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Home > Reconstructionism > Greek/Hellenic > Hellenic Weddings Search

Hellenic Weddings:
History and Modern Ritual

[This material is excerpted from Old Stones, New Temples.]
by Drew Campbell


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Our evidence from Athens shows that marriage had two parts: the engue or pledge, which was a public contract between the two families, and the ekdosis, the transfer of the bride from her parents' house to that of her new husband. The engue dealt primarily with financial matters, such as the specifics of the bride's dowry, and could take place even before the girl reached puberty. [1]

The traditional time for the ekdosis ceremony was in the month of Gamelion, in which the festival of Gamelia, the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera, was also celebrated. The first element of the ceremony was the progameia (also known as the proteleia), a sacrifice at which the bride cut off her hair and dedicated it to Artemis and the Moirai. (Garland notes the similarity between this ritual act, and the boy's sacrificial hair cut at the Koureotis, part of the Apatouria festival.) [2] The progameia was followed by a ritual bath in water drawn from a sacred spring. [3] A feast at the bride's house followed; the bride remained veiled and sat apart with the women. At this point she was blessed (pronounced makar) by her assembled family. [4]

At nightfall, the groom fetched the bride in a nuptial cart and conveyed her to his house. The groom sat between the bride and his groomsman (paranumphos), usually his best friend. A torchlit procession and wedding hymns accompanied them. At the groom's home, the bride was met by her mother-in-law, and was taken to the hearth, given a piece of sesame-and-honey cake along with fruit such a quince or dates (fertility symbols) [5] and accepted by all as a member of the household. The couple was then showered with nuts and dried fruit and given a basket of bread, symbolizing wealth and fertility. At the height of this ceremony, the bride removed her veil and was led into the wedding-chamber by her new husband, presumably to consummate the marriage. Hymns were sung outside the door. On the following day, gifts were sent to the newlyweds, and the two families gathered together. The bride's possessions would later be brought to her new home. [6]

Modern Observance

The Hellenic marriage ritual differs significantly from the Christian-influenced ceremonies that are most familiar to modern Westerners. As is the case with other life cycle events, the ceremony is not conducted by a priest; it is home-based and organized by the families. Also, the emphasis in not so much on marriage as a religious act—although certainly the couple prays for the gods' blessings—but on the union of two families by legal contract. (In this way, the ceremony has much more in common with Jewish wedding traditions than with Christian ones.)

Since marriage is conceived of as a private contract, modern couples may choose to take care of any legal paperwork at their local county clerk's office, and then hold a religious commitment ceremony with family and friends. Prenuptial agreements, while not particularly romantic, are both practical and thoroughly in keeping with Hellenic tradition. [7] If the couple chooses not to be legally married—or where, as in the case of same-gender couples or polyamorous partnerships, the option is not universally available to them—they may substitute another form of pledge to each other (domestic partnership, merging of finances, power of attorney), or omit it altogether and just hold the commitment ceremony.

It is perfectly acceptable for friends or chosen family to take the roles that were traditionally filled by the bride's father or the groom's mother. Likewise, nontraditional couples or menages should feel free to allocate the roles of "bride" and "groom" as they see fit and to modify the ceremony to better express their intent.

Nowadays many couples live together before getting married, making the ekdosis more symbolic than actual. While we no longer assume that couples come to each other sexually untried, the wedding night can still be a memorable and joyous occasion. I suggest that the couple's friends decorate the thalamos (wedding-chamber) with new sheets, flowers, wine and finger-foods, massage oils and toys to ensure a happy night. A small altar to Aphrodite should be included.

Plan for the Wedding Day

If they have not already done so, the couple completes any legal paperwork first thing in the morning. Then the two part. They go with their attendants for their ritual baths. (Friends may take this time to decorate the house and thalamos for the evening's festivities.) In the early afternoon the bride and groom may host separate luncheons with their families and closest friends and then take time to prepare for the evening.

At dusk, the two parties, the bride's and the groom's, gather a short distance away from the house where the couple will be living; the parties approach from opposite directions. The groom's mother (or the person(s) taking this role) stands at the door of the house. She welcomes the couple and brings them to the hearth. Here the families ask for Hestia's blessing on the couple and acknowledge the union of their two lines. The couple are showered with nuts and dried fruit, and are presented with a basket of bread, and the bride removes her veil. A feast follows. Afterwards, the couple are escorted to their bedroom with songs (and, no doubt, some ribaldry) to enjoy their wedding night.

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[1] Garland, The Greek Way of Life, pp. 217-218.
[2] Garland, p. 219.
[3] Garland, p. 220.
[4] Garland, p. 221.
[5] Bruit/Schmitt, Religion in the Ancient Greek City, p. 69.
[6] Garland, p. 221.
[7] There are no religious prohibitions against divorce in Hellenism, and separation can be initiated by either partner. Just as living together, symbolized by the ekdosis, is the essence of marriage, ceasing to live together effectively means the end of marriage. In ancient times, the woman's dowry was returned to her family (JACT, pp. 162-163) and, in Athens, responsibility for her welfare reverted to her guardian. The ex-husband would usually retain custody of any children (Garland, p. 90). As we have no evidence that the ancients viewed divorce in religious terms, there are no traditional rituals associated with it.
Just as women now make their own matches and manage their own financial affairs, they are free to initiate divorce proceedings, which remain a matter for the secular courts. Child custody should of course be arranged with the children's well-being in mind.

A complete wedding ritual following this plan can be found in Old Stones, New Temples. For a somewhat different approach, see also the lovely wedding ritual at the Thiasos Olympikos site.

copyright 2000 by Andrew Campbell

This article originally appeared on Andrew Campbell's Nomos Arkhaios site which is currently on hiatus.
This article is copyright © 2000-2003 by Andrew Campbell and is reprinted here with permission.

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