Each culture has its own customs and traditions for weddings and other special occasions. These often relate to the beliefs of people within a community and these traditions pass from one generation to the next with some influencing customs that people still practice to this day. For the Ancient Greeks, a wedding was a particularly important celebration with many symbolic gestures and customs. So was the 50th wedding anniversary gift tradition for the Romans.
An Ancient Greek woman became a bride as soon as she reached puberty. At this stage in her life, her parents would choose a husband for her who she would then marry, have children and live with for the rest of her life. The couple played no part in the selection process and often did not meet until the day of the wedding.
Before the Wedding
In the weeks and days prior to the wedding, the bride spends time with her mother, other female relatives, friends and chosen wedding servants in her childhood home. The day before the wedding, the ‘proaulia’, a feast takes place in the home of the bride and she offers her childhood possessions to the gods. This is symbolic of the end of her childhood and the start of her new life as a wife. She would also offer sacrifices such as locks of her hair. These offerings were called ‘protelia’.
The Wedding Day
The Ancient Greeks called their wedding day the ‘gamos’. On this day, water was brought from the river in a vase for the nuptial bath that took place in the women’s quarters. The purpose of the nuptial bath was to prepare the bride for having children and to purify her before the wedding.
An important element of the bridal outfit was the veil and this would cover the bride’s face until her father had given her in marriage to the groom. The veil was a symbol of purity and this is a tradition that remains in many cultures to this day. The unveiling did not usually take place until the end of the day.
Women were often not allowed to attend events in Ancient Greece, but the wedding banquet was an exception to this. However, the different sexes sat at different tables and did not mix throughout the feast. Like a modern wedding, the friends and family of both the bride and the groom would attend.
The events of the Ancient Greek banquet were very similar to a modern wedding reception. The guests would dine on fine foods and delicacies and an entertainer would perform. Guests would participate in singing and dancing.
After the celebrations, there would be a procession and this is when the groom takes his bride to her new home. Before the procession proceeded the father of the bride would formally hand over his daughter to the groom. Her father was no longer her master as this role now belonged to her new husband.
During the procession, guests acted as though the bride was captive against her will. Also in the procession, a child would carry bread in a basket and hand pieces to the wedding guests. Both the chosen child and the bread represented the future children of the couple. The basket was symbolic of a child’s crib. This ritual was intended to bring the couple good luck.
The bread-bearing child would also wear a crown made from nuts and thorns. The crown was symbolic of how men had escaped the wilderness to become a part of Greek civilization. Gifts of barley, grains, a grill, a pestle and a sieve were given to the bride as symbols of agriculture, social life, and fertility.
The bride and groom traveled in the procession with the groom’s friend in a mule-driven cart. The mother-of-the-bride would follow carrying a torch that was intended to warn off harmful evil spirits. Local people would often throw flowers as the procession passed, in the same way as wedding guests throw confetti or rice today.
The Marital Home
The groom would carry the bride into her new home and guests could visit the marital bedroom to encourage fertility. One ritual was for the bride to burn the axel of the procession chariot to symbolize that she could not return to her childhood home. Friends would sing outside the home to encourage the conception of a male child.
The Final Day
The ‘epaulia’, the final day of the celebrations, began with the newly married couple awakening to the singing of the maidens who had stayed awake all night outside their home. The bride was offered more gifts on this day to celebrate her new status as a wife.
Many of the wedding traditions and customs of the Ancient Greeks have influenced rituals that take place to this day. Each of the customs had symbolic importance and reflected the cultural beliefs of their society at this time.