Talk: Reitia and the epigraphic habit of Este

This Wednesday, I am giving the Classics and Ancient History research seminar at Exeter. The paper will be based on brand new research I have been doing on the dedications to the goddess Reitia at Este.

Here is the abstract:

The epigraphic culture of the Veneto region is full of contrasts, particularly between its two largest cities: Este and Padua. At Padua, dedications to the gods were made within the city, many dedications are uninscribed, and all named dedicators are men. At Este, religious activity was focused on a number of large extra-mural sanctuaries, each associated with a particular deity and social group. At the sanctuary of Reitia, goddess of writing, we find many dedications inscribed in the Venetic language, mostly in the form of bronze copies of writing tablets and styluses. The majority of these inscribed dedications to Reitia were made by women – or at least, they feature female names in the nominative. This paper explores the relationships between the goddess Reitia, the practice of dedicating inscribed writing tools and the position of women in Atestine society. In a society where we expect literacy to be predominantly male, how and why did these practices develop? Does the use of women’s names on bronze writing tablets and styluses provide evidence that women used these objects in daily life? This paper suggests that the dual functions of Reitia – her association with women and her association with writing – came together to create a highly specific local epigraphic practice, whose linguistic and archaeological traces continue into the Roman period of the city. It also argues that the dedicatory practices of women may have affected the wider epigraphic habit of the city, with women’s names appearing at Este more often than at Padua, not just in dedications but also in other text types.


Wednesday’s seminar will feature exciting diagrams like this.

What’s unusual about all this is not that the dedications to Reitia have writing on them, which is common enough in the ancient world, but that the dedicators seem to be giving writing itself to the goddess. I’d like to explore how unusual the act of dedicating writing is, with reference to similar phenomena at the sanctuary of Zeus Semios (“Zeus of the Signs”) near Athens. Pippa Steele of the CREWS project introduced me to this intriguing site, and I think there are comparisons to be made to the cult of Reitia.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have also been investigating a slightly different thread of this research: how the dedications at Este fit in to our knowledge of ancient education. The writing tablets at Este imply a certain set of exercises for learning to write. First, the alphabet; then the letters out of order; then clusters of consonants. This is not miles away from our evidence of Greco-Roman education, where the alphabet (in order and out of order) and simple syllables appear to be the first thing that children learnt. The dedicators at Este do not seem to be children, but grown women – does this matter? I’m still piecing these ideas together, and all suggestions are welcome.

All are very welcome to attend the seminar on Wednesday, and further details can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Talk: Reitia and the epigraphic habit of Este

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  1. My understanding is that the Goddess Nisaba of Eres in Mesopotamia was a Presence identified simultaneously with the gift of inspiration granted the writer and in the written word itself. A grain goddess, her cuneiform symbol was a grain stalk. The symbol was understood to represent the grain itself, as well as her presence in that grain. Similarly to Reitia’s followers, woman scribes dedicated their writings to her, often including phrases like “praise be to Nisaba” or “I am the creation of Nisaba.” Enheduanna referred to Nisaba in her writings as a “faithful woman exceeding in wisdom (Temple Hymn 42).”

    Shlain posits of Mesopotamian writings that “the idea symbol signs represent concepts, objects or actions”…understood by a “simultaneous appreciation of all symbols to make sense of messages.” Though not organized in a spiral or in concentric circles, this image-centered reading of the text would be “circular” in nature, holistically viewed within a sphere of meaning.

    As a woman and writer, the organizing strategy of the circle or spiral speaks to me of relatedness, of a perspective, through which the writer or reader understands the writing and the world it brings into being. The consideration of language as innately creative seems to me to be the provenance of the Goddess. Rectangular organizing systems would be considered structured in the manner of Saturn. Is the circular organizing strategy, then, an act of resistance against encroachment of God over Goddess?

    Thinking practically, perhaps the double spiral integrates the non-linear, left brain “feminine” way of working with the more linear, right brain, “masculine” organizing strategies employed by literate societies. Personally, when I am researching a new topic, I will often place a focusing image in the center of the page and write around the bounds of the image in order to interpret the information with a fresh eye.

    Certainly, for women writers of antiquity or the present day, birthing a creation whether literary or human would provide a metaphor of significant relevance, perhaps explaining why both writing and childbirth are each associated with Reitia.

    I’m at the beginnings of my research, and diving deeper. I am enjoying your writings. Thank you for sharing.


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