Chapter V. The Women of Athens.
27. How Athenian Marriages are Arranged. - Over this typical Athenian home reigns the wife of the master. Public opinion frowns upon celibacy, and there are relatively few unmarried men in Athens. An Athenian girl is brought up with the distinct expectation of matrimony.[*] Opportunities for a romance almost never will come her way; but it is the business of her parents to find her a suitable husband. If they are kindly people of good breeding, their choice is not likely to be a very bad one. If they have difficulties, they can engage a professional "matchmaker," a shrewd old woman who, for a fee, will hunt out an eligible young man. Marriage is contracted primarily that there may be legitimate children to keep up the state and to perpetuate the family. That the girl should have any will of her own in the matter is almost never thought of. Very probably she has never seen "Him," save when they both were marching in a public religious procession, or at some rare family gathering (a marriage or a funeral) when there were outside guests. Besides she will be "given away" when only about fifteen, and probably has formed no intelligent opinion or even prejudices on the subject.
[*]The vile custom of exposing unwelcome female babies probably created a certain preponderance of males in Attica, and made it relatively easy to marry off a desirable young girl.
If a young man (who will marry at about thirty) is independent in life, the negotiations will be with him directly. If he is still dependent on the paternal allowance, the two sets of parents will usually arrange matters themselves, and demand only the formal consent of the prospective bridegroom. He will probably accept promptly this bride whom his father has selected; if not, he risks a stormy encounter with his parents, and will finally capitulate. He has perhaps never seen "Her," and can only hope things are for the best; and after all she is so young that his friends tell him that he can train her to be very useful and obedient if he will only take pains. The parents, or, failing them, the guardians, adjust the dowry - the lump sum which the bride will bring with her towards the new establishment.[*] Many maxims enjoin "marry only your equal in fortune." The poor man who weds an heiress will not be really his own master; the dread of losing the big dowry will keep him in perpetual bondage to her whims.
[*]The dowry was a great protection to the bride. If her husband divorced her (as by law he might), the dowry must be repaid to her guardians with 18 per cent. interest.
28. Lack of Sentiment in Marriages. - Sometimes marriages are arranged in which any sentiment is obviously prohibited. A father can betroth his daughter by will to some kinsman, who is to take her over as his bride when he takes over the property. A husband can bequeath his wife to some friend who is likely to treat her and the orphan children with kindness. Such affairs occur every day. Do the Athenian women revolt at these seemingly degrading conditions, wherein they are handed around like slaves, or even cattle? - According to the tragic poets they do. Sophocles (in the "Tereus") makes them lament,
"We women are nothing; - happy indeed is our childhood, for THEN we are thoughtless; but when we attain maidenhood, lo! we are driven away from our homes, sold as merchandise, and compelled to marry and say 'All's well.'"
Euripides is even more bitter in his "Medea": -
Surely of creatures that have life and wit, We women are of all things wretchedest, Who first must needs, as buys the highest bidder, Thus buy a husband, and our body's master.[*/
29. Athenian Marriage Rites. - However, thus runs public custom. At about fifteen the girl must leave her mother's fostering care and enter the house of the stranger. The wedding is, of course, a great ceremony; and here, if nowhere else, Athenian women can surely prepare, flutter, and ordain to their heart's content. After the somewhat stiff and formal betrothal before witnesses (necessary to give legal effect to the marriage), the actual wedding will probably take place, - perhaps in a few days, perhaps with a longer wait till the favorite marriage month Gamelion [January].[*] Then on a lucky night of the full moon the bride, having, no doubt tearfully, dedicated to Artemis her childish toys, will be decked in her finest and will come down, all veiled, into her father's torchlit aula, swarming now with guests. Here will be at last that strange master of her fate, the bridegroom and his best man (paranymphos). Her father will offer sacrifice (probably a lamb), and after the sacrifice everybody will feast on the flesh of the victim; and also share a large flat cake of pounded sesame seeds roasted and mixed with honey. As the evening advances the wedding car will be outside the door. The mother hands the bride over to the groom, who leads her to the chariot, and he and the groomsman sit down, one on either side, while with torches and song the friends to with the car in jovial procession to the house of the young husband.
[*]This winter month was sacred to Hera, the marriage guardian.
"Ho, Hymen! Ho, Hymen! Hymeneous! Io!"
So rings the refrain of the marriage song; and all the doorways and street corners are crowded with onlookers to shout fair wishes and good-natured raillery.
At the groom's house there is a volley of confetti to greet the happy pair. The bride stops before the threshold to eat a quince.[*] There is another feast, - possibly riotous fun and hard drinking. At last the bride is led, still veiled, to the perfumed and flower-hung marriage chamber. The doors close behind the married pair. Their friends sing a merry rollicking catch outside, the Epithalamium. The great day has ended. The Athenian girl has experienced the chief transition of her life.
[*]The symbol of fertility.