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THESMOPHORIA . The Thesmophoria was an annual women's festival widely celebrated in ancient Greece. In most areas it took place in autumn, at the season of plowing and sowing, and it was held in honor of the grain goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Fertility of crops and of women was evidently the essential theme.

The Athenian form of the ritual is the best known. Here the festival occupied three days. On the first day the women went up to the sacred grove of Demeter Thesmophoros, set up an encampment there, out of sight of all males, and made some preliminary sacrifices. On the second day they fasted, sitting humbly on the ground, as Demeter was said to have fasted in grief over the abduction of her daughter. This abstinence was probably understood as a kind of purification in preparation for the main ceremonies. The third day featured pomegranates to eat, obscene jesting, and perhaps flagellationall things associated with fertility. Piglets were slaughtered, and parts of them, it seems, were cooked and eaten; substantial portions, however, were thrown into megara, deep holes in the earth, together with wheat cakes shaped like snakes or like male genitals, and an otherwise unknown goddess, Kalligeneia, whose name means "fair birth," was invoked. At some stageperhaps the night beforecertain women who had for three days observed purity restrictions climbed down into the hole, and while others clapped, brought out the decayed remains of the previous year's offerings. These were ceremoniously carried out of the camp and set forth on altars. (The Thesmophoria itself took its name from this "bringing of the deposits.") If a farmer took a little portion of the remains and mixed it in with his seed corn, he was supposed to get a good crop. This element of primitive agrarian magic suggests that the Thesmophoria's origins lay in a remote past.

See Also

Demeter and Persephone.


A full and judicious discussion can be found in Martin P. Nilsson's Griechische Feste von religiöser Bedeutung (Leipzig, 1906), pp. 313325. Walter Burkert's Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche (Stuttgart, 1977), translated as Greek Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), concentrates on the main features and their interpretation. Ludwig Deubner's Attische Feste (Berlin, 1932), pp. 4060, remains the most detailed study of the Athenian Thesmophoria, but one of its main conclusions (that the pigs were deposited at a different festival in the summer) is strongly disputed. H. W. Parke's Festivals of the Athenians (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977) follows Deubner on this point. For primitive customs of fertilizing fields with the remains of sacrificial victims, see chapter 7 of James G. Frazer's Spirits of the Corn and Wild, 2 vols., part 5 of The Golden Bough, 3d ed., rev. & enl. (London, 1912).

New Sources

Brumfield, Allaire Ch. The Attic Festivals of Demeter and Their Relation to the Agricoltural Year. New York, 1981.

Clinton, Kevin. "The 'Thesmophorion' in Central Athens and the Celebration of the 'Thesmophoria' in Attica." In The Role of Religion in the Early Greek Polis: Proceedings of the Third International Seminar on Ancient Greek Cult, Organized by the Swedish Institute at Athens, 1618 October 1992, edited by Robin Hägg, pp. 111125. Stockholm, 1996.

Nixon, L. "The Cults of Demeter and Kore." In Women in Antiquity: New Assessments, edited by Richard Hawley and Barbara Mary Levick, pp. 7596. London, 1995.

Prytz, Johansen J. "The Thesmophoria as a Women's Festival." Temenos 11 (1975): 7887.

Sfameni Gasparro, Giulia. Misteri e culti mistici di Demetra. Rome, 1986. See especially pages 223284.

Versnel, Hendrik S. "The Roman Festival for Bona Dea and the Greek Thesmophoria." In Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion. 2. Transition and Reversal in Myth and Ritual, pp. 235260. Leiden, 1993.

M. L. West (1987)

Revised Bibliography