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Category Archives: Traditions

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Suicide: A Hero’s way out?

by June 26, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

The debt we owe to the Ancients is almost impossible to measure. They gave the western world maths, theatre, wine, democracy, the Olympics, history, wine, libraries, roads, wine, philosophy, sanitation, universities, pizza and even wine (for a more comprehensive list see Monty Python’s Life of Brian).
We have much to thank our forebears for and a whole lifetime would not be long enough to fully comprehend the bounty they have bestowed upon us.
However, one area in which the teaching of antiquity is best left to the theoretical is the ultimate pro-life/pro-choice one… suicide.
The taking of one’s own life was not exclusively the refuge of the hopeless, the weak or the mentally unstable. Indeed, mors voluntaria (voluntary death) was not automatically laden with any negative connotation in the same way suicidium later came to be.

The Death of Dido, Joshua Reynolds, 1781

In fact, the latter term was not in general use until the 12th century AD, by which time its meaning had become bastardized. So much so, that if you mentioned suicidium to a Roman c.50 AD he would have presumed you were talking about killing pigs!
Etymology aside, the methods, malice or merits of suicide were still quite tricky concepts to clearly understand.
Defeat in battle, loss of (female) chastity, sickness, old-age and selflessness are documented reasons for ancients wishing to take the final, irreversible step.
“When arising from shame and dishonor, suicide was regarded as appropriate; self-sacrifice was admired; impulsive suicide was less esteemed than a calculated, rational act” (Miriam T. Griffin).
Death of Cleopatra

Roman painting from the House of Giuseppe II, Pompeii, early 1st century AD, most likely depicting Cleopatra VII, wearing her royal diadem, consuming poison in an act of suicide, while her son Caesarion, also wearing a royal diadem, stands behind her.

Slavish, plebeian or feminine ways of checking out, like jumping from a height, drowning or hanging, were totally reviled. If one wished to end it all in an heroic, manly fashion then the only way to do it was by using a weapon.
Therefore, the classic image of a disgraced or defeated Roman opening his veins in a hot bath (referenced in Godfather II) was not merely dramatic license on the part of Hollywood.
One downside of suicide (besides the obvious) in most modern, monotheistic societies was seemingly not relevant for the ancients, i.e. prohibited entry into the afterlife.
In Homer’s Odyssey we see the great Achilles standing shoulder to shoulder with Ajax – the wretched King of Salamis who took his own life at Troy.
Ajax suicide Vase

Exekias’s vase depicting the suicide of Ajax

However, his wretchedness was not simply ascribed to his suicide, but the unheroic causes of it. Ajax killed himself in a fit of pique – he didn’t seem to give a second thought to the fact that he was the Greek’s greatest living warrior and his selfish action could have lost them the Trojan War.
Conversely, Leonidas’ kamikaze mission in delaying the Persian army’s advance with only ‘300’ soldiers was seen as a noble and worthy act – a feat truly worth giving one’s life for.
Having said that, in general, the Greeks were not very pro-choice.
Aristotle, who considered the act a social injustice, stated that “taking one’s own life to avoid poverty or desire or pain is unmanly… or rather cowardly”.
Plato was slightly more ambiguous when he said that “what ought a man to suffer if he kills that which is most truly his own… if he takes his own life”? Going on to explain that “crimes against the state are crimes against the gods, and vice versa. When a man kills himself without good reason… he is committing a crime.” Though he does concede “intolerable shame” can justify the act.
Death of Socrates

Was Socrates’ death suicide?
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

A similar caveat is begrudgingly part of Epicurean doctrine – though in their instance, the case for life can be decided using a simple pleasure versus pain equation.
Socrates also had something to say on the topic… as one might expect from a man forced to commit suicide by a jury of his peers. He believed a man should not take his own life “until the god sends some compulsion upon him”.
Therefore, while we can see Leonidas as more of a martyr than a suicide victim, it’s safe to make the generalization that the Greeks distrusted, disliked or disapproved of suicide.
And so it was up to the Romans to give mors voluntaria a whiff of romanticism.
Indeed the mentality of Ajax, a mighty soldier shamed by the actions of inferior warriors, would have been much better understood by the proud and passionate Latins.
The civil war (that of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Brutus, Octavian/Augustus, Mark Antony and Cleopatra i.e. the setting for HBO’s Rome) produced no end of dramatic and heroic suicides.
Brutus killed himself after his eventual defeat to Octavian at Philippi, Cato refused to acknowledge that Caesar had the authority to pardon him and instead opted to disembowel himself, and Antony and Cleopatra famously fell to sword and asp respectively.
Painting of the death of Cato

Death of Cato, painting by Johann Carl Loth

Each of these ends exuded an aura of honorable defiance or heroism. This reflection was accentuated by Nero’s pitiful ‘suicide’ in 68 AD.
Trapped in a villa four miles outside Rome, realizing his end was nigh, the disgraced emperor headed for the most dignified exit left open to him. However, such was his poltroonery that he couldn’t go through with it himself, instead he ordered his secretary to perform the gruesome deed.
As a feeble cop-out, all we can really say is that ancient attitudes towards suicide were ambiguous. In one breath it could be venerated and in the next compared to murder.
Death of Nero. Smirnov V.S.

Death of Nero, By Smirnov V.S.

It took Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century AD for the ancient world to be euthanized of its uncertainty.
Soon it would become clear that the decision to end life was no longer in the hands of man, nor of the gods, but of God.
So, if you wanted to kill yourself in antiquity, it was much better to do it in pagan Rome than in Greece, as the former was more likely to bring you a reputation for valor. However, any type of mors voluntaria in Christian Rome was likely to cause many more problems than it solved.
Perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind the words (rather than the deeds) of the Roman philosopher, Seneca: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage”.
In short… don’t kill yourself. And if you do, please don’t cite this article in your suicide note.

The Mysteries of The Orphics

by June 24, 2019

By John Mancini, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Orphism art

Orphic mosaics were found in many late-Roman villas

Of the many belief systems circulating in archaic Greece, Orphism was perhaps the most significant. The state-sanctioned religion of Hellenism may have intermingled with all aspects of daily life, but archaic Greece was also a mixture of superstitious magic and philosophical cults. There were rational beliefs such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, as well as sects with mystical tendencies like Pythagoreanism and later, Orphism, the adherents of which developed the Eleusinian Mystery Festivals, an annual celebration that captivated Athenians for nearly two thousand years.
Unlike the state-sanctioned rituals of Hellenism, of which it was a part, Orphism was guarded by educated elite. Those who followed Orphism were called Orphics, and they held their yearly mystery festival on the Eleusinian plains west of Athens in celebration of Demeter and Persephone – as well as their mysterious consort, Dionysus, who played a key role in this religion.
Votive of the Eleusisian Mysteries

Votive of the Eleusisian Mysteries

The Orphic religion, as well as their texts, was said to have been associated with the literature from the mythical poet, Orpheus. In the myth of Orpheus, his wife Eurydice suffers a fatal encounter with a snake. By journeying to the Underworld and composing a song that softens the heart of Hades, Orpheus is able to win his wife’s resurrection, but on one condition: he mustn’t turn back to look at her on his way out. Of course, he can’t resist one last look, and he immediately loses his love a second time. From then on, Orpheus can only recall Eurydice’s ghost through song.
There is an unhappy version of the Orpheus myth as told by Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C. Similar to the ending in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Aeschylus’ play describes Orpheus dismemberment by the Bassarai (the Bacchants in Ovid). However, his head goes on singing and makes its way across the sea to Lesbos where it is venerated by Apollo.


Orpheus’ death in this myth as well as in the Metamorphosis can be seen as an allegory for peaceful societies inevitably succumbing to barbarism. Ovid claims that Dionysus punished the Bacchants for killing Orpheus, but in contrast, Aeschylus’ play has Dionysus sending the Bassarai to punish Orpheus for not paying him tribute. This is an interesting distinction that differentiates Orphism from earlier orgiastic cults. The Orphics were enemies of the orgiastic praise of early Dionysian rituals – and the fundamental point of the Orphic poems was the dismemberment of Dionysus at the hands of the Titans.
In the Orphic verses Dionysus is Zagreus, son of Persephone and Hades/Zeus. Hera convinces the Titans to tear him apart, but Zeus is able to save Dionysus’ heart, and he destroys the Titans with a lightning bolt. From their ashes man is born – hence man’s “Titanic” nature.
Egyptian myths exerted a lot of influence on Greek myths, especially during the 6th century when Greek merchants frequently visited the country. The Greeks would have been aware of the Egyptian Cult of the Dead, which influenced the Cult of Adonis and Dionysus, whose dismemberment at the hands of the Titans also mirrors the Egyptian myth of Osiris. In an ancient epic by Alcmaeonis, Dionysus-Zagreus is equated with the night, thunder and the earth. He is the “highest of all gods.” For Dionysus was originally a god of the Underworld. The Egyptians equated him with Pluto. In fact, Heraclitus said that Hades and Dionysus were one and the same.


So while the cult of Dionysus, which originated in Egypt, was incorporated into the Orphic religion, it also lost some of its earlier vitality and impact. The central rite of Orphism was the animal sacrifice, a symbolic dismembering and eating of Dionysus. This rite is interpreted as a crime in the Orphic myths, in which the Titans are similarly demonized. Like mankind, the Bacchants are equated with the Titans, hence with the principle of evil, and their Dionysian frenzy was condemned by the Orphics.
The unhappy ending of the Orpheus myth is one of vengeance for turning the Maenads into criminals. Dionysus was a god of the Underworld, and Orpheus did not acknowledge him, but rather associated with Apollo-Helios, the sun god.
Orphism was built on old ideas, but the Orphics systematized these ideas in a practical way, creating an organized religion that was powerfully influential, especially to Christian Gnosticism with its emphasis on love.
Orphic Tablet

Gold orphic tablet and case found in Petelia, southern Italy (British Museum)

Orphism’s insistence on freeing the soul from physical bondage was also borrowed by Christianity, and in Orphism we can also find an origin of religious guilt and its resolution through purification rituals conducted by an elite few who claimed they could save people’s souls – which probably influenced other similar religious priesthoods that came later.
Plato may have thought the Orphics were swindlers, but they were very influential. The Orphics’ ultimate triumph was the concretizing of heaven and hell – of delineating good and evil and putting the work of preparing the human soul for death into a fantastically detailed religious practice.

The Oracle of Delphi: More than a legend

by April 17, 2019

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Centuries ago, from every corner of the Mediterranean, people traveled to Greece to get answers about their life and future by the Oracle of Delphi. It was there that the god Apollo, through different women named Pythia chosen by local priests, sent his messages to those who needed them… as well as to those who could afford them. This was how it happened for the 12 centuries the oracle was active.


How was life at Delphi?
Delphi, along with Olympia and Nemea, was considered an inter-urban sanctuary but also a pan-Hellenic sanctuary: “they were located away from major cities, although they were under the administrative control of their nearby city-states or amphictyonies, they had an aura of neutrality”.
While at least four temples were built for Apollo at Delphi, there were many more around the ancient Mediterranean world. In fact, Delphi was not even the only ancient city with an oracle, however it was one of the most significant.

Delphi by Christian Hardi –

While the oracle was active, wealthy people and leaders from different territories occasionally paid to get to the front of the line to see the oracle. Indeed, there are records that state that the Pythia was sometimes forced to take her position on the tripod by the temple priests in order to satisfy rich clients.
At Delphi, there were always a lot of people waiting in line to see it. We know about them because the ones who paid a lot of money are immortalized in stone inscriptions.
Interestingly, these aren’t the only stone inscriptions… Despite wars, the rise and fall of different empires, two messages still survive to this day on the entrance of the temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much”.
Inscriptions at Delphi

Ancient Greek inscription on stone, near the Archaeological Museum. Main archaeological site of Delphi.

The Oracle and its messages
According to some records, the oracle delivered its pronouncements on an annual basis; the day chosen for the event was the seventh day of Bysios, Apollo’s birthday.
Other records state that nine times each year the woman went to the tripod, initiated the trance state, and gave Apollo a voice to deliver his messages. These sessions were held on the seventh day after each new moon in spring, summer, and fall. It did not occur during winter because Apollo was believed to have gone north to the land of the Hyperboreans (giants who lived “beyond the North Wind”).
Sculpture of Apollo

Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. attributed to Leochares. Found in the late 15th century.

The Pythia was always a woman from Delphi, regardless of her age or social class. While she was serving as oracle, she lived in the sanctuary, abstained from sexual activity, and fasted on or before the days scheduled for oracular sessions.
During days of oracle activity, the Pythia would initially be brought by priests of the temple from a private residence and led through a series of purification and religious rituals before her performance. Eventually she was led down into the inner sanctum of the temple (the adyton).
Painting of the Pythia

Priestess of Delphi, John Collier, 1891

Rulers and wealthy citizens of the known world (as well as famous philosophers) made the journey to this mountainous site to make the most important decisions of their lives… and the lives of those around them. Indeed, war and peace were determined by these messages.
The Vapors of Delphi
The Pythia delivered their oracles on a tripod over the cleft in the ground of Apollo’s temple, which was constructed around 800 BCE on Mount Parnassus. Over the years different women would take on the sacred role and pronounce their prophecies, but they were always inspired by the same vapors.
Delphi with vapors

Detail from Archaeological Site of Delphi, Greece

For centuries, different researchers underestimated the theory of the cleft and vapors because they couldn’t find any geological indicators that led them to their location. However, ancient writers such as Plutarch, Homer or Euripides described the vapors and modern studies are finally validating their reports. Evidence from a chemical analyses of water samples and travertine deposits in the adyton have shown that the springs on site have in the past and continue at present to emit small volumes of hydrocarbon gases.
Fall of Delphi and its Oracle
Painting of the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835/1845), as imagined by Eugène Delacroix

The Oracle started its decline in late Hellenistic and early Roman times. In 389 CE, Theodosius I started persecutions against Old Religion and prohibited the cult of Apollo and the celebration of the Pythian games in honor of Apollo. In 391 CE, Christianity was the exclusive state religion and older temples were closed.
Even though temples were shut down and the oracle was “silenced”, splendid structures still stand today, preserving the magnificent, if not fantastic, history of the Pythia and the Oracle of Delphi.

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December?

by December 26, 2018

By April Holloway, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? The popular answer is that it is Jesus’ birthday. However, it is necessary to reconsider that belief, No records exist in the Bible, or elsewhere, suggesting Jesus was born on that date. If it was not the birth of Christ which set Christmas Day apart from others in the calendar, what was it? To find out, you need to take look at ancient Persian and pagan traditions.
Christmas Was Probably Not the Day Christ was Born
First, let’s take a quick look at why Christmas probably wasn’t Jesus’ day of birth. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia states “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth” (Catholic Encyclopaedia). That being said, there are several reasons supporting the idea that Jesus wasn’t born in December. Luke 2:8 states that on the night of Jesus’ birth “there were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.” Scholars tend to agree that it is highly unlikely that shepherds were out with their flocks in the cold winter month.
Mosaic of the Good shephard

“The Good Shepherd” mosaic in mausoleum of Galla Placidia. UNESCO World heritage site. Ravenna, Italy. 5th century AD. ( CC BY SA ) Few scholars believe shepherds were watching their flocks overnight in December – it’s more probable they would have kept them under cover.

Luke 2:1-4 also claims that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census when Jesus was born. These censuses were not known to have occurred in winter – also making it improbable to link Jesus’ birthday with the day now called Christmas.
Pagan Festivals
Okay, so Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th. Yet other important events did fall at that time of year for ancient pagans. The most well-known of these celebrations were Saturnalia and the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra.
Originally, Saturnalia was held on December 17th, though the festival eventually was extended until December 25. This celebration honored Saturn, the God of Sowing and Husbandry, and was linked to the rise of a new year and the return of light. Ancient Romans would celebrate this date with a public banquet, giving gifts, partying, and holding a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn.

Roman fresco of dice players from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii. ( Public Domain ) Saturnalia was a “time-off” for slaves when they were allowed to wear nice clothes, sit at the head of the table, and gamble.

Mithra’s Birthday?
Roman Pagans who worshipped Mithras believed he was born on December 25th – the most holy day of the year for many ancient believers. This was a well-known cult for the Roman military in the 1st to 4th centuries AD. But Mithras is a god who has his origins in Persia beginning around the 6th century BC. The proto-Indo-Iranian language calls him ‘Mitra’, but that name was later adapted into Greek as ‘Mithras’. Many scholars believe that Roman soldiers discovered this god while completing military campaigns in Persia.
The Mithraic New Year and Mithras’ birthday were celebrated on 25 December. The date was part of the Roman Natalis Invicti festival – a celebration linked to worshipping the sun in general.
Persian Sun God

Mithra divinity statue in Vatican library, old illustration. By unidentified author, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1840. (BigStockPhoto)

Uniting Pagan and Christian Beliefs
When Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, he may not have imagined how difficult it would be to convert pagans into Christians. To ease the transition, the birth of Jesus became associated with pagan holidays which fell in December. As the Pagan holidays gained Christian significance, it was decided that the birthday of the Sun God should also be the birthday of the Son of God. The Catholic Encyclopaedia quotes an early Christian stating, “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…. Christ should be born”.

Ancient Worship in Modern Times?

by November 24, 2018

By Caleb Strom, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Roman Temple ceremony

A ceremony taking place at the new Roman temple. (Image courtesy of

Worship of the ancient pagan gods is on the rise in many parts of Europe. Norse Neopaganism is becoming popular in Scandinavia, Germany, and elsewhere. Hellenic Neopaganism or simply “Hellenism,” is gaining popularity in Greece and the area around the Aegean. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Italy, but also in Eastern Europe and the United States, the ancient Roman state religion is making a comeback. As of 2017, these modern Romans even have an active, public temple to Jupiter, the Iuppiter-Perunus temple.
Building the Iuppiter Perunus Temple
The story of the Temple to Iuppiter Perunus begins in 2009 when a group of Romans, or Roman Neopagans, bought land near Poltava, Ukraine. This was in response to the conviction that, if they were to truly revive Classical Rome as a living spiritual, cultural, and national entity, they needed a sacred space to worship and honor the gods that were and are at the heart of all that is authentically Roman in the pre-Christian sense.
Roman Temple

Initial development of the new Iuppiter Perunus temple. Source: TEMPLVM

In 2009, a 3 by 3-meter (9.84 by 9.84 foot) plot of land was purchased. By 2017, it had grown in size and was close enough to being complete that a ceremony was performed at the temple. The Iuppiter Perunus temple complex’s website claims that it is the first time certain Roman religious rites have been practiced in about 1600 years.
Three Roman weddings and many minor rites have also taken place since construction of the temple began. In addition to completing the current temple to Jupiter, these New Romans also intend to construct temples to Minerva, Juno, and to Mars, among other prominent deities in the old Roman state religion.
Development of the Roman Temple

Digital plan for the development of the Iuppiter Perunus temple. (Image courtesy of

A New Rome?
Reviving any aspect of Roman culture or civilization has been a subject of fascination ever since the fall of the western Roman Empire, the last political and cultural entity that could indisputably be considered a continuation of classical Rome. The Byzantines believed themselves to be the direct successors to Rome. This is because they were the rulers of what had been the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini are other famous polities that believed themselves to be, in some way, successors to Rome.
Emperor Mosaic

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. (Petar Milošević/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

An important difference between these earlier claimants and the modern reconstructionist movement, such as those building the temple, is that these polities merely desired to be political and perhaps cultural successors to Rome. None of them showed interest in reviving the ancient religion and spirituality of pagan Rome. All these empires that claimed to succeed Rome were Christian, Islamic, or secular.
Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proponents of romanticism gained an interest in reviving the religions of ancient pre-Christian Europe. By the 1920s, religious movements in Italy began to investigate and revive the ancient Roman religion. By the 1980s, numerous religious organizations which intended to revive the ancient Roman religion began to appear, mostly in Italy. Two well-known current examples are the U.S. based Nova Roma and the Roman Republic: Res Publica.
Modern Sacrifice

Members of Nova Roma conduct a Roman sacrifice to the goddess Concordia between the ruins of Aquincum, the modern city of Budapest, Hungary, during the Roman festival of Floralia, organized by the Aquincumi Múzeum. ( Public Domain )

These entities are non-profit organizations which consider themselves to be the front of a spiritual and cultural, but not necessarily political nation, united by common Roman values and religious practices and beliefs. They do not necessarily plan to create a political Roman state, but they do want to revive many of the social, religious, and spiritual aspects of the ancient Roman republic.
Roman Old Time Religion
Although there are many social and cultural aspects of the Roman way of life that do not appear religious, the spiritual center of a revived classical Rome is the revival of the ancient Roman religion and its focus on the ancient gods.
Ancient Roman Gods

Capitoline Triad of Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva. (Sailko/ CC BY 3.0 )

The ancient Romans, like the ancient Greeks and most ancient Mediterranean cultures, believed that nature was full of gods. The ancient Romans believed that gods might adopt humans as clients and become their patrons. In the patron-client system in Rome, a wealthier Roman, usually a patrician, would become a benefactor of a poorer Roman as his patron, providing for his physical needs and those of his family.
In response, the client was to honor the relationship with his patron through acts of service. The ancient Romans naturally saw their relationship with their gods in the same way. The gods might decide out of generosity to become patrons of individual mortals, a family, or the entire Roman state, as was the case with gods like Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva. In return, humans were to honor their immortal patrons through acts of piety including sacrifices and offerings.
Roman temple offering

An offering to the Gods conducted at the Iuppiter Perunus temple. (Image courtesy of

The Romans did not believe that their gods required humans to behave morally or that they punished immoral behavior usually, but they did believe that the gods had virtue. Unlike humans, the gods were believed to be free from vice and were not held back by what usually caused the downfall of humans, such as cowardice or excess. Another large aspect of Roman Neopaganism is reviving the ancient system of Roman virtues, which they believe to be the foundation of Western civilization.
Illustration of Roman Temple

Artist’s reconstruction of life in a Roman cardo of Jerusalem during the Aelia Capitolina period . (Carole Raddato/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Did Roman Culture Really Ever Go Away in the First Place?
The construction of the Iuppiter-Perunus temple and the emergence of Roman Neopaganism is unusual in that it includes a reconstruction of the ancient Roman religion, but it is not new in being a Western attempt to revive the glories of ancient Rome. The numerous attempts by the West to revive Rome also indicate that, in some sense, ancient Rome lives on in the modern Western way of life and thought.
Some historians even go as far as to suggest that Rome, as a civilization, never actually fell. In their opinion, it simply went through a dramatic transformation during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages and that, to some degree, ancient Rome lives to this day in the form of the modern West. Latin is still used in science and in religious settings such as the Catholic Church. Many Roman legal terms are still in use today, though they tend to have different meanings, and many Western virtues are, essentially, copies of old Roman virtues. For most of modern history, until the last century and a half, standard Western education was not far removed from ancient Roman education.
It could be that one does not have to reconstruct classical Rome to be Roman. In a sense, all Westerners are Romans, since the West has inherited so much of Roman culture and values. Rome may not be eternal, but it is long-lived, long-lived enough for the king of the Roman gods to still have an active temple today.

Demeter’s Daughters: Women of the Thesmophoria

by November 6, 2018

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.
In the indigo light of the early morning, wearing white robes and carrying torches, the pious women ascended the hill to the Thesmophorion (sanctuary to Demeter) in observance of their three day long annual festival honoring Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone.
Were they chanting? Were they singing? We can only guess. They must have numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands—a procession—exalting to behold.
Considered the oldest and most widespread of all religious festivals in ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was a feminine-only fertility cult whose celebrations spanned from Sicily in the west to Asia Minor (present day Turkey) in the east and everywhere in between. Most scholars maintain that its ubiquity in the Greek world was testament to its primeval origins.
Painting of the Ancient Greek festival

The Thesmophoria (Ancient Greek: Θεσμοφόρια) was an ancient Greek religious festival, held in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

Established, organized and engaged in by women, membership in the Thesmophoria was restricted to citizen wives in good standing; no maidens or female slaves were allowed.
Though strictly prohibited from attending the event—sometimes to the point of death—men, that is to say male citizens, were still responsible for the expenses related to its celebration.
Because of its deep cultural significance, on the second day of the Thesmophoria, all law courts and council meetings in the polis were suspended. Additionally all prisoners were released from jail. Women then celebrated the Thesmophoria away from their homes and families for a minimum of three days and nights. Ironically, although women’s place was on the margins of hyper-patriarchal ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was given prominence in greater society.
Thesmophoria Vase

Thesmophoria Vase

In order to understand the importance the Thesmophoria may have had in women’s lives, it is vital to discuss the role Demeter and her daughter Persephone play in the myth as their narrative has relevance in the feminine festival.
The story begins with an arrangement between Zeus—lord of the gods and his brother Hades—lord of the underworld, to kidnap Persephone and make her queen of Hades’ dark domain. Ignorant of their unholy alliance and in an effort to win her daughter back from the land of the dead, Demeter stops the seasons turning the earth into a barren wasteland.
Although Zeus pleads with her to make the earth abundant once again, Demeter refuses to relent until Persephone is restored to the light of her earthly domain. Ultimately, Zeus acquiesces to Demeter’s demands and orders Hades to release Persephone. But before Hades adheres, he lures Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed.
Painting of Persephone

Persephone and the pomegranate

The mere act of eating in the underworld, keeps Persephone as his wife in his domain for a few months each year.
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.
While we may never know how the citizen wives practiced their secret ritual, literary and archaeological evidence suggests that in one of their integral rites, citizen wives handled death in order to bring forth life.
How did the women embark on this critical undertaking? Previous to the festival, the members had elected two prominent women called bailers or anteltriai who were tasked with descending the deep hollow of the cavern or megara to remove its “sacred objects.” Because it was understood to represent the womb of Demeter, the cavern was a common chamber within the Thesmophorion.
Statue of Demeter

Statue of Demeter

The “sacred objects” were comprised of rotted piglets along with other objects believed to increase fertility such as dough cakes in the shape of male and female genitalia as well as fir cones.
Because of its fecundity, the pig was associated with Demeter. Likewise fir cones were used because pine trees were known to be prolific.
This newly born humus the bailers scoop up is symbolic of the power the citizen wives possess. Through Demeter, they are able to generate life in an exclusively feminine cycle. The “sacred objects” were then placed on the altars of the two goddesses and mixed with seed constituting what may be one of the first examples of composting. Plentiful humus was a favorable portent, indicating the goddess’ delight at the festival and insuring the strength of the seeds in the forthcoming sowing season.
While we envision ancient Greece as being the seat of Western civilization, for all its sophistication, it was still chiefly an agrarian society where most of its residents worked the land. But because the land tended to be non-arable, the Greeks found it necessary to have several fertility festivals throughout the year as a means of appeasing the gods and garnering control in order to encourage fertility.
And due to their ever-expanding empire, they needed an ample supply of men to maintain their military commitments, as well as women to produce the much-coveted male citizens.
As such, Demeter was the chief fertility deity who was honored for her role in both crop and human fertility, aiding the Ancient Greeks in increasing the wealth in their world.
Ultimately, the work of the citizen wives was done. Filing out processionally, the pious women descended from the Thesmophorion. Spectators lined the streets in order to watch them make their descent from the sanctuary. After all, they played a critical role as the health and prosperity of the polis rested on their shoulders.