T h e F e s t i v a
l s o f A t h e n a
THE CLEANSING FESTIVAL
(Plynteria and Kallynteria Festival)
THE THRESHING FESTIVAL
THE FESTIVAL OF MINERVA
THE PANATHENAEA FESTIVAL
THE VINTAGE FESTIVAL (Oschophoria
THE ARTISANS FESTIVAL (Chalkeia
O V E R V I E W
The Ancient Greek Festivals
At stated seasons,
usually having a relation to the various activities of the farm, such as
sowing, spring and autumn ploughings and harvest, a festival of some kind
would engage the activities either of the whole community or of some considerable
part of it, for example, all the women, or all married women.
To approach a God in due form it
was proper always to bring a gift, and, apart from dedications of statues
and other ornaments for the shrine, the commonest gifts we food, either
cereal, animal or both, drink, and incense.
The Gods are not unreasonable, and
do not exact costly offering from those who can not afford them; again
to consult current ancient tales, we are told of offerings of handful of
meal or some other trifle from a poor man which were declared highly acceptable
because they were presented with sincere piety.
But the characteristic sacrifice
was a head of larger or smaller cattle, usually, though there are exceptions,
of the same sex as the power to whom it was offered.
Whatever may be the ultimate origin
of such rites, there is no doubt that to the average ancient the intention
was to give the God good food, and when worshipping an Olympian, the sacrificer
and his friends, which in the case of a communal sacrifice meant the members
of the community, or at least some of them, shared the meal, indeed took
the best of the meat for themselves.
An old story, known to Hesiod, told
why this was so. Prometheus, the fire-God who was consistently the
friend of man, had beguiled Zeus in ancient days by killing a sacrificial
ox, making up the meat into two parcels, and asking the God which he would
have. One parcel contained the offals, disguised with a coating of
fat outside; the other had all the best cuts, inconspicuously packed.
Zeus took the richer-looking bundle, and saw too late that he was befouled.
To a modern, it seems probable that
the most essential thing about sacrifice was originally to give the life
of the victim to the Gods, to increase their mana, and therefore
the vital organs were their especial portion.
But be this as it may, the beast
was slain with due ritual.
The altar itself and the hands of
the worshippers were purified with water (chérnips, literally
"handwasher"; to share the same chérnips constituted a sacral
bond). The beast was led up to the altar, where ít was thought
a good omen if it seemed to go willingly, a bad one if it struggled.
Barley was formally sprinkled, apparently on the ground, the beast was
knocked down and stunned with an axe, then its muzzle was pointed upwards
and its throat cut.
The women, if any were present, raised
the ritual cry called ololygé, a high-pitched, tremulous
sound ending on a yet higher note and expressing joyous excitement.
Then the beast was skinned and cut
up; the entrails, with portions cut from every limb, were wrapped in fat
and laid on the altar-fire. The rest formed the material for the
feast, the inedible parts being disposed of in one way or another.
Often the hide was the perquisite of the priest, if one had officiated,
which was neither invariable nor necessary, and not infrequently such remnants
as the bones were buried in the holy ground of the precinct where, generally,
the rite took place, though there was nothing that we know of to prevent
an altar being erected and a sacrifice offered on any ground which was
not in some way polluted or otherwise supposed to be offensive the deity.
In later times at all events, if
there was more flesh than could be eaten on the spot, it might be taken
to the nearest market and sold like any other meat. If the victim
was an ox or bull, its skull was often fastened up outside the temple,
or, if the offering had been made by a private individual on his own property,
outside his house.
This procedure was what the Greeks
called a thysía, or burnt-offering. If the God approached
was not an Olympian but a chthonian, the ritual was different in several
ways. The victim, normally white for an Olympian, must now be black
or dark-coloured. Its head was pointed down, not up, when it was
killed, and not infrequently its body was not burned but disposed of in
some other way.
In any case, the God normally was
given the whole of it, and the reason for this is fairly obvious; though
the Gods of the earth and the nether world are not evil, they are formidable,
and the close communion with them implied in the shared meal was not wanted.
A sacrifice to them was not called a thysía, but generally
an enágisma, which means simply consecration.
Finally, the proper times for the
two kinds of offering differed; for the sky-Gods, morning, at any rate
daylight, and the full moon or the waxing moon were appropriate; for chthonians,
night, or at least afternoon, and the wane of the moon.
Special restrictions and prescriptions
were not rare; there were a few altars on which no blood might be shed,
the offerings being such things as cakes, and numerous chthonian cults
which did not allow libations of wine, but only of water, milk and honey.
This in all probability marked them
as old rituals, for wine, though the Mediterranean peoples of antiquity
were perfectly well acquainted with its use and making, is yet a foreign
drink, its name being a loan-word from some Anatolian speech. The
native term for an intoxicating drink is cognate to English "mead" and,
like it, probably meant originally a beverage made by fermenting honey,
although in classical times the recipe for this was quite forgotten. Hence
some of the more old-fashioned rituals to the Gods would not use the comparatively
new substance, and perhaps the common offering of honey is a reminiscence
of the days when it was used for mead-making.
Back to the top
©1998-1999 Roy George