Thesmophoria: the ancient Greek women’s festival

On the occasion of the International Women’s Day (March 8th), established by the United Nations in 1977 in order to ensure equal rights and opportunities for women, let’s time-travel back to the 5th century B.C. Athens when the ancient Greek women’s festival of Thesmophoria was held.

Held in honour of Demeter Thesmophoros (“bringer of laws/justice”), the Thesmophoria festival was celebrated exclusively by women throughout the Greek world. According to ancient texts, the Athenian Thesmophoria was held in the autumn during a month known as Pyanepsion; the Attic calendar’s fourth month, which occurred between October and November. In accordance with Demosthenes, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch, the festival’s origins are linked to Orestes, who brought it to Athens. However, Herodotus argues that the acclaimed religious festival was brought to Greece from Egypt, by the daughters of Danaus. The feast of Thesmophoria was allegedly introduced to Pelasgian women of Peloponnese by the Danaides while following the Dorian invasion, the festival was only celebrated in Arcadia.

The celebrants were free married women, who strictly observed chastity during the festival; no unmarried women were present, and no men, who might be severely treated if they attempted to spy on the proceedings. The Thesmophoria lasted three days and were called respectively anodos (ascent) or kathodos (descent), nesteia (fasting) and kalligeneia (fair offspring).

During the first day, women carried on their heads the sacred objects from Athens to Eleusis. The second one was a mourning day, during which women would only eat food made of sesame, while both the Boule (Council) and the Ecclesia (Assembly) would not operate. On the same day, women came back barefoot from Eleusis to Athens, following a carriage which carried the sacred objects in baskets made of reed. The third day was the day of rejoicing and holiday after the severe discipline of the previous ceremonies. Women engaged in insulting each other and using foul language. This may have commemorated Iambe’s successful attempts to make the grieving mother Demeter laugh.

Over the centuries, the Sacred Female is worshipped, blamed, gets victimised, claims its rights and redefines itself.

Starting from the ancient Greek pantheon, Babylon, Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed by Scandinavia, the Celts, the Chinese religion and Christianity, the Sacred Female is transformed into Gaia, Rea, Demeter, Cybele, Ishtar, Inanna, Kali, Shakti, Frigg, Freyja and Hel, later personified in Mary, the mother of Jesus and concludes in today’s woman: ‘mother’, ‘daughter’, ‘worker’, ‘student’, ‘activist’, ‘fighter’, ‘wife’, ‘lover’, ‘wronged’, ‘oppressed’, ‘beloved’, ‘worshipped’…

If our world has not yet turned upside down, it is thanks to women, who nurtured and healed it. And now that, once more, our world is standing on the edge of a cliff, there’s no one but you to look after and save it.

Thank you!

Picture: Thesmophoria by Francis Davis Millet, 1894-1897

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