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Calendar of Greek
Religious Festivals
 
  Greek religious life centered on the festival, which is something like a modern-day religious service, track meet, "Shakespeare in the park" theater performance, and Mardi Gras party all rolled into one. Common activities at festivals included athletic competitions, artistic competitions (including the reciting of poetry and hymns and the performance of plays), large feasts, and religious sacrifices. Calendar of sacrificesThese sacrifices served not only the needs of the gods, but also the very mundane needs of the people. They would have been the major opportunities for a population that lived largely on subsistence farming to eat meat. These festivals could be minor, local single-day affairs, or week-long multiple-city benders. The festivals were so pivotal that they served as the primary way an ancient Greek citizen would have kept track of time as the months passed. While the Greek city-states all followed twelve-month years, with each month beginning on the new moon, each city derived its own names for the months from festivals that the city celebrated at that time of year. We know the Athenian names best and those are given below. The year was thought to begin in July, with the year's most important festival, the Panathenaia, and end in June with a closing ceremony. In general, the 6th day of a month was dedicated to Artemis, the 7th to Apollo, and the 8th to Poseidon. Greek months do not correspond exactly with the months of our calendar. Those given below in parentheses roughly correlate to the Greek month.
 
Hecatombaion (July)
Major Festivals:
  The Panathenaia, the most famous and important festival in Athens brought together people from all over Attica and the other regions where Athens held influence to heap honors upon Athena, the goddess of Athens. Panathenaic vase Each year, the statue of Athena in her temple on the Acropolis would be presented with a new robe, called the peplos. In 566/5 B.C., athletic games and competitions for performances of famous poems and the plays were added. The best poets and playwrights from many parts of the Greek-speaking world competed. First prize at this festival was one of a writer's most coveted honors. The Panathenaia was celebrated with particular grandeur every fourth year, when it was called the Greater Panathenaia.
Minor Festivals:
The Kronia was dedicated to Kronos, who appears to have been the god of the grain harvest. A rather unimportant festival, its chief peculiarity was that it was a holiday for slaves and they were allowed to dine with their masters.
The Synoikia celebrated the union of the peoples of Attica into one community.
Metageitnion (August)
Major Festivals:
None.
Minor Festivals:
The Metageitnia (?), dedicated to Apollo -- ancient sources are unclear.
A festival of Heracles in the athletic field of the town of Kynosarges, which we know to have been nearby Athens, though its exact location remains uncertain.
Boedromion (September)
Major Festivals:
Eleusinian Mysteries -- celebrated during what was planting season in ancient Greece.
Minor Festivals:
The Genesia was a state celebration in honor of the dead, coming at the end of the military campaigning season.
The Artemis Agrotera was associated with the battle of Marathon in the Persian War. The legend behind the festival is that before marching out to battle, the Athenians had vowed to Artemis that they would sacrifice a she-goat to her for every Persian they killed. The final death toll was about 192 Greeks and 6400 Persians. Had the Greeks made good on their vow they might have wiped out the goat population in Attica, so they instead decided to sacrifice 500 she-goats every year, and this was done for over a century.
The Boedromia was a feast of thanksgiving to Apollo.
Pyanepsion (October)
Major Festivals:
The Oschophoria was the festival of wine-making. It featured a procession from a sanctuary of Dionysus (the god of wine) in Athens (we are not sure which sanctuary it was) to the shrine of Athena Skiras at Phaleron, a nearby harbor town. The procession featured vine branches with still-growing bunches of grapes, called oschoi, carried by two young men dressed in women's robes.
The Apaturia was a festival for the phratriai, the brotherhoods of Greek society. All the male members of a phratria observed the fiction that they were descended from the same male ancestor. Every phratriai celebrated the Apaturia, but they did so when they saw fit, provided that it was during Pyanepsion. On the first day, members gathered to have a meal together. The second day involved sacrifices. On the third day infant boys who had been born in the year since the previous Apaturia would be registered officially within the phratria.
The Thesmophoria was dedicated to Demeter, and was open exclusively to women, and seems to have excluded virgins. The Thesmophoria is connected to the Skirophoria, (see below) a festival celebrated about three and a half months earlier. In the Skirophoria, women threw various things into a pit, such as sacrificed piglets, as well as models of snakes and male genitalia fashioned out of dough. One of the activities of the Thesmophoria was the recovery of these decayed offerings. These things were considered to be consecrated, and it was believed that sprinkling their remains on the fields with seed would increase the fertility of the crops. On the first day, the women assembled at the Thesmophorion, and set up their camp. The next day the women fasted and sat on the ground, just as Demeter refused to eat or sit in a chair in the palace at Eleusis in the Homeric hymn. For unclear reasons, this day ended with the women trading ritualized verbal abuse. Compare this to Eleusis also. On the third day the women of Athens probably prayed for blessings on their current and future children, though we have no details of the ceremonies.
Minor Festivals:
The Pyanepsia, a word derived from the Greek words for "beans" and "boiling", a reference to the special food prepared on the occasion. At Eleusis, a sacrifice of a he-goat, a lamb, and other offerings was made to Pythian Apollo, with a table prepared with a meal for the god. In Athens, the day was one of special worship of Apollo.
The Theseia was the annual festival of the great Attic hero Theseus, the son of Poseidon. Inscriptions indicate that the festival included a procession, sacrifice, and contests.
The Stenia was dedicated to Demeter and Persephone.
The Chalkeia was a festival for Hephaistos and Athena, and on this occasion the priestess of Athena, along with an entourage of young acolyte girls, set up on the Acropolis the loom which was used to weave the the peplos to be presented to her statue during the Panathenaia. (See Athena's peplos)
The Proerosia. The legend of the festival is that a plague fell upon Greece, and Apollo, through the oracle at Delphi, commanded that the Athenians make sacrifices to Demeter for everyone, and that the rest of Greece send tithes of their crops to the Athenians. Attic farmers provided 1/600th of their barley and 1/1200th of their wheat to be delivered to Eleusis. Cities in the Athenian empire were made to do the same, and invitations were sent to other Greek cities inviting them to contribute. The sacrifices were intended to invoke Demeter's blessing before the plowing and sowing began.
Maimakterion (November)
Major Festivals:
None.
Minor Festivals:
The Pompaia consisted of a procession dedicated to Zeus and involved purification rites using an object called the Dion Koidion, the "Sheepskin of Zeus". Unlike many other festival processions, this one was not performed by lay people, only by priestly officials.
Poseideon (December)
Major Festivals:
None.
Minor Festivals:
The Poseidea. Very little is known of the festival.
The Haloa was a secret rite for women held in honor of Demeter and Dionysus. Magistrates prepared at Eleusis every kind of food except for foods forbidden by the Eleusinian Mysteries-pomegranates, apples, eggs, chickens, and certain fish. Having prepared the banquet, the magistrates left matters to the women. The women carried models of male and female genitalia and screamed ritual obscenities.
The Country Dionysia consisted of a procession and athletic contests, and was shared in even by slaves. The Athenian festivals of the Lenaia and the City Dionysia are derived from it.
Gamelion (January)
Major Festivals:
None.
Minor Festivals:
The Lenaia consisted of a procession whose details are unknown and dramatic competitions where comedy was particularly important.
The Gamelia celebrated the marriage of Zeus and Hera.
Anthesterion (February)
Major Festivals:
Dionysus as a drunken revellerThe Anthesteria, or festival of the flowers, was a festival of Dionysus celebrated over three days just as the flowers first began to bloom (late February and early March). Wine and flowers were in abundance. Children three years old were garlanded and took part in the festival, perhaps because Dionysius was often depicted as a young boy and was a god of life and growth. On the first day, new wine was first drunk. The next day was the Feast of the Choes, the central day of the Anthesteria. It included a procession featuring Dionysus himself (probably portrayed by an actor wearing a mask) riding on a ship mounted with wheels. The third day was a somber day (perhaps connected with hangovers?) and consisted of the preparation of a great mixture of vegetables as an offering for Hermes of the Underworld on behalf of the dead to placate hostile spirits. At the end of the day, celebrants shouted "Go away, evil spirits, the Anthesteria are over!"
Minor Festivals:
The Diasia was a day when the whole populace made offerings to Zeus. These offerings were burnt completely as a means of atonement; therefore, only the richest Athenians sacrificed actual animals. A poorer Athenian, unable to pay for the sacrifice of an animal which his family would not consume later, sacrificed cakes in the shape of an animal instead.
Elaphebolion (March)
Major Festivals:
The City Dionysia lasted for several days. Sometime near the beginning of the month, a primitive wooden statue of Dionysus was escorted from its temple in Athens to the athletic field (gymnasium) and became the object of sacrifice for several days until it was returned several days later. On the 10th day of the month, many bulls were sacrificed in the temple and a procession featuring the carrying of many phalluses (ritual representations of giant penises) took place, as well as some sort of formalized revelry. Many comedies and tragedies were performed in competitions, as well as satyr plays, in which the chorus appeared dressed as the half-animal creatures who were the mythical companions of Dionysus. First prize at the City Dionysia was another of the most sought-after honors for a poet.
Minor Festivals:
The Elaphebolia was a minor festival of Artemis, featuring the sacrifice of cakes called "stags."
The Asclepieia was held on the 9th of Elaphebolion, and featured a considerable sacrifice to Asclepius, the god of healing.
The Pandia was probably held almost immediately after the City Dionysia. Little is known about it, though on the day of the Pandia an inquest was held into the rowdy goings-on of the City Dionysia.
Munichion (April)
Major Festivals:
None.
Minor Festivals:
Festival of Eros, of which we know no details.
The Procession to the Delphinion was made by the maidens of Athens to the Delphinion, a temple of Artemis and Apollo in Athens. They supplicated Artemis and carried boughs of olive wrapped in white wool to appeal to the goddess for her protection of the female sex.
On the Munichia, special cakes with lit candles stuck in a circle were carried in procession. The festival also featured the practice of arkteuein, "acting the she-bear". Young girls between the ages of five and ten, dressed in long yellowish robes, mimed the action of a bear walking on its hind legs as atonement for the legend of a she-bear killed in the goddess's temple. In later times, it also featured a regatta by the Epheboi, young men in military training.
The Olympieia was in honor of Olympian Zeus, featuring a display and exercises by the Athenian cavalry.
Thargelion (May)
Major Festivals:
The Thargelia was a pre-harvest festival and the principal celebration of Apollo at Athens. Two poor, ugly men were chosen each year to be Pharmakoi. They were fed for a while at public expense, and then, on the first day of the festival, they were paraded around Athens as scapegoats for the people, one wearing a string of black figs to represent the men, the other white figs to represent the women. At the end of the procession, they were flogged and beaten with fig branches and squills (sea onions), and driven out of the city. This may be a softened version of a primal festival in which such men were killed. On the same day, the celebrants sacrificed a ram on the Acropolis to Demeter. The next day, a great pot of vegetables was prepared as an offering of the first fruits to Apollo. The Thargelia also featured choral contests among pairs of phratriai, and was recognized by phratriai as a day of festival and sacrifice.
Minor Festivals:
The Bendidia celebrated the Thracian goddess Bendis. It featured processions and a relay race on horseback using torches. There was probably also an all-night festival after the race.
The Kallynteria included a thorough cleaning of Athena's temple by women under the direction of Athena's priestess.
On the Plynteria the statue of Athena herself was carried in procession to the sea and cleaned by the same women who cleaned her temple on the Kallynteria. Athena's peplos was probably also cleaned on this occasion.
Skiraphorion (June)
Major Festivals:
The Skirophoria was a festival for Demeter. On this occasion, slain piglets and models of snakes and male genitalia made out of dough were buried in chambers in the ground to be dug up during the Thesmophoria. There was also a solemn procession led by members of Athens's priesthood from the Acropolis to the suburbs, and a race for young men carrying vine branches was held.
Minor Festivals:
The Dipolieia was a festival for Zeus Polieus. In this odd festival, a bull prepared for sacrifice was made to touch wheat and barley on the altar in Zeus' sanctuary on the Acropolis. It was killed by one of the priests with a pole-axe. The priest then ran away while the other priests, as if they didn't know who had done the deed, took the pole-axe and put it on trial (yes, they put a pole-axe on trial). It was found guilty and usually tossed into the sea as a form of banishment.
The Diisoteria, the festival to Zeus as Savior, featured a procession and sacrifices of bulls to numerous divinities, including Zeus and Athena. As at the Munichia, a regatta was held.
On the last day of the month and the year there was a sacrifice to Zeus as Savior performed by city magistrates. It was an introductory service for the new year, when a new set of magistrates would take office, and it was also a festival of thanksgiving for the preservation of the state through the previous year and a supplication for continued protection.
Relevant genealogical information:
Timeline of Relevant Events
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