Festivals and Celebrations of the Greek Gods

by M. Lastarria and F. Wessely

The ancient Greeks had numerous celebrations to honor their many gods. Most ceremonies consisted of sacrifices. According to Eliade (1987), the most common was the blood sacrifice, in which the chosen animal was decorated with gold, ribbons, and other things and then led in a procession. People would throw water and barley seeds on the adorned animal and participants. The mixture was then splashed upon the altar. Once they arrived at the altar, the animal's head was lifted and its throat was slashed by a large ritual knife called a machaira. The blood was collected in a large bowl of sorts. After the animal's death, it was cut open and examined. If there were any irregularities in its internal organs, that meant that the sacrifice was unacceptable. If it was accepted, the animal would be cooked and eaten. The only exceptions were the thighbones which were lathered in fat and burnt with herbs and spices as an offering to the gods. Some sacrifices though, called for foods such as fruits or breads accompanied with milk, honey, or even wine. The Titan Prometheus was said to have been the first to honor the gods with a sacrifice. (Eliade, 1987).

The Olympic Games and Zeus

First of all, the Greeks honored quite a few gods through athletic events. The most famous of all the Greek athletic events were the Olympic Games occurring every four years in late summer, beginning in 766 BCE. The Olympic Games were held in honor of Zeus, the supreme ruler of all the gods and goddesses who lived on Mount Olympus. Bannister (1985) established that the Games signified the truce among the Elis and Pisa states located in western Greece. The Games probably started as a way to ease the fears of the people that the earth might stay dead forever after the winter. As a way to decide what lucky man will bring about another harvest, a foot race was held to select him. The victor of that race would save the people and be regarded as a son of Zeus. As Bannister (1985) explained, the reason the Games were held every four years was perhaps because the Greeks believed a whole cycle consisting of a sun and moon cycle was needed. By using the limited amount of mathematics they had, the Greeks figured this to be about every four years.

The Games were panhellenic, which means they were open to all free Greek men. No women were allowed except Demeter's priestess. (Demeter was the goddess of crops.) The rule of nakedness was born so that women couldn't disguise themselves as men to take part in the contests and also pertained to the trainers. Women who tried to witness the Games were put to death.

Five days the Games lasted. The first day was basically just practice. At midday, a hog and sheep were offered to Zeus as a sacrifice. Then, all the contestants swore to perform fairly and exercise good sportsmanship. The majority of the Games happened on the second day. Events in the Olympic Games were: chariot and horse races, boxing, wrestling, pankration, and four running events. Pankration was an extremely brutal combination of boxing and wrestling, so fierce it was only open to adults. The pentathlon consisted of running, the long jump, throwing of the discus and javelin, and wrestling. A sacrifice of 100 bulls on the altar outside Zeus' temple occurred on the third day. It was also a day for the athletes to rest and the other people to celebrate. The games for young boys took place on the third and fourth days. On the fifth and last day, a procession ended at Zeus' temple, where a statue of him stood created by the Greek artist, Phidias (Boyer, 1970).

The prize for the Olympic victor was a crown of olives and he was clothed in a purple cloak to show his importance. He rode into his city in a nice chariot pulled by four milk-white horses. At Athens, the winner would be treated with respect and the utmost care. Some privileges he would receive were free meals at the marketplace for the rest of his life, and free lodging at an inn during certain times of the year. Bannister elucidated that in 393 CE the Olympic Games were done away with by Emperor Theodosius I because the Christian Church rejected all athletes, believing that they were a pagan indulgence. (p.1069)

The Pythian Games and Apollo

Another athletic tournament were the Pythian Games which took place at Delphi every four years in honor of Apollo, the god of healing, medicine, music, and the sun. This ritual began two centuries after the first Olympic Game (Asimov, 1985). The festivities started as contests of playing music, singing, plays, and speeches. Later, the festivals grew to also have athletic competitions. The winner was crowned with a wreath of bay leaves.

The Panatenaic Games and Athene

A third athletic affair were the Panathenaic Games which were founded by the Athenian ruler, Peisistratus, in 566 BCE. They were held in the honor of Athene every four years. Athene was the Greek goddess of wisdom, military warfare, and such crafts as weaving. The Panathenaic Games featured many typical Greek athletic events of the time. There were three styles of foot races. One was a quarter mile race, another whose length was two to three miles, and finally a race where the contestants had war shields with them. Other events included were boxing, wrestling, and pankration. Among these sports were a pentathlon consisting of a foot race, discus and javelin throwing, wrestling, and the long jump (Weisgard, 1963). The winners of the games were awarded a wreath made of olive leaves, big jars of clay, and an assortment of pottery. Each jar the victors received was decorated with a picture of the warrior goddess, Athene, on one side and a painting of an athletic event on the other side created in the common black-figure style (Price, 1967).

Athena was a warrior goddess and the Panathenaic Games were held in her honor. Redrawn by F. Wessely

The most important part of the Panathenaic Festival, other than the games themselves, was a procession which began at the Dipylon Gates. After the sporting events ended, all the Greeks came together to participate in the parade. The head of the procession was led by a group of girls who carried a robe called a peplos for Athene's statue in her temple located in Erechtheum. There, the peplos was presented before the statue and the sacrifices commenced. Ordinarily, animals (such as goats, cows, and sheep) were used as sacrifices but in certain remote country areas, human sacrifices were occasionally made (Gutherie, 1990).

To begin the sacrifices, Weisgard (1963) explained, the priests and priestesses dipped a torch removed from the altar into a dish of water as an act of sanctification. The leaders of the sacrifice then sprinkled the animals and the public with sacred water. The chief priestesses, after reciting a few prayers to Athene out loud, sprinkled barley on the beasts. The other priests and priestesses behind her, chopped of a chunk of hair from the sacrificial animals to throw in the fire. Next, the conductors of the ceremony bashed in the animal's skulls with clubs, slit their throats, and spilled the blood into jars and bowls to smear on Athene's altar. The dead beast's heads were placed in such a fashion as to face Mount Olympus, while the rest of the carcasses were skinned and divided among the people. Athene got her burnt offering on her altar composed of the animal tails and the thighbones wrapped in fat. The remains of the animals were cooked just enough so that the flesh was no longer raw and acceptable to eat for the rest of the people.

The Plyneteria and Athene

Associated with the Panathenaic Festival was Plyneteria, a ceremony of purification. The Athenian women would carry the statue of Athene and wash in the sea. They would also clean and mend her peplos (Asimov, 1965).

The Eleusian Mysteries and Demeter

This picture shows the goddess Demeter, patron of agriculture and women. Redrawn by M. Lastarria

A third ceremony dedicated to goddesses were the Eleusian Mysteries.The Eleusian Mysteries were kept very hush-hush. The telling of secrets would warrant death. They were in honor of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. Demeter was the goddess of crops, fertility, and the protectress of marriage. The prospect of initiation was opened to any gender or social status, as long as they could speak Greek. The Mysteries were an initiation ceremony separated into two parts, the Minor or Lesser Eleusis, and the Major or Great Eleusis.

The first preliminaries were a procession of priests, priestesses, and initiates from Athens to Eleusis. The ones to be initiated under went a purification ceremony in which the people were seated on a stool with their head veiled and their feet on a ram's fleece, while a priest or priestess purified them. Demeter was said to have done a similar ritual upon arriving the palace of Eleusis (Richardson, 1983). They would also participate in ritual fasting for nine days, as Demeter was said to have when looking for Persephone (she had been taken by Hades into the Underworld). Demeter also searched for her daughter by torch light, which is the reason for the torch lit dancing during the preliminaries. Demeter finally broke her fast when a servant named Iambe made her laugh, and she drank a mixture of barley water, flavored with pennyroyal. The cult fasting also ended with a similar drink. A common fertility ritual was the telling of vulgar and obscene jokes. The Lesser Mysteries actually took place in the month of Anthesterion (February/March). The accounts are sketchy, but it's mostly purification rituals, including washing in the river Ilissus. During this time, it is said the initiates were being prepared for the Greater Mysteries (Richardson, 1983).

The Greater Mysteries, Richardson continued, were the actual initiation, which occurred in Boedromion (September/October) from the 15th to the 23rd. There were two levels of initiation, and to reach the second level one would have to train for a year. The second level was known as Epopteia, which means vision. Before the festival of Epopteia, sacred objects called hiera were brought from Eleusis to Athens. What they were was unknown for they were only revealed during the ceremony.

Richardson stated: "The festival started at Athens with a solemn assembly where they made a proclamation of which classes of people were not allowed to take part." (p. 807) The next day, on the 16th, they would bathe in the sea with pigs, which are sacred to Demeter. Later, the pigs were probably sacrificed.

On the 17th, an official sacrifice to Demeter and Persephone was made. The next day, the initiates would rest. For the next two days, there was a great procession called the Iacchus Procession, after the founder of a cry which was made during the journey to Eleusis. The parade was stopped 0 every once in a while to dance, sing and sacrifice.

Once the initiates arrived at Eleusis, there was a night festival with more dancing. Little is known of the main ceremonies, except that there were three forms: Legomena, (things spoken); Dromena, (things performed); and Dieknymena, (things revealed) (Richardson, 1985).

The Thesmophoria and Demeter Thesmophos

This next celebration was truly made for women. Celebrated in the Greek month of Pyanopsion (October) was the festival Thesmophoria. It was held for Demeter Thesmophos. Scholars are not sure if the goddess was named after the festival or the other way around (Thompson, 1994). This festival was held on the 12th through 14th days of Pyanopsion and celebrated by married women. The first day of the ceremony included rituals concerning fertility. Early in the day, the women threw young pigs into a hole in the ground called the megaron and left the animals to decay. A sacrifice to Demeter consisting of the pigs' intestines mixed with seed was processed by a group of women who had not had sex for nine days prior. The concoction was then planted into the ground as a way to guarantee the earth's and humankind's fertility. The sacrifice represented the birth and death of the earth every year. On the second day, the women fasted, and the day after, they did the celebration of productivness in nature and mankind.

Thargelia and Apollo

The following ritual is quite different than what Westerners are used to. In Athens, Thargelia was celebrated in the sixth and seventh in the month of Thargelia (May/June) in honor of Apollo. The participants would offer the first fruits from their crop and the first bread from the harvested wheat. As for sacrifices, to cleanse the town of guilt, they took two condemned criminals and banished them from the city. Sometimes when a better sacrifice was called for, two criminals would be killed, either by being thrown into the sea or on a pyre. The next day there was an offering of thanks, a parade, and a registration ceremony for adopted ones (Thompson, 1994).

Stepterion and Apollo

Stepterion, also called the Festivals of the Wreaths, occurred every eight years for Apollo. It was made up of two parts, but the exact separation is not quite sure (Gutherie, 1990). At Delphi, a configuration that symbolized the cave of the dragon that used to guard the oracle at Delphi, when it belonged to Rhea, the earth goddess, was built on "threshing floor." (p.80) A group of women with torches leading a boy in silence, approached the configuration and set it on fire. Plutarch, as quoted in Gutherie (1990), says: "they fled without looking around through the doors of the Temple." (p.80) The boy then wandered, which might have been symbolic of Apollo's search for purification after being in bondage to King Admetos of Pherae.The wandering ended at the Valle of Tempe, where he was purified. When the boy arrived at the Valle, an extravagant sacrifice was made, and the people wove themselves laurel wreaths, from the exact tree Apollo had used to make his own crown. Then, as Apollo had done, they returned to Delphi in parade of flute players.

Seen here is Apollo playing the first lyre, made from a turtle shell and cow intestine. Redrawn by M. Lastarria

The Dionysian Festivals and Dionysus

The final set of ceremonies must have been the highlight of the Greek calender. Held throughout the Grecian year were the Dionysian festivals, in honor of Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of wine, revelry, drama, sap, and sperm. The Dionysia was actually composed of an entire series of festivals:

Dionysian celebrations were characterized by spectacular and extravagant theatrics. The Oschophoria, which is Greek for "carrying of the grape cluster" was held in the fall, when the grapes were ripe for the picking. It included a relay for young contestants.

The small or rustic Dionysia's purpose was for the first tasting of the first wine. This holiday took place around the months of December and January. Along with the usual dramatics, a line of slaves carrying a statue of a phallus (a symbol of Dionysus) could be seen. Thompson (1994) described "the singing of obscene lays" and young Greek citizens "balancing on a full goat-skin" occurring at these ceremonies. (p. 85)

This second Dionysian festival occured during the Grecian winter. Happening in Athens between January and February was the Lanaea. It was marked by a parade of citizens acting like silly fools, running through the streets of the city and of course, many theatrical performances.

The most important and widely-known of the Dionysias was the Great Dionysia, founded by the ruler of Athens, Peisistratus. It occurred in Athens during the spring during the months of March and April for five or six days. Shown at the ceremonies were theatrical performances of tragedies, comedies, and satiric dramas. Located on the side of the Acropolis was the Theater of Dionysus where all the plays dedicated to him were performed. These dramas were highly popular among the Greeks. The ancient Greeks believed the actors and singers were publicly acting out their worship of Dionysus. They also felt the god attended and actually watched the productions. The Great Dionysias were basically a time to rejoice and celebrate the arrival of spring. This was such a joyous occasion that even prisoners were released to participate in the gala event. At this festival, just as in the smaller Dionysia, there was an icon of the phallus and of the great god himself.

Some other ceremonies dedicated to the god of wine contained an amount of secrecy and required certain special religious figures. The women followers of Dionysus were called Maenads or bacchantes. De Hoghton (1985) notes that a party of Athenian women were selected to walk 100 miles, without shoes, across mountains to the shrine of Apollo. There, the women met up with their Maenad associates from Delphi. After prayers and sacrifices to their cult god, Dionysus' wild women climbed Mount Parnassus which measures more than 8,000 feet high. There they had the oreibasia, the mountain dancing of Dionysus.

This wall painting from Pompeii shows a Dionysian initiate being whipped. Redrawn by F. Wessely

During a few ceremonies, the Maenad would submit themselves to Dionysus in a drunken trance where the god takes control of their bodies. By possessing the Maenads' bodies, Dionysus can make them do whatever he feels like at the time. In this possession, the mortal woman is a god and the god is a mortal. In that sense, the two, divine and human, become one being (Eliade, 1987). The Maenads then traveled to the mountains or the forest, where the women used snakes as playthings. They also nursed young animals as their children. Eliade (1987) records that the Maenads would also "pursue, attack, and tear to pieces living animals (diasparagmos) and devour the raw flesh (omophagia)." (p. 114) The women, by the manner in which they ate, became savage brutes. Instead of eating cooked meat like civilized human beings, they behaved like beastly animals feeding on each other.

Many of Dionysus' rituals ended with orgias, or more familiar, orgies. The word orgy back then didn't have the negative connotations of today. To the ancient Greeks, orgies were acts of devotion to Dionysus, used as a way to unite with divinity, and shared with other believers.

The ancient Greeks had countless ways of professing their love and undying devotion to their gods. The Greek gods were demanding gods and almost all of the festivals involved sacrifices, whether animal, human, or crop. The people of Greece believed that by offering sacrifices to their gods, the deities in return would give their people protection, crops, fetility, and a variety of other gifts such as wealth, love, or the ability to foresee the future (Boyer, 1970). Even though some of these rituals and practices may seem unusual or bizarre to modern American eyes, to the ancient Greeks this was just a part of everyday life.


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This web page was written by M. Lastarria and F. Wessely, 3/21/98, for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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