Social Responses to Female Agricultural Ritual and “Aischrologia”

§1.1 This paper further explores ideas parallel to those of Laurie O’Higgins concerning women’s communication in private settings. Drawing from J. C.Scott, who studies peasant resistance through folk culture, [1] she typifies Athenian women of the Classical age as, in general, a group ruled by men, but who received certain freedoms in the private space of religious cult.[2] According to O’Higgins these religious rituals, specifically the women-exclusive agricultural ritual called the Thesmophoria, did not serve as a stage for women to exercise temporary emancipation, only to return to their lives of suppression. I agree, and want to go further, suggesting that, by analyzing Aristophanes, we see male discomfort of women-exclusive gatherings factor into our perceptions of the Thesmophoria and women’s private discourse. With this in mind we can reanalyze aiskhrologia —shameful, obscene, or sexual speech—to better understand the gender tensions present in Classical Athens.

§1.2 To introduce these gender tensions, I turn to Walter Burkert to illustrate aiskhrologia as a ritual task.While exploring the pragmatics of Greek ritual, Burkert classifies aiskhrologia as “ugly sayings.” [3] The requirement that men must pay for women to attend the Thesmophoria created male discomfort, and aiskhrologia allowed for the humorous dissipation of male unease.[4] Burkert says that the evidence “always points most conspicuously to the absurdity and buffoonery of the whole affair.” [5] He recognizes the ongoing tension in the Athenian community about aiskhrologia at the Thesmophoria, and he concludes that aiskhrologia served as comedic relief of this gender tension.

§1.3 Some scholars, however, are more dismissive about gender tensions. Parker suggests that there was no tension at all.He posits that the Thesmophoria was “conducted with the full approval of male society.” [6] He adds to his evidence an episode of Herodotus where vengeance for breaking the conventions of the festival comes from a god rather than a woman.[7] From this, he concludes that strife only happens when a male intrudes. The inherent nature of the festival itself was not a cause for complication.

§1.4 These two sources are, however, more dismissive than they should be about gender tension and the function of aiskhrologia. Using Aristophanes, I will show that aiskhrologia took place at the Thesmophoria and men were not only aware of it, but they reacted negatively to it. Then, I will explore private discourse and its place in Athenian society. Both of these points will refute Burkert and Parker, and show that men were, indeed, uncomfortable with women-exclusive gatherings and that their speech, while perhaps shameful in the public arena, was acceptable for private conversation.

§1.5 It is important to investigate the validity of aiskhrologia as part of the Athenian Thesmophoria. Unfortunately, the most straightforward descriptions of the Thesmophoria were not written in the Classical period. A skholion on Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, likely written in the Hellenistic age, [8] gives a detailed description of festival events.[9] The skholion links this ritual activity with the myth of Persephone and Hades, the same mythical story that appears in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. In the Hymn, Demeter is entirely unresponsive to her new household until Iambe, making jokes and jests, led the goddess to laugh and take sustenance.[10] It is also worth noting that the Thesmophoria took place when the sowing began, a time which Brumfield says was one of the “most critical and anxiety-producing moments of the year in Attica.” [11]

§1.6 While the Homeric Hymn concerns itself with the establishment of the Eleusinian Mysteries, it has been shown to also represent the Thesmophoria as well.[12] Further, Stehle argues persuasively for the presence of aiskhrologia at the Thesmophoria by citing both Iambe’s jesting in the Hymn and Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, where a man mocks the women participants during their festival, an action made more humorous if the women were known to have acted in a similar way.[13] Another telling line appears even earlier in the play. When Euripides is asked why the women are bringing suit against him, he says it is because he spoke badly of them in his tragedies.[14] Though he uses kakōs and not aiskhra, the similar meanings of the two words as “bad” or “foul” suggest similarity to aiskhrologia and show a role reversal similar to Stehle’s example. Aiskhrologia, then, did take place at the Thesmophoria and men were aware of it.

§1.7 Returning now to the idea of private discourse, I will set up the scholarly discussion before analyzing Aristophanes. Women-exclusive festivals served as an assurance of fertility for the city and its women, and function as a “silent but subversive means for them to assert their own ideology – their feminine discourse.” [15] Blok also writes on the private realm of women and their prescribed behaviors. She states that men may have felt threatened by women’s power in the home, which was much greater than their public influence.[16] Finally, she concludes that women had to follow specific rules as to when they could speak, and, if a festival qualified as an allowable public space, then their speech could be heard without breaking the social convention.[17]

§1.8 These points connect well with the sources. First, a second skholion that further elaborates male perceptions of women’s private discourse shows that the women were allowed to say whatever they wanted without fear (ἐπ᾽ἀδείας ἔχουσιν ἅ βούλονται λέγειν).[18] This fits in with the acceptability of women’s permitted speech, and establishes their gatherings, specifically their festivals, as accepted occasions for open speech.

§1.9 The parallels are even stronger in Aristophanes. The opening lines of Lysistrata have Lysistrata lamenting the absence of the summoned women, groaning that they would be present if called for a festival. In direct response to this, Kalonike points out that this summoned event is not a formal ritual, thus requiring them first to attend to business in the home.[19] Here Kalonike comments that they are not in a festival setting, but when the women arrive they immediately turn to complimenting each other’s bodies, particularly the sexual aspects.[20] Likewise in Thesmophoriazusae, we see the playwright elaborating on women’s sense of self. In a long speech enumerating the virtues of women, the chorus quickly turns to the shortcomings of men.[21] The charges include being a cheat, kidnapper, and casting away their shields in battle. They mock these soldiers, likely their husbands or, at least, married men, and Aristophanes portrays women on stage speaking ill of their husbands at their own festival. What is meant to be a sympathetic plea by the chorus instead turns into a humorous confirmation of male suspicions. Both of these examples fit aiskhrologia even though one takes place at a festival and the other in Blok’s appropriate, private setting.

§1.10 There are also many references to the violence associated with the Thesmophoria. Herodotus’ alleged origin of the festival has it reach Greece from the Danaids, the fifty daughters of Danaus.[22] This origin, fictional or otherwise, places the Thesmophoria in the same narrative as dangerous women, who killed all but one of Aegyptus’ fifty sons. Further, the story of Battus directly speaks to those who might intrude on the Thesmophoria. After attempting to see the women, the members of the festival castrated him for his trespass.[23]

§1.11 Aristophanes capitalizes on the theme of violence in Thesmophoriazusae. First, he uses the suspected violent nature of women by having them attempt to burn Mnesilochus, a male intruder, on the altar.[24] Then, while waiting for a magistrate, a woman foreshadows to his gruesome punishment for impersonating a woman.[25] The women soon follow through, strapping Mnesilochus to a plank and tightening the straps.[26] There are multiple mentions that, had Euripides not saved him, the women would have killed him for his intrusion.[27] All of these episodes perpetuate the folklore of the violent woman in a comedic yet persistent way, placing these punishments back-to-back in the play.

§1.12 Aristophanes is writing for an Athenian audience aware of these accounts and who were suspicious and even frightened of the women of the Thesmophoria, likely because of the women’s perceived defiance and autonomy. In fact, Foxhall concludes that, although the Demeter festivals required both men and women in some regard, the women could function independently in their own spheres of influence.[28] She continues, saying that sources strongly suggest that women were not entirely coherent with male attitudes of women’s behavior.

§1.13 Women inconsistent with male attitudes abound in Lysistrata. First, the entire plot contradicts women’s roles, since they are active participants in war. Lysistrata attests to this, telling of how the women, at first, sat back silently while the men made poor decisions in the assembly.[29] The next odd role reversal is the women’s abstinence.Though the women try to escape to fulfill their desires, [30] Lysistrata says that it would be shameful— aiskhron, the same word used in aiskhrologia —to betray their commitment.[31]

§1.14 For the sake of comedy, Aristophanes must effectively integrate his knowledge of Athenian attitudes into his scripts, expanding on popular beliefs to the point of absurdity in order to create humorous situations. The Thesmophoria, after all, had no audience or men but the Thesmophoriazusae did. With these plays we see not only a gendered perception on women’s private ritual, but the women characters confirming each male suspicion before their very eyes: Disrespecting their husbands, harming intruders, speaking aiskhrologia, and suggesting the increased prominence of women in society.

§1.15 This analysis lays out evidence for male suspicion toward their wives and women’s private gatherings. Men were clearly uncomfortable that women would often speak aiskhrologia in ritual and private settings, despite the social contract of private discourse. Discomfort manifested in many ways, but nowhere so comprehensively as in Thesmophoriazusae and Lysistrata, in which Aristophanes plays on male suspicions by confirming them on stage for his audience. In recognizing how a male author defaults to these fears when writing on women’s private lives, we find that Athenian gender tension, caused by male suspicion, assigned the label of “shameful” and “obscene” to the jokes and sexual talk of private discourse. By recognizing this distorted gender lens, we can reexamine aiskhrologia not just as a ritual observance, but also as a common, less malicious element of women’s private discourse.


Athanassakis, Apostolos N. “Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” The Homeric Hymns. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976: 1-15.

Blok, Josine H. “Virtual Voices: Toward a Choreography of Women’s Speech in Classical Athens.” In Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society, edited by André Lardinois and Laura McClure, 95–116. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Brumfield, Allaire. “Aporreta: Verbal and Ritual Obscenity in the Cults of Ancient Women.” The Role of Religion in the Early Greek Polis (October 1992): 67–74.

———. The Attic Festivals of Demeter and their Relation to the Agricultural Year. Salem, NH: Arno Press, 1981.

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Translated by John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Clinton, K. Myth and Cult. The Iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Stockholm, 1992.

Foxhall, Lin. “Women’s Ritual and Men’s Work in Ancient Athens.” In Women in Antiquity: New Assessments, edited by Richard Hawley and Barbara Levick, 97–110. London: Routledge, 1995.

O’Higgins, D. M. “Women’s Cultic Joking and Mockery.” In Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society, edited by André Lardinois and Laura McClure, 137–160. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

O’Higgins, Laurie. Women and Humor in Classical Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society at Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Rabe, H. Skholia in Lucianum. Leipzig, 1906.

Stallsmith, Allaire. “Interpreting the Athenian Thesmophoria.” The Classical Bulletin 84.1 (2009): 28–45.

Stehle, Eva. “Women and Religion in Greece.” In A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, edited by Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon, 191–203. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2012.


Note 1
Here she uses James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

Note 2
D. M. O’Higgins, “Women’s Cultic Joking and Mockery,” in Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society, ed. André Lardinois and Laura McClure (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 156.

Note 3
Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 104.

Note 4
Here he cites Menander Epitrepontes 749 and Isaeus 3.80, Burkert 242.

Note 5
Burkert, 105.

Note 6
Robert Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 278.

Note 7
Herodotus 6.134–5.

Note 8
Allaire Stallsmith, “Interpreting the Athenian Thesmophoria,” The Classical Bulletin 84.1 (2009), 34. Here she cites N. J. Lowe, “Thesmophoria and the Haloa. Myth, Physics and Mysteries,” in The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece, ed. Sue Blundell and Margaret Williamson (New York: Routledge, 1998), 163.

Note 9
H. Rabe, Scholia in Lucianum (Leipzig, 1906), 275–6.

Note 10
Homer, “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” trans. Apostolos N. Athanassakis, The Homeric Hymns (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 7. Line numbers are 200–4.

Note 11
Allaire Brumfield, The Attic Festivals of Demeter and their Relation to the Agricultural Year (Salem, NH: Arno Press, 1981), 95.

Note 12
K. Clinton, Myth and Cult. The Iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries (Stockholm, 1992), 28-37. Also Eva Stehle, “Women and Religion in Greece,” in A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, ed. Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), 192.

Note 13
Ibid .

Note 14
Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 85.

Note 15
Allaire Brumfield, “Aporreta: Verbal and Ritual Obscenity in the Cults of Ancient Women,” in The Role of Religion in the Early Greek Polis (October 1992): 72.

Note 16
Josine H. Blok, “Virtual Voices: Toward a Choreography of Women’s Speech in Classical Athens,” in Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society, ed. André Lardinois and Laura McClure (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 103.

Note 17
Blok, 115.

Note 18
Rabe, 280.

Note 19
Aristophanes Lysistrata 1–19.

Note 20
Lys . 78–89

Note 21
Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 814-29.

Note 22
Laurie O’Higgins, Women and Humor in Classical Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 25. She brings in Herodotus 2.171.

Note 23
Cited by O’Higgins: Ael. Frag. 44 Hercher = Suda α 4329, θ 272, σ 1590, 1714.

Note 24
Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 728-38.

Note 25
Thes. 864.

Note 26
Thes. 1001-6.

Note 27
Thes. 1054-5.

Note 28
Lin Foxhall, “Women’s Ritual and Men’s Work in Ancient Athens,” in Women in Antiquity: New Assessments, ed. Richard Hawley and Barbara Levick (London: Routledge, 1995), 106.

Note 29
Lys. 506–28.

Note 30
Aristophanes Lysistrata 728–61

Note 31
Lys. 779-80.

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