Athenian painted pottery

Women's life on Greek vases

Women are present in enormous numbers on Athenian pots. The interpretation of such images is difficult. As they are mostly on vases used in the male symposium, presumably they were painted to order by men, and for the pleasure of men at the Symposium. The number of vases showing flute-girls, dancing-girls, prostitutes (pornai) in interesting situations is easily explained. But what of the vast number showing women - usually fully clothed, engaged in boring routine female pursuits - mostly concerned with the finer technical points of spinning and weaving? Were pictures of what their wives, sisters and daughters were doing while they, the men, were enjoying themselves at the party some kind of a turn-on? Was it reassuring to them to know that their women were different from the whores and hetairai they met at their symposia? Was it guilt or merely rubbing in their superiority?

But in their own quarters (gynaikonitis, gynaikeion) - in which they could be locked by the kyrios - the master, women had their own painted pottery.

Marriage Vases

Click for a larger imageThe Womens' Quarters would contain several souvenirs of the most important day in the woman's life: the day she was legally transferred from the protection of her father to the protection of her husband (from one kyrios to another). She would have been around 13 to 15 at the time, having been betrothed since she was maybe 4 or 5, but not necessarily having met the future husband. Her dowry would have been paraded through the streets - valuables and jewels in round boxes (pyxides). The water for her bridal bath would have been in a special tall vase called a loutrophoros. A symbol of her work for the rest of her life was the epinetron - a pottery thigh protector which she wore over her leg when roving wool (getting the wool into rough "sausages" before spinning). A famous one, in the National Museum at Athens (the Eretria epinetron) has a head and nude torso of a young girl on the end facing away from the user. An alternative to the loutrophoros as a receptacle for the bride's bathwater was the ornate lebes gamikos. Click on the picture for more about Athenian marriage


Often shown in a painting with a woman apparently busy weaving or spinning or roving or whatever is the phallic alabastron - a small container for perfumed oil which would be used to provide lubrication for sex. The presence of such a vase in a painting is thus a coded message to the male viewer - the woman is thinking about sex! (As, according to Aristophanes, Athenian men assumed all women did all the time , when they weren't thinking about drink. See Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusai passim.) Men also used these small oil-bottles, to carry around the oil for their daily needs (after bath, before sex, on bread, refilling the lamp etc) - and the famous "lost his bottle" scene in Aristophanes' Frogs refers to a male alabastron or aryballos.


Death was very much a female speciality. Not only were they expected to tear out their hair, scratch their faces, rip their clothes and beat their breasts when a death in the family occurred, they were also responsible for washing the corpse and preparing it for burial. A funeral was one of the very few occasions when a respectable woman could be guaranteed a trip outside the house (which at least one wife used to good advantage to fix herself up with a lover, according to Lysias' speech in defence of the husband who murdered the boyfriend). Women would also tend the graves, taking offerings of oil in honour of the dead, in vases called lekythoi As these were for the use of the dead, they were often painted using a white ground and full color.. These are among the most impressive surviving Athenian vases, especially those by the Achilles Painter. While some spared no expense for the dead, there were some cheapskates - there's a lekythos in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford with a false bottom, cheating the corpse of most of his entitlement!