By Florence Gherchanoc and Pauline Schmitt Pantel
Contrary to widespread belief, Greek women wore veils only in particular contexts. Evidence of this can be found, first and foremost, in countless images of indoor and outdoor scenes, which, though they are not photographic copies of reality, do refer to the most common representations. (See Gallery 1 below).
The scene depicted on the red-figure Attic cup by the Amphitrite Painter, dating from 460-450 B.C. (fig. 1) is an illuminating example. Here, just one woman wears a veil on her head, and her face is exposed: she is the bride in this wedding ritual. Her future husband holds her by the wrist, for it is the moment when he leads her to her new house. The other women are not veiled; they are perhaps the mothers of the newlyweds, and hold torches to light the ritual. The woman behind the bride wears a sakkos (a cloth to keep the hair back) on her head; the woman standing at the door of the house is bare-headed, her hair in a bun. Archaic, as well as classical Attic imagery, offers many scenes of the procession leading the veiled bride from her parent’s house to her husband’s (see Gallery 2 below).
In addition, seduction scenes between men show a beardless young man wrapped up in a himation (coat), his head covered, across from an older, bearded male partner, who offers him a gift (a rooster, hare, etc.) (figs. 2 and 3).
Finally, funeral steles from the classical era represent the deceased woman with her head covered by part of her himation: this was an iconographic convention used to signal modesty (aidôs) and temperance (sôphrosunê) (fig. 4).
The Greek language has various terms that are translated, sometimes wrongly, as “veil”: peplos, kaluptra, kalumna, krêdemnon, pharos. Peplos refers to the typical women’s garment, made of a long rectangle of cloth folded in two, attached at the shoulders, and tightened at the waist by a belt. The words kaluptra and kalumna are derived from the verb kaluptô, and refer to a fabric that covers and conceals. Krêdemnon is a kind of head garment. Pharos probably refers to a large piece of fabric (nuptial covering, coat, sail, etc.). In images, the pharos, worn on the head and body with a part held out in front, symbolizes the conjugal bond and identifies the bride (figs. 13 and 14). All these terms contain the idea of covering and hiding, which is why the veil is often interpreted as a mark of reserve, modesty (aidôs), and temperance (sôphrosunê)—qualities expected of the wives and daughters of citizens, as well as of young men, who are also shown covered up by their coat (figs. 2 and 3).
The Veil and Marriage
The veil played a significant role in various moments of the matrimonial ritual. First, it served as a pre-nuptial offering: before getting married, young women would offer (often in a group), objects and clothing to the divinities who watched over marriages, in particular, Artemis, Athena, and Aphrodite. We find evidence of this in votive epigrams such as the following:
“To Aphrodite the Heavenly we girl companions, all of one age, give these gifts: Bitinna these sandals, a comfort to her feet, the pretty work of skilled shoemakers, Philaenis the net (kekruphalos), dyed with sea-purple, that confined her straying hair, Anticleia her fan, lovely Heracleia her veil (kalupteiran prosôpou), fine as a spider's web, and the daughter of Aristoteles, who bears her father's name, her coiled snake, the gold ornament of her slender ankles.”
(Antipater of Sidon, 2nd century B.C., in The Greek Anthology: Hellenistic Epigrams, ed. and trans. by W. R. Patton, Loeb Classical Library, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916, VI, 206.
During the wedding itself, the veil served as a fundamental and distinctive element of the bride’s appearance, as we can see from the images here (figs. 1, 10, 11, 12). It shaped the beauty of the young woman, which is also indicated by the presence of Eros. As bridal wear, it accompanied the bride as she passed into her new status as a married woman, and expressed both her erotic force and the conjugal bond (Homer, The Iliad, XV, 125-128; The Odyssey, XVIII, 292-293 and 303; The Iliad, XXII, 468-472; Pherecydes of Syros, Fragments B 1-2 [Hermann Diels, Walther Krantz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 1956, p. 47-48]; Euripides, Medea, 947-958 and 1156-1162).
The rite of unveiling (anakaluptêria) was a key moment in a wedding. The gesture would be accompanied by some words of farewell and sometimes a gift. It symbolized the connection between the spouses, at the moment when the young woman, pulling aside part of her veil, revealed her face.
Finally, after the wedding, the nuptial veil was sometimes offered to a divinity as a token of thanks. Thus, “Alcibia dedicated to Hera the holy veil (kaluptrên) of her hair, when she entered into lawful wedlock (kouridiôn gamôn).” The Greek Anthology: Hellenistic Epigrams, ed. and trans. by W. R. Patton, Loeb Classical Library, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916.