Veiling in the Ancient World

by Susan Miller       April 12, 2016

Some time ago I did a bit of researching on the veiling customs during the time of St Paul, as I wasn’t convinced that women had always worn head coverings outside the house. This is adapted from my old blog. I should note that while I do have a degree in classical archaeology, I have not studied it formally for some years now, and so may not be up to date in the latest information.

Often arguments around whether women should cover their heads in church dismiss it as a custom that was prevalent in society as a whole then but isn’t relevant now. Some comment that since women always covered their heads outside the house in earlier times but don’t do so now the practice is now archaic. The question is, are these conclusions supported by the evidence? In other words, was it already the cultural norm that men uncovered their heads when out (at least when observing religious rituals) and for women to cover their heads when out, especially when observing religious rituals.

(Please note that I am not arguing that there’s a canonical requirement for veiling. I think people such as canon lawyer Edward Peters and Jimmy Akin have made it clear that there is no canonical requirement to veil. Nor do I think it objectively better for all women. It is simply a personal devotion. I’m only looking at the cultural practices at the time. While I personally choose to veil, my daughters do not, and I do not press them to change.)

I’d first like to address the Scripture in question. Here’s 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 from the Jerusalem Bible:

3 But I should like you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 For any man to pray or to prophesy with his head covered shows disrespect for his head. 5 And for a woman to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered shows disrespect for her head; it is exactly the same as if she had her hair shaved off. 6 Indeed, if a woman does go without a veil, she should have her hair cut off too; but if it is a shameful thing for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, then she should wear a veil. 7 But for a man it is not right to have his head covered, since he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory; but woman is the reflection of man’s glory. 8 For man did not come from woman; no, woman came from man; 9 nor was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man: 10 and this is why it is right for a woman to wear on her head a sign of the authority over her, because of the angels. 11 However, in the Lord, though woman is nothing without man, man is nothing without woman; 12 and though woman came from man, so does every man come from a woman, and everything comes from God. 13 Decide for yourselves: does it seem fitting that a woman should pray to God without a veil? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but when a woman has long hair, it is her glory? After all, her hair was given to her to be a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious, I say that we have no such custom, nor do any of the churches of God.

So we see here that St Paul says men should have their heads uncovered for religious gatherings, and women – all women, regardless of social class or marital status – should cover their heads. There is no mention of women needing to cover themselves totally, only the head.

We still see that men uncover their heads for Mass (this is perhaps more obvious with a Bishop, since he removes his mitre or zucchetto for parts of the Mass), and some women cover their heads. The question, though, is the practise at the time that St Paul was writing.

In Roman practise, everyone covered his head during religious observances. There’s a statue of the Emperor Augustus Caesar in the role of Pontifex Maximus, and his head is covered since he is performing a religious ritual. St Paul’s prescription that men uncover their heads, then, would not seem to be the Roman custom. I’m unsure when the kippah became commonplace in Jewish practice, and there is still debate about whether it should only be required during times of prayer or always. Regardless, if anything the Jewish custom tends toward men covering their heads, whereas St Paul says men are not to cover their heads in prayer.

Outside of religious observances, though, what was the Roman practise? I found Kelly Olson’s book to be quite helpful. She focuses more on Rome itself and not the provinces, but the information is still valuable. In the Roman Empire, the prescription was that matrons wore a palla, a long garment that covered most of the body and would be pulled up over the head when out of the house. This only applied to matrons, though, and not unmarried women. Further, it doesn’t seem to have applied to married women of the lower classes or to slaves, for the palla would not have been a practical garment if one had to do physical labour. St Paul, however, does not make a distinction between marital status or social class in his command.

Ara Pacis

In comparing the literary and artistic evidence, Olson contends that wearing the palla was seen as the ideal for the Roman matron, but was not a universal practise. One example is on the Ara Pacis, where women are shown both with and without their heads covered. It is possible, though, that those with their heads uncovered are unmarried girls who would not normally wear the palla anyway. However, there are also numerous portrait busts of matrons, some of which show the palla over the head and some which do not. It would seem, then, that covering the head was ideal (going by the literary evidence), but was not universally practised among Roman matrons (going by the artistic evidence, assuming the artistic evidence is reflective of actual practise, which may or may not be the case).

Since St Paul often travelled in the Greek world, Greek customs should also be examined. Greek dress dictated that women wear a himation which could cover the head. However, it did not just cover the head, but was more akin to a burka, covering the entire body. I have also found that Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ research indicates that Greek women commonly went in public fully veiled, with head and face covered. There is not much evidence regarding whether all classes of women were veiled in public, so it is difficult to make definite conclusions on that basis. The artistic evidence is not useful here, since women are often shown unveiled, while the textual evidence says they were veiled. It is entirely possible that is the cause of the discrepancy between the textual and artistic evidence for Roman practice.

St Paul, however, does not make a distinction between marital status or social class in his command. On the contrary, St Paul remarks in places about how all are equal in Christ, so having different rules for citizens and slaves would not be in keeping with that, it seems. St Paul also does not advocate for the more extreme veiling of Greek women which covered the woman completely. I also find it telling that St Paul mentions the need for women to cover their heads in Church, since that would seem to imply that they didn’t already have their heads covered by virtue of being around others. That would seem to dismantle the argument that he said that because women always covered their heads, though perhaps I’m reading too much into that.

He does not seem to be succumbing to cultural mores since he speaks of this as a universal tradition throughout the Church at the time, and it doesn’t have absolute parallels in the surrounding cultures in the way it is practised. In fact, he seems to deviate from the cultural prescriptions in many regards by not having different rules based upon social class and marital status. It later becomes the norm that women cover their heads everywhere (St John Chyrosostom speaks of this being the case), but it likely varied from area to area, especially as the Christians went to the farther reaches of the Roman Empire and beyond. So I’m not convinced that St Paul told women to veil just because of cultural practices. Again, I’m not arguing that veiling is mandatory or even that it should be done; the Church doesn’t say that it is and I will not argue otherwise. I just wanted to research the historical practice a bit as a point of curiosity since I myself prefer to veil.

Sources:

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd (Edt), “Aphrodites Tortoise : The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece”, Classical Press of Wales, December 2002

Cairns, Douglas L. “The meaning of the veil in ancient Greek culture”, Women’s Dress in the Ancient Greek World, ed. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, p73-94.

Olson, Kelly. Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society.

 

Susan Miller

ABOUT THE AUTHOR, Susan Miller

Susan grew up Southern Baptist before entering the Catholic Church as an adult. She earned her BA in Archaeology, and then taught third grade in the inner city before receiving a Master's in Egyptology. At that time she felt called in a different direction and elected to be a stay-at-home mum whilst also teaching the Billings Ovulation Method of Natural Family Planning in her spare time. Now Susan enjoys reading, knitting, video games, theological discussion, and homeschooling. She lives in Florida with her husband, Bart, and four children.

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