Ah! Beautiful Thesmophorae!
Grant me your favors, protect me, both within the temple and on my way back…Mighty divinity, oh, Demeter, and thou, Persephone, grant that I may be able to offer you many sacrifices...
— Aristophanes, from Women at the Thesmophoria
In ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was performed annually at this time. It was a rite that was dedicated to Demeter and restricted to women only. This was unusual in the Greek world since, although the Gods often had Priests and the Goddesses had Priestesses, festivals were usually open to both men and women.
Much about the Thesmophoria is unknown, as it was by definition a women’s mystery, and what we do know is somewhat obscured by Aristophanes’ “The Women at the Thesmophoria,” a satiric play that exaggerates and pokes fun at the participants.
But scholars have pieced together that following several days of ritual preparations, the Thesmophoria proper involved a three-day retreat at the hillside sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros. This was always a welcome opportunity for women to escape from their homebound lives and taste a bit of independence.
On the first day, the women would process from their homes and cities, carrying all necessary supplies for three days and two nights. They would set up their encampment, which consisted of rows of shelters or huts with walkways between them. The women would sleep on the ground, generally two to a shelter.
On the second day, the Nesteia, the women sat on the ground and fasted, refraining from all solid food in humility and sympathy for Demeter’s mourning over the loss of her daughter Persephone. Sitting upon the ground was, in part, to reenact how Demeter refused a chair in Her grief. But they also would do so as a magical act that was intended transfer their strength and energy to the Earth.
As their hunger and discomfort grew, they would engage in Aiskhrologia, abusive language. They would hurl insults and obscenities at one another, to commemorate the way in which the Goddess of ribald poetry, Iambe made the grieving Demeter laugh. Interestingly, these taunts are spoken in what we now call iambic verse, for it is the traditional meter of mockery. The women would also at times whip each other with a scourge made of morotton (woven bark).
Nightfall would bring the official beginning of the third day’s rites, called the Kalligeneia, meaning “Fair Offspring.” It was a ceremony held by torch-light, in memory of how Demeter sought Persephone by torch light.
Some scholars believe that this is when the previously placed Thesmoi (ritual objects such as snakes and male genitalia sculpted from dough, as well as pork from sacrificed pigs, all of which were important fertility symbols) were removed from the caverns at the sanctuary. This was led by the Priestesses called Antletriai, of whom three day’s ritual purity (including sexual abstinence) was required.
The other women would clap to scare away the sacred snakes that guarded the caverns as the Antletriai collected the Thesmoi in buckets, then leaving the putrefying matter on the altars of Demeter and Persephone.
Later this “compost” would be removed from the altars and mixed with the grain to be sown the following month (in late Nov. to early Dec.) for the winter crops. Thus, this rite echoes the role of the cycle of life and death, in order that the Earth be fertilized and rejuvenated.
Finally, the womens’ fasting was ended and having experienced the suffering of Demeter for Her lost daughter, the rest of the day was spent in joyous thanksgiving for the gift of their own precious children. At last, the women would then break camp and return home.
Interestingly, tomorrow marks a modern-day celebration that is very similar to the last day of the Thesmophoria. Stay tuned for more about that.