Geoffrey S. Beadle
The process of weaving fabric by Archaic and Classical Greek women and girls had a significant place in domestic life, in religious ritual, and in the literary mythology of the period. The image that sparked my interest in this subject is a beautifully composed scene depicting women in various stages of working with wool, painted on a piece of terracotta pottery: a small Attic lekythos, or oil flask, dated from 550 to 530 B.C. While my initial response to the painting was aesthetic, I was also struck by the familiarity of the activity represented in the scene. This led me to a further investigation of weaving and its multiple roles in Ancient Greek society, from daily routine to a metaphor for a lifetime.
The vessel itself, pictured below, is just about 6 ¾ inches in height, and is painted in the black figure style. While the vase is signed by neither its painter nor its potter, it is attributed to Amasis (a potter) due to its shape and proportions, and to the Amasis Painter (it is not known if Amasis painted his own pots) due to its painting style and subject matter. The elegant yet simple poses of the figures depicted, the careful articulation of detail, the illusory method by which garments are rendered as superimposed layers, the lyrical simplicity of the composition, and the domestic scene portrayed are all indicative of this painter’s work. 1
Lekythos. Attic. Attributed to the Amasis Painter. Terracotta (Black Figure). Height: 6 ¾ inches (17.15 cm). Ca. 550-530 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art (31.11.10). See below for an alternate view.
While lekythoi were often used in funerary contexts, this vessel was found with another of the same form and style that depicts a scene of marriage, suggesting that the two may have been presented as gifts to a recently married young wife. The neck of the vase depicts a group of young boys, a group of girls dancing, and a seated woman holding out her veil in a gesture commonly associated with brides in Greek art. 2 The body of the vase illustrates five groups of women at various stages in the process of wool working. Central in the above photograph of the vase we see two women weaving at an upright loom; to their right two women weigh out balls of yarn while a third looks on or supervises them; next to them two women fill a basket with yarn; followed by two women folding and stacking completed sections of fabric; and back around the vessel to the left of the loom we see a pair of women spinning wool into yarn. Though not sequential, the painting does depict each step in the process of turning raw wool into useful fabric. Such scenes of domestic activity were somewhat unusual at this time, and this particular vase is one of few examples from the period picturing women at work, though the genre and subject would become more common in later years. 3
From a historical perspective, the visual description of tools and technique in the painting provides valuable insight into the process of textile production from the era. In Ancient Greece, all thread and yarn would have been spun by hand using a distaff and spindle 4 and all fabrics would have been manually woven on a warp-weighted vertical loom 5 such as the one depicted on the vase. As all textiles were made with these tools, and most households produced their own textiles, we can begin to imagine the demands placed on other trades, including the raising of sheep for wool production, the harvesting of timber and the carpentry skills required to construct looms, the production of dyes to color yarn, etc. We have very few surviving examples of actual woven garments and other textiles or the looms and other implements that made them, as most have perished. Fortunately, artifacts such as painted pots that depict multi-colored and intricately detailed garments, and literary sources that describe elaborate graphic tapestries, help to provide us with a clearer picture.
Weaving was both a domestic and a commercial activity in Ancient Greece. It was a primary responsibility of wives as they presided over their households. 6 Depending on the wealth of a household and the number of female slaves owned, a Greek wife would either do much of the work herself or would supervise the labor of her servants. 7 And while much of the textile production was done domestically, material was also produced and purchased in shops. Weaving was practiced as an occupation by poor citizen women as well as former slaves and skilled non-citizens, many of who belonged to craft guilds. 8 Inscriptions made by Athenian freedwomen upon their release from slavery serve as a valuable reference to their occupations, and many worked with wool. 9 We also see women weaving as a part of public ritual, particularly in the Peplophoria, the creation and ceremonial presentation of a peplos (a robe-like garment) to Athena at the culmination of the Panathenaia, 10 Athens’s most important religious festival. Women of all ages took part in the creation of the garment, and women of all social classes participated in the festival. The Peplophoria is depicted on the east frieze of the Parthenon.
And finally to Greek mythology, where we find numerous references to weaving as metaphor. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, we find Penelope heralded for both her fidelity and her intellect as she awaits her husband Odysseus’s return from war. She forestalls remarrying by telling her suitors that she cannot accept their entreaties until she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her absent husband’s elderly father. She weaves by day and undoes her work each night; her deceit enabling her to remain faithful. 11 And in Plato’s Republic, the three Fates or Moirae are the female personifications of human destiny, each playing a different role in the weaving of the fabric of life. Clotho spins the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle, Lachesis measures the length of the thread of life with her rod, and Atropos is the cutter of that thread, determining life’s end. 12
The image on the Amasis Painter’s lekythos represents a domestic activity central to most Greek women’s lives. In the larger Ancient Greek culture, however, weaving would be seen not just as the work of the dutiful wife, but as a craft, a commodity, a form of self-expression, a means of service to the gods, and a symbol for life itself.
1. John Boardman et al., The Art and Architecture of Ancient Greece (London, Thames and Hudson, 1967), 173-4.
2. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lekythos [cited May 29, 2006]. Available on World Wide Web: (http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/Greek/greek15.htm).
3. Paolo Enrico Arias. A History of 1000 Years of Greek Vase Painting. Translated by B. Shefton. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1962), 298.
4. The spindle was a stick, 10 or 12 inches long, having at the top a slit or catch in which the thread was fixed, so that the weight of the spindle might continually carry down the thread as it was formed. The distaff was about three times the length of the spindle, strong and thick in proportion, commonly either a stick or a reed, with an expansion near the top for holding the ball. It was sometimes of richer materials and ornamented. (Description copied from the University of Chicago at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Fusus.html)
5. The warp-weighted loom uses a system of holding the warp threads parallel under tension by tying them in small bunches to weights made of stone, pottery or metal. The loom consists of two vertical uprights, a horizontal warp beam, a shed rod, a heddle rod, and weights. The warp threads are tied to the horizontal beam at the top and hang down vertically towards the ground. The weights, in this case, made of clay, are then attached to the ends of the warp threads, which are then grouped together and tied so that the spun threads don't untwist. From the beginning of Western history until the Middle Ages, the main weaving tool was this type of loom. (Description copied from Smith College Museum of Ancient Inventions at: http://www.smith.edu/hsc/museum/ancient_inventions/hsc00b.htm.)
6. Elaine Fantham, et al. Women in the Classical World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 33.
7. Paul Cartledge, ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 134.
8. Encyclopedia Britannica [online]. Textile. [cited May 30, 2006]. Available on World Wide Web: (http://www.britannica.com/ebi/article-208843).
9. Don Nardo, Women of Ancient Greece (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2000), 55.
10. Dedicated to Athena and made up of religious ceremonies, feasts, and musical and athletic contests, the Panathenaia was held annually in midsummer with special pomp every fourth year. Most scholars believe it began with a huge and stately procession that wound its way through the city to the summit of the Acropolis. The marchers represented all social classes and groups, including metics, freedmen and slaves, soldiers, women, and children (both boys and girls). Women also tended to the Panathenaia’s principal single element – the peplos, Athena’s sacred robe. Months before, the goddess’s high priestess had begun the creation of a new robe by setting up the loom. She was assisted by four girls between the ages of seven and eleven, the arrephoroi, who lived on the Acropolis for a year while in special service to the goddess. Two or more other maidens, the ergastinai, then proceeded to weave the robe. This garment was eventually draped around a wooden statue of Athena that rested in the Erechtheum temple, replacing the one made for the prior festival. (Description excerpted from Women of Ancient Greece by Don Nardo – see bibliography for full citation).
11. Homer, The Odyssey. Butcher, S.H. and Andrew Lang, trans. (London: The Medici Society, 1930), XIX.
12. Plato, The Republic. Alan Bloom, trans. (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 620d5-620e5.
Arias, Paolo Enrico. A History of 1000 Years of Greek Vase Painting. Translated by B.
Shefton. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1962.
Boardman, John, José Dörig, Werner Fuchs, and Max Hirmer. The Art and Architecture of
Ancient Greece. London: Thames and Hudson, 1967.
Boardman, John, ed. The Oxford History of Classical Art. Oxford: Oxford University
Cartledge, Paul, ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Encyclopedia Britannica [online]. Textile. [cited May 30, 2006]. Available on World Wide
Fantham, Elaine, et al. Women in the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Homer. The Odyssey. Butcher, S.H. and Andrew Lang, trans. London: The Medici Society,
Lefkowitz, Mary R. Women in Greek Myth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,
Metropolitan Museum of Art [online]. Lekythos. [cited May 29, 2006]. Available on World
Wide Web: (http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/Greek/greek15.htm).
---. Women in Classical Greece. [cited May 29, 2006]. Available on World Wide Web:
Nardo, Don. Women of Ancient Greece. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2000.
Pantel, Pauline Schmitt, ed. A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian
Saints. Cambridge: Harvard Universty Press, 1994.
Plato. The Republic. Alan Bloom, trans. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
Lekythos (Alternate View). Attic. Attributed to the Amasis Painter. Terracotta (Black Figure). Height: 6 ¾ inches (17.15 cm). Ca. 550-530 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art (31.11.10).