The XAnthos Greek Thanksgiving: Thesmophoria by Desideria
Thesmophoria, the world's very first Mother & Daughter Festival, was an ancient Greek religious festival, held in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. It was held annually, mostly around the time that seeds were sown in late autumn – though in some places it was associated with the harvest instead – and celebrated human and agricultural fertility. Therefore, XAnthos has chosen to celebrate Thesmophoria along with Thankgiving! The festival was one of the most widely-celebrated in the Greek world. It was restricted to adult women, and the rites practiced during the festival were kept secret. The festival was celebrated only by women (especially married women), and men were forbidden to see or hear about the rites.
XAnthos Thesmophoria takes place on November 22-24th or 3rd weekend, but originally, the festival, Thesmophoria, was held during a month known as Pyanopsion (Puanepsion), in the lunisolar calendar of the Athenians. Since our calendar is solar, the month doesn't exactly match, but Pyanopsion would be, more or less, October into November, the same months as the Canadian and U.S. Thanksgivings. In ancient Greece, this was the tme of the fall planting of crops like barley and winter wheat.
During Thesmophoria, pigs are sacrificed by the women themselves and put into pits called megara. Some time later, the rotten remains of these sacrifices were retrieved from the pits by "bailers" – women who were required to spend three days in a state of ritual purity before descending into the megara. These were placed on altars to Persephone and Demeter, along with cakes baked in the shape of snakes and phalluses. These remains were then scattered on fields when seeds were sown, in the belief that this would ensure a good harvest. According to Walter Burkert, this practice was "the clearest example in Greek religion of agrarian magic". It is not certain how long the remains of the pigs were left in the megara. The fact that they had decomposed by the time that they were retrieved shows that they had been left in the pits for some time. Possibly they were thrown in during one festival and retrieved the next year. However, if they were thrown in during the Thesmophoria and retrieved in time for the sowing of seeds that year, then they may have only been left for a few weeks before being taken out again.
The Thesmophoria commemorated the kidnap of Persephone by Hades, and her return to her mother Demeter. Hades and Persephone ride the chariot on the lower part of this vase which depicts the myth; Demeter is shown on the top right corner.
The first day of the Thesmophoria was known as Kalligeneia meaning "beautiful birth" celebrating the birth of Persephone and praying for one's own fertility. Preparations for the rest of the festival were made on this day: two married women were elected to oversee the celebrations. Women also set up tents on this day; they would spend the rest of the festival staying in these rather than at home.
At this time, the preparatory night-time festival called Stenia done on the Eve of Fasting.
The second day was known as Nesteia and was a day for "fasting", imitating Demeter's mourning for the loss of her daughter. On this day, the women at the festival sat on the ground on seats made of plants which were believed to be anaphrodisiac.
The third day was known as anandos meaning "ascent" and most likely relates to the ascent of Persephone from the underworld to unite with her Mother. This is similar to Inanna's descent to the Underworld while her faithful sukkal named ninshubur is mourning and beating on drums for her return, and of course, the later plagairized patriarchal story of Jesus descending to Hell and rising again.
Carrying all the supplies they would need for 2 nights and 3 days, the women went up the hill, set up camp on the Thesmophorion (the hillside sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros 'Demeter the law-giver'). They then slept on the ground, probably in 2-person leafy huts, since Aristophanes* refers to "sleeping partners". The women spent the night at Eleusis in celebrating the mysteries of the goddess. Commemorating Demeter's torch-light search for her daughter, Persephone, there was a night-time torch-lit ceremony. The bailers ritually purified, descended to the megaron to remove the decayed matter thrown down earlier (either a couple of days or up to 4 months): pigs, pine cones, and dough that had been formed in the shape of men's genitals. They clapped to scare the snakes away and brought back the material so they could place it on the altars for later use as, especially potent fertilizer in the sowing of seed.
*For a humorous picture of the religious festival, read Aristophanes' comedy about a man who tries to infiltrate the women-only festival, Thesmophoriazusae (as referenced below).
Below is a picture of Kore (Persephone), daughter of Demeter, celebrated with her mother by the Thesmophoriazusae (women of the festival).
Thesmophoriazusae meaning "Women Celebrating the Festival of the Thesmophoria", sometimes also called The Poet and the Women, is one of eleven surviving plays by Aristophanes. It was first produced in 411 BC, probably at the City Dionysia. The play's focuses include the subversive role of women in a male-dominated society; the vanity of contemporary poets, such as the tragic playwrights Euripides and Agathon; and the shameless, enterprising vulgarity of an ordinary Athenian, as represented in this play by the protagonist, Mnesilochus. The work is also notable for Aristophanes' free adaptation of key structural elements of Old Comedy and for the absence of the anti-populist and anti-war comments that pepper his earlier work. It was produced in the same year as Lysistrata, another play with sexual themes.
How The Poet and the Women fared in the City Dionysia drama competition is unknown, but the play has been considered one of Aristophanes' most brilliant parodies of Athenian society with a hilarious plot......
Today, the women at the festival
Are going to kill me for insulting them.
The Ancient Greek Thanksgiving: Thesmorphia
THE DEMETER BACK-STORY
Demeter (the Greek version of the Roman goddess Ceres) was the goddess of grain. It was her job to feed the world, but when she discovered her daughter had been kidnapped, she became so depressed she wouldn't do her job. Finally, she found out where her daughter was, but that didn't help much. She still wanted Persephone back and the god who had abducted Persephone didn't want to return his lovely prize. Demeter refused to eat or feed the world until the other gods arranged a satisfactory resolution to her conflict with Hades over Persephone. After her reunion with her daughter, Demeter gave the gift of agriculture to mankind so we could plant for ourselves.
THESMOPHORIA'S RITUAL INSULTS
Before the Thesmophoria festival itself, there was a preparatory night-time festival called the Stenia. At the Stenia women engaged in Aiskhrologia, insulting each other and using foul language. This may have commemorated Iambe's successful attempts to make the grieving mother Demeter laugh.
Here's the story about Iambe and Demeter:
A long time she sat upon the stool without speaking because of her sorrow, and greeted no one by word or by sign, but rested, never smiling, and tasting neither food nor drink, because she pined with longing for her deep-bosomed daughter, until careful Iambe -- who pleased her moods in aftertime also -- moved the holy lady with many a quip and jest to smile and laugh and cheer her heart.
~Homeric Hymn to Demeter~