Goddess Worship, Marian Veneration, and the Female Gender, session at the Society for Classical Studies 2018 Annual Meeting, Boston, January 4–7, 2018
To compare Marian cult and images to those of ancient goddesses is a well-established route into investigations of Christianity’s holiest female figure. Scholars of the ancient Mediterranean world have also long registered a robust connection between goddesses and social definitions of the female gender. From Briseis, “fair as Aphrodite,” to Hellenistic queens, Roman empresses and ordinary women, numerous studies have explained how female gender roles and qualities were imagined, defined, and articulated through reference to goddesses such as Aphrodite/Venus, Persephone, Demeter/Ceres, and Tyche/Fortuna.
Yet, the implications to the female gender of replacing a pantheon of goddesses with a single female holy figure have not received the attention they deserve. Overall, it seems that the new Christian sacred role model offered a more limited conceptualization of womanhood. Even though Christian devotional practices expanded women’s freedoms in a significant way, scholars of early Christianity have demonstrated that for women the road to holiness was often articulated as “becoming male.” Childbearing -- the most central of women’s social roles -- was epitomized by a virgin mother, who as has been argued, by being “alone of her sex” remained a poor exemplum for women. At the same time, through the lens of other metrics, it appears that with Christianity women gained more freedoms and authority. Scholars have written on the variety of the ways in which women could freely choose to forsake marriage and family obligations and become “virgins of God.” Others have dealt with the prominent role of purple-born women in philanthropy and religious debates. Finally, an analysis of Roman legislation has revealed that in late antiquity a mother was much better protected by the law.
This panel invites papers that investigate how ideas about the divine shaped notions about the female gender and gender roles. Preference will be given to papers that most closely adhere to the proposed topic. Ideally, the abstracts should approach this question either conceptually (what categories could we deploy to measure the social implications of religious change?) or comparatively (pre-Christian vs. Christian gender roles as expressed in literature, artworks, inscriptions, laws, and the lives of women (free, freed, or slaves). The goal is to open new routes of inquiry into gender and religion in the ancient Mediterranean, and prompt conversations between disciplines.