The Thesmophoria: Fertility and Femininity

Herodotus implied in his second book that although he knew the details of the rituals in the Thesmophoria he would leave them “unspoken” and would only divulge what his piety allowed him. This, of course, was due to the esoteric nature of the rites that surrounded the Thesmophoria, as well as the religious enforcement of silence that was a prevalent characteristic of its mysteries. For instance, Herodotus explained that Miltiades was killed because of his curiosity in the sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophorus, in the hopes of promoting the secretive myths around the rites. Despite the limited availability of ancient sources, scholars have been able to deduce enough in order to color the portrait of this mysterious Greek festival, especially in the city of Athens. It has been established that the Thesmophoria was particularly concentrated on the abstract idea of natural fertility both within agrarian and human elements. However, the most astonishing factor, that has caught the interest of historians and scholars, is the fact that the festival was exclusive to women. This cardinal principle was a deviation from the norms of the patriarchal Greek societal structure, where women were essentially excluded from all political functions of the polis. For instance, Aftuck implies that the festival was an escape for women from the drudgery of housework.Interestingly, Although scholars have debated the economic and social reasons for the festival’s exclusivity, it is evident that the answer can be found in the correlation between femininity and fertility in Greek religion. Versel refers to the Thesmaphoria as a festival of enforced exception, best describing the nature of the festival. It is possible that women were believed to be able to form a better connection with Demeter than men. Therefore, the Thesmophoria remained exclusive to women because of their position as agents of femininity and fertility, as evidence by the symbolism found in the festival’s rituals and processions.

The Thesmophoria took place in the month of Pyanpsion, on the 11th, 12th and 13th, which roughly translates to October-November by modern standards. This period was chosen because of its particular closeness to the yearly sowing, which was only weeks away. Many scholars include the festival of Stenia, which prolongs the Thesmphoria by an extra 2 days, as it was a preparatory nightly rite, and highly relevant to the proceedings following the end of the festival. Warrior infers that the origins of the name of Thesmophoria are derived from the “thesmoi” or “thesmos” which mean “laying down”, or in this particular case, the establishment of rules. This references Demeter’s construction of agricultural laws for humanity. Thus, the grounding of the festival was to honor the myth of Demeter and Persephone, which was in itself one that was characterized by femininity and fertility. The festival concentrated its processions on Demeter and her actions depicted in the Homeric Hymn. Aftuck goes as far to say that many rituals in fact “mimicked” Demeter in many of her actions. The reason this is relevant is because Demeter, the goddess of growth and fertility, was the main ‘protagonist’ of the festival, while Persephone held a less important role Essentially, even without taking into account the actual rituals themselves, the fact remains that the myth of Demeter inherently demonized male presence. For example, Hades ,the principal male figure in the myth was demonized because of his capture and rape of Persephone. It is a well known fact that festivals have their origins in myths. Therefore, if the myth of Demeter had proponents of male exclusion, this was transferred to the rituals of the Thesmophoria. Throughout the festival, most of the rituals and rules held symbols that promoted the exclusive presence of women. The ideas of femininity and fertility are expressed qualitatively in the processions and rituals of the Thesmophoria, which is why the presence of men would have seemed not only folly but entirely regressive in the worship of Demeter. By analyzing each day, and each aspect it becomes more apparent that women were considered to be more effective in creating a connection with Demeter than men. The first day of the festival was named Anhodos, which means “the ascent”. It is important to note that some scholars, such as Harrison, argue that it was also referred to as Kathodos, “the descent” because of the manner in which women symbolically lowered themselves to the status of maidens in the most primitive of practicalities. Therefore, the ‘Anhodos’ and ‘Kathodos’ referred to the fact that women would proceed to the deme, in this case on the Pnyx hill next to the Thesmophorion in Athens, and would set up camp for three days.  Although it is commonly believed that Anhodos was the name of the first day, it is more likely that the day was called both Anhodos and Kathodos.

The reason for this is simply because the women would ‘ascend’ to the Themsophorion, but metaphorically would descend from their positions as married women, of Athenian citizens, to that of symbolic virgin maidens during their time in isolation. There is no current evidence for why the women ‘lowered’ themselves, but it is quite likely that they firmly believed in the purity of fertility and their femininity in connection to Demeter. In other words, if the women became simple maidens, their purity would become more prominent which would have a significant effect on their ability to pray and honor Demeter. This also accounts for the reason why the women abstained from sexual gratification before and throughout the course of the festival. Sexual purity and virginity was without a doubt a testament to the purity of Persephone, but also to the power of femininity, as exhibited by Demeter. Versnel describes the situation of the women as a paradox, because although they were married, they pretended to be virgins throughout the festival. Moreover, she continues to infer that although the women were promoting the idea of familial fertility, they themselves remained bound by chastity. Moreover, although Aftuck argues that the reason for their sexual abstinence was to ensure that they would not deviate sexually during their seclusion, it is more likely that the problem was more symbolic in nature, rather than social.

The reason for this is because sex had always been considered religious pollution in all aspects of Greek religion, and thus by promoting their purity, it is likely that they believed their prayers to Demeter would be more effective. However, this is only evidenced by the general conclusion of all other festivals and religious practices. Moreover, the women’s sexual abstinence was reinforced through the consumption of anti-aphrodisiac plants. In fact, they went as far to build beds out of the lugos plant which was known for its anti-aphrodisiac qualities. Although both of these elements were more symbolic by nature than practical, they are evidence to the women’s commitment to their purity. Essentially, the reason this component of the Thesmophoria is important is because it is primarily a feminine construct. In the precept of Greek religion, very rarely have men or male gods have been considered bastions of fertility. Although, men did practice sexual abstinence in other rites, in the eyes of the community it would have been very unlikely that their presence at the Thesmphorion would have had the same effect on the worship of Demeter. It is also more likely that the sexual purity of women was also more highly valued than that of men. The second day of the festival was called Nesteia, which translates into ‘Fasting’. It was characterized by sadness, symbolic melancholy and fasting. The most prominent feature was that the women sat on the floor for most of the day to symbolize Demeter’s mourning for her daughter.This ritual is specifically indicative of the relationship between femininity and agrarian fertility. For example, the women sat on the ground not only to mimics Demeter’s actions but to also to transfer their fertile powers to that of the ground, in order to ensure quality harvests. In other words, they were forming a strong connection between their fertility and that of the ground, all the while they were praying to Demeter to ensure “cereal fertility”. The lack of ancient sources on this particular aspect deludes whether the women’s sexual abstinence had a part in this process, but it becomes evident that their effectiveness to address Demeter and have their fertility ‘copied’ into the ground was promoted by their sexual purity. Moreover, during the time which women sat on the ground it is said that they only consumed pomegranate seeds.  In ancient Greece the pomegranate symbolized death, or the dead, which is why it was chosen on the second day. In fact, some historians account that the pomegranate seeds that fell on the ground were never picked up and were said to be left for the dead.

This contrast between fertility and death created a binary that was a characteristic of many other mourning days during festivals. However, the most important aspect of eating pomegranates was that they were copying Persephone, specifically, when she was tricked by Hades into eating one. By mimicking Demeter’s sorrow and by honoring the dead, they hoped to appeal to Demeter more effectively. The same trying to be achieved through the ‘Aiskhrologia’, where mockery was performed ritualistically between the women in order to honor Imabe’s attempt at cheering Demeter during her time of mourning. All the rituals of the Nesteia aimed at creating the connection discussed earlier, by which women ensured their prayers were heard. If men were to perform these rituals to remember Demeter, their ‘connection’ might not have been as prominent. Verself himself explains that Demeter was “synonymous with the female worshipers”, when describing the processions of the Nestaia.

The Kalligeneia, which means the “fair or beautiful offspring” was the third and last day of the Thesmophoria. It was known as the highlight of the festival, where the women would finally offer sacrifices to Demeter. The matter in which this was done is quite intricate. Two days before the start of the Thesmophoria, the Stenia was celebrated, during nighttime, where the women gathered and threw piglets, and models of phallic symbols, such as genitalia and serpents, made out of dough and terracotta, down trenches or holes. Thus, on the third day of the Kalligeneia the women would send out “bailers” to retrieve the rotting corpses and figurines in order to be placed on Demeter’s altar, during which other women would ritualistically shout down the trenches. Some remnants of “the decayed pigs” were taken by the women and mixed in with the seeds for the sowing procedure, which was relatively weeks away from the ritual itself. Interestingly, the decayed pigs were named ‘thesmoi’, to symbolize the agricultural laws Demeter gave to humanity.

There is one important element of the Kalligeneia that symbolically linked femininity and fertility together. The use of pits or megoras during the Stenia, and the third day of the Thesmophoria. This was important because it commemorated the manner in which Persephone was eaten up by the ground by the Hades. It was not meant to equate Persephone to a pig, but it was performed mainly because swine was associated with Demeter and Persephone, as seen in the Eleusian Mysteries.The trenches were undoubtedly a symbol of female and agrarian fertility. When the pigs were thrown into the pits they became the ‘thesmoi’ through feminine structure, and than were sown into the ground weeks later. Moreover, the fact the women threw models of male genitalia and snakes as well, which were both symbols of fertility, symbolized that men and male fertility caused the pigs to decay. The evidence for this was that women shouted at the dough models in order to ‘protect’ the bailers while they retrieved the pigs. Thus, this meant that the models of male genitalia also might have been considered as a negative aspect during the procession. Men were not considered to be an important aspect in the ritual, perhaps because they were not considered appropriate symbols of fertility.

Overall, the Greek idea of the effect of femininity on the natural world can be found among most of the rituals of the Thesmophoria. Many scholars do not go beyond the basic analysis of fertility, but it is apparent that femininity had a lot more to do with the concepts of agrarian fertilization, which is why exclusivity became such a cardinal aspect of the festival’s processions. From what modern academia has gathered, the manner in which the Thesmophoria has been discussed in ancient sources shows that the myth of Demeter demanded that the rituals be performed by women. Although we know the rituals themselves were a product of the myth, the general consensus of the Ancient Greeks seemed to be the other way around. Therefore, the community was in fact pleased with the Thesmophoria, and that only women were allowed to take part. For example, Aftuck, brilliantly explains that men were tolerant of the Thesmophoria because the community had a lot to gain, while they themselves had nothing to lose. In contrast, the Eleusian Mysteries were severely looked down upon because of their lack of organization and drinking. Perhaps it is for this reason why the men were contempt with letting the women take part in the Thesmophoria, even at their own financial expense. Moreover, the polis structure, and all political functions ceased during the three days Thesmophoria, which was generally welcomed by the community. Interestingly, Aristophanes even wrote a play satirizing the women of the Thesmophoria, perhaps to lighten the mood over the secrecy that was rigorously enforced.

Therefore, although men were excluded, they did not present any real objections, except curiosity.

All in all, the symbolism found among the rituals of the Thesmophoria are evident of a strong mutual relationship, even equivalence, of the elements of femininity and fertility. This undoubtedly promoted the position of women as agents of these elements, which is why the Thesmophoria might have developed into such a secretive rite. The women’s process of mimicking Demeter all held proponents that seemed to revolve around the female presence, which accounted for the stark exclusivity and esoteric nature of the festival. Moreover, the inclusion of men into what seemed an all female-dominated ritual, which was upheld by femininity, would have not seemed logical, specially to the patriarchy of Ancient Greece.

Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.

Works Cited

Angeliki Tzanetou, “Something to Do with Demeter: Ritual and Performance in Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria “The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 123, No. 3, Special Issue: Performing/Transforming Aristophanes’ “Thesmophoriazousai” (Autumn, 2002), pp. 329-367,accessed November 6th,
Erika Simon. Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary. (Univ of Wisconsin Press: 2004). pp. 122.
Herodotus. Book 2, 171. accessed November 10, 2012. h /herodotus/book02.htm
H.S. Versnel. “The Festival for Bona Dea and the Thesmophoria” Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol.39, No. 1 (Apr., 1992), pp. 31-55, accessed November 4th , 2012,
Jane Hellen Harrison. Prolegomena to the study of Greek religion. (Cambridge Press: 1903), pp. 684.
Jon D. Mikalson. Ancient Greek Religion.(John Wiley & Sons: 2011), pp. 256.
Károly Kerényi.Eleusis:Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter.(Princeton University Press, 1991). pp 257.
Leonhard Schmitz. “Thesmophoria” A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, ed. William Smith, (London: John Murray: 1875), 1127-1128.
Lynne Aftuck. “The Dionysiac Mysteries and the Thesmophoria” Perseus Digital Library (1995). accessed November 10th 2012,
Matthew Dillon. Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. (Routledge,2003), pp. 436.
Oscar Broneer, “The Thesmophorion in Athens” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol. 11, No. 3, The American Excavations in the Athenian Agora: Twenty-Second Report (Jul. – Sep., 1942), pp. 250-274, accessed November 6th, 2012,
Robin Osborne “Women and Sacrifice in Classical Greece “The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 4 3, No. 2 (1993), pp. 392-405, accessed November 10th 2012,
Valerie M. Warrior. Greek Religion: A Source Book. (Focus Pub: 2009), pp. 305.
Walter Burkert and John Raffan.Greek Religion:Archaic and Classical.(Harvard University Press:1985), pp. 493.

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