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Thesmophoria

Greek Thanksgiving

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Even today, when chemical companies genetically engineer crops, we still rely on an agricultural sector to plant and harvest -- to provide our food, and, therefore, survival. If the crop yield is adequate, most people will survive; otherwise, there will be famine.

Whatever power provides that bounty deserves praise.

While many of us have stopped thanking "God" for the bounty, that was why we celebrated Thanksgiving, originally. Even today, many people who ordinarily chow down without saying "grace" add this prayer to the fall feast.

Around the same time of year, in ancient Greece, a festival used to be held in about 50 cities or villages, to honor the goddess who taught mankind to tend the soil. There was no question but that the festival was part of the goddess' worship. That is, it wasn't just a secular, condoned over-indulgence event. In Athens, the women met near the men's assembly site on the Pnyx and in Thebes, they met where the boule had met.

The Date of Thesmophoria

The festival, Thesmophoria, was held during a month known as Pyanopsion (Puanepsion), in the lunisolar calendar of the Athenians. Since our calendar is solar, the month doesn't exactly match, but Pyanopsion would be, more or less, October into November, the same months as the Canadian and U.S. Thanksgivings. In ancient Greece this was the time of the fall planting of crops like barley and winter wheat.

Asking Demeter's Help

On the 11-13 of Pyanopsion, at a festival that included role reversals, like women electing female officials to preside over state-sponsored feasts [Burton], Greek matrons took a break from their usually homebound lives to participate in the autumn sowing (Sporetos) festival of Thesmophoria. Although most of the practices remain a mystery, we know that the holiday was a bit more involved than our modern versions, and that no men were allowed to participate. The matrons probably symbolically relived the anguish Demeter suffered when her daughter Kore/Persephone was abducted by Hades. They also probably asked for her help in obtaining a bountiful harvest.

The Demeter Back-Story

Demeter (the Greek version of the Roman goddess Ceres) was the goddess of grain. It was her job to feed the world, but when she discovered her daughter had been kidnapped, she became so depressed she wouldn't do her job. Finally, she found out where her daughter was, but that didn't help much. She still wanted Persephone back and the god who had abducted Persephone didn't want to return his lovely prize. Demeter refused to eat or feed the world until the other gods arranged a satisfactory resolution to her conflict with Hades over Persephone. After her reunion with her daughter, Demeter gave the gift of agriculture to mankind so we could plant for ourselves.

Thesmophoria's Ritual Insults

Before the Thesmophoria festival itself, there was a preparatory night-time festival called the Stenia. At the Stenia women engaged in Aiskhrologia, insulting each other and using foul language. This may have commemorated Iambe's successful attempts to make the grieving mother Demeter laugh.

Here's the story about Iambe and Demeter:

A long time she sat upon the stool without speaking because of her sorrow, and greeted no one by word or by sign, but rested, never smiling, and tasting neither food nor drink, because she pined with longing for her deep-bosomed daughter, until careful Iambe -- who pleased her moods in aftertime also -- moved the holy lady with many a quip and jest to smile and laugh and cheer her heart.
Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Parts of the Athenian Thesmophoria

A Fertility Component of the Thesmophoria

During the Stenia prelude to the Thesmophoria or, at any rate, some time before the actual festival, it it believed that certain women (Antletriai 'Bailers') placed fertility objects, phallic-shaped bread, pine cones and sacrificed piglets, in a possibly snake-filled chamber called a megaron. After the uneaten pig remains had begun to rot, the women retrieved them and the other objects and placed them on the altar where farmers could take them and mix with their grain seed to ensure an abundant harvest. This happened during the Thesmophoria proper. Two days may not have been enough time for decomposition, so some people think the fertility objects were thrown down not during the Stenia, but during the Skira, a midsummer fertility festival. This would have given them 4 months to decompose. That presents another problem, since the remains might not have lasted for four months.

The Ascent

The first day of the Thesmophoria itself was Anodos, the ascent. Carrying all the supplies they would need for 2 nights and 3 days, the women went up the hill, set up camp on the Thesmophorion (the hillside sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros 'Demeter the law-giver'). They then slept on the ground, probably in 2-person leafy huts, since Aristophanes* refers to "sleeping partners".

The Fast

The second day of the Thesmophoria was the Nesteia 'Fast' when women fasted and mocked each other, again using the foul language that may have been a deliberate imitation of Iambe and Demeter. They may also have whipped each other with bark scourges.

The Kalligeneia

The third day of the Thesmophoria was the Kalligeneia 'Fair Offspring'. Commemorating Demeter's torch-light search for her daughter, Persephone, there was a night-time torch-lit ceremony. The bailers ritually purified, descended to the megaron to remove the decayed matter thrown down earlier (either a couple of days or up to 4 months): pigs, pine cones, and dough that had been formed in the shape of men's genitals. They clapped to scare the snakes away and brought back the material so they could place it on the altars for later use as especially potent fertilizer in the sowing of seed.

*For a humorous picture of the religious festival, read Aristophanes' comedy about a man who tries to infiltrate the women-only festival, Thesmophoriazusae.

"It is called Thesmophoria, because Demeter is called Thesmophoros in respect of her establishing laws or thesmoi in accordance with which men must provide nourishment and work the land."
From < www.lamp.ac.uk/~davidnoy/greek12.htm > David Noy's Notes on the Scholiast to Lucian's Dialogues of the Courtesans
For more information, see:
  • "Interpreting the Athenian Thesmophoria," by Allaire B. Stallsmith. Classical Bulletin 84.1 (2009) pp. 28-45.
  • "Eratosthenes and the Women: Reversal in Literature and Ritual," by Jordi Pàmias; Classical Philology, Vol. 104, No. 2 (Apr., 2009), pp. 208-213.
  • "Women's Commensality in the Ancient Greek World," by Joan Burton; Greece & Rome, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Oct., 1998), pp. 143-165.



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