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The Thesmophoria: Women's Ritual in the Ancient World

Festivals in ancient Greece were essential to the social and political spheres of society. Though 120 days of the year were dedicated to festivals, most were reserved for male-citizens and women were generally prevented from participating.

The Thesmophoria (Θεσμοφόρια) was a unique festival in the ancient Greek calendar, reserved for citizen-wives across the Hellenic world. Though women were not considered citizens in ancient Greece, the wives of male citizens both participated in the rituals of the festival and were involved in the organisation process. Men were prevented from partaking in the rituals and were forbidden from knowing what the Themsophorian rituals entailed.

The Thesmophoria was a three-day festival celebrated by the female cult of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, also known as Kore. Ancient sources suggest that participation in the festival was popular across the Greek world, however Athenian rituals appear most frequently in history. In the Attic calendar – followed by Athens and surrounding regions – the festival took place in the month of Pyanepsion (Πυανεψιών), which translates to October and November in our calendar today. Pyanepsion marked the beginning of Autumn, the time at which agrarian workers would plant wheat, barley and legumes for the winter. The rituals performed at the Thesmophoria were intended to secure divine protection for the land, ensuring a healthy climate that would bring a successful harvest.

Why the goddesses?

Demeter and Persephone, goddesses associated with fertility and the agricultural world, were essential to the Thesmophoria. The festival played a vital part in the broader myth of Hades’ capture of Persephone and Demeter’s compromise with the god of the Underworld; the goddess would only foster the agricultural world if she was reunited with her daughter. And so, Persephone would spend the majority of her time with her mother in the living world, guaranteeing the harvest and fertility of the earth.

However, because Persephone was obliged to return to the Underworld with Hades for some months of the year, the ancient Greeks would not harvest in these months as Demeter, in her melancholy, could not bring agricultural fertility to the world. As myths were often explanations for the changes of the natural world, the myth of Persephone and Demeter formed the ancient Greek concept of the seasons.

While the Thesmophoria acted as a pre-harvest ritual, the festival also celebrated Persephone’s return from the Underworld. The myth was therefore deeply intertwined with the festival’s rituals.

What were the rituals?

One of the most important agricultural rituals of the festival was the sacrifice of piglets. The origin of this ritual appears in Byzantine scholar Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans; according to Lucian, at the time when Hades captured Persephone, she had been collecting flowers on a plot of land where a swineherd, Eubouleus, was herding his pigs. As Hades took Persephone, everyone on the land fell into the Underworld.

On the first day of the festival, Anodos, women at the Thesmophoria paid homage to Persephone and Eubouelus by sacrificing piglets and burying them in a pit known as a megaron. A group of women known as the Antleriai would retrieve the remains of piglets from the previous year, (or perhaps from another festival known as the Skira) which they then brought back to the altar.

On the second day, Nesteia, the citizen-wives were required to fast. They would place the pig remains on an altar, mixed with pine branches and cakes shaped as serpents and men; these were widely recognised symbols of fertility in the Greek world. Those who participated in the ritual believed that the remains, when combined with grain, would ensure the divine protection of their crops.

The final day, known as the Kalligeneia, was dedicated to the fertility of women. By praying to the Eleusinian nymph nursemaid of Demeter, known as Kalligeneia, women could call on the deity for divine protection over their own fertility.

Ancient sources often depict the women as partaking in ‘ritual obscenity’; women were encouraged to tell crude jokes amongst each other, which were often recognised as a pastime of the goddess Demeter. This ‘ritual obscenity’ was largely recognised as an association to women’s sexuality and fertility.

As women were predominantly confined to the domestic sphere in ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria gave them, if only just the citizen-wives, an opportunity to engage in public life, something otherwise unavailable to them. As agricultural fertility was essential to sustaining the city-states, the festival allowed women to momentarily relinquish their domestic duties and embrace the civic life of the Hellenic world.

Written by Christina Vakkas,

Hellenic Museum volunteer and History/Ancient World Studies student at Melbourne University.


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