The Original Thanksgiving... Was Only for Women?
The Sometimes Violent, Sometimes Psychedelic Ancient Harvest Festival
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
Today hundreds of millions of Americans are giving thanks. It is a day of gratitude, of family, of feasting... And certainly one of my favorite holidays!
Many of you may think of the historic origins of this celebrated harvest day going back to 1621, to the pilgrims and a decidedly more modern era than with what we here at Classical Wisdom amuse ourselves.
Maybe, being interested in the ancient world, you conjure the poetic words of Virgil, and recite a Roman Thanksgiving each year (as my dear husband is fond of doing).
Perhaps you like to think further back, to the writing of Exodus in the 6th century BC and the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, one of the inspirations for Thanksgiving.
But for us, that’s not even far enough!
Yes, dear reader, today we will journey to the Neolithic... and find an original thanksgiving... one that was only for women... and often included psychedelics and violence.
Read on to enjoy Mary Naples’ excellent article on how to give thanks, the ancient Greek Way.
Founder and Director
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Giving Thanks, the Ancient Greek Way
By Mary Naples
Did the ancient Greeks have an autumnal festival that corresponded to the traditional Thanksgiving holiday? There was, in fact, a festival that celebrated the gift of agriculture from Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and was one of the most highly anticipated religious festivals of the year. The Thesmophoria was observed during the month of Pyanopsion (October-November) in most city-states and ushered in the sowing season—though in others it celebrated the harvest, much like Thanksgiving does today.
One major difference however, was this ‘original’ Thanksgiving was only for women...and included some very different rituals.
While everyone in the polis eagerly anticipated the festival, not everyone could celebrate it. Membership in the Thesmophoria was restricted to citizen-wives, that is, wives of male citizens who were also daughters of male citizens. Although no maidens or female slaves were allowed to participate in the Thesmophoria, it was men who were strictly prohibited—-sometimes to the point of death—-from attending, witnessing, or spying on any portion of the festival.
Indeed, stories abound about men who were subject to life-threatening and disfiguring acts of violence perpetrated by the citizen-wives when they spied on or interrupted their festival in any way.
But this wasn’t some niche festival, in fact, it was extremely prevalent in the ancient world. The Thesmophoria’s celebrations comprised as many as fifty cities which spanned from Sicily in the west to Asia Minor in the east; from Macedonia in the north to North Africa in the south. Scholars believe that its expansive nature within the Greek world is a testament to its prehistoric origins. Citizen-wives came from far and wide to gather in their cities to celebrate both agricultural and human fertility.
Because women were typically confined to the seclusion of their domiciles, it was of particular significance that during the Thesmophoria they left their homes and families for a minimum of three days and three nights; Syracuse celebrated it the longest—- for ten days, and nights. To appreciate the importance of a feminine-only fertility festival garnering esteem from the entire community—including its male citizens who could not attend but nonetheless supported it and backed it financially—it is important to get a glimpse into what life was like for women in ancient Greece.
To be sure, a woman’s place was in the home, tending to such things as nursing children, weaving clothing, and preparing food. Unless they were priestesses, women could not participate in the public life of the polis in any way. Once married, not only were women confined to the domicile, but they were considered lifelong minors whose every move was directed by their husbands. In consideration of the poor opinion men had of women, how did women exploit gender roles to their advantage?
The Importance of Fertility
Although ancient Greece is famous for being the seat of Western civilization, for all its urbanity it was chiefly an agrarian society where most of its residents worked the land. From the seventh through the fourth century BCE, farming was a commonplace occupation revered by the greater polis. Greek historian and philosopher Xenophon (421-355 BCE) pronounced: “When farming goes well, all other arts go well, but when the earth is forced to lie barren, the others almost cease to exist.”
Because their land tended to be non-arable, the Greek world’s preoccupation with fertility was all-consuming and thus they found it necessary to have several fertility festivals throughout the year. The fertility festivals were a means of garnering control and appeasing the deities in order to encourage fertility. However, the abundance of crops was not the only concern of the Greeks. Due to their ever-expanding empire, they needed an ample supply of men to maintain their military commitments, and they needed women to produce the much-coveted male citizens.
As fertility’s natural agents, women capitalized on their role; with a few exceptions, most fertility festivals were limited to women only. These festivals were a means for women to harness some authority in their otherwise cloistered lives. In fact, of all the fertility festivals, not only was the Thesmophoria the most revered among the populace, but it was the most empowering for the female participants because its prehistoric origins harked back to a time when women had more authority in their lives.
The Hymn to Demeter
The chief fertility deity who was honored for her role in both crop and human fertility was Demeter—goddess of the harvest. The story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld, resonated with the women of ancient Greece whose life experiences paralleled the myth. The oldest and most complete version of the myth comes from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter composed in the seventh century BCE. Most scholars today believe that the Hymn invokes the Thesmophoria, meaning that the Thesmophoria was “of immemorial antiquity” and practiced long before the Hymn was composed.
Living under their husbands’ patriarchal thumbs, wives had become accustomed to being out of the loop regarding the matrimony of their daughters. Therefore, it was not unusual for a father to bargain with his future son-in-law about the fate of his daughter without the knowledge or consent of either mother or daughter. So it was in the Hymn that Zeus, Persephone’s father, arranged with his brother Hades—lord of the Underworld—to kidnap, that is marry, his daughter Persephone.
As a result of Persephone’s cruel abduction to the land of the dead, Demeter is inconsolable. She roams the earth and has experiences with mortals but in the end, she refuses to be pacified. Finally, she realizes her true power lies in her fertility. So, she stops the seasons. And the fertile earth becomes a barren wasteland. Reluctant to see the planet he shepherds wither away, Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again. But Demeter does not relent until Persephone’s release.
Finally, Zeus intercedes with Hades on Demeter’s behalf and orders him to return Persephone to her earthly abode. Hades adheres, but not before luring Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the Underworld binds Persephone to Hades as his wife for a few months out of every year, ushering in winter before returning to her mother in the spring.
At its most fundamental level, the Thesmophoria celebrated Persephone’s journey from her descent into the Underworld to her resurrection and life on earth. At a symbolic level relating to agriculture, Persephone is a metaphor for the seed, which in the Mediterranean region goes underground or lies dormant in the summer months only to be released again for planting in autumn. In ancient Greece, the grain seed was buried in bins in the earth, then opened and distributed during the sowing season for planting. That being the case, Persephone represents resurrection and the regeneration of life; from life to death and back again each year.
But what of this Pre-Thanksgiving? What was included in this harvest festival?
Three Days of Rituals
The first day of the Thesmophoria was called anodos, “way up” or “ascent'' and refers to the torch-lit procession which leads up to the Thesmophorion, beginning the festival. While Demeter’s sanctuaries were often on hills, there is a double meaning to the term “ascent”. It also refers to Persephone ascending from the depths of Hades—the prime reason for the festival. By ascending the hill to Demeter’s sanctuary, the women were imitating Persephone’s climb from the underworld.
The momentous second day was the fast or nesteia and recalled Demeter’s grief at the loss of her daughter. Nesteia was a day of deep mourning when adherents sat on their mats refusing food and wine as an act of mimesis for Demeter’s fast in the Hymn. Also on this day, most scholars believe that the women participated in “shameful talk” or aischrologia. Bawdy talk correlates with Iambe’s jesting, which lightened up Demeter’s dark spirits in the Hymn. In fact, profanity was celebrated in the Thesmophoria and other Demetrian festivals associated with the powers of reproduction such as menses, lactating and childbearing; processes which were frowned upon in the male-dominant culture.
At sunset on the second day, the women broke their fast with an alcoholic barley drink called kykeon, correlating in the myth when Demeter broke her fast. Some scholars believe that the kykeon may have been laced with the ergot mushroom which has psychoactive elements common in religious practices for inducing trance-like states. The alcoholic beverage coupled with an already fasting state could impact the “doors of perception.” Similarly, pennyroyal oil, known to possess hallucinogenic properties on its own and was both an emmenagogue (encourages menses) and an abortifacient (induces abortion), was a plant with significant relevance for the feminine fertility festival.
On the third day the citizen-wives celebrated the kalligeneia or “beautiful birth” symbolizing Persephone’s resurrection or rebirth when the twin goddesses are reunited. It was a joyous day of celebration, exultation, and a feast, presumably with a sacrificed sow. On this day the citizen-wives exchanged remedies with each other on their reproductive well-being; this was particularly so between mothers and daughters. Critical to the health and prosperity of the polis, as its culminating celebration, the kalligeneia served as a pledge to the city that breeding healthy citizen children and a bountiful harvest with which to feed them would be the festival’s consequence.
Ancient to the Ancients
Considered ancient even during the Archaic period (800-480 BCE), the faithful adherence to Thesmophoria’s primeval rituals and its ubiquity in the Greek world have led many scholars to believe that its origins may come from as early as the Neolithic era, which in the Greek world was around 7000-3200 BCE.
To be sure, the Thesmophoria bestowed a link to an era when women had more autonomy in their lives. Known for the advent of agriculture and the raising of livestock, it is believed that during the Neolithic era women had agency in their lives and played key roles in the agricultural revolution. While men were hunting, women stayed behind foraging for plants. Foraging led to the cultivation of seeds and vegetation which ultimately became humankind’s principal foods helping humans to settle the land.
As archaeological artifacts from the region attest, women were revered during the Neolithic age playing a dominant role in the fertility of human, livestock, and plant life.
The Thesmophoria evoked these ancient to the ancients time. To be sure, the authority of their ancestors enabled the citizen-wives to envision a new reality they might otherwise not possess in the hyper-androcentric world in which they lived.
So like the Thesmophoria’s citizen-wives, perhaps this Thanksgiving thanks should be given not only to Demeter and Persephone and the harvest season, but to the Neolithic foremothers whose groundbreaking work in the cultivation of seeds and vegetation helped make the harvest possible. You can celebrate the ancient Greek way with the festival, though perhaps you should leave out the psychedelics.
Want to know more about the Cult of the Captured Bride?
Mary Naples debut book will be out soon, delving into the fascinating festival that gave ancient women power. Classical Wisdom Members will receive the Ebook - so watch this space!
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Thank you, Anya and team, for all of the hard work you do to produce such excellent content! I didn't learn any of this in school. High school focused on a later time period. And in college, I did engineering. Even if it is a couple of decades late, I am glad to be starting this classical wisdom journey! All the best to you.
I very much appreciate your high quality content, but I’m confused. How does the Thesmophoria relate to Thanksgiving beyond both of them being harvest festivals? They don’t seem to have an obvious, significant connection.