Ancient History & Civilisation

VII. FESTIVALS

If it could not end war Greek religion succeeded in alleviating the routine of economic life with numerous festivals. “How many victims offered to the gods!” cried Aristophanes; “how many temples, statues . . . sacred processions! At every moment of the year we see religious feasts and garlanded victims” of sacrifice.93 The rich paid the cost, the state provided the theorika, or divine funds, to pay to the populace the price of admission to the games or plays that distinguished the holyday.

The calendar at Athens was essentially a religious calendar, and many months were named from their religious festivals. In the first month, Hecatombaion (July-August), came the Cronia (corresponding to the Roman Saturnalia), when masters and slaves sat down together to a joyful feast; in the same month, every fourth year, occurred the Panathenaea, when, after four days of varied contests and games, the entire citizenship formed a solemn and colorful procession to carry to the priestess of Athena the sacred peplos, a gorgeously embroidered robe which was to be placed upon the image of the city’s goddess; this, as all the world knows, was the theme that Pheidias chose for the frieze of the Parthenon. In the second month, Metageitnion, came the Metageitnia, a minor festival in honor of Apollo. In the third month, Boedromion, Athens sallied forth to Eleusis for the Greater Mysteries. The fourth month, Pyanepsion, celebrated the Pyanepsia, the Oscophoria, and the Thesmophoria; in this the women of Athens honored Demeter Thesmophoros (the Lawgiver) with a strange chthonian ritual, parading phallic emblems, exchanging obscenities, and symbolically going down to Hades and returning, apparently as magical ceremonies to promote fertility in the soil and man.94 Only the month of Maimakterion had no festival.

In the month of Poseideon Athens held the Italoa, a feast of first fruits; in Gamelion the Lenaea, in honor of Dionysus. In Anthesterion came three important celebrations: the Lesser or preparatory Mysteries; the Diasia, or sacrifice to Zeus Meilichios; and, above all, the Anthesteria, or Feast of Flowers. In this three-day spring festival to Dionysus wine flowed freely, and everybody was more or less drunk;95 there was a competition in wine drinking, and the streets were alive with revelry. The king-archon’s wife rode on a car beside the image of Dionysus, and was married to it in the temple as a symbol of the union of the god with Athens. Beneath this jolly ritual ran a somber undertone of fear and propitiation of the dead; the living ate a solemn meal in commemoration of their ancestors, and left for them pots full of food and drink. At the end of the feast the people chased the spirits of the departed from the house with a formula of exorcism: “Out of the door with you, souls! Anthesteria is over”—words that became a proverbial phrase for dismissing importunate beggars.*

In the ninth month, Elaphebolion, came the Great Dionysia, established by Peisistratus in 534; in that year Thespis inaugurated the drama at Athens as part of the festival. It was the end of March, spring was in the air, the sea was navigable, merchants and visitors crowded the city and swelled the attendance at the ceremonies and the plays. All business was suspended, all courts were closed; prisoners were released to let them share in the festivities. Athenians of every age and class, brilliantly attired, took part in the procession that brought the statue of Dionysus from Eleutherae and placed it in his theater. The rich drove chariots, the poor marched on foot; a long train of animals followed as destined gifts for the gods. Choruses from the towns of Attica joined or competed in song and dance.—In the tenth month, Munychion, Athens celebrated the Munychia, and Attica, every fifth year, celebrated the Brauronia in honor of Artemis. In Thargelion occurred the Thargelia, or feast of the grain harvest. In the twelfth month, Skirophorion, came the festivals of Skirophoria, Arretophoria, Dipolia, and Bouphonia. Not all these feasts were annual; but even for a four-year period they represented a grateful relief from daily toil.

Other states had similar holidays; and in the countryside every sowing and every harvest was greeted with festal conviviality. Greater than all these were the Panhellenic festivals, the panegyreis, or universal gatherings. There were the Panionia on Mycale, the feast of Apollo at Delos, the Pythian festival at Delphi, the Isthmian at Corinth, the Nemean near Argos, the Olympic in Elis. These were the occasions of interstate games, but basically they were holydays. It was the good fortune of Greece to have a religion human enough—in later days humane enough—to associate itself joyfully and creatively with art, poetry, music, and games, even, at last, with morality.

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