If wisdom is the understanding of the essence of beings and phenomena, things that are and things that seem to be, and of the dynamics of actions and relationships, making possible the prediction of events and the achievement of specific goals, then the mythical archetype of this concept in ancient Greek thought is of the female sex.
At the level of myth and religious practice, wisdom is a characteristic feature of a series of female figures.
The first of these is Gaia, the 'first seer' the primeval mother of the gods and human beings. Next comes Metis, the goddess of versatile intelligence. Zeus married her before he became lord of the heavens and, in order to acquire her knowledge, swallowed her while she was pregnant with their child. Having thus gained Metis forever, he established his authority.
To this group belongs Thetis, the wise lady of the sea; Demeter, the great goddess who showed humans how to cultivate the fruit of the earth and, by teaching them the Great Mysteries, liberated them from fear of death; and, of course, Athena, the supreme goddess of civilisation. Daughter of Metis and Zeus, born from the head of her omnipotent father, protector and helper of civilising heroes, Athena Ergane, taught human beings the art of the loom and the potter's wheel, invented the plough and the bridle to help them, and fited out the first ship, bending the wild forces of nature to the power of the mind.
In the sphere of myth we encounter two more wise figures who possess the all-powerful knowledge of magic: Circe and Medea.
In sharp contrast with the world of myth, however, the strictly patriarchal social system deprived Greek women of historical times of the ability to gain an education, and attempted to debar them from knowledge, as though fearing that in the hands of women it might be a dangerous weapon.
Very few women succeeded in overcoming the almost insuperable obstacles and reaping the fruit that was forbidden to them. Even fewer managed to transcend the silent obscurity of the women's quarters, in which they were imprisoned by the prejudices of centuries, and win recognition amongst later generations, in their own name, for their achievements.
Whether named or anonymous, these women belong to three major groups : priestesses, sorceresses and writers.
Thanks to their function, priestesses frequently became party to secret knowledge of vital importance for society. And as the earthly representatives of the gods, they were able to transcend restrictions and taboos to acquire prestige and authority and win the respect of their fellow citizens. The priestess in Plato's Symposium, the 'most wise' Diotima, is an outstanding example.
Like the priestess's wisdom, that of the sorceress had a supernatural character, though in this case it served the interests of the individual rather than of the group, and threatened to overthrow law and order. The sorceress was a negative, dark figure, the butt of the sarcasm of the sceptics and a source of fear for the majority, one who transgressed boundaries, challenged and was therefore punished, sometimes with death.
Women writers moved in a completely different sphere. They were usually the children of wealthy families who succeeded in gaining an education and articulating their own creative poetry. Tradition has preserved the names of a number of poetesses and a few fragmentary verses - far too few to assess their contribution, apart from Sappho, who was already a legend by Plato's time.
From Medea to Sappho - Radical Women in Ancient Greece
Athens, National Archaeological Museum - 20 March - 30 June 1995