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Thesmophoria was a festival held in Greek cities, in honor of the goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The name derives from thesmoi, or laws by which men must work the land. The Thesmophoria were the most widespread festivals and the main expression of the cult of Demeter, aside from the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Thesmophoria commemorated the third of the year when Demeter abstained from her role of goddess of the harvest and growth; spending the harsh summer months of Greece, when vegetation dies and lacks rain, in mourning for her daughter who was in the realm of the Underworld. Their distinctive feature was the sacrifice of pigs.
This feast was for women to celebrate their private customs, their chance to leave the home and set up makeshift shelters somewhat apart from the centers of the deme. Only women who were the spouses of Athenian citizens could attend the festival; no unmarried women were present, and no men, who were expected to send their wives and to meet the festival's costs, but who might be severely treated if they attempted to spy on the proceedings. The ceremony was supposed to promote fertility, but the women prepared for it with sexual abstinence. Bathing was also used for purification.
The word is applied as an epithet to Demeter in this context: Demeter Thesmophoros; a relief at Eleusis illustrated in Kerenyi (fig 7) shows the goddess sitting on the ground as she receives her votaries. "In this situation she can be called Demeter Thesmophoros, for the Athenian women imitated her when they sat on the ground and fasted at the Thesmophoria".
At Athens and some other places the festival was of three days, from the 11th to the 13th of Pyanepsion. The first day at Athens was the anodos, the "way up" to the sacred space, the Thesmophorion near the hill of the Pnyx. The second day was a grieving day of fasting (nesteia) without garlands, seated on the ground, without fire in some cities, in which pomegranate seeds only were eaten; those that fell on the ground were the food of the dead and might not be picked up. Insults (aischrologia) might also have been exchanged among the women, as among the celebrants of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The third day, especially the evening and night that began the Greek day, was a meat feast in celebration of the Kalligeneia, a "goddess of beautiful birth" who appears in no other contexts and has no counterpart among the Olympian gods, further emphasizing the archaic, pre-Olympian nature of this festival that reinforced female solidarity. The absence of elements of the Thesmophoria in myths is notable: the pigs of the swineherd Euboulos, that were swallowed up in the cleft in the ground when Hades abducted the Kore, are an attempt to provide an etiology for the ancient rites; in some places, Zeus penetrates the Thesmophoria, as Zeus Eubouleus (Burkert p 243).
Not much else is known about the Thesmophoria, as only women were allowed to attend, and it was rare that women wrote down anything at this time, short of letters. The "mysteries" or initiation rites (teletai) surrounding restrictive religious ceremonies were jealously guarded by those who performed them. The chief source is a scholiast on Lucian (Dialogue Meretricii 2.1), explaining the term "Thesmophoria".
The ceremony involved sinking sacrifices into the earth by night and retrieving the decaying remains of pigs that had been placed the previous year in the megara of Demeter, trenches and pits or natural clefts in rock (compare megaron). As snakes were known to congregate in such pits, the scholiast on Lucian explains, those who didn't go to retrieve the remains shouted to scare away any that might be lurking down there. After prayers the foetid remains of the pigs from the previous year were mixed with seeds and planted (Scholiast on Lucian): ""the clearest example in Greek religion of agrarian magic," Burkert observes (1985 p 244).
- For a fuller discussion of the name considering multiple interpretations, cf. A.B. Stallsmith's article "Interpreting the Thesmophoria" in Classical Bulletin.
- "Pig bones, votive pigs, and terracottas, which show a votary or the goddess herself holding the piglet in her arms, are the archaeological signs of Demeter sanctuaries everywhere."(Burkert p 242).
- Another archaic festival celebrated under temporary shelter is the Hebrew Succoth.
- The position of slave women is unclear, according to Burkert.
- Kerenyi, note 141, p. 212 , instancing Plutarch De Iside et Osiride 378.
- Diodorus Siculus (v.4.7) reports that the Thesmophoria at Syracuse lasted ten days. At Thebes or Delos the festival occurred two months earlier, so any seed-sowing connection was not intrinsic.
- Clement of Alexandria (Protrepicus ii.19.3) parses this as because the pomegranate grew from spilt drops of Adonis' blood, a useful reminder that his interpretations of pagan cult were often (intentionally?) wide of the mark. Kerenyi, (1967 p 138) calls it a "strange interpretation".