In Ancient Greece, around 400 B.C.E., young girls were given in marriage as soon as they reached puberty, about the age of 12 or 13. Fathers arranged for suitable husbands for their daughters.
The marriage ceremony in Ancient Greece was made up of three different phases. First, the young girl who was given in marriage was separated from her childhood household called the “oikos.” Then she would transition to the home of her husband and his family. The last phase of the ceremony would be the shift of her new role as wife to her husband and “daughter” to her husband’s parents. The focus of all the festivities and ceremonies was the bride and her transition to her new household and her new master. As a child, her father was master, but now her husband was her new master or “kyrios.”
The Wedding Rituals Begin
The “ekdosis” was the process of transferring the bride to her new oikos. The community as well as the members of her childhood family and the members of her new husband’s family participated. The ekdosis meant a formal goodbye to her childhood and signaled the beginning of her role in a new household.
The wedding lasted three days and the day before the wedding was called the “proaulia.” For a few weeks before the proaulia, the bride would be with her mother and other female relatives. Her friends and chosen servants would be sharing this time with her as well. They would be preparing for the wedding at the bride’s childhood home. These rituals prior to the wedding were one of the few types of festivities where women actively celebrated.
Once the day of the proaulia arrived, there would be a feast at the bride’s home. She would make offerings that included her childhood toys and clothing to different gods. This ceremony signified the official end of her childhood. She made the offerings, called the “protelia,” to the gods and goddesses to order to receive their protection during this important time in her life.
The bride would also offer special sacrifices, such as locks of hair, to the goddess Artemis. Artemis could offer a smooth transition from the bride’s life as a child to her new status as a married woman. Sometimes the bride would make sacrifices to Hera to align her new marriage with the divine nature of the gods and goddesses.
The bride and groom would also make offerings to the goddess Aphrodite so that she would ensure their coupling would create healthy children.
The Wedding Day Has Arrived
The wedding day, called the “gamos” began with a nuptial bath in the women’s quarters. Water was brought from the river and carried in a vase. A child who had been given this special honor brought the bath water to the bride. This ceremony was intended to purify the bride and enhance her ability to have children. After her bath, the bride would dress in the same room where she had bathed.
The bride’s costume contained a veil, which symbolized her purity. Just as in modern weddings, this veil was not removed until she was given in marriage to the groom. The bride would also have a special helper who, along with her mother and other relatives and friends, would assist during the meal preparation and sacrifices.
The Banquet Hall
The bride’s father, the groom’s father, or the groom would be the host for the wedding banquet. The bride and groom would offer sacrifices to the gods of marriage and the wedding feast would begin. The bride’s and groom’s families would be in attendance as well as friends of both the bride and groom just as in modern weddings today.
This was one of the events where women were allowed to attend even though women and men were seated at different tables. They dined on fine foods and ate delicacies such as honey mixed with sesame seeds. Entertainers hired for the wedding would dance and sing. The songs were important since the lyrics encouraged the new couple in their marriage and expressed hopes for many children.
The Unveiling and the Procession
In the evening it was time for the most important part of the rituals. The bride was handed over to the groom and her veil was lifted. Some historians believe that this part of the ceremony did not occur until the bride had arrived at her new home. Most believe that the bride was presented to the groom as she got ready to leave her childhood home.
Now it was time for the procession to the home of the groom. But before the procession began, there was a ritual to show that the bride had been given to her new husband. The groom grabbed the bride’s wrist, while her father handed her over. Her father would say “in front of witnesses, I give this girl to you for the creation of children.” After this event, the procession was treated as if the bride was being held as a captive. There was a great deal of sadness as she left her childhood home to begin a life as a mother of her own children.
The Bread Basket
A child whose parents were both still alive was chosen to accompany the bride in the procession. He symbolized their future child and was there as a symbol of good luck for the newly married couple. The child would hand out bread from a bread basket to the wedding guests. The bread represented the couple’s future child as well and the basket represented the future child’s cradle.
The child chosen for the procession would wear a crown of thorns and nuts. This crown signified the escape of man from the wildness of nature to the civilization offered by Greek culture. The bride was given a grill for the toasting of barley, a pestle that was designed to hang in front of the wedding chamber, a sieve, and different grains. All these symbols represented the connections among fertility, social life, and agriculture.
The bride would be riding in a mule-driven cart with her husband and his friend. The bride’s mother would carry torches to ward off evil spirits that might harm the bride. In addition to the members of the families and friends, sometimes an entire town would join the procession. Women would carry baskets and vases that contained fruits, violets, and roses. Some of these items might be thrown at the couple, just like we throw rice today. There was music to celebrate the bride’s contribution to the marriage. This part of the ceremony was similar to other victory celebrations in Greece.
The Bride Arrives at the Groom’s House
When the newly married couple arrived at the groom’s house there was much celebrating. The groom lifted his new bride out of the cart and his mother welcomed her new daughter by carrying torches and escorting her inside the house.
Then there were a series of rituals performed to establish prosperity and fertility.
The bride would burn the axle of the chariot symbolizing that she could no longer return to her childhood home. She would be escorted to the center of the household and offered dried figs, dates, and nuts to eat.
The wedding guests could enter the married couple’s bedroom, but eventually they left the new couple alone in their wedding chamber. The door was shut and guarded by a friend of the groom. The bride’s friends sang to her to give her confidence as she entered married life and became a woman. There were special songs designed to scare evil spirits away and help the couple in their desire to have a male child.
The Final Day of the Ceremony
The final day of the wedding festivities was called the “epaulia.” The couple was awakened with songs from the maidens who had stayed awake all night and some of the male guests. The spotlight was still on the bride as she was offered gifts in her new oikos. The lyrics once again highlighted the transition of the bride to her new status as mistress of her husband’s household.