Goodall Powers, SUNY Albany
© 1997 Jennifer Goodall Powers
The Wedding Ceremony
For a young girl,
marriage rites marked three phases: separation from her oikos
, transition to a new home, and integration into her new roles
as daughter and wife within a new oikos.19 She changed from a parthenos,
a maiden, to a nymphe, a married woman without children,
when she married and then finally to a gyne, an adult
woman, when she bore her first child. The entire set of marriage
rites focused on the bride and her relocation to a new oikos
and kyrios, the most important transition in her life.
As mentioned, a
typical marriage consisted of engue and ekdosis.
The ceremony itself was marked by the physical transfer, the
ekdosis, of the bride to her new oikos. The ekdosis
was a process that took several days, affected much of the community
and affirmed new relationships both inside and outside her former
oikos. For the bride, ekdosis signified a farewell
to her maidenhood and at the same time an integration into her
The wedding ceremony
usually lasted three days. The day before the wedding was designated
the proaulia. In preparation for the proaulia,
the bride would spend a final few days with her mother and female
relatives, friends and servants preparing for her wedding at
her father's house. This pre-wedding ritual is one of the few
events in which women were allowed to participate and celebrate
actively. Once the proaulia arrived, a ceremony and feast
would be held at the house of the bride's father. The bride would
make various offerings, proteleia to different gods; the
offerings would generally include her childhood clothing and
toys. This act served two purposes for the bride. It signified
the separation of the bride from her childhood, freeing her to
enter a new life; and it established a bond between her and the
deities who she hoped would provide protection for her during
the transition to her new life. Sacrifices to Artemis, goddess
of virginity and of transition, would likely include locks of
hair and zemia, a fine or penalty, in the hope that she
would ease the bride's passage from virginity. On occasion the
bride would sacrifice to Hera as the exemplar of the divine bride.
The bride and groom would both make offerings to Aphrodite for
a fruitful, child-rearing life. If the bride or groom was unable
for some reason to make the proteleia, the bride's father
or, in some instances, her mother would perform the ritual instead.
The wedding ceremony's focus on the bride's passage to marriage
and her sexual initiation nue to become clarified during the
following two days.
The gamos, the actual
wedding day, began with a loutron numphikon, a nuptial
bath, in the women's quarters.20
Water was drawn from a river or spring and carried in a loutrophoros, a vase shape
for funerary purposes ... used mainly as a grave marker. During
the fifth century its purpose seems to have been confined to
ritual uses, such as weddings (where it was frequently used to
carry the water for the bridal bath) or the funeral of an unmarried
person. Vases of this shape are commonly decorated with scenes
of mourners or wedding processions.21
A specially appointed
child carried the bath water, which was thought to provide a
purification of the bride as well as to induce fertility, showing
that the bride and her sexual initiation were the focus of this
aspect of the ceremony. The bride would then dress in the same
room in which she bathed. The most important part of the bride's
costume was the veil, which symbolized her virginity and was
not removed until she was handed over to the groom. The bride
would have a numpheutria, a bridal helper, who, with the bride's
mother and other women, would preside over the preparations for
the meal and sacrifices, and who would accompany the bride to
the banquet hall. There, sacrifices would be offered to the gods
of marriage by both the bride and groom.
The wedding feast
would follow, although the actual time for the feast is not clear.
Most often the feast would be given by the bride's father, but
it could also be given by the groom's father or even the groom
himself in certain situations. Regardless, both families would
Guests at the feast would include the couple's friends, who would
serve as witnesses. The François vase, for instance, depicting
the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, shows them accompanied by many
of their fellow gods, who act as witnesses.23
While this was one
of the few public events women were permitted to attend, men
and women sat at different tables. Delicacies, such as sesame
seeds mixed with honey, would be available. Entertainment would
be provided by professional singers. The songs played a very
important role in the ceremony, encouraging the couple in their
new relationship and future children as well as complimenting
the couple through comparisons with the gods.24 A libation was offered
at the beginning of the songs.
Towards the end
of the feast in the evening came the most important part of the
ceremony, the anakalupteria, the unveiling of the bride.
This act is significant because the bride is handed over to the
groom, and at this point she has completely given up her status
as parthenos. There is some debate on exactly when this
part of the ceremony took place. Some have argued that it did
not occur until the couple had arrived at the groom's house.25
The bride was then presented to the groom as she prepared to
leave her paternal home.
The procession from
the bride's house to her new home then began. An amphithales,
a child with both parents still alive, was chosen to escort the
bride. He represented prosperity and good luck for the couple,
and symbolized their eventual child. The amphithales would distribute
bread to the guests; the bread was another symbol of the final
product of this union, a child; furthermore, the basket in which
the bread was carried represented the ancient baby cradle. The
amphithales would also utter the words "I fled worse
and found better," and he wore a crown of thorns and nuts,
reminding the couple of the threatening proximity of wild nature,
as the acorn was the food of primitive man while the winnowing
fan or basket suggested implements of civilized agriculture.
Other objects featured
in the ceremony and enhanced the new role of the bride to advance
civilized life: a grill for toasting barley; a sieve carried
by a child; a pestle that hung in front of the wedding chamber;
and various grains, recalling Demeter, the link between agriculture,
fertility, and social life.
The procession itself
began with the painful ritual departure, a drama of the pain
the bride felt leaving her family. The groom grabbed her wrist
while the bride's father delivered her to her husband's control,
saying "in front of witnesses I give this girl to you for
the production of legitimate children."26 After this, the bride was
treated as a symbolic captive, and to her the procession reflected
a crisis that needed to be endured and overcome, as it was her
final transition from childhood to marriage.
Our main evidence
for wedding processions is depictions on vases. The vase Bloomington 72.97.4 is decorated with a procession
that is quite possibly of a wedding:
on either side crowds around and between two quadrigas whose
horses stand among the file of participants. Each side is organized
in a slightly different fashion, however. Side A: shows a woman
who unveils herself in the very center of the composition, framed
symmetrically by four participants who look at her.27
Homer also describes
a procession in a scene on the shield of Achilles:
fashioned he also two cities of mortal men exceeding fair. In
the one there were marriages and feastings, and by the light
of the blazing torches they were leading the brides from their
bowers through the city, and loud rose the bridal song. And young
men were whirling in the dance, and in their midst  flutes
and lyres sounded continually; and there the women stood each
before her door and marvelled.28
She was accompanied
by her husband and his friend in a cart.29 If the anakalupteria had
not taken place yet, the bride would still be veiled. Her mother
would be the one to carry the torches, daidouxein, in a protective
role. The torches and music were intended to ward off evil spirits
that might harm the bride during the procession.
The honored participants
in the procession included the amphithales; the proegetes, leader
of the procession; paides propempontes, young boys; the
paroxos or paranumphos, the groom's attendant;
and the numpheutria and other friends. Sometimes an entire
town would join. Women with baskets and vases would also accompany
the procession. In these baskets and vases were such items as
sandals, quinces, roses, violets and fruits. These things would
then be thrown at the couple, so that the procession resembled
a fullobolia, victory procession. Avagianou explains that
this "perhaps had an aggressive purpose, although we cannot
ignore the sexual content attributed to apples and flowers by
the ancient Greeks."30
Men with musical instruments in the procession would provide
the music for the hymenaioi, songs, that celebrated the
couple and especially the bride's contribution to the union.31
The wedding procession
has parallels with other rituals. It is similar to the triumphant
homecoming of victors at the Panhellenic games. The wedding carries
the same significance for the bride that the victory does for
the victor. As mentioned above, the pelting of the bride with
flowers and fruits parallels the fullobolia of the victory procession.
When the couple
reached the groom's house, a paian cry arose celebrating the
successful end of the vulnerable passage. The groom then lifted
the bride from the chariot, and his mother, holding torches,
welcomed her daughter-in-law to her new home. The bride was then
received with ritual kataxusmata, a sequence of rites
performed to guarantee the future prosperity and fertility of
the union and to establish the bride in her new home. The bride
would eat a quince and burn the chariot axle, thereby precluding
a journey back to her former home; she would be welcomed to the
hearth (the center of the household); and, finally, the bride
received tragmata, dried dates, nuts, and figs, thus completing
the same ritual a new slave went through to make the final break
with her old household. If it had not happened before, the anakalupteria
happened now as well.
As the couple entered
the bridal chamber itself, they passed to the protection of Aphrodite
and Peitho, who would bring harmony and pleasure in the bedroom
and ultimately children. While the chamber was still being prepared,
the wedding guests could enter the room, but finally the door
would shut and remain guarded throughout the night by the thyroros,
a friend of the groom. Friends of the bride sang outside the
room to reassure the bride as she journeyed to womanhood and
to encourage the couple in their attempts to produce a boy baby.
They would also beat on the chamber door, ktupia, to scare
away the spirits of the underworld. They might also sing playful,
even obscene, songs and jokes.32
The final day of
the wedding ceremony was called the epaulia. The day began
with waking songs by the Pannuxis, the maidens awake all night,
and certain men who returned to wake the couple. The focus was
still on the bride, as she received the epaulia, or gifts.
Again the ceremony was accompanied by songs that emphasized the
transition of the bride to her new status.
As initiating ceremonies,
weddings and funerals33
share many similarities, as already noted in respect to the significance
of the loutrophoros.34
Such tangible elements as preparing baths, torches, water for
purification, the veil, and garlands play roles in both ceremonies.
Redfield emphasizes especially how cutting the locks of hair
features in both rituals:
funeral, the mourners cut a lock of hair and leave it to be buried
with the dead; they thus enact their bereavement by sending a
part of their life to die with the dead. Before the wedding,
brides often dedicated a lock of hair; they thus left behind
them a part of their life as they set off to a new life.35
Moreover, both journeys
are made at night by a cart with a ritual wheel drawn by mules,
accompanied by flutes and choral songs and both ceremonies also
include a feast. Both rituals signify a separation and a change
of residence. These two ceremonies are so intertwined that if
a girl died before she married, she was buried in a wedding dress
so she could be the bride of Hades.
Of course, weddings,
as rituals, resemble religious ceremonies in general. Several
of the terms used in the wedding ceremony recall those associated
with religious festivals. For instance, telos, an end,
recalls the Eleusian mysteries, and telein, to end, is a characteristic
term for mysteries of initiation. Rites of passage are fundamentally
alike: there is a formal transition for the initiate to a new
stage of life, there is a division of participants such as men/women,
maidens/married women, and couple/society. In human weddings,
the couple is made to parallel the divine couple, as in religious
ceremonies, with comparisons voiced in songs and their quasi-divine
images on vases.
For a full discussion of marriage rites in general, see Zaidman,
Louise Bruit. 1992. "Pandora¹s Daughters and Rituals
in Grecian Cities: In the Oikos" in Pauline Schmitt (ed)
A History of Women: Vol. I: 360-65.
Redfield, James. 1982. "Notes on the Greek Wedding."
Arethusa 15, 188, refines the concept of gamos to refer not just
to the wedding day, but to highlight the consummation: "Gamos
is the name, in its primary significance, not of a ceremony but
of the sexual act itself without which the marriage is
not (as we say) consummated, actual." For the purpose of
this paper, gamos will refer to the day of the actual wedding
Homer illustrates the wedding feast in the Odyssey. Athena prepares
Telemachos for Penelope's new marriage and wedding feast: "and
for thy mother, if her heart bids her marry, let her go back
to the hall of her mighty father, and there they will prepare
a wedding feast, and make ready the gifts full many aye, all
that should follow after a well-loved daughter." Hom. Od.
1.275, Perseus 2.0.
Florence 4209 is a "volute krater elaborately decorated
in six figured registers with additional scenes on handles and
elsewhere. On the shoulder, continuous around the whole vase,
the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and a procession of deities."
Florence 4209 vase description, Perseus 2.0.
Weddings of the gods' were thought to parallel human weddings.
For a detailed comparison of divine and human weddings, see Avagianou,
Aphrodite. 1991. Sacred Marriage in the Rituals of Greek Religion.
The alternate timing of the anakalupteria will be noted
Menander, fr. 720.
Vase description for Bloomington 72.97.4, Perseus 2.0.
Il. 18.491-96, Perseus 2.0.
On rare occasions, the bride would instead travel on foot, xamaipous.
Avagianou, n. 50, mentions that such a procession was recorded
having occurred in "a provincial nuptial procession in a
third century town (procession in the day time - only women -
on foot- with tympana and cymbals)."
Some songs celebrated, specifically, the virtues of the bride,
for instance, Sappho, frr. 112 & 113.
See Sappho frr. 110, 111, & 115 for this tone in the epithalamia.
There are many comparisons between weddings and funerals. For
more, see Redfield 1982; Rehm, Rush. 1994. Marriage to Death:
The Conflation of Wedding and Funeral Rituals in Greek Tragedy.
Princeton, NJ; and Seaford, R. 1987. "The Tragic Wedding."
Journal of Hellenic Studies 58: 106-30.