25.11.16

Thesmophoria

The Thesmophoria was the oldest and most widely attested of the festivalsperformed in honor of Demeter and her daughter Kore/Persephone, the reverendgoddesses of grain and of the underworld.

As many as fifty cities or villages in Greece, Africa, Asia Minor, Italy and Sicily show remains of a Thesmophorion sanctuary or epigraphic evidence of Demeter’s title Thesmophoros.



The Panhellenic spread of thefestival name and the epithet is seen as evidence for its existence as early as thesecond millennium BC, before the population movements of the late Bronze Age or thecolonial foundations of the eighth century BC.

Although the Thesmophoria was performed all over the Greek world as well as inmany Attic demes, some of the most detailed information about the ritual derives from Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousae and its scholia, which explain obscure details of thecult for later students of Greek literature. The play’s action is set in the Athenian Thesmophorion.

It is clear from ancient descriptions that the Thesmophoria was a womens’ festival (Ar.Thesm . 181-88, 329). Only women, and probably only citizen-wives, were allowed toparticipate, cloistered within the walls of the sanctuary.

The rituals were organized andperformed by women only; it was sacrilege for men to witness the
ἀπόρρητα(Ar.Thesm .363).

That the Thesmophoria was intended to enhance agrarian and human fertility has been the most common interpretation of the festival’s purpose since scholars first began to take an interest in ancient Greek ritual.

Such authoritative interpreters asWalter Burkert, Kevin Clinton, Ludwig Deubner, Lewis R. Farnell, Martin P. Nilsson, andRobert Parker have all viewed the Thesmophoria as a fertility rite.

In this paper I shall examine a new challenge to this conventional view, proposedby Nicholas Lowe,
who asserts that the only evidence for it, the well-known Lucian-scholion discussed below, proves exactly the contrary, that the Thesmophoria was not amagico-religious fertility rite.The Athenian Thesmophoria was held in the month of Pyanopsion(October/November), when the sowing of winter wheat, barley and legumes began in Attica (Hes.Op . 384, 615-16; Schol. Ar.Thesm . 80, 834;IG II2674; Plut.Dem.30,Mor .378E, 565B). The Thesmophoria was a pre-sowing ritual which ensured thecontinuation of the rains and the germination of the seed.

In the climate of ancient Attica, plowing and sowing usually began in late October and the operation could easilylast for a month.
The Thesmophoria was the most popular of the festivals in honour of Demeter and her Daughter Persephone. Photo: Persephone is being guided by Hermes back to the Upper World. Hecate lights their way with pine-torches. Demeter (left), holding a sceptre, awaits her daughter's return. Scene on a red-figure calyx krater by the Persephone Painter. Ca.440 B.C. 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1928. (28.57.23)
Photograph © 1983 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to Deubner’s reconstruction, the Athenian Thesmophoria lasted for three days, the 11th, 12th and 13th of Pyanopsion (Ar.Thesm. 80), although there werealso local celebrations attached to the festival, notably the Stenia on the 9th (schol. Ar. Thesm . 834,  στηνιῶσαι) and the Thesmophoria atthe deme of Halimus on the 10th (schol. Ar.Thesm. 80, Plut. Sol. 8.4, Polyaenus Strat. 1.20).

The women celebrating the festival inside the sanctuary maintained celibacy,and various herbs were apparently employed to ensure this result (PlinyHN 24:59-64).

The women camped out in tents inside the sanctuary, fasting and mourning (schol. Ar.Thesm. 658), and also observed some specific taboos related to the myth of Kore: theycould not wear flower crowns (schol. Soph. O. C.681), and they could not eatpomegranate seeds which had fallen on the ground (Clem. Al.Protr . 2.19.3). The feaston the final day,Καλλιγένεια, was apparently in celebration of fair offspring, human, animal and vegetable (Phot. s.v. Θεσμοφορίων ἡμέραι δ’; Alc.2.37.1).

The Thesmophoriazousae also engaged in αἰσχρολογία, ‘shameful talk’. Somehave found the aition for this unusual behavior in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter , when Iambe “with many a quip and jest,” finally caused Demeter to smile (Hom. Hymn Dem. 204). The Orphic version tells how Baubo
“stripped herself under the breasts”, to cheer Demeter up and persuade her to drink (Clem. Al.Protr.2. 21.1= Orph.Frag . 50).Indecent and mocking language was apparently characteristic of Demeter festivalsgenerally, especially when women gathered for secret rites or mysteries Apollod.1.30;Theodoret,Gr.Aff.Cur . 3.84;Clem. Al.Protr . 2.19.3;Diod. Sic. 5.4;Hsch.;Paus. 7.27.1o; Hdt. 5.83). The use of obscene, abusive, blasphemous language(σκώμματα, λοιδορία, βλασφημία, αἰσχρολογία, κερτόμησις), in a ritual context has oftenbeen explained as in some way encouraging fertility.



A most important piece of evidence, a Byzantine scholion on Lucian’s Dialogues of Courtesans, describes the secret rites:The Thesmophoria (Θεσμοφόρια) is a festival of the Greeks includingsecret rites (μυστήρια) which are also called Skirophoria (Σκιροφόρια). It iscelebrated in accordance with the more fabulous explanation (μυθωδέστερον λόγον) because Kore, while gathering flowers, was seized by Plouton, while inthe same place a certain swineherd, Eubouleus, was tending his pigs, and theywere all swallowed up in the chasm of Kore (χάσματι τῆς Κόρης);Therefore inhonor of Eubouleus, piglets are today thrown into the chasms (χάσματα) of  Demeter and Kore. The rotted remains (σαπέντα) of those things which havebeen thrown into the chambers (μέγαρα) below are brought up by women called‘bailers’ (ἀντλήτριαι) who, after having purified themselves for three days,descend into the innermost sanctuaries (ἄδυτα), and carrying them up, lay themon the altars. They believe that anyone who takes them and mixes them with theseed will have abundant crops (εὐφορίαν). They also say that there are serpentsdown in the chasms, which eat much of what is thrown down; therefore, theymake noise when the women bail (ἀντλῶσιν) and when they deposit thesemolded cakes (πλάσματα) so that the serpents, which they believe to be theguardians of these innermost sanctuaries (ἄδυτα) will withdraw. 

The same arealso called Arretophoria ( Ἀρρητοφόρια), and are celebrated for the same reason,for the generation of crops (καρπῶν γενέσεως) and the procreation of men(ἀνθρώπων σπορᾶς). Here also are carried up unmentionable holy objects(ἄρρητα ἱερά) made from bread dough, representations of serpents and of maleshapes (ἀνδρείων σχημάτων). They take pine shoots, because the tree is prolific.These things and the piglets are thrown also into the chambers (μέγαρα), as theinnermost sanctuaries (ἄδυτα) are called, as we have already said, and they,because of their fertility, as a symbol (σύνθημα) of the generation of crops andmen, are thank-offerings (χαριστήρια) to Demeter, since by providing cerealcrops, (Δημητρίους καρποὺς) she civilized the human race. 

The aboveexplanation (λόγος) of the festival is mythical (μυθικός) but the following is natural(φυσικός). It is called Thesmophoria, just as Demeter is named Thesmophoros,since she established laws (νόμους) or Thesmoi (θεσμούς) according to whichmen must labor to get their food. (Schol. Luc.Dial. meret . ii.1)

The text, first published by Erwin Rohde in 1870, was attributed by him to thetenth century AD scholar Bishop Arethas of Caesarea, a student of the learned Photius,Patriarch of Constantinople. Clement of Alexandria, in his description of pagan fertilityrites in Protrepticus, clearly relied upon the same source. Rohde believed that the source shared by Clement and Arethas was Didymus, a first century BC Alexandriangrammarian, whose voluminous commentaries are thought to lie behind many Aristophanic scholia.

Jacoby thought the source was Apollodorus’ first-century BCcommentary on festivals, περὶ θεῶν(FGrHist 3.b.2: 204, n. 77). More recentlyTheophrastus has been proposed as the source.

The scholion gives a confused account, beginning as a gloss on Thesmophoriabut immediately identifying this festival with the Skirophoria and later with the Arretophoria.

The description of the ritual skips from one phase to another and doesnot give a clear chronology of the descents and ascents of the antletriai . Attempts toemend or re-organize the text have not been generally accepted.

However, the basicoutline of the rites seems to be as follows: At some point, before the Thesmophoria in Pyanopsion - whether days, weeksor even months - women called antletriai (‘bailers’ or ‘pumpers’) deposited sacrificed piglets in underground megara (lit. rooms) or adyta (innermost shrines) inside thesanctuary.

In the same places they deposited pine shoots and cakes in serpentine andphallic shapes.
Pottery: black-figured kylix (drinking-cup) possibly showing a scene from the "Attic Thesmophoria", a fertility dance celebrated by the wives of Athenian citizens. On the other side of the vase is a representation of ritual ploughing.

During the Thesmophoria the same women descended into theseunderground pits and emptied them of their contents, bailing out the rotted remains of the piglets, cakes and branches. These remains were then ceremoniously deposited on the altars. From here any farmer who wished could take some to mix with his seed grainbefore sowing. They (the female performers?) believed that the use of this mixtureguaranteed a good harvest.The most influential interpretation of the Thesmophoria rite described in theLucian scholion was developed by Sir James G. Frazer. Frazer, originally trained as aclassicist (although the holder of the first university chair in social anthropology), saw theThesmophoria as a form of fertility magic intended to promote the fertility of the earth.

His Golden Bough presented his universal theory of the ‘Dying and Rising God’, which explained the origin of all ancient ritual in the death and resuscitation of a divine beingwho symbolized the spirit of the vegetation.

His article “Thesmophoria” in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica interpreted the Thesmophoria as a particular form of sympathetic fertility magic intended to assist the revival of the earth’s vegetation.

Frazer’s Golden Bough influenced and, one might say, permeated all ritualstudies produced in the twentieth century, not only in Classics and in Religionsgeschichte, but also in such literary studies as Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1941) or Theodor H. Gaster’s Thespis. Ritual, Myth and Drama in the  Ancient Near East (1960).

When Frazer’s ‘Dying and Rising God’ theory came under attack, like all grand syntheses, it fell with a crash which still resonates in anthropology and the history of religions.

Despite the demise of his universal theory, Frazer’s view of the Thesmophoria ritual as a form of agrarian magic intended to reinvigorate the earth andensure the growth of the newly sown grain, has been fairly universally accepted byscholars of Greek religion; so Burkert in 1985 (following Deubner 1932): “The manipulation of the decomposed remains of piglets to achieve a good harvest is the clearest example in Greek religion of agrarian magic.”

Frazer interpreted the festival name, Thesmophoria, as referring to the carrying of thesmoi in procession, by analogy with other festivals with the same termination, suchas Oschophoria or Arrephoria. The θεσμοί (things laid down, fr.τίθημι ) were the cakes,pine shoots and piglets thrown underground and retrieved months later. Therefore this fertility rite is the origin of Demeter’s title Thesmophoros as well as the name of her sanctuary, the Thesmophorion.
A later theorist argues that the θεσμοί were “large,round baskets” in which each woman carried her overnight necessities.
However thereis no evidence of the use of thesmos to mean a basket.
 A more ingenious etymology has recently been proposed, deriving thesmos froma hypothesized Indo-European root*dhes- meaning ‘holy’. Therefore Demeter’s festivalis called Thesmophoria because ‘holy things’ (the rotted remains) are carried inprocession.

Construing thesmoi as ‘holy things’ presents the same difficulty as interpreting thesmoi as ‘baskets’: examples of thesmoi used of concrete objects are fewand are more easily understood as referring to divine wishes or ordinances.

All of these approaches assume that the name of the festival and the title of thegoddess derive from the carrying of ritual objects, and therefore that the goddess isimagined to imitate or join with the women who carry these things. Yet why would thedeity be called bearer of 
thesmoi,as if she were a participant in her own ritual rather than the recipient of the ritual thank-offering? How can wederive Demeter’s epithetThesmophoros and the festival name Thesmophoria from the rotted pigflesh and pine shoots thrown down into Demeter’s underground Megara?

It is the goddesses Demeter and Kore who are called Thesmophoroi (frequently in the dual); the ritualperformers, the bailing-women are antletriai. Neither are the Athenian women celebrantsof the festival ever called Thesmophoroi; they are Thesmophoriazousae. Festival names with the termination – phoria such as Oschophoria or  Arrephoria are often cited as appropriate parallels to the Thesmophoria, yet there is no ApolloOschophoros or Athena Arrephoros. The oschophoroi are young men carrying grape-bunches in the first, and the arrephoroi are young girls carrying secret things in thesecond. A more abstract meaning for the epithet Thesmophoros might fit better. Theelement thesmos may properly be derived from τίθημι, to lay down, ordain, or establish,as a law or decree. In attempting to determine the meaning of thesmos we shouldappeal to usage rather than to novelty. Nowhere in ancient literature do we find adefinition or usage of this word as meaning “deposited thing” “holy thing” or “basket”.
However we do find numerous ancient lexicographical and literary references whichpresent thesmosas meaning ‘law’ in a specialized sense, as ancient, ancestral, divinely inspired law. Thesmos 
is a god-given ordinance as opposed to human legislation, whichis nomos (Hsch. s.v.θεσμούς. νομούς θειούς).

The physikos logos of the scholionmakes the sense of thesmos quite plain: Θεσμοφορία καλεῖται, καθότι Θεσμοφόρος ἡ Δημήτηρ κατανομάζεται τι θεῖσα [fr.τιθήμι] νόμους ἤτοι θεσμούς, καθ’ οὕς τὴν τροφὴν πορίζεσθαί τε καὶ κατεργάζεσθαι ἀνθρώπους δέον. “It is called Thesmophoria, just asDemeter is named Thesmophoros since she established (τιθεῖσα) laws (νόμους) or thesmous,(θεσμούς) according to which men must labor to get their food.”(l. 30-32)Translating Thesmophoros as legifera, ‘law-giver’, certainly puts Demeter, most un-political of goddesses, in an unseemly position.

However, the laws in question arenot political but natural. Demeter Thesmophoros established the laws of agriculture,including those rituals which are essential to agricultural success. The festival namederives from her title as giver of the laws of civilized human life, not from the ritualcarrying of objects.

The deposition of the pigflesh, cakes and pine branches in the earth was a formof sympathetic magic, intended to renew the fecundity of the exhausted earth by their symbolic prolificity (σύνθεμα τῆς γενέσεως). The rotted remains were then removed to beused as fertility charms, as a sort of ‘sacred compost’. Mixed with the seed before sowing, they would ensure a bountiful harvest. The scholion itself supports the interpretation of the ritual as agrarian magic: “They believe that anyone who takes them and mixes them with the seed will have abundant crops (εὐφορίαν).” (l. 7-8) Numerousparallels can be cited from primitive cultures and folk traditions to show the longevity of the idea that objects which symbolize fertility can create or ensure fertility. This iscertainly the interpretation accepted by most authorities on ancient Greek cult.

The conventional wisdom has been challenged by Nicholas Lowe’s recent study of four related texts, including the Lucian scholion on the Thesmophoria.

He arguesthat the four texts derive from one original document, whose author, perhaps a “Hellenistic [exegete], who wrote at an intriguing interface between the scholarly and thepriestly”, would somehow have had access to the womens’ secrets. Lowe makes a compelling case for the origins of these four texts in onedocument of Hellenistic date, and his textual arguments are sound. It is his interpretationof the ritual that requires examination. He argues that the unusual character of theLucian scholion has not been recognized; in fact, the scholion’s theoretical perspective isunparalleled in all of ancient literature. In addition, he argues, this scholion constitutes the “first – and only -explicit evidence for the concept of ‘fertility magic’as a major component of the ‘meaning’ of ancient Greek ritual” and a cornerstone text in support of Frazer’s “long-discredited” doctrine.

Lowe points out that the scholion came to light at just the right moment to beemployed as a proof-text by partisans of Frazer’s ‘fertility paradigm’. Rohde publishedthe scholion in 1870; the first edition of Frazer’s Golden Bough appeared in 1890.
Lowe argues that the scholion’s explanation is more subtle and philosophicalthan Frazer’s ‘fertility paradigm’: “…that the earth is sown with fertile things in order totransfer their fertility magically to the soil is precisely what the scholion does not say.”

Instead, the scholiast offers two explanations (logoi). One is mythical (mythikos) and oneis physical or scientific (physikos). Lowe would argue that neither one relies on fertilitymagic.The first explanation, the mythikos logos,(l. 24-5) explains the ritual deposition of the piglets in underground chambers by reference to the myth of the pigherd Eubouleus.The mythical explanation is aetiological; because Eubouleus’ pigs fell into the ‘chasm of Kore’, which opened up to receive Hades’ chariot as he whisked her away underground,the event is commemorated by depositing sacrificed piglets in ‘chasms’ underground. The second, the physikos logos , is natural or scientific: The piglets, cakes and pinecones are symbols (sunthemata) offered to Demeter in thanksgiving for her civilizing gifts. “That the earth is sown with fertile things in order to transfer their fertility magicallyto the soil is precisely what the scholion does not say. The reason, rather, for theofferings is not an act of sympathetic magic but a thank-offering (charisterion) to Demeter.”

Lowe asserts that the statement “they believe (νομίζουσι) that anyone who takes them and mixes them with the seed will have abundant crops”(l.12-13) forms nopart of either logos, even though l. 28 states: “the above (ἄνω) explanation (λόγος) [the‘above’ includes the statement of what ‘they’ believe] of the festival is mythical (μυθικός)but the following is natural (physikos)”.

At three points, I will argue, Lowe has overstated his case: 1. The Lucianscholion is not the only evidence for fertility magic in ancient Greek ritual. 2. Thestatement of the ritual performers themselves on the ‘meaning’ of the ritual cannot besimply dismissed. 3. Even if little scholarly support remains for Frazer’s metatheory of the ‘Dying and Rising God’ this does not mean that the ‘fertility paradigm’ has been disowned by all serious scholars.First, Lowe argues that the Lucian scholion is the only ancient evidence ever found for the concept of ‘fertility magic’ as a major component of the ‘meaning’ of ancientGreek ritual: “[the scholion] was a cornerstone text for the general application to antiquity of what has been called the ‘Mannhardt-Frazer hypothesis’ or ‘fertility paradigm’: the doctrine that religious ritual historically originates in, and preserves the more or lessatrophied traces of, the attempt to compel the productivity of the natural world by supernatural means.”

Thus if Lowe can show that this scholion does not say what it has always been thought to say, he will have retired Frazer’s ‘fertility paradigm’ for good, at least in its application to ancient Greek ritual.



However, with his emphasis on ‘compelling’ productivity and on the ‘origin’ of allritual, Lowe restates Frazer’s case for the ‘fertility paradigm’ in a way that might belikened to setting up an easily demolished “straw man”. The idea that all religious ritualoriginates in fertility magic - hardly a proper statement of Frazer’s theory- is untenable.

However, it is apparent that a great deal of ancient ritual concerned itself precisely withencouraging the productivity of the natural world. Numerous examples can be cited toshow that ritual words and actions in the cult of Demeter were believed to encourage(not compel), fertility.The Proerosia (before plowing) rites performed in honor of Demeter are described as “sacrifices taking place before plowin
g for the future crops, that they may be brought to maturity” (Suda s.v.Προηροσίαι, Hsych. s.v.Προηρόσια). Clearly these rituals aim to encourage the earth’s fertility.

The three sacred plowings performed in Athens, Sciron and Eleusis werebelieved to assist the germination of the seed sown by each individual farmer, whowould also perform his own fertility rites as he plowed and sowed his grain (Plut.Praec.Conj. 42. 144).

Similar customs prevailed in recent centuries in rural Greece.

In the Eleusinian Mysteries the priest was said to call out to the sky, “Rain!” andto the earth, “Conceive!”, both verbs in the imperative (Hipp.Haer . V.7.34, Procl.In Tim 293C). This ritual may have taken place on the last day of the Mysteries, the Plemochoai, when libations were poured to east and west (Athen. 496a). The meaningof the imperative is obvious: the sky is urged, not compelled, to impregnate the earth with rain. Is this a magical formula which ‘compels the productivity of the natural world’?
No, this is rather an invocation of the coupling of Zeus and Demeter; the two deities are associated in agrarian ritual as early as Hesiod: “pray to Zeus of the earth (χθονίος) and to pure Demeter to make Demeter’s holy grain sound and heavy, when first you begin plowing..” (Hes.Op.465-7). Gods cannot be compelled, but fertility rituals must beeffective; they cannot be merely expressive or symbolic. Any more philosophicalinterpretation of these magical and precatory utterances is unnecessary. Another example comes from Demeter’s Haloa festival (Phot.,Suda  Ἁλῶα). Onthis cold winter night the women slept in the sanctuary at Eleusis, built bonfires, feastedand told obscene stories, all activities intended to magically stimulate the growth of thegrain, arrested by winter’s cold and dryness.

Finally, a sacred calendar from the island of Mykonos prescribes a sacrifice of apregnant sow in early spring to Demeter ὑπὲρ καρποῦ(for the crop) as well as to Koreand Zeus Bouleus, the other personae 
appearing in the Lucian scholion’s version of the myth.

This ritual, performed at an insecure time of year, when the fields have not yetbecome thickly green with the new grain, is clearly an attempt to encourage fertility. A second difficulty is that Lo
we does not give sufficient credence to the scholion’sstatement, “They believe that anyone who takes them and mixes them with the seed willhave abundant crops.”(l. 7-8) “They” are presumably the antletriai,the women whoperform the ritual, since they are the subject of the sentence immediately preceding. Lowe asserts “…the beliefs attributed by these verbs are not the actual logos of theritual, but incidental, unverifiable superstitions from which the author seems to want todistance himself: the imaginary snakes guarding the chambers, the belief in the fertilizing power of the remains.” Instead, the verbs “they think” and “they say”, he argues,distinguish “the authoritative voice of the interpreting observer from a more provisional viewpoint conveniently attributed to the actors…”

If Lowe’s view of the meaning intended by the author of the scholion is correct, then the reader must accept that the author, the interpreting observer, the educated Hellenistic exegete, is more authoritative as to the ‘real meaning’ of the ritual than are the actors, antletriai and others who are only capable of expressing provisional butunverifiable superstitions. Whose interpretation is to be privileged? Should we give prideof place to the informant, as a field anthropologist might do, and accept the explanationof the unsophisticated performers who, however naively, believed that mixing the sacredcompost with the seed produced a bountiful harvest? Or should we regard the Stoicallegorist and redactor of the scholion as the best explicator of the ritual’s ‘meaning’? For that learned interpreter, the magical function served by the remains is neither part of the physikos nor the
mythikos logos. We need to be reminded that “rituals are overdetermined; that is their strength”.

The ‘meaning’ of a ritual can be disputed among the participant, the remote observer and even the heresiologist. Is the ‘meaning’ of a ritual to be found in the learnedrationalization of priest or philosopher, or in the ‘just-so stories’ told by itsperformers?It is rare that historians of ancient religion find a clear statement of the ritual performers’ understanding of why they are doing what they do. We seem to have such a statement here, even though the commentator may prefer his own philosophicalperspective to the simple conceptions of the ritual actors. This scholion is an excellentexample of an ancient learned tradition: the use of allegory and rationalization to explainaway the simple crudity of myths and rituals cherished by their performers because of their perceived antiquity and apparent effectiveness. In this same tradition, Philo madeMoses into a philosopher and the miracles at the Red Sea into teaching points for hisphilosophy, and Plato similarly transformed or created myths as a basis for hiscosmology (Philo,Life of Moses; Pl.Timaeus).Contrariwise, Clement of Alexandria exposed the ‘real meaning’ of Demeter’s mysteries as nothing more than sex-worship: “…for I must expose their sacredthings…[among them] a woman’s ‘comb’, which is a euphemism and mystic expression for the μόριον γυναικεῖον.” (Clem. Al.Protr. 2.21.2)To convince the Greeks of the intellectual poverty of their religious traditions,Clement must expose the crudity of these fertility rituals, and strip away the veil of refined philosophical interpretation - exactly the kind of interpretation employed by theLucian scholion, which transforms the Thesmophoria ritual from a thoroughly irrational magical mumbo-jumbo, a revolting mixture of rotted piglets, into a symbolic thank-offering and a re-enactment of Demeter’s civilizing gift of agriculture to mankind.
Nineteenth century classical scholars also felt a need to explain the crude behavior of the Thesmophoriazousae. Farnell assumed that the modest Athenian citizen wives’ indulgence in shameful talk (aischrologia) , could only have been motivated by a firmsense of duty.

The women’s ritual performance was believed to promote earth’s fertility, however. The agricultural activities of men bring no result if not paired with women’s fertility rituals.

Would Demeter find a rotted mixture of piglets, pine cones and phallus cakes to be a satisfactory ‘thank-offering’ in return for her gift of the arts of civilization? Can the rotted remainsbe seen as a gift-offering?

Authorities on Greek sacrifice distinguish between aparchai,vegetal offerings (such as milk, honey and grains offered in kernoi ) and blood sacrifice; Demeter’s favorite victim is the pregnant sow.

Finally, Lowe does not make a very strong case for the view that all elements of Frazer’s theories have long been discredited among experts. As his proof that “thefertility paradigm itself has been disowned by anthropologists”, he adduces a letter written to the Times Literary Supplement in 1978 by Edmund Leach, who claimed that,“for contemporary social anthropologists, the category ‘fertility god’ is as void of meaningas its coeval ‘totemism’.”

Anthropologists might find the expression ‘fertility god’ a bit dated;that theywould deny there is such a thing as fertility ritual is another proposition entirely. Loweassumes that the collapse of the Frazerian ‘fertility paradigm’ is such an established fact that little citation is needed to establish it. But this is not so. Frazer’s central notion, that all ritual is underlain by the enactment of the death and resurrection of the god – king andthe subsequent benefit of agricultural fertility secured by his sacrifice, has indeed lostgeneral support since the 1960s. This is not to say that ensuring fertility is no longer considered as a primary motive for the performance of agricultural ritual.

The earliest attempts to explain ancient religious ritual sought for its meaning inits origins. Theorists such as W. Robertson Smith and Sigmund Freud actually reconstructed a hypothetical ‘primal scene’, the first occasion when a ritual was performed and its form set for eternity.

Others saw ritual in terms of its function or its magical effectiveness. Frazer’s‘fertility paradigm’ can be fitted into this category. The closely related ‘Myth and Ritual’ school examined the relation between ritual and the myth which was assumed toaccompany and explain it. The myth was the eternal aspect of the idea expressed byritual action.

The sociological school of Emile Durkheim viewed ritual independently of anymythical correlate and found the value of ritual in its ability to enact social cohesion.Many anthropologists, from Malinowski to Victor Turner, applied this theoretical templateto the religious lives of primitive peoples, just as Frazer had used examples from modernfolk culture as well as ancient ritual texts.

Classicists have eagerly adopted the models of social anthropology, especially inthe explanation of ritual. Today ancient Greek ritual is typically described as a means for creating social identity. A recent study concludes, “The focus of ritual studies these daysis on ritual as a ‘contested space for social action and identity politics’. And social identity is now typically thought of as being created and maintained through performance…”.

Edmund Leach, who dismissed the idea of a ‘fertility god’, was a Durkheimian heavily influenced by the structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss, whose searchfor the deep structure rested ultimately on Saussurean semiotic theory. The newest school of cultural criticism, Deconstructionism, would argue that theritual behavior of the Thesmophoriazousae can only be evaluated in literary terms, as a‘text’ or a ‘discourse’, rather than as a historical datum. From the perspective of text-oriented historians as well as field anthropologists, the semiotic approach seems to havereached a dead end.

An alternate interpretative stream was developed by the anthropologist MaryDouglas, who saw ritual as more than a semiotic exercise; her theories, which owedmuch to the sociological approach of Durkheim, still had explanatory value for thepragmatic goals of ancient fertility rites such as the Thesmophoria.

In analyzing the history of ritual theory, she noted a crucial dichotomy in assessments of the ‘meaning’ of ritual: the nineteenth century attempt to distinguish between religion and magic quicklyenshrined the notion that pagan religions were magical, whereas Judaism andChristianity were ethical. This dichotomy paralleled Protestant views of the contrastbetween the ethical focus of the Reformed churches and the magical style of Catholicism, so given to ‘mumbo- jumbo’ and ‘meaningless ritual’. Therefore, Douglasconcluded, “…comparative religion has inherited an ancient sectarian quarrel about thevalue of formal ritual.”

Douglas regarded both religion and magic as symbolic action whose meaningand form is determined by social organization.

In discussing the religious ideas of theso-called ‘Bog Irish’ immigrants to London, Douglas noted their propensity to carefullyobserve so-called ‘magical’ forms of symbolic action (Catholic ritual) which reflected their small, closed immigrant community; the majority society around them, as an openorganization without strictly defined boundaries, preferred so-called ‘religious’ forms of symbolic action (Protestantism) and espoused universal values.

She concluded that“…both types of religious ethos and their corresponding forms of ritual behavior, the magical-sacramental on the one hand, and the ethical- commemorative on the other, are determined by social organization. It is certainly not the case that one involves magic,while the other involves real religion.”

Magic is not an objective behavior category, but a highly value-laden term.Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars defined ‘magic’ as primitive ritual,automatically effective, in contrast to the ethical and pure worship characteristic of ‘religion’. Magic has carried this negative connotation at least since the ancient Greeks used the word magikos to refer to the sinister but effective activities of the Persian magoi 

Magic often implies the manipulation of objects, people or even deities in acold-blooded, objectified manner to achieve one’s ends, rather than supplication or right relationship to the source of divine power. Magic almost always carries negativeconnotations. Put plainly, it is only other peoples’ ritual activities which are magical –  never our own.Returning to the Lucian scholion, it is clear how this long-standing scholarly argument has played out in Lowe’s analysis of the meaning of the Thesmophoria ritual. The naïve bystander, who believes that the use of the seed will improve his yield,employs a ‘magical-sacramental’ understanding of the nature and function of ritual, not significantly distinct from the Roman Catholic concept of the efficacy of sacrament, ex opere operato.

The learned scholiast, on the other hand, advances a different concept of ritual and its ‘ethical-commemorative’ meaning, which Lowe finds to be “far more complex, more interesting, and (perhaps above all) more recognizably Greek”.73Like the Protestant interpretation of Christianity’s central ritual, the eucharist, as a symboliccommemoration rather than the effective ‘real presence’, the Thesmophoria’s meaning is fully contained in its symbolic value. Therefore according to the scholion the ritualactions of the antletriai recall a mythical event (the mythikos logos) and are performed inorder to offer thanks to Demeter for the gift of civilization (the physikos logos). They donot accomplish any task (such as aiding fertility).Examination of this magical-ethical dichotomy gives us an understanding as towhy the ancient scholiast - as well as the modern classicist - might prefer the refinedethical-commemorative logos of the learned priestly commentator to the simplisticmagical-sacramental understanding naively proffered by the ritual performers. As Mary Douglas notes: “Those who despise ritual, even at its most magical, are cherishing, in the name of reason, a very irrational concept of communication.”Proponents of the ‘Myth and Ritual’ school have been accused of rejectingphilosophical explanations in their search for the ‘original’ primitive mentality behindritual, namely, “…ye Beastly Devices of ye Heathen,” as Jane Ellen Harrison has put it.

To prefer the philosophical explanation as the ‘real’ meaning of the Thesmophoria is equally simplistic. The learned explanation hopes to fit bizarre and archaic ritual detailsinto the Procrustean bed of Stoic or Platonic philosophy. Any claim to interpret a ritual so arcane, uncouth and ancient as the AthenianThesmophoria must deal with claims that ritual has no meaning at all, that it is not asymbolic activity which refers to something else.

Pottery: black-figured kylix (drinking-cup) possibly showing a scene from the "Attic Thesmophoria", a fertility dance celebrated by the wives of Athenian citizens. On the other side of the vase is a representation of ritual ploughing.

Even if “A poem should not mean/ Butbe” (MacLeish, Ars Poetica), a ritual always has meaning, even if unarticulated, for itsperformers. On the simplest level the symbolism of the ritual is of little importance in comparison to its effectiveness. What are we to do with the practitioner’s claim that ritual accomplishes certain desirable ends (e.g. a bountiful harvest)? What then is its ‘meaning’?
The old chestnut cited above, that ritual is overdetermined, bears repeating.Ritual has many possible sources of meaning, for its practitioners, its beneficiaries andits observers. To argue that the interpretation of the educated observer has priority over that of the uneducated believer, or that certain types of religious thought have not or cannot exist, is to disregard the textual evidence. To privilege one interpretation aboveall would be footless; however, to leave out the simplest, most basic, and most constantinterpretation of ritual, that it is performed because ‘it works’, would be unwise. Indeed, this sacramental understanding of the meaning and value of ritual perhaps should beprivileged because it is always present on some level of everyone’s understanding of ritual, even that of the Eleusinian Hierophant. However mystical and symbolic an interpretation he might give of the Mystery rites, according to Lowe’s “thought-experiment”, he would not deny the benefits bestowed upon the initiate. To conclude, the scholarly reaction against Frazer’s ‘fertility paradigm’ has sought ever more refined and intellectually satisfying theories to explain ritual behavior.We have looked for symbolic meaning, political function, performance of social identity,mediation of opposites – all ideas that are undoubtedly “good to think”.



 As modern man becomes more alienated from the natural world, he finds it moreand more difficult to identify with the beliefs and ritual activities of subsistence farmers or hunting and gathering primitives. The ritual attempt to influence the earth’s fertility seemssimply incredible; could anyone actually have believed these things? Cannot modernthinkers devise a more intellectually respectable explanation for these rites that wouldshow that the ancient Greeks, of all peoples, were operating on a more profoundintellectual level? But, if the plain words of the scholion are to be credited, theparticipants indeed intended the ritual to influence the earth’s fertility: “They believe thatanyone who takes them and mixes them with the seed will have abundant crops.”
Allaire B. Stallsmith
Towson University
Towson, MD 21252

Ancient Sources for Thesmophoria


4.11-13.1 Herodotus 2.171.2

Concerning Demeter's initiation rite, which the Greeks call thesmophoria, let a holy silence be placed on it, except to the extent it is religiously lawful to speak. Danaus' daughters were the ones who brought this rite out of Egypt and taught it to Pelasgian women. After all the peoples of the Peloponnesus had been driven out by the Dorians, the rite was lost. Only those of the Peloponnesians who were left behind and the Arcadians, who were not driven out, preserved it.

4.11-13.2 Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 78-80

Euripides: Today it will be decided whether

Euripides is still alive or if he has died.

Mnesilochus: And how's that? Seeing the courts aren't

going to hear cases, and the Council's not

sitting since it's the third day of the

Thesmophoria, the middle one.

4.11-13.2a Scholion on Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 80

This is one of the things being sought: how he said both "third" and "middle." The 11th was Anodos; 12th, Nesteia; then the thirteenth, Kalligeneia, so that the middle cannot be the third but the second day. But no one can be so inept as to say that the thirteenth day is the third as if the sixth far-darting moon were the sixteenth, for the middle day is not the 13th but the twelfth. The solution is as follows: on the tenth day, the Thesmophoria is celebrated in Halimus, so that the third day from the tenth is the 12th, but it is the middle day, if the tenth is not included. Someone could say that this is riddling in the manner of Callimachus. At one point, third is said, include the 10th, but at another, no longer include it. And whenever they are famished, they invoke the witticism: they are celebrating the middle day of the Thesmophoria, since it was the Fast. The eleventh of Pyanepsion was the Anodos. The twelfth was the Nesteia on which the women, remaining at rest, are presented as holding an assembly about Euripides. The thirteenth is the Kalligeneia. The 13th, therefore, the 10th being included, is in the middle between the Anodos and the Kalligeneia.

4.11-13.3 Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 832-35

It's right that, if one of us gives birth to a man useful to the city, a commander of infantry or a general, that she receive some honor and the privilege of front row seats at the Stenia and Skira and the other festivals that we celebrate.

4.11-13.3a Scholion on Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 834

Both are festivals of women, the Stenia on the ninth, two days before the Thesmophoria. Some say that the Skira are said to be the holy things that take place in this festival [Stenia] to Demeter and Kore, and others, that they are sacrificed to Athena at Skiron.

4.11-13.4 Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 655-58

Now's the time. Light the torches.

Cinch those belts. Bravely now, off with your cloaks.

We must investigate whether some other man has come up.

Scurry over all of it. Check out the shelters and the paths.

4.13.4a Scholion on Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 656-58

656 The women took off their upper garments.

657 Since the assembly is of women alone.

658 The assembly from the fact that the throngs are tightly packed.

[Aristophanes] means the parts between the shelters. The shelters were near the Pnyx, as Aristophanes himself recalls.

4.11-13.5 Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 623-24

Cleisthenes: Have you come up here before?

Mnesilochus: Yes, by Zeus, every year.

Cleisthenes: And who is your shelter-mate?

Mnesilochus: A dreadfully nice lady.

4.11-13.5a Scholion on Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 623-24

623 Namely, the Anodos, since the way up was to the sanctuary.

624 A friend to stay with, since they made the sanctuary into shelters for themselves.

4.11-13.6 Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 626-33

First Woman (to Mnesilochus): You there, tell me

which of the holy rites was revealed to us first?

Mnesilochus: Let me see. Which one? We drank.

First Woman: And which one next?

Mnesilochus: We drank to our health.

First Woman: You heard this from someone. What was third?

Mnesilochus: Xenylla asked for a dinghy, since there wasn't a potty.

4.11-13.7 Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 1148-59:

Come, gracious and kindly

Mistresses, into your sacred glade,

where it is not meet for men to see

the solemn rites of the two goddesses,

where, by torchlight, they reveal their immortal visage.

Come, approach, we entreat you,

O holiest Thesmophoroi,

if ever before you heeded and

came. Arrive here, now,

we beseech you, for our sake.

4.11-13.8 Lysias, Concerning the Murder of Eratosthenes 19-20:

19 When I mentioned the name of Eratosthenes to her [his wife's servant woman], and I said that he was the one visiting my wife, she was dumfounded, thinking that I had found out everything exactly. Then, finally, she fell at my knees, and, obtaining a pledge that she would receive no harm, 20 she accused him of approaching herself for the first time after the wake. Then, she said how she, in the end, passed the message along to my wife, and how that one was finally persuaded, and how he arranged to get into my house, and how, when I was in the country during the Thesmophoria, my wife went to the sanctuary with his mother. All else that happened she told exactly.

4.11-13.9 Isaeus, Concerning the Estate of Kiron 18-19

18 It is clear not only from what has been said that our mother was the legitimate daughter of Kiron, but also from what the wives of his demesmen learned about her. When our father received her in marriage, he gave the wedding feast and invited three of his friends along with his kinsmen. He also paid for the gamelia [marriage feast] for his phratry brothers according to their customs. 19 Afterwards, the wives of his demesmen chose [our mother], along with the wife of Diocles of Pitheus, to be leader into the Thesmophoria together and to conduct the customary rites together.

4.11-13.10 Isaeus, Concerning the Estate of Pyrrhos 80

In his deme, since he possessed a household with a worth of three talents, he would be obligated, if he were married, to give the feast of the Thesmophoria for the women and to perform, at his own expense, whatever was appropriate in the deme for his wife's sake in accord with such great wealth.

4.11-13.11 Theocritus, 4.25

4.11-13.11a Scholion on Theocritus, 4.25

Virgin women, who have been chase in their lives, on the day of the initiation rite, place the customary, holy books, as the latter seemed to Athenians, on their heads and, as if in supplication, set out to Eleusis.

4.11-13.12 Apollodorus of Athens, Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum 244 F 89:

Bees: the priestesses of Demeter. Demeter herself says in Apollodorus' first book. "She brought the basket to the young women along with Persephone's loom and deeds. Arriving at Paros, she was entertained at King Melissos' court and bestowed upon his sixty daughters the gift of Persephone's loom. She also imparted to them first of all her sufferings concerning Persephone and her mysteries. From this, henceforth, the women celebrating the Thesmophoria were called "bees."

4.11-13.13 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 24.59:

The Greeks call it lygos [agnus castus], or elsewhere, agnos [pure, chaste], since the married women of the Athenians at the Thesmophoria, in guarding their chastity,

spread letters for themselves with these branches.




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