Nossis and Women’s Cult at Locri

Eleven, or possibly twelve, epigrams by the third century B.C.E. woman poet Nossis, a native of Epizephyrian Locri in Magna Graecia, have been preserved in the Greek Anthology. Originally excerpted from a larger authorial collection by the anthologist Meleager, these quatrains were until recently ignored by English-speaking classicists. Now, however, they have caught the attention of American feminist scholars, who praise Nossis’ artistic delicacy, wit, and learning, point to her aspirations for public recognition, and define her contribution to the organizational conventions of later Hellenistic poetry books (Skinner 1989 and 1991; Bowman; Gutzwiller 74–88).

On the other hand, Italian archaeologists, no less than Italian students of Greek verse, have always paid close attention to Nossis. Her testimony to the existence of a temple of Aphrodite in her native city prompted investigators to identify what was clearly one of its major shrines, the archaic sanctuary at Marasà Sud, as that of the goddess. Aphrodite’s presence at Locri is now confirmed by a graffito and an inscription from another site, a sanctuary complex at Centocamere, outside the city walls (Barra Bagnasco 1990, 1992: 14–15, 1996). Marcello Gigante noted other significant correspondences between the archaeological evidence and Nossis’ dedicatory epigrams, including iconographic details from the famous fifth century B.C.E. Locrian votive pinakes (1974).

Despite the fact that most of them memorialize cult offerings by women, though, Nossis’ epigrams have not been adequately consulted as a source of information about the demonstrably unusual aspects of religious practice at Locri. In his monumental new study The Locrian Maidens: Love and Death in Greek Italy (2003), James M. Redfield posits that the social organization of Locri Epizephyrii was radically distinct from that of other leading archaic Greek states, because it grounded its solidarity upon the mediation of sexual difference and the closed exchange of elite women in marriage. For understanding such a system as he theorizes, the testimony of an “insider,” a female member of the nobility with first-hand knowledge of women’s rituals, would, one assumes, be of inestimable value to a researcher—yet Redfield confines his interest in Nossis to just one footnote (n. 47 on p. 265), in which he cites her autobiographical mention of mother and grandmother to corroborate the historian Polybius’ report (12.5) that the matriline was crucial to status differentiation. More use of Nossis can surely be made. In this paper, I bring historical and archaeological evidence of Locrian cult activity to bear on four of her poems, namely the dedicatory quatrains numbered 3 through 6 in Gow and Page’s Hellenistic Epigrams. After analyzing their implications, I will conclude with remarks upon the internal audience of women worshippers Nossis constructs in these poems and its relationship to the external audience she is addressing.

Before I discuss Nossis’ poetry, however, let me acquaint you with the history and topography of her native city and summarize some of the curious features of its cults. As the name indicates, Locri was founded by the Opuntian Locrians of central Greece, possibly with Spartan collaboration (Paus. 3.3.1), in the early seventh century B.C.E. Rivalry with the neighboring cities of Regium and Croton (Figure 1) led it to expand its territory; at the height of its power, in the early decades of the fifth century, Locri had founded its own subsidiary colonies, such as Medma, and controlled a large swathe of land all the way to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Its governing class maintained close ties with Syracuse in Sicily; when Dionysius II, tyrant of Syracuse, was expelled in 356, he was given asylum by the Locrian aristocracy. Dionysius’ subsequent seizure of political power at Locri was followed by a popular revolt and the establishment of a democracy. The Locrians sided with Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, in his wars against Rome, and defected to Hannibal during the Second Punic War; later, however, the city was recaptured by Scipio and passed under Rome’s sway permanently. As a Roman municipium, it thereafter remained prosperous and locally influential until its decline in late antiquity.

Locri was famous in antiquity for its strict code of laws, attributed to the seventh-century Pythagorean sage Zaleucus, for its hereditary oligarchy, and, above all, for its several leading sanctuaries (Figure 2). One of the oldest, probably coterminous with the foundation of the city in the 7th century B.C.E., is the Ionic temple at Marasá, which, as I said earlier, has plausibly been assigned to Aphrodite. Close by is the extra-mural precinct at Centocamere), also dating back to the 7th century and also belonging to Aphrodite. A temple closer to the central part of the city, at Casa Marafioti, may have been that of Zeus. Another extra-mural place of worship is located at Grotta Caruso, sacred in Hellenistic times to Pan and the water nymphs. Further west, on the hill of Mannella, there are remains of a temple of Athena. Unfortunately, the ruins of Locri’s most famous shrine, the temple of Persephone, have not been discovered, but its presence in a valley below the same hill, to the north and outside the wall, is suggested by a large deposit of pinakes found nearby.

According to Diodorus Siculus (27.4.2), Persephone’s sanctuary was considered “the most renowned temple in Italy, preserved as holy for all time by the inhabitants.” Livy (29.18.3) reports that in 204 B.C.E. envoys from Locri addressing the Roman Senate could assume that their audience was fully aware of its religious importance. One of the most striking aspects of the worship of Persephone at Locri, at least to modern observers, is its conflation with the cult of Aphrodite, as evidenced by the type-scenes found on the pinakes. In this series of images, which are manifestly associated with the ritual activities of women and are frequently regarded as “wedding ex-votos” (MacLachlan 210), the symbolism of the two deities is amalgamated, often provoking considerable controversy as to which goddess is meant. In this plaque (Figure 3), for example, a girl presents a ball and a rooster to a seated divinity, while a goose flexes its wings beneath an offering table. While roosters are chthonic birds prominently linked to Persephone on the Locrian pinakes, geese are elsewhere closely tied to Aphrodite—although at Locri they have connections with Persephone as well (Sourvinou-Inwood 109). The perceived identity of the goddess then determines the import of this scene, which has become the focus of several conflicting readings. Interaction between Persephone and Aphrodite is likewise subject to opposing interpretations. Is the relation of the two antithetical, with Persephone presiding over the domain of legitimate marriage and child rearing, and Aphrodite standing for socially “illicit and ‘aberrant’” modes of sexuality, as Sourvinou-Inwood (120) proposes? Or are their operations wholly integrated, so that the goddesses, in MacLachlan’s formulation, “meet at the intersection of death and sexuality” (218)? Redfield postulates that the Locrian fusion of nuptial and funerary imagery reflects an Orphic concept of marriage and death as parallel rites of passage, each involving transformation to a blessed state (367–69, 384–85). Certainly the unique character of women’s religious activity there, involving joint worship of deities normally treated as quite distinct, confirms the importance of Sourvinou-Inwood’s stipulation (101–03) that study of Greek divine personalities must take account of local difference and base its findings upon a non-Panhellenic, community-oriented approach to cult. When we turn to Nossis’ epigrams we should bear such issues in mind.

Let us begin with poem 3 (AP 6.265), commemorating the donation of a linen robe to Hera by the author and her mother:

Most reverend Hera, you who often descending from heaven

behold your Lacinian shrine fragrant with incense,

receive the linen wrap that with her noble child Nossis

Theophilis daughter of Cleocha wove for you.

Parallels are often drawn with the pinax types 16 and 17 Prückner, showing a priestess and four maidens bearing a robe, most likely as a votive gift (Figure 4). Nossis cannot be expressly referring to the Locrian ritual on the tablet, because she states that the garment was presented in the temple of Lacanian Hera at Croton, almost a hundred miles east along the Ionian coast. However, her epigram is evidence for the indigenous custom of dedicating an article of clothing on the occasion of a girl’s wedding. Nossis’ self-identification through the maternal line—at Locri, a marker of nobility (Polyb. 12.5.6)—and her collaboration with her mother in producing an artifact intended for the divine patroness of marriage establish conclusively that she is participating in a pre-nuptial rite. This, then, would suggest that the context of the Locrian peplophoria scene is also a wedding. One other noteworthy item is the phrase Nossis uses of herself in line 3, pais agaua (“noble child”). Taken literally, the adjective simply reinforces her claim to good birth. However, agauê is applied to Persephone herself as queen of the dead at Od. 11.213; and, in an admittedly late Orphic hymn (Orphei Hymni3 41.5–6 ed. Quandt), the goddess is even described as agauê Persephoneia, hagnos pais. Resort to an epithet formulaically associated with Persephone in literary and sacred texts might therefore be a way of mapping one goddess upon the other: mention of Hera defines the circumstances, for outsiders, as matrimonial, while allusion to Persephone, protector of brides at Locri, gives this ceremony a local significance.

Nossis’ epigrams 4 through 6 also commemorate votive offerings, but the recipient is in each case Aphrodite. Since the dedicants, as we will see, are hetairai, these poems have been brought to bear on another highly controversial matter—the historical practice of sacred prostitution at Locri. In his epitome of the first-century B.C.E. Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus, the late Imperial writer Justin preserves the report of a vow taken by the Locrians in 477/6 B.C.E.: besieged by Leophron, tyrant of Rhegium, they promised to prostitute their virgin daughters at the festival of Aphrodite if their resistance proved successful (21.3). Clearchus of Soli (ap. Ath. 12.516a) claimed that such a ritual practice was in fact customary at Epizephyrian Locri, though he could be generalizing from that one extraordinary incident. Archaeological evidence has been adduced to bolster literary testimony. At Centocamere, the seaside precinct sacred to Aphrodite, individual cubicles of a U-shaped stoa built in the archaic period have been identified as prostitutes’ cribs, although similar facilities at other religious sites are commonly recognized as chambers for ritual banqueting. Prückner advanced an overall reading of the iconography of the pinakes, relating the majority to the festival of Aphrodite at which girls were allegedly prostituted and explaining those images as depictions of successive stages of the event. His interpretation, however, has met with considerable resistance.

Having dealt with that contextual background, we may now discuss the three epigrams. In poem 4 (AP 9.332), Nossis invites her audience—made up exclusively of women, as we learn from the feminine participle elthoisai in line 1—to come and view the gilded statue that the courtesan Polyarchis had set up in the temple of Aphrodite, which was paid for by the wealth she earned from her own body:

Let us go to Aphrodite’s temple to see her statue,
how finely it is embellished with gold.
Polyarchis dedicated it, having made a great fortune
out of the splendor of her own body.

Since the original shrine of Aphrodite at Centocamere was destroyed around the middle of the 4th century B.C.E. (Barra Bagnasco 1996: 27–28), the temple to be visited should be identified with the one at Marasà (Figure 5). Within the same temple, no doubt, the Samytha of poem 5 (AP 6.275) presents an elaborately worked headdress to the goddess. Mention of Aphrodite’s consort Adonis in line 4 must allude to Samytha’s celebration of the Adonia, a festive occasion for courtesans and favored clients (Skinner 1991: 25):

Joyfully indeed, I think, Aphrodite receives this gift,

a headdress from Samytha’s own hair.

For it is elaborate, and smells sweetly in some way of nectar.
With this she too anoints the beautiful Adonis.

Although in fifth-century Locri Hermes and Aphrodite were enshrined together as joint embodiments of anarchic sexuality (Prückner’s pinax type 2; cf. Sourvinou-Inwood 119–20), this epigram proves that by Nossis’ lifetime Adonis had also been recognized as Aphrodite’s erotic partner. It is consequently intriguing that Barra Bagnasco now classifies the so-called “Casa dei Leoni,” a large Hellenistic edifice constructed upon the foundations of the archaic shrine to Aphrodite, as a sacral building dedicated to the rites of Adonis (1996:28–29).

The last epigram we will consider here, poem 6 (AP 9.605) at first appears to correlate neatly with earlier archaeological evidence, since it honors a young woman’s consecration of a pinax at Aphrodite’s sanctuary.

This tablet Callo set up in the house of blonde Aphrodite,
a portrait she had painted, like her in every way.
How tenderly she stands! See how greatly her charm blooms!
May she fare well: her way of life is blameless.

But Callo is not a maiden on the brink of marriage. Since Nossis makes a point of affirming that she bears no blame for her way of life (biota), she must be a courtesan. That pronouncement recalls Pindar’s admonition (fr. 122 Snell) to the hundred slave girls purchased by Xenophon of Corinth and presented as a victory-offering to Aphrodite’s temple on the acropolis: sun d’ anankai pan kalon (fr. 122.9). Nossis certainly knew her Pindar; yet it would be going too far to infer, solely because she expresses a comparable sentiment, that Callo was a hierodoulê, like Xenophon’s “herd of girls.” It seems improbable that hierodoulai, no doubt slaves, would be interested in commissioning epigrams celebrating dedications. Hence these three quatrains do not support a claim that the Locrians practiced sacred prostitution.

Nossis composed four epigrams containing an ecphrasis of a votive pinax. Besides the courtesan Callo, her three other pinax dedicants are a young mistress of a household (poem 7), another young woman, probably unmarried (poem 8), and a mature lady (poem 9). These poems describe encaustic portraits and insist upon the verisimilitude of the likeness. They are not depictions of coroplastic type-scenes. Using them to confirm the survival of the fifth-century B.C.E. custom of presenting pinakes to a deity is possible, then, only if we posit a change in the content and material of the votive object and assume that the original nuptial setting of such dedications was broadened considerably. In contrast to the tradition of the peplophoria, there seems a radical break in continuity here.

All the same, these epigrams intimate that a code of sexual ethics odd by classical Athenian standards continues in force at Epizypherian Locri. Nossis’ warm eulogies of courtesans and their profession are unparalleled. Contrast Pindar’s affected embarrassment at composing a tribute for Xenophon’s temple gift: “What will the masters of the Isthmus say about me?” Other epigrams memorializing donations made by hetairai, real or fictive, either concentrate discreetly on the votive object, barely mentioning the giver, or moralize about the ephemerality of beauty. Nossis’ poems raise a question about the blurring of rigid caste distinctions between respectable and non-respectable women in her native city (Skinner 1991: 27). Fifth-century material evidence for cult practice seems to corroborate that absence of discrimination against the prostitute, refreshingly at odds with the prejudice expressed by Apollodorus in Against Neaera (Dem. 59). On the two sides of the Ludovisi throne—securely attributed on artistic grounds to a Locrian sculptor and even ascribed a provenience from the temple at Marasà—two female figures are shown worshipping the goddess. On the left side, a naked hetaira playing an aulos (Figure 5) represents Aphrodite Pandemos, who oversees those pleasures that do not further the interests of the family and the community. On the right side, a heavily draped matron burning incense in a thymiaterion (Figure 6) exemplifies the sphere of Aphrodite Ourania, the legitimate exercise of sexuality within marriage. Their roles are not hostile but complementary: each pleases the goddess as she performs her specific function (Dillon 203). At Locri, then, Aphrodite seems to have been publicly venerated under these two harmonious aspects.

In the pinakes, Aphrodite’s most secure attribute is the dove, recognized throughout Greece as a love-bird (Sourvinou-Inwood 119). A statuette from Medma depicts her seated with doves perched, one on each side, on the back of her throne (Figure 7). Similarly, a pinax from Mannella shows the metope of a temple flanked by doves (Figure 8), and below, a goddess on the left being serenaded by a female aulos-player. The goddess must be Aphrodite, while the status of the musician is implied by her iconographic likeness to the flute-player on the Ludovisi throne. This performer is clothed—yet note the similarity between the two turbans, a kind of headgear often worn by hetairai on Attic vases. Since the scene is set in a temple, can this pinax serve as evidence of sacred prostitution? Probably not; but, at the same time, the woman who dedicated it was perhaps not a bride.

One final piece to add to the jigsaw. As I mentioned earlier, in the mid-fourth century, or approximately fifty or so years before Nossis was born, Dionysius II of Syracuse withdrew to Locri after being deposed in a coup d’état led by his uncle Dion. Once established there, he began to behave, according to Clearchus (ap. Ath. 12.541d), in predictable tyrant fashion by debauching noble virgins. Strabo has a bizarre variation on the same theme (6.1.8):

After they [the Locrians] had lived under good laws for a very long time, Dionysius, on being banished from the country of the Syracusans, abused them most lawlessly of all men. For he would sneak into the bed-chambers of the girls after they had been dressed up for their wedding, and lie with them before their marriage; and he would gather together the girls who were ripe for marriage, let loose doves with cropped wings upon them in the midst of the banquets, and then bid the girls waltz around unclad, and also bid some of them, shod with sandals that were not mates (one high and the other low), chase the doves around—all for the sheer indecency of it. (trans. Jones)

Here the scoundrel not only exercises the droit du seigneur but also forces maidens to dance naked and to chase doves around while wearing mismatched shoes. Redfield plausibly explains that maiden-violation features prominently in accounts of Dionysius’ sojourn among the Locrians because it reflects the special position of marriageable girls in that society (288–89). Correspondingly, the peculiar details of the atrocities Strabo reports seem like much-distorted reminiscences of an initiatory rite performed in honor of Aphrodite—the combination of doves and dancing surely points in that direction—though I haven’t a clue how the shoes fit in.

As a literary scholar rather than a historian of ancient religion, I’m not adequately prepared to explain the idiosyncrasies of women’s cult at Locri. Intuitively, however, the various secure bits of data—assimilation of symbolic motifs of Persephone’s and Aphrodite’s cults on votive plaques; worship of Aphrodite under two corresponding and equally appropriate aspects; general agreement of outside witnesses (leaving aside sensational details) that something weird goes on over there having to do with young virgins; Nossis’ tantalizing insider information—all these things seem to hang together, giving the vague impression of a meaningful picture. I can only hazard a guess that, so far, the pieces haven’t been assembled right.

Finally, what light does this attempt to read Nossis in the context of hypothetical religious observances by the women of her community cast upon her artistic strategies for self-presentation to her intended audience? Here, I think, we can speak more confidently. From both internal and external evidence, it is obvious that Nossis’ fictive audience, as constructed within the poems, is to be imagined as a group of other women. Use of the matronymic in poem 3—which, apart from marking her aristocratic bloodline, is a gender-specific speech trait—and employment of the feminine participle in poem 4 define that audience as specifically female. Antipater of Thessalonica’s descriptive epithet for her, thêlyglôssos (AP 9.26.7), and Herodas’ burlesque of her epigrams in Mimiamb 4, wherein one woman, like Nossis, displays to another a collection of art in a temple, indicate that ancient readers visualized that scenario when perusing her book of epigrams (Skinner 2001: 216–21). Bowman has recently argued, though, that Nossis’ external audience—the readership she actually wrote for—was the educated, predominantly male reading public of the Hellenistic world. That contention is undoubtedly correct, but it need not rule out allusion to local custom. I have suggested that poem 3 gestures toward Persephone’s peculiar Locrian position as nuptial deity while employing Hera, the Panhellenic goddess of marriage, to define this peplophoria as a prenuptial rite for those not in the know. Hopes of wide popular dissemination, then, would not preclude reference to religious protocols characteristic of Locri. Indeed, the prevailing scholarly interest in aetiological myth and regional cult practice might well have induced Nossis to give poetic expression to the forms and institutions of her female community—especially if they would strike a male Alexandrian academic as unconventional, and therefore exotic.


Barra Bagnasco, M. 1990. “Nuovi documenti sul culto di Afrodite a Locri Epizefiri.” PP 45: 42–63.

______, ed. 1992. Locri Epizefiri IV: Lo scavo di Marasà Sud. Il sacello tardo arcaico e la “casa dei leoni.” Florence.

______. 1996. “Il culto extramuraneo di Afrodite.” In E. Lattanzi et al., eds. 27–29.

Bowman, L. 1998. “Nossis, Sappho and Hellenistic Poetry.” Ramus 27.1: 39–59.

Dillon, M. 2002. Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. London and New York.

Gigante, M. 1974. “Nosside.” PP 29: 22–39.

Gow, A. S. F., and D. L. Page, eds. 1965. The Greek Anthology: Hellenistic Epigrams. 2 vols. Cambridge.

Gutzwiller, K. J. 1998. Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London.

Lattanzi, E., et al., eds. 1996. Santuari della Magna Grecia in Calabria. Naples.

MacLachlan, B. C. 1995. “Love, War and the Goddess in Fifth-Century Locri.” AncW 26.2: 205–23.

Prückner, H. 1968. Die lokrischen Tonreliefs. Mainz am Rhein.

Redfield, J. M. 2003. The Locrian Maidens: Love and Death in Greek Italy. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Skinner, M. B. 1989. “Sapphic Nossis.” Arethusa 22: 5–18.

———. 1991. “Nossis Thêlyglôssos: The Private Text and the Public Book.” In S. B. Pomeroy, ed., Women’s History and Ancient History. Chapel Hill and London: 20–47.

———. 2001. “Ladies’ Day at the Art Institute: Theocritus, Herodas, and the Gendered Gaze.” In A. Lardinois and L. McClure, eds., Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society. Princeton, N.J.,. 201–22.

Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 1978. “Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri: A Model for Personality Definitions in Greek Religion.” JHS 98: 101–21.