Thesmophoria: Feminine Consciousness in Ancient Greece
In the most highly anticipated religious festival of the year, women came from far and wide to gather in their cities to celebrate the Thesmophoria, the oldest and most widespread of all ancient Greek religious festivals. Comprising as many as 50 cities; it spanned from Sicily in the west to Asia Minor in the east; from Macedonia in the north to North Africa in the south. Scholars believe that its expansive nature within the Greek world is testament to its prehistoric origins. Primarily a fertility cult, the Thesmophoria ushered in the sowing season and was one of a series of fertility cults devoted to human as well as crop fertility. In Athens, it was celebrated in the month of Pyanopsion (October-November) on the 11th through the 13th in the area known as the Pnyx—a prominent hill where the general assembly of the polis met. On the second and most sacred day of the Thesmophoria, there was a cessation of certain civic functions reflecting men’s reverence for the feminine cult.
Aspasia on the Pnyx by H. Holiday (1888) ( Public Domain )
Greek Citizen Wives
Why was a women’s fertility festival in hyper-patriarchal ancient Greece, given such prominence in greater society? After all, in ancient Greece women’s place was on the margins of society, away from the public sphere. Could the strict demarcation of gender roles actually serve to empower women in ancient Greece? The disciples of the Thesmophoria actually formed an identity around the cult, which served to promote a feminine consciousness, uncommon in the androcentric dominion of ancient Greece. Against the backdrop of extreme misogyny, men developed an esteem for the Thesmophoria.
Membership in the Thesmophoria was restricted to citizen wives, that is to say, wives of male citizens. Make no mistake, there were no female citizens in ancient Greece. Greek women married to male citizens were called citizen wives because they reproduced the ever-coveted male citizens. Further, no maidens nor female slaves were allowed to participate in the Thesmophoria. And last but not least, men were strictly prohibited from enjoying any portion of the festival. Unlike other feminine fertility festivals, women of the Thesmophoria made sacrifices (much as men did in festivals) and so used instruments of death in their ritual. Because of this and other subversive elements in the festival, men who spied on the event risked life and limb by doing so.
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Mary Naples ’ master’s thesis: “Demeter’s Daughter’s: How the Myth of the Captured Bride Helped Spur Feminine Consciousness in Ancient Greece,” examines how female participants found empowerment in a feminine fertility festival. Visit www.femminaclassica.com
Top Image: Thesmophoria by Francis Davis Millet, 1894-1897 ( Public Domain )
By Mary Naples