Thesmophoria: the Ancient Greek Festival of Giving Thanks

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Leaves have already changed from green to the brilliant colors of autumn. They're just starting to fall as winter creeps to center stage in New England, where Christos and I work from our homes in Massachusetts and Vermont. Before the snow and the winter tires though, American thoughts turn towards Thanksgiving. We start booking our travels, preparing our homes for guests and planning our meals.

Certainly, we’re not alone in the roots of Thanksgiving--hoping for bounty and celebrating the good fortune of a strong harvest. Have you ever wondered about ancient Greek festivals of thanksgiving? At Tolmee, we were curious and our research led us to Greek Mythology and the story of Thesmophoria.

Thesmophoria

Thesmophoria, Θεσμοφόρια in ancient Greek, honors the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The festival was born of a mother’s love for her daughter as Demeter lay mourning Persephone’s captivity in the Underworld. Demeter’s mourning period coincided with summer in Greece, when the fields are dry and shriveling from the hot summer sun and drought.

 

The Pomegranate and the seasons

Persephone, sometimes known as Kore (Core, the Maiden), was taken by Hades as his wife and spirited to the Underworld. While there, she tasted the fruit of the Underworld, the pomegranate, unknowingly binding herself to Hades forever.

Meanwhile, her mother Demeter despaired and searched for her daughter, refusing to let the land blossom until her return. Zeus knowing Persephone had tasted the pomegranate fruit relented--but with conditions. Agreeing to let Persephone return to her mother, he decreed that she spend part of her time each year in the Underworld with her husband Hades. Thus, Persephone's innocent taste led to the creation of the seasons. Sadly, while Persephone languishes in the Underworld, so too does Earth languish in winter. Her return heralds spring’s return and Earth’s rebirth.

Thesmoi = The law of working the land

Interestingly, the root word of Thesmophoria, Thesmoi, means the law of working the land. As any agrarian society can attest, harvest and fertility success is variable and uncertain. This struggle is a recurring theme in human history, and in ancient Greece, life teetered in the balance. Attempting to gain control, ancient Greeks enticed Demeter and Persephone with sacrifices carried out by married women, Attic by birth and of pristine reputation. A successful Thesmophoria could stave off societal collapse and lead to another year of bounty. It’s hardly a wonder that ancient Greeks sought help from their gods.

 

Thesmorphia’s festival customs

Scholars are uncertain when the festivals began, however, they suspect the festival dates back to the 11th century BCE, potentially coinciding with the Greek settlement at Ionia. Though Athens featured largely in the celebration, other cities in ancient Greece held similar festivities. Athenians apparently celebrated in October of the Gregorian calendar, or the eleventh to the thirteenth of Pyanepsion the Attic calendar. Other parts of Greece might have celebrated at different times and for varying lengths.

On the first festival day, Athenian high born women went in procession to the deme of Halimus, on the promontory of Colias in Athens, followed by taunts and jests of men. Three nights of celebration followed, during which the women worshiped Demeter and her daughter. After three days passed, they returned to Athens.

Though details surrounding ritual sacrifice are somewhat vague, scholars generally agree that pigs were sacrificed and held in pits called Megara to decompose. The women, having spent days in a state of ritual purity, subsequently retrieved the remains. As well, they baked phallic and snake shaped cakes to place together with the remains on Demeter’s alter. Though the details are murky, the intention seems clear - appeal to Demeter’s generosity, sow the seeds with pig fertilizer and pray for fertility in both harvest and family.

I’ve enjoyed exploring the festival of Thesmophoria during autumn in Vermont and hoped you’ve learned a little something new too. Do you have suggestions on future posts? We’d love to hear them and any other thoughts you have. Please email us at info@tolmee.com

PS: In writing this blog, I starting to think about pomegranate and Thanksgiving and a short search on the internet lead me to Jennifer at Once Upon a Chef. Check out her wonderful recipe here.

ancient greece ancient rituals demeter greek greek history greek mythology history of thanksgiving pomegranate pomegranate sangria thanksgiving thesmorphoria

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