Ancient History & Civilisation

Thesmophoria Festival:
Sharing secrets with girlfriends

There was nothing Greek women relished more than overnight festivals for gals only. Generally, they were BYOB and LYHD: bring your own bacchante gear and let your hair down. Back then, it was impossible to get a married woman excited over shoes, since sandals were worn 24/7. Or dinner dates, since there were none. Or husbands, since they were nonresponsive to honey-do lists, and their bedside manners often sucked.

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Thesmophoria was the glorious time of year when Greek women let down their hair in friendship and ritual—no males allowed. Their multiday festival honored the harvest goddess, Demeter.

But oh, the glory of the Thesmophoria, a multi-day campout of ritual, revelry, and female-only secrets held each fall throughout Greece. The one in Athens got all the raves, but similar outings took place for centuries in fifty different locales: from Sparta on the mainland to the island of Delos, from Thebes to Ephesus in Asia Minor. Some of them ran four or five days, and the one thrown by the Greek city-state of Syracuse on Sicily rocked on for ten.

In Athens, every married woman got to go—and her husband was obliged to pay expenses so she could attend. Some accounts also say that mothers could bring their daughters, which seems reasonable, since the festival honored Demeter and her daughter Persephone. (See the entry “Mystery Cults” for more on another Demeter festival.)

It was more than a social gathering and a blessed chance to get away from housewifery. Thesmophoria, meaning “the carrier of the laws,” was first and foremost a very emotional religious celebration. During it, the heartbreaking myth of Demeter, mourning the loss of her daughter, who had to live six months of the year in the Underworld, was retold. This poetic myth was the way in which Greeks chose to explain the natural progression of the seasons. As the deity of vegetative growth and harvest, Demeter appeared to abandon human farms and vineyards during the hot, rainless summers of Greece. By holding the Thesmophoria, women honored the goddess and ensured her return come fall.

The getaway required some serious ritual cleansing beforehand. Attendees had to remain chaste for up to a month (depending on locale), which was probably the biggest break they got all year from sex on demand from husbands. According to Pliny and other writers, before the festival, fertile women dosed themselves with a drink made from agnos, the chaste tree, actually a small shrub with sweet-smelling lilac flowers. The agnos had contraceptive potency, a fact now confirmed by modern chemists. It’s likely that most women kept a stash of the stuff at home. Moreover, the chaste tree also acted as an abortifacient in the right dosage. (You can learn more about ancient abortion and contraception methods elsewhere in this book.)

The chastity aspect of this festival, by the way, dated back to earliest Greek times, when information of this sort was transmitted by women, among women—long before medical writings on the subject existed.

Because the Thesmophoria rites were “mysteries,” meaning ceremonies and rituals that the initiates swore to keep secret, very little written evidence exists about the annual event, but certain facts are known.

The night before the official agenda began, the participants elected older women to preside over the festival. Business concluded, they loosened up with wine during a laughter-filled evening of foul language and vile insults. (Besides being cathartic, such language was apotropaic and kept malign spirits away. It also commemorated part of the Demeter myth, where she was cheered from her sorrow by the rough jesting of her friend Iambe.)

The first day started with a pilgrimage, a climb up to the sacred open space of the Thesmophorion, which sat on the outskirts of Athens near the hill of the Pynx. The women, who must have numbered in the thousands, set up leafy huts and slept two to a shelter.

On day two, the celebrants took off their festive garlands and mourned Demeter’s loss. Everyone fasted, and no fires were lit. At some of the Thesmophoria sites, only pomegranate seeds, the attribute of Persephone, were eaten—but not those that had fallen on the ground, which were considered food for the dead. At places other than Athens, the gals consumed a little nosh consisting of sesame cakes.

Day three, called “Fair Offspring,” echoed the goddess’s search for her daughter Persephone with a torchlight ceremony. At this point the women sacrificed a pig to Demeter.

Another curious ritual involved recycling and a fertility rite. Months before the Thesmophoria, certain items were thrown into a pit called the megaron, there to rot into ritual compost. Among the items? Pine cones, sacrificed piglets, and special baked goods in the shape of male genitalia. During the festival, a couple of daring females called “the bailers” had to retrieve the now-finished compost. Their task was made more challenging because the pit was deliberately filled with snakes! After the Thesmophoria, the pungent compost would be placed on a public altar for local farmers to mix with their grain seed. In this fashion, the Greeks gave whole new meaning to the phrase “organically grown.”

Athenian men did their level best to “shield” their wives, sisters, and female children from the outside world and to keep them from participating in public life. They were quite successful at it. Thus the best part of the Thesmophoria must have been the camaraderie, the shared laughter and grief, and the chance to exchange information, share stories, and renew friendships during those memorable, star-studded nights.

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