Ancient Greek Wedding Ritual
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 new household.
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
reserved 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 attend.22 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:
The procession 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:
Therein 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:
In the 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.
Original text © 1997 Jennifer Goodall Powers