Standard Article

You have free access to this content

Marriage, sacred, Greece and Rome

  1. Lora L. Holland

Published Online: 7 FEB 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah17257

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Holland, L. L. 2012. Marriage, sacred, Greece and Rome. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 7 FEB 2012

The possibility of sexual union with the divine has been entertained in a significant number of world cultures. Such unions are usually (re)enacted between humans or with mortals who are assimilated to the divine. The divine union of the gods serves as the model for the human plane; for example, the sexual union of Shiva and his Shakti in the Hindu religion is reflected in some aspects of tantric ritual. In ancient Greece, a variety of rituals, festivals, and myths celebrate sacred marriage, and Böhm (1990) argues that the depiction of naked goddesses provides visual evidence for the hieros gamos (sacred marriage, sexual union or wedding) in early Greek art. In ancient Rome, however, the evidence for such ideas in native myth and ritual is less certain.

In Greek myth, notably at Iliad 14.330–60, the marriage of Hera and Zeus serves as the model for the Theogamia or hieros gamos. Clark (1998) notes a range of ritual practices in festivals for Hera in Greece, from reenactment of the marriage by worshipers at Knossos (Diod. Sic. 5.72) to a celebration of the institution of marriage, called the Hieros Gamos, in Attica (SEG 26 136.32). Other festivals in honor of Hera - the Heraia at Olympia, the Daidala at Plataia, and those of the famous sanctuaries at Samos and at Argos - celebrated her role as marriage deity, but did not necessarily reenact the sacred marriage. The myth of Persephone and Hades may also suggest a hieros gamos at Locri in southern Italy (Sourvinou-Inwood 1978).

There is compelling evidence that the Greeks also believed in mortal-divine couplings. The Anthesteria festival in Athens dramatized an annual marriage between the god Dionysos and the mortal basilinna (queen), the wife of the Athenian religious official called the basileus (king). Greek vases showing the god in a “ship-chariot” or a mask of Dionysos on a pillar surrounded by women in festival mode may refer to such a ritual (Figure 1). A feminist scholar (Rigoglioso 2009) has suggested that some female priesthoods in Greece, especially those for virgin goddesses, were engaged in an attempt to achieve parthenogenesis (virgin conception and birth) through divine union with a god.

Roman myth and ritual suggests that Juno presided over marriage, but there is no explicit evidence for a sacred marriage between Juno and Jupiter except as expressed in Hellenized myth and depicted in Neo-Etruscan era art. Priest-priestess pairs, such as the rex/regina sacrorum (king and queen of sacred rites) and the flamen/faminica Dialis (priest and priestess of Jupiter), had strict marriage requirements, but again there is no explicit evidence that they emulated a divine marriage. However, Van den Berg (2008) argues that the pulvinar (sacred couch) was associated with the marriage of Livia and Augustus in the temple known as the Pulvinar ad Circum Maximum (Figure 2). He also asserts a domestic context for the pulvinar as the lectus genialis (marriage bed) in Catullus (64.47–9 and 64.265–6). We may compare couples reclining on a couch in Etruscan art and funerary sculpture (Figure 3).

References and Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Avagianou, A. (1991) Sacred marriage in the rituals of Greek religion. Bern.
  • Bohm, S. (1990) Die “Nackte Gottin:” zur Ikono graphie und Deutung unbekleideter weiblicher Figuren in der fruhgriechischen Kunst. Mainz.
  • Clark, I. (1998) “The gamos of Hera: myth and ritual.” In S. Blondell and S. Williamson, eds., The sacred and the feminine in ancient Greece: 13–26. London.
  • Rigoglioso, M. (2009) The cult of divine birth in ancient Greece. New York.
  • Sourvinou-Inwood, C. (1978) “Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri: a model for personality definitions in Greek religion.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 95: 101–21.
  • van den Berg, C. (2008) “The pulvinar in Roman culture.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 138: 239–73.