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 p1127  Thesmophoria

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp1127‑1128 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

THESMOPHO′RIA (Θεσμοφόρια), a great festival and mysteries celebrated in honour of Demeter in various parts of Greece, and only by married women, though some ceremonies also were performed by maidens. The Attic Thesmophoria were held in the month of Pyanepsion and began on the eleventh. Its introduction is ascribed by Demosthenes, Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch (ap. Theodoret. Therap. 1) to Orpheus, while Herodotus (II.171) states that it was introduced into Greece  p1128 from Egypt by the daughters of Danaus, who made the Pelasgian women of Peloponnesus acquainted with the mysteries, that after the Dorian conquest they fell into disuse, and were only preserved by the Arcadians, who remained undisturbed in their ancient seats.​a Thus much appears certain from the name of the festival itself, that it was intended to commemorate the introduction of the laws and regulations of civilized life, which was universally ascribed to Demeter (Diodor. V.5). Respecting the duration of the Attic Thesmophoria, various opinions are entertained both by ancient and modern writers. According to Hesychius (s.v. Τρίτη Θεσμοφορίων) it lasted four days: it has been inferred from Aristophanes (Thesmoph. 80) that it lasted for five days. Such discrepancies have undoubtedly arisen from the circumstance that the women spent several days before the commencement of the real festival in preparations and purifications, during which they were especially bound to abstain from sexual intercourse, and for this purpose they slept and sat upon particular kinds of herbs which were believed to have a purifying effect (Hesych. s.v. Κνέωρον; Etymol. M. s.v. Σκόροδον; Aelian. Nat. An. IX.26; Schol. ad Theocrit. IV.25; Dioscorid. I.135; Plin. H. N. XXIV.19; Stephan. Byz. s.v. Μίλητος). During this time the women of each demos appointed two married women from among themselves to conduct the preliminary solemnities (ἄρχειν εἰς τὰ Θεσμοφόρια, Isaeus, de Ciron. hered. p208, ed. Reisk.), and their husbands who had received a dowry amounting to three talents, had to pay the expenses for the solemnity in the form of a liturgy (Isaeus, de Pyrrh. hered. p66). The festival itself, which according to the most probable supposition, also adopted by Wellauer (de Thesmophoriis, p6), lasted only for three days, began on the 11th of Pyanepsion, which day was called ἄνοδος or κάθοδος (Hesych. s.v. Ἄνοδος) from the circumstance that the solemnities were opened by the women with a procession from Athens to Eleusis. In this procession they carried on their heads sacred laws (νόμιμοι βίβλοι or θεσμοί), the introduction of which was ascribed to Demeter Θεσμοφόρος, and other symbols of civilized life (Schol. ad Theocrit. XIV.23). The women spent the night at Eleusis in celebrating the mysteries of the goddess (Aen. Tact. Poliorc. 4).

The second day, called νηστεία (Athen. VII p307), was a day of mourning, during which the women sat on the ground around the statue of Demeter, and took no other food than cakes made of sesame and honey (σησαμοῦς, Aristoph. Thesmoph. 535, Pax, 820). On this day no meetings either of the senate or the people were held (Aristoph. Thesm. 79). It was probably in the afternoon of this day that the women held a procession at Athens, in which they walked barefooted behind a waggon, upon which baskets with mystical symbols were conveyed to the Thesmophorion (Aristoph. Thesm 276, &c.). The third day, called καλλιγένεια from the circumstance that Demeter was invoked under this name (Aristoph. Thesm. 296), was a day of merriment and raillery among the women themselves, in commemoration of Iambe who was said to have made the goddess smile during her grief (Aristoph. Thesm. 792, Ran. 390; Hesych. s.v. Στήνια; Phot. Lex. p397; Apollod. I.5 § 1). Hesychius mentions a sacrifice called ζημία, which was offered to the goddess as an atonement for any excess or error which might have been committed during the sacred days, and this sacrifice was probably offered at the close of the third day.

There are several other particulars mentioned by ancient writers as forming part of the Thesmophoria, but we are not able to ascertain in what manner they were connected with the festival, or on what day they took place.

Thesmophoria were also celebrated in other parts of Greece, as stated above. The principal places where they are mentioned by ancient authors are the following:— Sparta, where the festival lasted for three days (Hesych. s.v. Τριήμερος); Drymaea in Phocis (Paus. X.33 § 6; Steph. Byz. s.v. Δρυμία); Thebes in Boeotia (Plut. Pelop. p280; Xenoph. Hellen. V.2 § 29); Miletus (Steph. Byz. s.v. Μίλητος; Diog. Laërt. IX § 43), Syracuse (Athen. XIV, p647), Eretria in Euboea (Plut. Quaest. Gr. p298B, &c.), Delos (Athen. III p109), Ephesus (Strab. XIV p633; Herod. VI.16), Agrigentum (Polyaen. V.I.1), and other places. But of their celebration in these towns we know more than a few isolated particulars which are mentioned in the passages referred to.

(Meursius, Graecia Feriata, s.v. Θεσμοφόρια; Wellauer, de Thesmophoriis, Wratislaviae 1820, 8vo; Creuzer, SymbOl. IV p440, &c.; Preller in Zimmermann's Zeitschrift, 1835, n98; and in general Wachsmuth, Hellen. Alt. II p574, 2d ed. &c.; K. F. Hermann, Handb. der Gottesd. Alterth. § 56 n15, &c.)

Thayer's Note:

a One interesting ancient reference not included in our article is in Plutarch's Isis and Osiris, ch. 69 (378D‑E), where the explicit parallel is drawn with the cult of Isis in Egypt.

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