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Dowries and Bride gifts in Ancient Greece

Dowries and Bride gifts in Ancient Greece



Picture: Pandora accepts Gifts

A man and a women can be paired for marriage in a number of ways. The establishment of such a union often involves legal rights and responsibilities. Normally the married couple shares certain property and income. Income and property at the beginning of a marriage is thought to be helpful in establishing the success of the family including children. Specificaly the dowry is funds or property passed to a daughter at marriage to ensure her support if widowed but also to support her children. Variations to this include the bridprice, the direct dowery, and the indirect dowery or dower. The brideprice is a payment by the groom to the bride’s parents compensating the parents for the loss of their daughter. The direct dowery is wealth transferred from the bride’s parents to the groom or the groom’s family. The indirect dowry is wealth or property given to the bride herself by the groom at the time of her marriage which remails under her control.

A number of these arrangements are present in ancient Greek culture, some with modification.



Nymphs are minor female goddesses often associated with land or water features. These nymphs seem to control these features. Thus in Homer Odyssey 7.244 “There is an isle, Ogygia, which lies far off in the sea. [245] Therein dwells the fair-tressed daughter of Atlas, guileful Calypso, a dread goddess, and with her no one either of gods or mortals hath aught to do”

The Nymphs mentioned by Homer are often Naiad Nymphs. Athena tells Odysseus about Naiad Nymphs in Homer, Odyssey, 13.345, “This is the harbor of Phorcys, the old man of the sea, and here at the head of the harbor is the long-leafed olive tree, and near it is the pleasant, shadowy cave, sacred to the nymphs that are called Naiads. This, thou must know, is the vaulted cave in which thou [350] wast wont to offer to the nymphs many hecatombs that bring fulfillment.” It is pretty clear that thenymps referenced here are goddesses.

Other references to nymphs in Homer are goddesses and others perhaps not:

  • Homer, Iliad, 2.865 “the two sons of TaIaemenes, whose mother was the nymph of the Gygaean lake;”
  • Homer, Iliad, 6.21, “Pedasus, whom on a time the fountain-nymph Abarbarea bare to peerless Bucolion. Now Bucolion was son of lordly Laomedon, his eldest born, though the mother that bare him was unwed; [25] he while shepherding his flocks lay with the nymph in love, and she conceived and bare twin sons.” The name “Abarbarea” may mean “babbling brook”
  • Homer, Iliad, 14.43, “Satnius…, even the son of Enops, whom a peerless Naiad nymph conceived [445] to Enops, as he tended his herds by the banks of Satnioeis.”
  • Homer, Iliad, 20.6, “There was no river that came not, save only Oceanus, nor any nymph, of all that haunt the fair copses, the springs that feed the rivers, and the grassy meadows. “
  • Homer, Iliad, 20,383, “Iphition, … whom a Naiad nymph bare to Otrynteus, sacker of cities, beneath snowy Timolus in the rich land of Hyde.
  • Homer, Odyssey 1.70, “Polyphemus, whose might is greatest among all the Cyclopes; and the nymph Thoosa bore him, daughter of Phorcys who rules over the unresting sea; for in the hollow caves she lay with Poseidon.”

“The rights of Minoan women may have included the exercise of property rights.” This statement seems helpful in understanding the statements about nymphs in Homer. The nymphs may actually be tied to the resource they control. With marriage that resource may become available to the spouse and children. This situation with real women may have been idealized to the goddesses.


Gifts to Maidens

Hesiod, Works and Days, line 71, ” And the goddess brighteyed Athena girded and clothed her, and the divine Graces and queenly Persuasion put necklaces of gold upon her, [75] and the rich-haired Hours crowned her head with spring flowers. And Pallas Athena bedecked her form with all manner of finery. Also the Guide, the Slayer of Argus, contrived within her lies and crafty words and a deceitful nature at the will of loud thundering Zeus, [80] and the Herald of the gods put speech in her. And he called this woman Pandora, because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift.”

The myth of Pandora may have described an established custom to provide gifts for brides. Another example of such gifts is to be found in the myth of the daughters of Pandareus:

Homer, Odyssey, 20.66, “daughters of Pandareus. Their parents the gods had slain, and they were left orphans in the halls, and fair Aphrodite tended them with cheese, and sweet honey, and pleasant wine, [70] and Here gave them beauty and wisdom above all women, and chaste Artemis gave them stature, and Athena taught them skill in famous handiwork.”


Women’s Names Related to Gifts

  • Κλυμένης — Clymene — ‘famous for ability’ from Greek ‘κλειυός’,’famous’ and ‘μένος’, ‘might, force’ from Indo-European ‘kleu’ to hear and ‘magh-1’, ‘To be able, have power’
  • Πανδώρας — Pandora — ‘cloth giver’ from Indo-European ‘pā̆n-‘, ‘woven fabric’ and ‘dō-‘, ‘to give’. Often it is derived from Greek: Πανδώρα, ‘giver of all, all-endowed’ click here) which is an epithet of the earth.
  • Ἱόλειαυ — Iolea — ‘gets booty’ from Indo-European ‘ei’, ‘to go’ and ‘lei-, ‘to get’
  • Ἀλφεσιβοίας — Alphesiboea — ‘bring many hides’ from Greek ‘ἀλφάίνω’, ‘fetch’ and ‘βοῦς’ ‘bovine’ From Indo-European perhaps ‘albho-‘, ‘white, ‘sel-3’, ‘To take’ and ‘gwou-‘, ‘ox, bull, cow’. Note: This references a Maiden who can yield many ox hides from her suitors. The derivation of ‘alphasi-‘ is unknown
  • Πολυδώρην — Polydora — ‘many hides’ from Indo-European pel-8 ‘to fill’ and ‘der-2’, ‘To split, peel, flay; with deritives relating to skin and leather’ (This may relate to suitors’ gifts)
  • Πολυβοίαι — Polyboea — ‘Many cows’ from Indo-European ‘pel-8’, ‘to fill’ and ‘gwou-‘, ‘ox, bull, cow’.
  • Δωρὶς — Doris — ‘gift’ from Indo-European ‘dō- : də-, also dō-u- : dəu- : du-‘, ‘to give, donate’ and ‘4. rei- : rēi-‘, ‘thing, possession’
  • Κλυμένη — Klymene — ‘famous for ability’ from Greek ‘κλειυός’,’famous’ and ‘μένος’, ‘might, force’ from Indo-European ‘kleu’ to hear and ‘magh-1’, ‘To be able, have power’
  • Χρυσηίς — Chryseis — ‘Gold seeker’ from Hebrew ‘haruz’, ‘Gold’ ‘sag-‘, ‘Seeker’


Dowries in Ancient Literature

Homer, Odyssey, 2.51, “They shrink from going to the house of her father, Icarius, that he may himself exact the bride-gifts for his daughter, and give her to whom he will, even to him who meets his favour, ”

Homer, Odyssey, 2.195, “His mother let him bid to go back to the house of her father, and they will prepare a wedding feast and make ready the gifts full many,—aye, all that should follow after a well-loved daughter.”

Homer, Odyssey, 15.367, “…they (Laertes and Anticlea) sent her (Ctimene) to Same to wed, and got themselves countless bridal gifts.”

Homer, Odyssey, 15.123, “and fair-cheeked Helen came up with the robe in her hands, and spoke, and addressed him: (Telemachus) “Lo, I too give thee this gift, dear child, a remembrance of the hands of Helen, against the day of thy longed-for marriage, for thy bride to wear it. But until then let it lie in thy halls in the keeping of thy dear mother (Penelope).”

Homer, Odyssey, 18.276, “They who are fain (glad) to woo a lady of worth and the daughter of a rich man and vie with one another, these bring of themselves cattle and goodly flocks, a banquet for the friends of the bride, and give to her glorious gifts;

Homer, Iliad, 9.144, “Three daughters have I (Agamemnon) in my well-builded hall, Chrysothemis, and Laodice, and Iphianassa (Iphigenia); of these let him (Achilles) lead to the house of Peleus which one he will, without gifts of wooing, and I will furthermore give a dower full rich, such as no man ever yet gave with his daughter.”

Homer, Iliad, 13.363, “For he slew Othryoneus of Cabesus, a sojourner in Troy, that was but newly come following the rumour of war; [365] and he asked in marriage the comeliest of the daughters of Priam, even Cassandra; he brought no gifts of wooing, but promised a mighty deed, that he would drive forth perforce out of Troy-land the sons of Achaeans.”

Homer, Iliad, 18.83, “that fair armour, huge of size, a wonder to behold, that the gods gave as a glorious gift to Peleus on the day when they laid thee (Thetis) in the bed of a mortal man.”

Gifts of wooing (brideprice) is the money used to compensate a family for the loss of their daughter. This seems much more common in the Mycenean times than in Classical times. This may be due to the relative importance of women in the economy of the times. The Mycenaeans were much more dependent upon the export of wool products for their economy. Women were very involved with wool processing, including spinning, and weaving of wool. This is reflected by the many referencesw to weaving in the ancient Greek literature.


Dowries in Classical Athens

Demosthenes with an English translation by A. T. Murray, Ph.D., LL.D. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1939, Demosthenes, Against Onetor,section 13 note 1″To make a marriage legal at Athens it was necessary that both bride and bridegroom be of pure Athenian stock, and that the bride be given away by her father, or, if she had no father living, by her nearest male relative (her guardian or κύριος). The marriage-contract was between the bridegroom and this guardian, and the marriage-portion was paid by the guardian to the bridegroom. In the case of Onetor’s sister Demosthenes asserts that the portion was not paid outright to Aphobus, but was retained by her former husband, Timocrates, who was to pay interest on it at 10 percent. The husband might divorce his wife, but he was required to send her back to her guardian with her personal effects and her portion, or to pay interest on the portion, normally at 18 percent until it was paid. His action in sending away his wife was technically called ἀπόπεμψις. On the other hand the wife might leave her husband with his consent, or for cause. If the husband’s consent could not be obtained, the woman presented herself before the archon and stated her case. The act, taken on her initiative, was termed ἀπόλειψις, and in this case, too, her portion went with her.”

The Athenian Constitution included dowries as a matter of the law. (Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, 52.2) “These cases include prosecutions for non-payment of dowry due”.

Dowries were provided by the state to poor girls: (Demosthenes, Against Neaera, section 113)”even if a girl be poor, the law provides for her an adequate dowry, if nature has endowed her with even moderate comeliness”>

Also (Demosthenes, Against Neaera, section 69) “but he requested Epaenetus to make a contribution toward a dowry for Neaera’s daughter, making mention of his own poverty and the misfortune which the girl had formerly met with in her relations with Phrastor, and asserting that he had lost her marriage portion and could not provide another for her.”


Quiz Yourself on the Topic of Dowries

Question 1 – Who usually provides the money for a dowry?

  1. a. The parents of the bride.
  2. b. The parents of the groom.
  3. c. The city where the groom has residence.
  4. d. The groom.
  5. e. The employer of the Groom.

Click on the letter of your choice a b c d e

Question 2 – A water Nymph (Naiad) seems to have received what as a dowry?

  1. a. A sum of money equal to her weight in water.
  2. b. A crown.
  3. c. A water resistant dress.
  4. d. A spring, a stream, or river.
  5. e. The hand in marriage of a satyr.

Click on the letter of your choice a b c d e

The answer is b, the parents of the groom. See: Introduction

Click here to continue

Question 3 – What gift did Athena provide to the maids of myth?

  1. a. clothing and skill in making clothing.
  2. b. beauty.
  3. c. necklaces of gold.
  4. d. crafty words and a deceitful nature.
  5. e. the ability to speak.

Click on the letter of your choice a b c d e

The answer is d, A spring, a stream, or river. See: Nymphs

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Question 4 – Which family was most likely to receive gifts of wooing?

  1. a. a large family with many daughters.
  2. b. a family with an oly daughter.
  3. c. a religious family.
  4. d. a family with a beautiful daughter.
  5. e. a wealthy family.

Click on the letter of your choice a b c d e

The answer is a, clothing and skill in making clothing. Athena is the goddess of craft. See: Gifts to Maidens

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Question 5 – In Classical Athens dowries were a matter of what?

  1. a. the engaged couple and their preferences.
  2. b. the custom of the oikos.
  3. c. religion and a priest or priestess family.
  4. d. the law and the courts of law.
  5. e. a wealth and wealthy families.

Click on the letter of your choice a b c d e

The answer is e, A wealthy family would receive the gifts because of custom. See: Dowries in Ancient Literature

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The answer is d, the law and the courts of law. See: Dowries in Classical Athens

End of Quiz


Resources about Dowries in Ancient Greece


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