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26th September 2023

Book in Focus
Women, Pilgrimage, and Rituals of Healing in Modern and Ancient Greece

A Comparison

By Evy Johanne Håland

This is the third and concluding work of my analyses of Greek women’s rituals related to festivals. One may ask, why did I choose to study ancient and modern Greek culture, and what was the motivation for focusing on festivals?

Ancient Greek culture was my very first university subject, since I fell in love with the country during my first visit in 1978, and started to study the topic one year after. I wanted to study classical archaeology, but this was not an option here in Bergen, so I got a place at the School of Classics, University College London. That same year, Margaret Thatcher introduced high fees for foreign students, so I dropped it, and went to Paris instead to study French at the Sorbonne. However, I soon came back to the ancient culture via Racine’s tragedies, inter alia. So, after finishing my last university exam in French, I went to history and when working on my CandMag (equivalent to a BA), I was back on ancient Greece, combined with anthropological approaches. The latter was extended when working on my CandPhilol dissertation (something between an MA and a PhD), since I wanted to do something within the history of mentalities (popular in France at the time) and received funding to do fieldwork in Italy—combined with research at the Norwegian Institute in Rome—where I was introduced to festivals (an important topic within the history of mentalities) by an anthropologist. There was no Norwegian institute in Athens at that time. When working on my PhD, I went to Athens for more fieldwork on festivals, and was affiliated with the newly opened Norwegian Institute and the Academy of Athens Hellenic Folklore Research Centre.  I visited festivals at several places in Greece, and have gone on with that during subsequent projects.

What I learned from working on festivals both in Italy and Greece was that they encompass three important cults and all of these are associated with women. With this knowledge I had the possibility to use new approaches to the ancient sources, and so see ancient festivals differently from previous scholars. For me it has been positive, but also difficult, as a scholar on antiquity. The reason is that I belong to a small body of scholars of antiquity worldwide (about a handful) who have gone beyond the boundaries of a single discipline and realised there are serious benefits to be gained from combining expertise in several fields. This is not unusual in the sciences, even in the social sciences, but it is generally frowned upon by classical scholars today, although it was quite common a hundred years ago. There are many reasons to change this, which I discuss especially in chapter two of my 2017 book on festivals. A key word is politics, regarding both the Greek state versus neighbours, and northern Europe/USA versus southern Europe, and also within the scholarly tradition where the institutional walls are strong, despite the general positive talk of multi-disciplinarity.

The greatest change of the research questions and approaches along the way is that I experienced the women’s importance and also learned the importance of agriculture, since the festivals are tied to important phases within the agricultural year, and the Christian Orthodox calendar has adapted to former important festivals. The rituals of the Orthodox Church have been adapted to the seasonal rituals of the earlier agricultural calendar. In that way, Orthodox religion has inherited the old religion’s close connection with nature and/or the economic year, when it tried to replace the pagan cult. So, my books focus on fertility cults, death cults and the present one, healing—the three major areas within women’s purview, while my 2019 book focuses on the competing ideologies and mentalities that we meet within festivals both in the modern and ancient societies.

This means that the inspiration for writing this book was to fulfil my studies of the three major areas within women’s purview, and so approach ancient Greek women from a new and different angle than other scholars. The new insights clearly show that ancient Greek women had more to say than previous scholars have argued.

The present book comprises ten chapters, and the introductory one, Rituals of Health and Healing in Greece, presents the problem at hand—how to understand ancient healing rituals carried out by women, despite the fact that men recorded the sources telling us about rituals in which they very often did not participate. Therefore, the study’s theoretical and methodological approach is presented, while also providing definitions of some key topics: religion and healing, and what is meant by ancient Greece in this book. The chapter delves into some preliminary notes on the topics related to modern and ancient healing rituals, to be discussed in depth in the following chapters. After giving an introduction to Greek religious festivals and rituals connected with healing, the next section situates them within the Mediterranean context in order to bridge the cultural divide between non-Greek scholars and the topic with which we are dealing. Next, the gendered values in the region are located, while arguing for the importance of deconstructing the male-produced texts’ “honour and shame” values. We then reposition ourselves towards the female values by focusing on a “poetics of womanhood” in order to consider the sources from a gyno-inclusive perspective, by examining them in conjunction with information from women. The next three sections deal with modern and ancient women in Greece, healing in the Greek context, and the actual rituals carried out by women in their female sphere, respectively. The final section provides some preliminary notes regarding the book’s new methodology for the study of antiquity: fieldwork combined with studies of ancient sources.

Focusing on healing springs within caves, Chapter 2, Healing Water: The Life-Giving Spring at Athens and Beyond, demonstrates how the power of the place is illustrated by a sacred centre offering direct contact with the divine, in connection with contemporary Greek water rituals and their relation to ancient pre-Christian traditions and sites. Formerly, springs represented water nymphs, and today springs are dedicated to the Panagia (“the All-Holy One” from Pan: all and Agia: holy), who is the Virgin Mary in her identity as Zōodochos Pēgē, the Life-Giving Spring. The water is thought to be particularly healing and purifying during festivals dedicated to the Panagia, such as the contemporary celebration of the “Life-Giving Spring” on the first Friday after Easter Sunday in Athens. During this celebration, Athenians come to the Panagia’s chapel inside an ancient circular spring house that was hewn in the rock on the southern slope of the Akropolis to fetch “life-giving water.” The sacred spring is situated inside a cave, over which a church was constructed. The chapter compares the modern practices with ancient evidence, and also discusses similar cults found in some parallel non-Greek contexts, seeking to clarify the ancient world by comparing ancient sources with modern material.

The third chapter, Healing Caves and Their Deities, continues the study of the power of place. The first part focuses on festivals dedicated to some central female healing saints within the Orthodox Church who are generally celebrated in cave-churches, or in churches in which a cave is a central feature. The second part of the chapter proceeds to ancient equivalents, often female Goddesses, celebrated in caves. It also discusses the cave itself as a symbol of the female—maternal—womb in which healing rituals generally have been performed, earlier as today. In modern and ancient male-produced sources on Greek women, we encounter a kind of “vulva-envy” but also a kind of “vulva-fear”, illustrating the uncertainty men have regarding the general invisibility of the female genitals. In this mysterious cave, life emerges. We find a physical, ritual counterpart to the secret place of women, from which their fertility secrets derive, in the grottos or entrances to the womb of the Earth, which are central in several female festivals dedicated to Mother Goddesses. In modern Greece, we have the abilty to discern women’s sayings from men’s, and we learn that coming from the same womb is as important among women as belonging to the same blood amongst men, a clear reference to the fact that only motherhood is publicly verifiable. Perhaps this view found among modern women is more in conformity with the reasoning of ancient women than the negative or ambiguous view we get from their male contemporaries, a view which naturally has been passed down by men. From this perspective, many ancient sources get new actuality. Through a comparative process, the chapter discusses some of these sources.

Chapter 4, Pilgrimage in Greece. From Modern Tinos to Ancient Epidauros and Beyond: Letters, Accounts, and Inscriptions Recounting Healing Rituals and Successful Recoveries, addresses the interrelationship between oral and written sources in the context of pilgrimage sites in modern and ancient Greece. By focusing especially on fieldwork results as well as published archive material, particularly from the island of Tinos, the modern material is used in conjunction with ancient sources via comparison in order to shed new light on the ancient world from a female perspective. Today on Tinos, we meet the activities that most often are performed by female pilgrims, including vows, prayers, and offerings, accompanied by the oral sharing of stories of miracles. Women also reproduce written miracles in their own way, as they likewise do with miracles they have heard about from others. Many of these have similarities to what we read about in ancient sources, generally authored by men, such as literary sources and inscriptions describing the healing miracles of Epidauros. These inscriptions are examined—as well as other written and visual sources, including material from other places describing illnesses and recoveries—by deconstructing the male-produced texts and examining them in conjunction with the few sources authored by ancient women and the oral stories shared by women today.

Chapter 5, Pilgrimage to the Tombs of Healing Saints and Ancient Healing Mediators, broadens the topic of pilgrimage, which is generally directed towards the tombs of healing saints today, paralleling pilgrimages to the cult sites of ancient healing mediators. The reason for this is that modern saints very often have their own particular domains of protection, such as eye diseases, smallpox, or illnesses in general. Saints may also protect against demons, and so cure what are believed to be illnesses caused by demons. Churches and pilgrimage sites housing the bones of these saints are visited by crowds of people during the celebrations of the most important festivals of these saints, when they are regarded to be particularly close. Like these dead mediators who perform healing miracles, especially on the anniversary of their death days, ancient goddesses and gods connected with death were also associated with healing, such as Pluto and Korē, but also the famous healing god Asklepios, most often together with his daughter, Health, as well as heroes such as Trophonios and Amphiaraos who were also famous for their medical wisdom. But heroines such as Europa and Helen might also have healing capacities, with the latter worshipped for these skills in the present day in Greece, while the bones of the former were the focus of a dedicated cult, according to Athenaeus. The chapter discusses some central modern and ancient equivalents’ healing capacities and the pilgrimages made to them in order for the pilgrims to be healed.

Chapter 6 deals with Modern and Ancient Deities and Their Sacred Animals. The reason for this is that various animals were important in ancient cults, especially the healing cult of Asklepios, but also in other healing contexts. This is also the case today, for instance in the village of Markopoulo on Kephallonia, where healing snakes appear annually during the Dormition festival of the Panagia. The snakes enter her church, and pilgrims come to be touched by them. In the Italian village of Cocullo in the Abruzzo, we meet a similar phenomenon during the feast of the healing patron saint Domenico in May, when many pilgrims arrive. In both villages, the snakes are also thought to signify good luck and prosperity. This chapter presents the two festivals and compares them with ancient materials, since snakes had an important healing function in the ancient world, too. They were also related to chthonic deities thought to promote healing. The chapter also discusses the ambivalent relationship of the snake to gender, female versus male, birth and death, as well as the idea of the snake as a symbol of transformation and boundary crossing. Also discussed are the importance of animals as votives to healing deities and the result of the sacrificial animal’s blood in the context of healing.

Chapter 7 discusses Colours, Smell, Plants, Herbs and Other Healing Remedies. During festivals today, people fetch plants and herbs which have become “sweet-smelling”—sacred—and thus are believed to have acquired healing properties by being close to the icons or bodies of saints, such as basil, the Panagia’s holy herb. Many of the plants, herbs or flowers have special colours, paralleling the ancient “saffron peplos” of Athena, the colour of which was part of an old tradition intimately connected with women and their Goddess. Today, Aegean girls use saffron to relieve menstruation pain, and the ancients used saffron, inter alia, for the postpartum bleeding known as lochia (vaginal discharge). Smell is also important as a sign and cure in ancient medicine, scent being important in diagnosing diseases of the womb. The Asklepieion in Lebena offered a method of treatment employing plants that were also used in the medicine of the time. Many of these, such as pine, the chaste tree, myrtle and lettuce, also belong to women’s lore. Although the male authors of sources in general do not tell us from whom they have received their information, mythical women often loom in the background, as well as wise women and midwives. By a comparative process, the chapter discusses these topics with a special focus on plants and herbs that are often related to female deities, both by their use and name, and which also belong to women’s traditional plant lore. As the modern ones, ancient doctors also seem to have listened to the voices of women.

Chapter 8, Healing and Protective Amulets, Votive Gifts, and Offerings of Thanks, examines the modern and ancient use of amulets, as well as the importance of gift-giving as a cultural pattern—and economic device—in the Mediterranean region. The analysis includes amulets made of resilient material such as stones and organic substances, or compounds such as apotropaic herbs. Starting with a section considering the manufacture of amulets within the female sphere, this part focuses on modern fieldwork, where one has the unique opportunity to observe and participate first-hand in the process. We also see the value of modern fieldwork material as a comparative tool when turning to the ancient material, since many ancient amulets were made of perishable materials that have disappeared archaeologically, but survive in iconography or in written material, such as cloth, hair and leaves. Since amulets often belong to oral knowledge and rites of the female sphere, they may help us shed new light on the information provided in the male-produced written—and also visual—sources. Next, healing amulets in general are discussed, followed by a section on the Evil Eye, a persistent Mediterranean phenomenon. It also examines the apotropaic rites, symbols, and protective amulets this belief has necessitated. The following section examines votive gifts, including votive body parts, thus broadening a topic also considered in Chapter 4. The final section discusses the power of letters and words, often written on amulets and statues of deities, in prayers, or uttered as incantations or spells when performing healing rituals, although they may also have the opposite function, thus paralleling the Evil Eye, as illustrated both in modern and ancient sources.

The ninth chapter discusses Healing Dance and Movement. The reason for this is that through persistent dancing and incessant pilgrimage walking today, a person goes into a sort of trance that gives them the energy to continue, a kind of flow, which may also be called transcendental flow, being a bodily-felt experience as many feel that the dance, and others feel that the walking, give them a strength they did not know they had. The importance of movement is stated by Aristotle, Plato and the Hippocratics, all emphasising the significance of exercise. Aristotle recommends applying sports as medicine, and pursuing gymnastics for the sake of health and strength. Walking or running is recommended to deal with mental depression, the key metaphor being the analogy between fluency of body movement and fluency in thought. The chapter therefore examines some healing methods we encounter both in modern and ancient Greece in which women especially are involved; namely, the therapeutic value of dance and movement in the context of their releasing of “happiness endorphins” that have a strong effect on health. We encounter methods to cure psychosomatic ailments. Modern fieldwork material is therefore compared with ancient material in which dance was important, such as during the Dionysos festivals and Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as in connection with initiation rituals, especially of girls.

Finally, a short concluding chapter sums up how it is possible to employ ethnographic methodologies by interviewing and collecting stories from living people, particularly Greek women, and also participating in their rituals—without asking questions, but merely to observe the religion as practiced and lived—and how to use the material in conjunction with historical sources through a comparative process to learn more about the healing rituals of ancient women, and why they are important. When carrying out fieldwork on religious festivals in Greece, we also learn that continuity and change, the concept and notion of history and uses of the past included, are important in several connections, both concerning the official versus popular and male versus female worldviews; they might interact, but they also diverge. When conversing with Greek informants, one learns that they do not necessarily always think, or “see”, in a “European historical linear” way, but have their own—very often local—history. It might be illustrated by social memory linked to a particular holy place, such as natural landscapes like caves with healing springs, where miracles have occurred and are likely to happen again. It concerns different forms of both conceptions of time and history, as we meet this in Greek society versus north European researchers; namely, Eurocentric versus Greek perspectives, which ultimately also concerns both our interpretation of ancient sources and Europe versus various parts of the world in the present age of globalisation.


Evy Johanne Håland holds a PhD in History, and is a Lifetime Norwegian Government Grant Holder. She is a former Marie Curie Intra-European Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and History of Art at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and she previously worked as a Lecturer/Research Fellow in History at the University of Bergen, Norway. Her publications include Greek Festivals, Modern and Ancient: A Comparison of Female and Male Values (two volumes, 2017) Rituals of Death and Dying in Modern and Ancient Greece: Writing History from a Female Perspective (2014), and Women, Pain and Death: Rituals and Everyday-Life on the Margins of Europe and Beyond (2008).


Women, Pilgrimage, and Rituals of Healing in Modern and Ancient Greece: A Comparison is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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