A festival for Demeter

In Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt a number of religious festivals were celebrated regularly in honor of various deities, both Greek and Egyptian, in the cities as well as in the countryside. Festivals were not simply a time for the gods, but also a special occasion for the whole community to gather together and feast, in the name of a sense of collectivity that characterized especially villages. The festival in honor of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, was one of these occasions.

Known in Greece as Thesmophoria, in Egypt this festival also took the name of Demetreia. In the Ptolemaic period it became very popular in the Fayum, and a papyrus from the Berkeley collection, dated somewhere between the late third and the early second century BC, informs us that it was celebrated in Tebtunis too.

That of Demeter was a typical Greek cult, and festivals in honor of this deity took place in Egypt in Greek and Hellenized areas. With the arrival of the Ptolemies (and of the Macedonian settlers), Tebtunis, like other Fayum villages, underwent a process of Hellenization which embraced language, administration, law, and of course religion, as is attested by the very presence of the Demetreia. The Berkeley papyrus in question lists a series of payments for wine, made on the occasion of the festival to Demeter. The exact date is not preserved, but it is possible that the event took place at the same time as the Thesmophoria-Demetreia at Alexandria, that is at the end of November (which is also the time when this festival was celebrated at Athens). The papyrus confirms that the festival for Demeter was also a time for gifts, for both men and women. Wine was received as a gift, and among the beneficiaries we find in our document the Greeks Theodoros and Dorotheos. Another specific characteristic of this festival was the sacrifice of a pig, a typical Greek practice which the Egyptians didn’t seem to have a problem to accept.

Religious festivals and, later, celebrations in honor of the Roman emperors remained a fundamental feature of village life at Tebtunis for the centuries to come, and defined the very identity of that society. Whether it was a Greek deity to be celebrated or an Egyptian one, a strong sense of community and desire to gather for feasting together became the backbone of these village festivals.