Festivals and feasts were the most important and the most spectacular part of Greek religion. They varied greatly in size and popularity, but they all provided opportunities for the Greek people to express their identity as a group. They celebrated the cycles of planting and harvest, honored the gods, and provided entertainment for the people.
Little is known for certain about the origins of many of the festivals and what they really meant to the people who participated in them. The Greeks often invented connections between festivals and myths in order to explain some of these celebrations. The importance of these festivals, however, is undeniable. The Greeks spent more money each year on festivals than they did on any other activity, except war. The elaborate processions during the festivals were opportunities to reenact the entrance of a god or goddess to a city and the giving of divine protection to the city. Festivals also provided opportunities to proclaim military and cultural dominance over one’s neighbors.
The details of festivals varied enormously, but a typical festival involved a procession to the shrine of a god or goddess; choral and instrumental music; decoration of a statue or object that symbolized the divinity; competitions in athletics, music, and drama; the blood sacrifice of an animal; and the distribution of the ritual* meat among the participants.
The largest festivals were the Panhellenic* ones, which included participants and observers from all parts of the Greek world. The major Panhellenic festivals were the Olympic Games, which were held every four years beginning in 776 B.C.; the Pythian Games at Delphi, which were held every four years beginning in 582 B.C.; and the Isthmian Games and the Nemean Games, which were held every two years. Each of these festivals took place near an important shrine and celebrated the Greek experience through art, athletics, and religious ceremony.
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
* Panhellenic referring to all of Greece or to all Greek people
FROZEN IN TIME
Every four years the Panathenaia was celebrated with great spectacle. Fortunately, like a frozen replay of the past, a glimpse of that splendid event is still possible. The frieze of the Parthenon—the sculpted band around the top of Athena's temple—shows scenes of the solemn procession that honored the goddess. The festival and procession united the city, and people of all social classes took part in it, each with a specific role. A young Athenian man might carry a pitcher of water, and a young Athenian woman might carry a cushioned chair for a god or a basket of barley meal for sprinkling on the sacrificial victims.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, the most famous and revered religious cult*, held a major Panhellenic festival that did not involve athletic games. This religious festival included a procession from Athens to Eleusis and the ritual unveiling of sacred objects by a high priest. Those fortunate few who were initiated into the “mysteries” could expect a happy life after death. Many of the details of the intense religious experience at the ceremony have remained obscure, partly because revealing the secrets of the mysteries was punishable by death.
Athenian Festivals. Historians know more about the festivals of Athens than they do about those of other states. Athens celebrated many festivals, devoting about 60 days each year to them. Each month, festivals were held to mark the birthdays of various gods and goddesses. Agricultural festivals—such as the Thesmophoria, a women’s festival in honor of Demeter— were held to request assistance from the gods for sowing and harvesting the crops. Festivals were held to mark the coming of age of Athenian youth. Two such festivals were the Apatouria (which occurred when young males had their hair cut to signal their new adult roles in the community) and the Brauronia (when young females celebrated the end of their childhood by dancing in honor of Artemis). There were other festivals, such as the Genesia, which was held in remembrance of the dead.
The birthday of Athena, patroness* of Athens, was celebrated with the spectacular Panathenaia. This extravaganza included a procession, the sacrifice of an entire herd of cows, music and athletic contests, and recitations of the works of Homer. Another festival, the City Dionysia, in honor of Dionysus, was the setting for the great dramatic contests. Among the most famous participants were the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.
Throughout the rest of Greece, festivals were also common. Sparta, for example, celebrated the Gymnopaedia, during which the physical prowess of Spartan youths was displayed. The Rural Dionysia gave the country people of Attica an occasion to escape their work-filled lives, and virtually every town in Greece took time to honor its local gods and heroes*.
Feasts. In addition to public festivals, feasting played a major role in the social activities of ancient Greeks. Many occasions called for a shared meal, sometimes formal and sometimes casual. Usually these all-male gatherings included eating meats, drinking wine, and enjoying the performances of singers, musicians, and acrobats. The ancient Greek feast was more than entertainment, however. It was a display of the relative social importance of the participants. The famous epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey tell of kings serving feasts for their companions and guests and the proper ways of giving and receiving hospitality. Hospitality was important to the Greeks. A host was responsible for the enjoyment of his guests, who in turn would serve as his hosts in the future.
Sometimes communities sponsored feasts to honor nobles or those who had distinguished themselves fighting for the state. Kings had the responsibility of showing more generosity than other people by giving the most sumptuous feasts and distributing the most valuable gifts. Like diplomatic dinners today, the Greek feast was an opportunity to show the best intentions of the participants—goodwill, peaceful cooperation, loyalty, and hospitality.
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* patroness goddess or woman of influence who guards, protects, or supports a person or city
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
The symposium was a particularly important form of feast in Greek society. A symposium was basically a banquet or drinking party at which aristocratic* young men reclined on couches as they ate, drank, sang, recited poetry, and engaged in various games, dances, and contests. Although goodwill, grace, and harmony were supposed to be the virtues displayed at a symposium, excessive behavior sometimes occurred, resulting in rivalries, insults, and quarrels. At its best, however, a symposium was an occasion for the display of the Greek cultural ideals of generosity, grace, and manliness. (See also Banquets; Cults; Games, Greek; Games, Roman; Social Life, Greek.)
* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class