From primitive to modern times, man has always stood in some awe of nature. The rising and setting of the sun, alternating light and darkness, the miracle of vegetation, all are awe-inspiring, cyclical events. Many peoples worshipped nature by building temples and holding ceremonies and sacrifices to appease it. The Greeks, however, brought the unknown divinity closer, and fashioned it in their own human image. They gave it a voice, passions, jealousies and kindnesses; they filled their surroundings with multitudes of both gods and demons, each of which had their own responsibilities and demands.
In the myths of other countries, one encounters fierce, remote gods representing fundamental values in the society, reflecting its needs and structure. For the Greeks, mythology was the story of everyday life. The gods loved and hated, fell in love and lusted after other people’s wives, with mortals watching events curiously like well-intentioned neighbours, with perhaps an ordinary man’s affection and admiration for a special friend. In the diaphanous light of Greece, the gods couldn’t really have been different, and this was why in the 4th century AD a special law had to be passed to compel the people to convert to Christianity on pain of death. In Greece, it was very difficult to impose worship of a patient god who suffered insults and humiliations, went barefoot and refused the pleasures of the flesh that allow one to forget the day’s tribulations. It was very difficult for such a God to replace proud Apollo, who was always dressed in the light of the sun, or Aphrodite who promised so much, not in some unknown future life but right now, or even Dionysus who urged his followers to express what they saw in their unconfessed solitary dreams.
But behind this airy view of myths addressed to the many, there were some serious reflections and insights into life, together with a judicious classification of the divine among the human. All these familiar gods had one special feature: they were immortal. And perhaps all their stories represented the eternal longing on the part of mortals to learn the mystery of life and death, the desire for immortality, because myth is the product of the imagination, like the dreams without which we cannot live.
Thus Greek mythology became a source of inspiration for art. It helped build dreams out of stone, it dressed feelings with words, laying down the principles of universal order with morality and moderation; the violation of these principles revealed hybris, and brought inescapable punishment. Myths thus brought ideals and values, but mainly freedom of thought and choice, because one is truly free when one can approach a god, look him straight in the eye without fear and then in admiration, attempt to emulate him. It was for this reason that Greek temples were such marvels of simplicity and beauty: open to the light and rain and the souls of the faithful who would go in and out offering sweets and fruit from their harvest, meeting their friends and acquaintances and taking part in ceremonies and processions, while the philosophers regarded all of this with some condescension. Pericles, in his Epitaph, the speech paying homage to those Athenians who were killed in the war, mentioned how lucky they had been when they were alive to belong to a state which had so many religious feasts and celebrations. In his play Clouds, Aristophanes used his caustic pen to satirize his fellow citizens for the same reason. But the people enjoyed these feasts and attended them enthusiastically all year round.
The first month of the Athenian yearwas Hekatombaion, i.e. that of the hekatombes (sacrifices of many animals), which began with the new moon preceding the summer solstice, during the last ten days of what is now June. No significance whatever was attached to the first day of the year, although three important feasts followed soon after: the Kronia, Synoikia and Panathenaia. The first was dedicated to Kronos, a local festival associated with the wheat harvest. TheSynoikia, as reported by Thucydides, reminded the residents of some older tribal ceremonies.
But the greatest of all festivals was the Panathenaia: the Minor annual feasts celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Athena, the city’s protectress, and the Major Panathenaia held during the third year after every Olympiad, i.e. every four years, to celebrate the founding of the city when Theseus formed a confederation of all the demes (municipalities). The Major Panathenaia was the most important event in the life of the city, which lived the remaining period in preparation for its magnificent ceremonies.
The first person to organise the Panathenaia is believed to have been a man named Hippokleides, who served as Archon in the year 566-565 BC. His name is chiefly known to us through the story of the time he went to Sikyon as a prospective groom to win the lovely Agariste, daughter of the local archon. Absolutely certain of his success, the arrogant Athenian got drunk and began to do silly things. When his host remarked that these actions were “unmannerly”, he replied “¿Å ÆÁ¿½Äµ¯Â (TM)ÀÀ¿º»µ¯´·” (don’t worry about Hippokleides), a phrase which lost him the bride and made his name synonymous with frivolity.
Peisistratos was the man who made the festival famous throughout the land of the Hellenes, enhancing it with a brilliant procession and various contests, where the prizes were especially-produced amphoras full of oil from the sacred olives of the goddess. We can see examples of such Panathenaic amphoras in museums all over the world today; on one side they depict the goddess Athena fully armed and on the other a scene from the contest in question. Being an admirer of Homer, Peisistratos instituted music and song competitions, which later obliged Pericles to build an odeion in which to hold them. There were also dancing contests for boys, youths and men in which the Pyrrichios was presented, a military dance performed in full war dress, in remembrance of the Dorians who first danced it in Crete. From Xenophon we learn about the contest called Evandreia, a unique innovation instituted by the Athenians, with their fanatic devotion to beauty, in which the handsomest and strongest man would win a prize of 100 drachmas and a plump calf.
In addition to the contests of the classical Olympic events, the Panathenaic festival also included chariot races and an individual torch race, in which the winner was the first person to carry in the torch with the flame from the sacrificial fire, having managed to keep it alight. The runners started out from the altar of Eros, in the Academy outside the walls, and finished at the altar of Athena within the city. In this way, the eternal adversary goddesses, Athena-reason and Aphroditepassion, co-existed in a harmonious duality.
The highlight of the festival was the magnificent procession which set out from the city gates and ascended to the sacred Rock of the Acropolis, carrying on the sails of the sacred vessel the richly embroidered robe of the goddess which had been woven by selected noble maidens, the Ergastines. As Pausanias tells us, the vessel was kept near the Areopagus and was shown to strangers like a tourist attraction.
On the day of the great procession, all the people in the city would flock into the streets to watch as selected citizens, noble maidens and distinguished young men took active part. It was likewise an opportunity to demonstrate the preparedness of the Athenian army, with troops of horse-soldiers, well-drilled young men and acrobat-charioteers who with consummate skill would jump on and off the swiftly moving chariots, showing the harmony of their exuberant young bodies. That was also the only day on which the ladies of Athens and their daughters could look freely upon the young men and perhaps select from among them. The Panathenaic festivals ended with sacrifices of carefully chosen animals and with feasting, dancing and singing.
Another significant month in the Athenian year was Boedromeion, which coincided approximately with our September. A feast was held to commemorate those fallen in battle for their homeland, particularly after the battle of Marathon which had taken place that month. But the greatest event of the season was the Eleusinian Mysteries which were organised annually by the Archon and carried out by the Hierophant. This high priest had to be a member of the ancient ruling family of Eleusis, the Eumolpidae, the only hereditary priests in all of Attica. Two days before the ceremonies were to begin, the sacred objects were transferred from Eleusis to Athens in sea led cases, called kystes, carried by the priests. The celebrations lasted for a week and all but foreigners were accepted for initiation, although during Roman rule, this ban fell into disuse.
The ceremonies started with the “Alade mystai” (To the sea, initiates!), the symbolic purification of all those who wished to be initiated. They were required to have a piglet with them which they would offer for sacrifice the next day. This was followed by a day of meditation before the faithful returned to Eleusis, crowned with myrtle and strands of wool, with the priestesses holding the kystes in front of them. Along the way, they would stop at certain bridges and exchange gefyrismous, i.e. obscene jests. Those who followed the procession in carts were likewise free to utter whatever imprecation they wished, the well-known “ex amaxis”, a term still current today! During the next two days the actual Mysteries took place in the Eleusinian Telesterion (initiation hall); these included secret rituals, rites and a revelation. Perhaps the initiates were witnesses to a recreation of the myth of Persephone and Pluto, but the secret was kept well up to the end of the 4th century A.D. when these rituals were banned and the sacred precinct of Demeter was abandoned.
The fourth month of the Athenian year, which corresponded to present-day October, was called Pyanepsion after Pyanepsia. This feast formally commemorated the myth of Theseus’ return from Crete, when the fruits left over from the journey were baked for the common meal of the comrades; it was in essence, however, an act related to the preparation of the fields. Something similar can be seen in the present day autumn custom in Greek villages, especially in Crete, where the seeds are first blessed all together in the church before the sowing of the crops begins. On the same day as the Pyanepsia, the Oschophoria was celebrated: this was the procession of young men of noble birth who, dressed in women’s clothing, brought the oschous, i.e. branches of vines loaded with grapes, to Phaleron. This feast, too, was related to Theseus, as we know that he dressed two young Athenian men in women’s clothes to take the place of two girls on the mission to eliminate the Minotaur.
But if the above original ceremony had aristocratic roots, the Thesmophoria which followed was broadly popular. It was a three-day feast exclusively for married women devoted to their protecting goddesses Demeter and Persephone. The first day the women would “take to the streets”, which meant that they left their homes and families for worship in the open air, and to sleep in huts built especially for the occasion. On the second day they fasted, seated upon the ground, exactly as Demeter had done when she arrived in Eleusis looking for her daughter, and refused all nourishment. Even the licentious language which women used on these days was an allusion to the myth of Demeter, and to the slave Iambe who, by her immodest but humorous discourse, managed to make the frowning goddess smile. The third day of the Thesmophoria, was called Kalligeneia (good birth), showing clearly that the rituals had to do both with the fertility of the women and with the desired good harvest of the earth.
During the month of Maimakterion (November) there was one ceremony, to Zeus Meilichiios, obviously to secure good weather in the period of early winter storms. For the same reason, the following month, the season of stormy seas, was dedicated to Poseidon. Towards the end of the month came two feasts which characterise the absence of false modesty in the ancients’ attitude. The first was called Aloa and featured a women’s ritual supper accompanied by saucy talk and phallus-shaped sweets which may later have been buried in the fields, rather like an exhortation to the frozen earth to awaken. This was followed by the feast of the Minor Dionysia en agrois (in the fields), with drunkenness, lewd symbols and vulgar songs sung by villagers. There is no better source of information about this rural feast than Aristophanes’ play The Acharnians. In it, an overwrought villager named Dikaiopolis tries to keep order in a parade of enormous phalluses, giving instructions to his friends, his daughter, and his wife before he himself sings a coarse hymn to Dionysus.
The month which roughly corresponds to present day January, the month of weddings in ancient Athens, was dedicated to the goddess Hera and called Gameleion. In addition to weddings, however, there was also the Lenaia, another feast dedicated to Dionysus which featured a public symposium, performances and the inevitable drinking of wine with all it entails. The name was derived either from the lenoi (wine-presses) or from the lenes (maenads) who were always identified with the fun-loving god.
The month of Anthesterion was the beginning of spring, around February and early March, when the almond trees were in bloom. This was the time of one of the Athenians’ major feasts, the Anthesteria, during which parents would crown their three-year-old children with blossoms; perhaps because they had survived the first, most dangerous years of their life. The main festivities lasted for three days, starting with the Pithoigia, which was the opening and testing of the jars containing the new wine which would then be ready, to the enjoyment of all. The second day was the Choes, re-enacting the sacred wedding of Dionysus. The god was played by the annual priest-king while his wife, the Basilina, had the role of the priestess assisted by women selected for the occasion: the Gerares. The following day was the Hytres, a feast of the dead; at that time, an offering was made to Hermes the conveyor of souls, of pots in which all types of seeds, fruits and vegetables, the panspermia, had been cooked. This custom has survived down to our days as the boiled wheat on Psychosawato (Soul-Saturday on which the souls of the dead are remembered), in mid-spring at exactly the same time of year.
A particularly significant feast was the Elaphebolaion, dedicated to the goddess Artemis, whose symbol was the deer. In spring, the most important religious event was the Great Dionysia which, as of the mid-sixth century BC, took place in town and was celebrated with a procession of the Dionysian Thiasos (troupe) and with performances for the public. The feasting lasted for six days, on three of which there were performances of new plays, after a long process of selection and preparation. These presentations were open to foreigners as well, since at precisely that time of year, shipping that had stopped during the winter would begin again.
During the next few months, there were no major feasts, perhaps because the people were busy with agriculture, trade or with skirmishes against neighbouring cities. The feast of Plynteria was held during the month of Thargelion; it was dedicated to the statue of Athena which was taken to the sea for a ritual cleansing. On that day no Athenian would begin doing anything important, since the goddess was absent from her position and could not monitor what was happening; it was a bad luck day. And in the last month of the Athenian year, Skiraforion-May or June – the Bouphonia was celebrated, with the sacrifice of an ox which took upon itself all the sins of the people; a scapegoat calling to mind very ancient totemic rituals.
The Athenians always participated in these many feasts and celebrations with abundant enthusiasm. The most important feasts, the Panathenaia and the Dionysia, were centred around the sacred rock of the goddess Athena: the Acropolis. The temples atop the rock had been built for religious ceremonies and processions, while on the slopes of the hill was the sanctuary and theatre of Dionysus for the more popular cults, which with the evolution of speech became the moving force of the Athenian intelligentsia.