Thesmophoria, The “Bitching Festival” for Demeter Thesmophoros and Baubo


a Greek vase depicting A Priestess offering a piglet and other items to Demeter for Thesmophoria.
A Priestess offering a piglet and other items to Demeter.

In late October, bridging the time between Mabon and Samhain, we come upon a beautiful multi-day holiday from the Greeks called Thesmophoria. Greek femmes held this rite after all the pomp and ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries. They dedicated this festiva to Demeter Thesmophoros, a variant of Demeter who was the Law-Giver. Observed after the crops had been entirely pulled in, but before the seeds for next year’s planting were committed to the Earth. Women from all walks of life would leave their homes and jobs and head out to nature for their own recharge festival.

The Goddess of Thesmophoria: Demeter Thesmophoros

The Greeks loved to add all sorts of unusual adjectives to the Gods’ names. These adjectives were poetic descriptions representing the diverse works of the Gods or even their connection to localities. They often arose from ecstatic experiences people had with the deities. The names clarify the specific role the God played or the particular need of the person calling on the deity.

The epithet Thesmophoros derives from Demeter’s function in revealing and disseminating two ancient secrets; the cultivation of grain and initiation to the mysteries.

Few references mention it. Most of her epithets refer to her capacity as a provider of food and grains, and the teacher of the knowledge to grow them. Food production is, of course, a key element in helping humanity set itself apart from other animals on Earth. Demeter and her daughter Kore/Persephone often shared the term Thesmophoros, and the two were often referred to as “The Two Goddesses,” (To-Thesmophoro) or the “double-named Goddess,” with Thesmophoros, being a plural word, often standing for both of them. “By the Two Goddesses” was a common oath that women favored.

Thesmos means “laws,” but also, “that which is set down or laid down,” as from the late past or Source. In other words, a Universal Law, something from the beginning of time. Homer uses the word to refer to the “law of the marriage bed” of Odysseus and Penelope. It is a divine law, fate, ritual law, or natural law. Thesmos can also refer to ritual customs and rites. So we may interpret this name for Demeter as; Source of the laws/rituals of the natural world, a “law” or order of conduct going back into the reaches of time and memory. The ritual of Thesmophoria then hearkens to an older, more natural order, from before the laws of man.

“By the Two Goddesses”
was a common oath
especially favored by women.

Thesmophoria: The History

Greeks Celebrated Thesmophoria in locations from North Africa to Asia Minor to Southern Italy to Greece and Sicily making it one of THE most widespread dedicated to Demeter. Archeologists believe it may be one of the oldest festivals as well, with traces appearing from eleventh century BCE. Men were absolutely not allowed to attend, witness or even hear about the festival, ON PENALTY OF DEATH. So, y’know, if you identify as male, you’re taking your chances if you read further.

The most well-documented purpose of Thesmophoria was to restore the health and fertility of the Earth before next year’s crops. At a previous rite in Spring, Priestesses drop offerings into snake-filled rooms under a temple dedicated to Demeter called the Thesmophorion. Specifically, the offerings were the bodies of new-born piglets, grains, pine shoots and bread dough shaped like phalluses. At some point during the Thesmophoria, Priestesses would descend to those snake-filled rooms, clapping rhythmically to scare away the snakes, and retrieve the decomposing offerings. They would leave them at the front of the temple for farmers to take and use as a sacred compost to mix with the seeds they would soon plant before the next rainy season arrived. This sacred organic compost was a reflection of the type of “natural law” that Demeter Thesmophoros represented.

‛η τε Αγαπη και ‛η αδελφη ηλθον εις την ‛εορτην. εθεραπευον δη την Δημητερα. επειτα δε ελουσαν και ηλθον εις την χωραν την εγγυς της πυκνος. τη˛ μεν δευτερα˛ ‛ημερα˛ ουκ ησθιον, τη˛ δε τριτη˛ ‛ημερα˛ εθυον τε και ησθιον τους χοιρους.

εθεραπευον – honoured
ελουσαν – washed
‛η χωρα – place, space
εγγυς της πυκνος – near the Pnyx
τη˛ μεν δευτερα˛ ‛ημερα˛ – on the second day
ησθιον – ate
τη˛ δε τριτη˛ ‛ημερα˛ – but on the third day
εθυον – sacrificed
‛ο χοιρος – piglet

Thesmophoria: The Rites

So, what exactly happened during Thesmophoria? Well, as best as we can tell, on day one women from all over the area would head out to the local hill dedicated to Demeter. They hauled out food, drink, incense, lamps, tents, and blankets. Leaving their beds filled with agus castus, the chaste tree, they conveyed a loud “nah” to their partners at home.

They took the first day to set up a “city of women,” away from town and prying eyes, building structures out of plant material. On day two, women would fast and purify themselves. On day three, they held the “bitching ritual.” These festivities were dedicated specifically to a Goddess named Kalligeneia, the nymph nursemaid to Persephone, who may or may not be another iteration of Demeter. The women would eat and drink their fill. They avoided pomegranate, but enjoyed wheat-based loaves of bread in the shapes of phalluses and vaginas – this might even be the precursor the long French loaf! Burping, farting, cussing up a storm, wrestling with each other, and even arguing were welcome behaviors. “Get it out,” seems to be the spirit here. After harsh feelings had been shared, femmes always made time to make up and come to peace.

Perhaps this was a festival where women
took care of themselves and each other,
sleeping in couples and groups,
healing each other after the labor of the harvest…
as well as healing each other while they watched
patriarchy slowly spread across their world.

But even this is a reasonably sterile interpretation.

Many (male) authors over the years have insisted that celibacy was a key element of Thesmophoria. Looking at the other festival cycles happening at this time, we know that Demeter-as-Earth has just produced a massive harvest. Well, as any person who has had a baby can attest, often the last thing you want to think about is sex. So we may be seeing a natural receding of that Femme/Yin/Venusian energy so it can heal and restore itself.

However, the Eleusis Mysteries happens now. This is where Persephone is kidnapped and violated by Hades as the initiation to Her becoming Queen of the Dead. We also know that Demeter is raped by Poseidon at some point in her life as well as by the Titan Iasion. This portion of myth from the Eleusinian cycle is often overlooked. While Persephone is missing, Demeter is inconsolable and weeps day and night. At some point, the Goddess Baubo, moved by Demeter’s pain, attempts to cheer her up.

Baubo

Baubo, also known as Iambe, is an intriguing deity. She begins to tell Demeter jokes, each dirtier than the last, but she can’t even get a smirk out of the Great Mother. Finally, she lifts her dress and shows Demeter her hairy vagina. This cracks through the Great Goddess’ pain, and she gives out a hearty belly laugh.

Iambe

This Goddess may be the personification of the iambic meter or rhythm used in some rude forms of poetry and music, often depicted with instruments. Baubo means “entrails,” and she is sometimes depicted with a spiral on her belly. However, baubon in Greek means “dildo.” Baubo is always depicted as basically a head sitting on two legs. Her two legs press together forming a solid pillar. Her face is where her belly would be with her vagina on her chin. And her head is the shape of the head of a penis.

We look back on Demeter Thesmophoros as
a Goddess that Perhaps knew a keen secret
from way back in the days of yore
about how a femme
could make herself whole again.

I humbly suggest Baubo may have been a type of sexy Goddess concerned with the happiness and healing one can receive from good, rhythmic, masturbation or sex/sensual experiences that shake us to our core.

How healing those connections are. And how that kind of sensual energy exchange can even shake us out of something as deep as the grief of losing a child, or experiencing some kind of betrayal or violation. To trust a lover enough to open up to wherever it is you need sensation to go in your body. For some folks this helps them come back to their body after the disassociation that comes with traumatic experiences.
Perhaps Thesmophoria is about that.

It’s through this sense that we can now look at the festival of Thesmophoria with a new set of eyes. Perhaps this was a festival where women just took care of themselves and each other, sleeping in couples and groups, healing each other after the labor of the great harvest, the work of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as healing each other while they watched patriarchy slowly spread across their world.

And through that translation, we look back on Demeter Thesmophoros as a Goddess that perhaps knew a keen secret from way back in the days of yore, about how a femme could make herself whole again.

Thesmophoria Today: Ritual Ideas

How we can tap into this holiday and Goddess today (for mens and femmes):

Folks who identify as butch/dude/masculine, I realize these Goddesses may seem really abstract for you (although you may identify with Baubo.) If you don’t connect but you want to observe, do some journaling work around your feelings on female sexual power. What does that phrase mean for you? What does it feel like when that energy is in your life, and when it is missing? Who in your life represents that for you?

If you identify with these Goddesses or these types of experiences, get out of town if at all possible. Hold a sleepover. Host an all femme orgy. Hold a self-care/peer-care salon. Definitely gather with the femmes in your life and celebrate the work you have done so far this year. Eat some good food, drink some drink, smoke some smoke or do what you do to get loose. If you got some sh*t to say, say it. Certainly deal with the funky business, but make peace and find common ground at the end. Love yourself with some deep, sensual attention. Love each other. And by a new dildo (or prostate massager.)

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