When Women Held Power

Le Seur, E. The Three Muses of Thesmophoria: Yewhantia, Athemin and Saramis  (circa 1640-1645) Public Domain

Le Seur, E. The Three Muses of Thesmophoria: Yewhantia, Athemin and Saramis  (circa 1640-1645) Public Domain

Introduction:

Hello mortals, we, the three muses of Thesmophoria, Yewhantia, Saramis and Athemin have had enough of your incessant chattering about our sacred festival that we have agreed to create this blog to answer some of your dense questions about this festival. We expect that you are all aware of the importance of Thesmophoria to history, yes? No? Figures. We overestimated these humans. Thesmophoria is of utmost importance to history because it is a festival that functions as a space in which women have a broader range of freedom and choices than they do in society. As Zeus, who initiated law, order and justice, denied power to women and restricted them from taking on any important roles except the duty of reproduction and pleasing their partners, most women were uneducated and illiterate, thus confining them to home duties and were excluded from any participation in the public affairs of the country. Thus, Thesmophoria served as a significant festival for women as a form of liberation. Without further ado, let’s begin the session. P.S. we’ve got some of the dumb husbands of our Greek girls to comment just so we aren’t seen as being bias.

 

Q: So, how did this Thesmophoria festival come about?

 

Yewhantia :

Nguyan, M. Our Glorius Mistress!  (September 2009) CC Attribution 2.5 Generics

Nguyan, M. Our Glorius Mistress!  (September 2009) CC Attribution 2.5 Generics

Well, firstly, we will need to explain our mistress’s role and power amongst the Greek brethren. Our dear Demeter’s role as the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and the harvest was to meet the desiderata 1 of the Greeks. The desiderata include high yields, human fertility, a happy life after death and what you people would call women rights to empower women during festivals. The festivals of Demeter are polyvalent such that each festival can achieve at least two to four of the desiderata the Greek women so desired.

Thesmophoria is a festival celebrated in honour of our mistress, Demeter. The purpose of the festival is strongly connected to the harrowing tale of our mistress and her daughter Kore. Hades, the lord of death, kidnapped the young mistress to be his spouse and renamed her Persephone. In the process, a few pigs fell into the abyss together with Hades’ chariot. This explains why pigs were sacrificed during the festival, to enter the underworld just as Persephone did. The infuriated Goddess thus left the world and caused famine where crops did not grow until Hades agreed to let Persephone spend a third of the year with him where the land remains barren and the rest in the mortal world with her. This is where we rejoice along with the Earth, where fields are bountiful with produce and meadows in full bloom. During her absence, the extreme scarcity of food led the Greeks to organize a festival with the purpose of welcoming our mistress back and ending the famine. The Greek women’s mannerisms during the festival were said to model after Demeter’s sorrow. Sacrificing pigs also represented agricultural fertility and fecundity.

Leighton, F. Our Mistress and her Daughter, Kore, reunited. (1891) Public Domain

Leighton, F. Our Mistress and her Daughter, Kore, reunited. (1891) Public Domain

Therefore, rituals were performed during Thesmophoria to encourage fertility, agriculture productivity, and most importantly, to appease our mistress.

Q: and, who can participate?

 

Athemin:

Vasari, G and Gherardi, C. Castration for peeping. Tee hee~ (26th Century) Public Domain

Vasari, G and Gherardi, C. Castration for peeping. Tee hee~ (26th Century) Public Domain

Let me enlighten your human minds then. Thesmophoria was a unique festival. Unlike the usual festivities where it was exclusively for men and by men, only citizen-wives were permitted to partake in the ceremonies of the Thesmophoria. Furthermore, men were barred from the festival and were confined at home. Amusingly, legend has it that men who tried to peep on their wives faced a gory consequence3.

That being said, they were still expected to fund4 the costs of the festivals. Wives whose husbands couldn’t afford the costs were sponsored by wealthier men. This festival is certainly liberating for most of the women5 given that roles were reversed during this period 6. Women who normally had no say in political matters could finally be themselves without being bound by the shackles of their counterparts. They ruled their own lives for that three days7.


 

Q: So what happens during the festival?

 

Millet, F.D. The Procession of women. (between 1894 and 1897) Public Domain

Millet, F.D. The Procession of women. (between 1894 and 1897) Public Domain

Saramis:

To start of with, Thesmophoria is a 3 day festival that took place on the 11th, 12th and 13th of Pyanepsion, following the Athenian calendar which corresponds to October.

 

In an attempt for women to replicate our mistress, Demeter’s sufferings, they underwent through deviance from normal lives which included abstaining from sex, fasting for a day, shunning the use of accessories and using willow mats for resting.  Additionally, they also avoided using fire and used natural heat for cooking instead. These actions of theirs illustrated the devotion they had to honour our mistress in the highest form of order.

 

On the first day(Anodos) of the festival, women would make their way to the Thesmophorion to prepare for the festival which included setting up tents for their subsequent nights’ rest.

Nguyun, M. Pig carrier of the ritual. (2009) CC Attribution 3.0 Unported

Nguyun, M. Pig carrier of the ritual. (2009) CC Attribution 3.0 Unported

On the second day(Nesteia), women emulated the grief of Demeter by abstaining from food, sitting on seats made of anaphrodisiac plants 8 which exemplified women’s abstinence, and also through practicing ritual obscenity, such as participating in aischrologia 9 which is said to improve their fertility. The idea of indulging in such acts is derived from a goddess Baubo ( also referred to as Iambe). It is said that she was responsible for making our mistress laugh amidst her suffering, by modelling her genitals10 and making jokes about men’s genitals. Thus, when such acts are replicated, yearning would be stirred among the participants and would inevitably lead to desired reproduction.

The festival culminates on the third day(Kalligeneia), meaning fair birth. On this very last day, women ate and drank sumptuously in celebration of the Persephone’s return, as a representation of the resumption of their own fecundity.

Evidently, in rituals like these which are related to the Earth and fertility there is no role for men at all. Except to fund the rituals and to turn a blind eye while they’re made a laughing stock by their wives11.

 

Q: Where was it celebrated?

Gagnon, B. Holy sanctuary of Pynx (May 2014) CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Gagnon, B. Holy sanctuary of Pynx (May 2014) CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Athemin:

I am appalled you peasants aren’t aware. Then again it isn’t all that surprising. The festival of Thesmophoria was celebrated at the Thesmophorian 12, but the actual rituals were celebrated within the confinements of the holy sanctuary of Pynx. However, those near-sighted archaeologists have not been able to ascertain that the women gathered within the locality of the Pynx hill13. The only reason you humans were able to speculate that Thesmophoria occurred there was due to the references made in the ‘Thesmophoriazusae of Aristophane’. It has also been said that the sacred rites were to be carried out on sanctified ground within Pynx, away from the peering eyes of others14.

Due to the nature of the festivals, the women who participated in the rituals had to stay in the sanctuary for the duration of the festival and thus, brought along their own tents and gear. All this confinement within the temple of our mistresses spells out one thing in bold – secrecy was of utmost important! In fact, the women were so particular about privacy that reference about the extent of the searches have been made in the text.

 

'let us take off our cloaks and search whether some other man has not come here too' - Aristophanes

Conclusion

All in all, Thesmophoria was the only festival in which women were given more freedom 15 to express themselves the way they wanted to. It used to be a privilege then but now, it has become a norm. Women today are able to express themselves more freely than before, thanks to our dear mistress and her tantrums.

So we hope you mortals have learnt a lesson or two from our session. Now we must go, for our mistress needs us to attend to her needs of spring cleaning her daughter’s room 16.

  1. Desiderata is the plural of desideratum which comes from the Latin word desiderare which means to desire or want something
  2. Husbands of Greece > Lord Hades did right. Women are no doubt citizenship-less and ought to follow their husbands’ orders. We can't fathom why he would let Demeter be his demise.
    Yewhantia: Unless you want nothing in your fields, i suggest you apologize to our mistress, darlings. Husbands of Greece > Gulp...but considering food was scarce in the underworld, he had to yield...T_T
  3. Fun Fact: (Men who either sneaked into the festival dressed as women or tried to enter the grounds of the temple were punished by castration.) Well, apparently this habit hasn’t died centuries later. Sneaky little things.

    Husbands of Greece: Man’s voice > Ouch! Not our manhoods!

    Saramis: Oh dear, not there!
  4. Artemin: Duh, women were not allowed to earn money then.
  5. Fun Fact: Prostitutes or those considered unclean females were also prohibited from taking part in the festivities.
  6. Saramis: Now women have the power~~.
  7. Husbands of Greece > Now this is unfair. We’ve been funding our wives’ little rituals but they don't tell us anything. Neither can we see for ourselves where our money has gone! They get to see our festivals but we don't get to see theirs. Now where is the equality?!
  8. Anaphrodisiac plants are plants that contain parts that when taken orally, reduces sexual desire. Examples include licorice and parsley.
  9. Aischrologia is the Greek word meaning “Foul speaking, low and obscene speech”. Saramis: Ohhh! Obscene talk! LOVELY!
  10. Fun fact: women masturbated to keep their sexual urges satiated. Husbands of Greece > Now that is a must peek at! Yewhantia: Utterly uncouth.
  11. Husbands of Greece > Not allowed to be part of festival was scathing enough, now being made the butt of jokes as well? Looks like our wives need to be taught a lesson when they come home! Yewhantia: Please be nice to them, or our Mistress won't be happy..>:) Husbands of Greece >...What’s with the sudden chill?..Brrrghh...
  12. Athemin: Duh! Baffoons!
  13. Athemin: That is because they weren’t looking beyond their glasses. Yewhantia: That's not very nice Athemin.
  14. Athemin: Especially those pesky males. Husbands of Greece > Pesky?! Hey, we need to see our money’s worth!
  15. Saramis: Power! Woohoo!
  16. Husbands of Greece > Back to doing household chores huh? That’s right! Make Lord Hades his sandwich too! Athemin: Shall I relieve you all of your manhoods? Saramis: Roast'em! I am sure they will be delish! Husbands of Greece: Ssssorry!

 

References:

Aristophanes,The Thesmophoriazusae, From MIT.edu, Accessed 26 February 2017

Blundell, S. W. M. W. M. (2005). The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. Florence: Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/buffalo/detail.action?docID=254142

Broneer, O. (1942, July-September). The Thesmophorian in Athens. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 11(3), 250-274. Retrieved February 13, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/146735

Doroudian,Milad,The Thesmophoria: Fertility and Femininity, The Art of Polemics, Accessed 12 March 2017

Emir, B. (2014). Thesmophoria. Journal of Ancient History and Archaeology, 1(4) doi:10.13795/j.v1i4.89

Goddess gift, Demeter, Greek Goddess of the Bountiful Harvest, Accessed 19 March 2017

Greek gods and goddesses, Demeter, Accessed 12 March 2017

Greek Mythology, Demeter, Accessed 19 March 2017

Johnston, S. I. (2013). Demeter, Myths, and the Polyvalence of Festivals. History of Religions, 52(4), 370-401. Doi:10.1.86/669646

Multiple authors, Politics and women in ancient Greece, Collective information from multiple sources, Accessed 12 March 2017

O'Neal, W.J (1993). The status of women in ancient Greece, International Social Science Review, 68(3), 115-121. Retrieved March 18 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41882108

Smythe,A.C, Baubo: Greek Goddess of Mirth, Collective information from multiple sources, Accessed 26 February 2017

Tzanetou, A. (2002, Autumn). Something to Do with Demeter: Ritual and Performance in Aristophanes' Women at the Thesmophoria. The American Journal of Philology, 123(3), 329-367. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1561692