Introduction: “Women’s business” Males who ventured into the domain of women-only rites in ancient Greece and intruded into the secret and arcane religious world of women did so at their own risk. Amongst the indigenous Koori people of Australia – known to Europeans as “Aborigines” – the situation was a similar one. Contemporary Koori women refer to their secret women-only ceremonies as “women’s business,” rituals of which the men of the tribe are not to have knowledge under any circumstances. As with many tribal women in Australia, those of the Ngaan-yat-jarra, Pit-jant-jat-jara, Yan-kun-yt-jat-jara and other “tribes” (more correctly, “nations,” in the Latin sense of natio ) celebrate rites that are “women’s business.” One such rite in central Australia is the ritual called Awelye: it is “women’s business,” and cannot be performed with men of the nation present (Barwick et al. 2013, 197). In much the same way, women in ancient Greece had numerous women-only festivals, focused largely on agrarian rites honoring the goddess Demeter (such as the Thesmophoria and Haloa), as well as secret viticultural rites for Dionysos. But whereas rituals for Dionysos were intended to ensure the production of wine, the Demeter rites were involved with agriculture, the product of which – grain – was one of the intimate concerns of women and one of their main domestic duties: the production of loaves, bread, bread cakes, and porridge from barley and wheat. From Demeter’s gift of grain, women produced fl our through the laborious process of grinding (Hom. Od . 20.105-21), transforming it into dough, and then in her honor manipulating the product of their domestic skills into bread. Two particular festivals were involved with this aspect of women’s business: the major festival of the Athenian Thesmophoria celebrated in the city and in the demes, and the less signifi cant Haloa festival, celebrated parochially at nearby Eleusis. Women, through their ritual competence in women-only rites, became cultic citizens and inverted many features of male political organization. (On the Thesmophoria: Parke 1977, 82-8; Simon 1983, 18-22; Detienne 1989; Winkler 1990, 193-9; Versnel 1992; Lowe 1998; Dillon 2002, 110-20; Goff 2004, 125-38; Parker 2005, 270-83; Chlup 2007; Foxhall 2013, 145-6; all with references to older scholarship, of which note esp. Deubner 1932, 50-60.)
Men’s ritual incompetence An exclusion of men, such as that from the rituals of the Awelye, was also practised a few millennia ago in Archaic and Classical Greece with several mythological narratives concerning the dangers of male intrusion on women-only rites. A well-known didactic anecdote recorded in a fragment of Aelian has as its leading protagonist King Battos (which one is not specifi ed) of Kyrene, whose curiosity about women’s secret rituals was such that he insisted on attending the Thesmophoria festival, against the wishes of the priestesses. At a given signal at the celebration, just as the women were slaughtering piglets as offerings to the goddesses Demeter and Persephone (Kore), the women celebrants, faces splattered with sacrifi cial blood, rose up with their sacrifi cial knives and castrated him. These knife wielders are specifi cally referred to as sphaktriai (“women who are slaughters”). Now he was a woman, just as they were (Ael. Fr . 47). Such a detail concerning sacrifi cial knives has credibility, for the women at Thesmophoria festivals and other rites throughout the Greek world were ritually competent to sacrifi ce (Osborne 1993; Dillon 2002, 245-6; 2015, 242-4; contra Detienne 1989, 129-47). Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousai has a mock sacrifi ce and even refers to the sphagia (the catching of the victim’s blood), but in this case, the victim is a wine-skin: there was an altar at the Pynx (the meeting place of the male ekklesia) where they held the festival (752-3) and where this sacrifi ce presumably took place. Pausanias, too, has an instructive tale of the women at Aigala in Messenia, who were captured when they were celebrating the Thesmophoria by the Messenian hero-leader Aristomenes: they attacked him with their sacrifi cial knives (Paus. 4.17.1). Herodotos also links the fatal gangrene of the Athenian general Miltiades with his impious profanation of women’s space when he approached the temple of Demeter Thesmophoros on the island of Paros with the intent to enter it (Hdt. 6.134.1-135.3, cf. 2.171).