Demeter and the Danaids: A Subversive Alliance

It is assumed with some authority that the Greek world’s most venerable feminine fertility festival—exclusive to upstanding citizen wives—had as its unequivocal founders a murderous band of husband-slaying sisters. Independent and fierce, the mariticidal Danaid sisters were compelled into marriages with their cousins against their ferocious wills. But why would a renowned fertility festival whose participants were highly respected married women be affiliated with a subversive myth whose women savagely resisted marriage? While violent opposition to marriage is inherent in the myth of the Danaid sisters, what was there about the Thesmophoria—the most prominent ritual honoring Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld—that was correlative to the rebellious Danaids?  To fully answer these questions, it is important to understand what the cult meant to its participants and to the community at large.

“The Thesmophoria” by Francis Davis Millet

Throughout ancient Greece, from the beginning of the Archaic to the end of the Hellenistic eras (800 BCE-31 BCE), citizen wives came from far and wide to gather in their cities to celebrate the Thesmophoria, the oldest and most widespread of all Greek religious festivals.   Primarily a fertility cult, the Thesmophoria ushered in the sowing season and was one of a series of fertility cults devoted to human as well as crop fertility. Depending on the polis, citizen wives left their homes and families for anywhere from three to ten days (and nights) to participate in the Thesmophoria—an occurrence of particular significance by itself in this hyper-patriarchal world. Though men were strictly prohibited from attending any portion of the event—sometimes to the point of death— male reverence for the cult was reflected both by their financial support of it and the cessation of certain civic functions during a portion of the festival.  Spanning from Sicily’s azure coast in the west to sun-drenched Asia Minor in the east, from the craggy peaks of Macedonia in the north to the mountainous deserts of North Africa in the south, scholars believe that the ubiquity of the Thesmophoria is testament to its primeval origins. In fact, archaeological and literary sources suggest that the prehistoric cult had its roots in the Neolithic era (7000 BCE-3000 BCE) when agriculture and hog domestication were the domain of women. While men were hunting, women stayed behind foraging for plants giving them expertise in vegetation eventually leading to the cultivation of seeds which produced the plants that would go on to become humankind’s principal foods. Archaeologists claim women played critical roles during this time—they were in charge not only of breeding the population but of feeding it as well. Given this, it is of no surprise a women’s festival was centered around rites honoring Demeter, an agricultural and fertility goddess.

As old as the earth, Demeter’s story is worth reviewing and distinguished among Greek myths for being a woman’s tale. The oldest rendition of her myth comes from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. In the myth, unbeknownst to both mother and daughter, Zeus arranges with Hades, lord of the underworld, to kidnap, that is to marry his daughter, Persephone. Hades’ kidnap or rape of Persephone is the event that spurs the action of the myth, and it was this kidnapping-cum-marriage that resonated with women in ancient Greece whose marriages were likewise made in this fashion.  Lamenting the loss of her daughter, an enraged Demeter defies the will of the patriarch (Zeus) by stopping the seasons and turning the earth into a barren wasteland. Unwilling to watch the planet he shepherds wither away, Zeus capitulates and orders Hades to return Persephone to her mother’s earthly domain. Hades adheres but not before luring Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld binds Persephone to Hades for a few months each year.

According to one theory, because it was an act of aggression against a goddess, Persephone’s rape indicated an end to matriarchy while ushering in an era of patriarchy where kidnapping-cum-marriage was routine. In her book, Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity, Marguerite Rigoglioso espouses: “In the immortal realms as well as the earthly plane, it (the rape) signaled the usurping of the parthenogenetic power of the female in service to the birthing of the “sons of gods.” In this way, the long arm of the patriarchs supplanted the indigenous mother goddesses with their thunderous sky gods and carried with them their custom of virilocal marriage, which they had been practicing for some time. Marriage became a form of ownership, both the woman and her offspring were the property of her husband. In order to protect a patrilineal succession of property, monogamy was required, and the actions of women, tightly controlled.

In contrast, meeting outside the social constructs of marriage the disciples of the Thesmophoria were at liberty to become autonomous individuals empowering a united feminine community—without male restrictions. In fact, men’s profound uneasiness with the Thesmophoria was in direct proportion to their wary respect for it. Though suspicious, pious citizen males could not obstruct the cult, as it was deemed both holy and integral to the health and well-being of the polis. But for the all-important power to increase fertility why else

“Danaid” by Rodin

would the males in hyper-patriarchal ancient Greece comply with the wishes of the second sex?  In a society where men set the rules, the Thesmophoria turned the dominant paradigm on its head—enfranchised men were afraid of the anger of the subjugated female made autonomous by the empowering Thesmophoria.

But nowhere was this male fear more evident than in the stories about the brutality of the citizen wives. As with nearly everything else in the Greek world, sacrifices were the purview of the male; unless they were priestesses, women were strictly prohibited from using knives and spits. However,  the Thesmophoria was distinguished among fertility festivals for performing sacrifices thus access to these implements was required. Notorious for its undercurrent of ferocity, stories abound about men who were subject to life-threatening and disfiguring acts of violence perpetrated by the Thesmophoria’s citizen wives—all because they spied on or interrupted their ritual. In the comedic satire Thesmophoriazusae or Women of the Thesmophoria, Aristophanes highlights the famed brutality of the citizen wives while poking fun at a fellow playwright as well.  The premise is that the rebellious disciples seek to kill Euripides for characterizing women in his plays as villainous. While the women are mocked in terms of their democratic assembly and ritual, Aristophanes’ depiction of the citizen wives as uncontrollable and violent is in keeping with the androcentric mindset towards the festival.

Violently resisting male interference, it is no accident the Danaid sisters are the Thesmophoria’s charter members. The earliest extant literary reference for the Thesmophoria alludes to the forty-nine notorious daughters of Danaus and comes from the historian Herodotus (484 BCE – 425 BCE) in The Histories: “About the ritual of Demeter that the Greeks call the Thesmophoria, let me keep a pious silence, except for how much of the ritual can be piously told, The daughters of Danaus were the ones who brought the ritual from Egypt and taught the Pelasgian (Greek) women.” The legend has the sisters fleeing from Egypt to Greece and setting up the sacred rites of the Thesmophoria upon their arrival. The most thorough version of the myth comes from Apollodorus (second century BCE) and begins when a quarrel erupts between twin brothers, Egypt’s King Aegyptus, and Libya’s King Danaus. To heal a previous rift, Aegyptus proposes a mass marriage between his fifty sons and the fifty daughters of Danaus. Distrustful of his brother’s motives, Danaus consults an oracle who confirms his worst fears: Aegyptus plans to kill Danaus’s daughters (the Danaids) so that upon marriage his sons can take their dowries.

Ultimately, Danaus and his daughters seek refuge in their ancestral homeland of Argos–a principal Mycenaean citadel located in the Peloponnese. Not so easily dissuaded, the fifty sons of Aegyptus follow their kin to Argos insisting upon wedded bliss with their reluctant cousins. When they are rebuffed yet again, the obdurate men lay siege on Argos. To lift the siege Danaus must acquiesce to the wedding between his daughters and Aegyptus’s sons. But unbeknownst to the obstinate cousins, Danaus equips his daughters with daggers for use on their bridegrooms as they lay sleeping. Forty-nine of the fifty blushing brides complied by beheading their husbands on their wedding night, while they lay sleeping. Ostensibly, because he respected her virginity, Hypermnestra is the only sister who spared the dagger with her husband, Lynceus. Her act of mercy, however, ignited the ire of Danaus who had her imprisoned. Eventually, Lynceus would rescue Hypermnestra by slaying Danaus to become king. With a loyal wife by his side, the legendary couple would go on to become the founding ancestors of a long line of Argive kings and heroes. But, unless parthenogenesis was involved, how they procreated while she retained her virginity is a mystery of the ages. The other forty-nine daughters buried the heads of their husbands at Lerna—an area of springs south of Argos where they conducted funeral rites that purified them of the murders.

In another tradition, for their troubles, the Danaids find themselves in Tartarus: the deepest, darkest, and dreariest part of Hades. Hell-like, it is confined only for enemies of the gods who are given a futile task to perform in perpetuity. Because he tried tricking the gods, it is here Sisyphus can be found, endlessly rolling a falling boulder uphill.  Although not enemies of the gods, the Danaids are condemned to ceaselessly carry water in sieves for eternity. British scholar and linguist Jane Ellen Harrison posits that the Danaids’ punishment was unusually severe not because they murdered their mortal husbands but because they rejected marriage constituting a threat to patriarchy.  Worth noting, although no more than a fool’s errand, an ancient method of testing a woman’s virginity was for her to carry water in a sieve.

“The Danaids” John Singer Sargent

Drawing from the myth of the Danaids, the playwright Aeschylus (525 BCE-456 BCE) wrote his last trilogy on the errant band of sisters often referred to as the Danaid Tetralogy of which only The Suppliants is extant. In the play, the Danaids are suppliants seeking asylum in Argos—from their persecuting cousins, the Egyptians.  The play begins when the Danaids throw themselves at the mercy of the King of Argos (Pelasgus) and its citizens to protect them from unwanted marriages with their Egyptian cousins. The intransigence of the Danaids is demonstrated when they threaten to pollute Argos by committing mass suicide if not granted sanctuary. “As soon as we can, from these gods (statues), we’ll hang ourselves.” Ultimately both Pelasgus and the Argive citizens agree to give asylum to the Danaids. Yet despite the

refuge, the Argives ready themselves for war against the Egyptians who have come to their shores expecting the Danaids to board their boats back to Egypt. “Board the swift boat at once, I order you! Let no one delay when we drag you by the hair, we’ll have no compunction for those precious curls.” As king of a sanctuary city, Pelasgus defends the women from their cousins: “These women, if they were willing, you’d be welcome to take them with you, provided that pious speech persuaded them: but not against their will.”

“Punishment of the Danaids” by Martin Johann Schmidt


As is demonstrated in the Hymn to Demeter, it was not unusual for brides to be taken against their will in marriage, however, in the case of the Danaids, the all-important father is as unwilling as his reluctant daughters to proceed with the nuptials.  In the play, when asked by Pelasgus why they have come to Argos, the Danaid chorus leader replies: “So as not to be a slave to Egyptus’ sons.” Pelasgus then asks, “Is this from hatred, or does the law forbid it?” Disavowing that incest is the reason—after all, marrying family members was de rigueur for Egyptian royalty—a Danaid replies “What woman could like a man she buys as her owner?”  Euripides’ Medea makes a similar lament: “We have to buy husbands with money and accept them as masters to our bodies.” Not only did marriage shackle a woman in bondage but she was meant to pay for the privilege.  Because they valued their freedom above all else, the Danaids were resolutely opposed to marriage. “We, the great seed of a Holy mother, ah me! Grant us that we unwed, unsubdued, from marriage of men may flee.” In fact, the Danaids’ aversion to marriage is matched in magnitude by the perseverance of their cousins who would have them as wives against their wills.  The subtext of the tale is women’s fear of losing autonomy on the one hand and the threat of violence to them on the other.

“The Danaids” by John William Waterhouse

Although the ending for the Danaid tetralogy is lost, it is believed to have followed the same pattern as Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy: division, violence, then reconciliation in the establishment of a time-honored tradition. In the Oresteia, the Court of Areopagus is founded to help pass judgment in murder trials. Similarly, in the Danaid trilogy, the Thesmophoria festival is founded as a means of conciliation from the patriarchs to women for their compliance in patriarchal marriage. That the tetralogy would end with the formation of the Thesmophoria is not surprising, as renowned classicist George Thomson contends: “The women were reconciled to their changed status by the foundation of a festival in which they enjoyed exclusive rights.” Because it was a festival commemorating the absence of ancient violence in future marriages the Thesmophoria proved reassuring not only for citizen wives but for citizen husbands as well.


The earliest myth about feminine opposition to marriage, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter supplies the narrative of marriage as violent abduction or rape. Revealing a profound feminine hostility to marriage, many scholars see a symmetry between the Hymn and the myth of the Danaids.  In a blatant display of male hegemony, the cousins— like Hades before them—forcefully inflict marriage or sanctioned rape, on the unwilling brides. With actions as singular and violent as those of the double goddesses, the Danaids play the double roles of Persephone as reluctant wife and Demeter as fierce and vengeful matriarch. The dark bargain made by the males in both stories is a              misbegotten one;  the anger of Demeter nearly brings an end to life on earth, while the reluctant Danaids resist marriage by savagely slaying their bridegrooms. Each with its distinct aversion to matrimony, Herodotus rightfully apprehended the link between the Danaids and the cult festival the Thesmophoria. Both harken back to an era before women were exploited by the bond of marriage—a time when women are believed to have had agency in all facets of their lives. Looking back in time enabled the disciples of the Thesmophoria to move forward and envision a new reality they might otherwise not possess in the patriarchal world in which they were confined.

Classical Wisdom October 2021

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