MAJOR HOLIDAYS OF ANCIENT GREECE

Dionysia, Anthesteria, Panathena, Thesmophoria

RURAL DIONYSIA - 26 Poseideon (December)

GREAT DIONYSIA - 10-17 Elaphebolion (March)

The Rural Dionysia was originally held in the Attica town of Eleutherae and probably celebrated the cultivation of vines. It was not, in the beginning, associated with Dionysus, and was held in the month of Poseideon (December). The central event was the parade. Young girls carried baskets, and other participants carried long loaves of bread, phallic symbols, jars of water and wine, and other offerings. There were dancing and singing contests.

The Great Dionysia was begun by Pisistratus (the Tyrant) circa 530 BC. It was held in Athens in the end-of-March tourist season, and honoured Dionysus.

The festival began with a parade bearing a wood carving of Dionysus to the theater on the south slope of the Acropolis. On the 10th of Elaphebolion (March) there was another parade, echoing the rural ritual, which followed an unknown route to the area next to the theater. Participants in the second parade carried phallic symbols made out of wood or bronze , loaves, bowls, and other sacred objects. A cart pulled a much larger phallus. Resident foreigners dressed in red. At the end of the parade, animals were sacrificed and bloodless offerings were made. After that the choruses were led in the singing (dithyrambic) competitions.

The theatrical competition took place from the 11th to the 14th of Elaphebolion. Before the performance of the tragedies the sons of citizens killed in battle paraded through the theater, and tribute sent by Athenian allies were displayed. Three tragedies, were then presented, each by a different poet, but on a single theme, followed by one satyr (comedy) play.

A comedy competition was introduced in 486 BCE, and followed that of the tragedies. Five poets competed, each with a single play. This was held on the sixth day of the festivities.

Another parade and celebration was held on the final day, when the judges, who had been chosen by lot, chose the winners of the tragedy and comedy performances. The winning playwrights received a wreath of ivy. If a play written by a deceased playwright won, the play's producer was awarded the prize.

ANTHESTERIA - 11-13 Anthesterion (February)

Anthesteria

The name Anthesteria is usually connected with flower of the grape, and is cognate to Sanskrit "andhas" or Soma plant. The month Anthesterion is named after the festival. The three days of the festival were named Pithoigia, Choës, and Chytroi.

Pithoigia

The first day, the opening of the casks, involved just that, with offerings made to the god of wine. All the household, including slaves, joined in the festivities. The rooms and the drinking vessels in them were decorated with spring flowers, as were children over the age of three.

Choës

The second day, named Choës (drinking), was a time of partying. The people dressed in bright colours, some disguised as mythical figures related to Dionysus, and visited friends. People met to organize drinking contests, the winner being the one who drained his cup most rapidly. Others poured wine on the tombs of dead relatives. For the city-state, this day was the occasion of a peculiarly solemn and secret ceremony in the sanctuary of Dionysus-in-the-marshes which was closed for all the rest of the year. A ceremonial King and Queen were chosen, and they went through a ceremony of marriage to the wine god, in which the Queen was assisted by fourteen Athenian matrons, called gerarai, chosen by the King and sworn to secrecy. They were so good at keeping things secret that even today no one knows the details of the ritual. The days on which the Pithoigia and Choës were celebrated were both regarded as unlucky, and so required a lot of drinking, because on these days the souls of the dead rose up from the underworld and walked among men. People chewed leaves of buckthorn and smeared tar on their doors (which somehow warded off the dead).

Chytroi

The third day was named Chytroi, the feast of pots. Cooked food was offered to Hermes in his capacity as God of the underworld, and to the souls of the dead who were then asked to depart. None of the Olympians were included and no one tasted the food, because it was food of the dead. Although no performances were allowed at the theatre, a sort of rehearsal took place, at which the players for the ensuing Dionysia were selected.

PANATHENA - 23-30 Hekatombaion (July)

Panathena

The annual Panathenaia, the observance of Athena's birthday, included several distinctive elements: a torch race, an all-night religious service, and a meat meal for everyone at the city’s expense. The torch race (run by Athenians only) involved runners runners carrying torches lit from the fire on the altar of Eros in the Academy outside the Dipylon Gate and was a two-mile uphill race ending at the Acropolis. The first runner one to arrive with torch still blazing was the winner and his torch was used to light the fire for the sacrifices.

The festival parade started near the Diplyon (main city) Gate, and made its way on the Panathenaic Way through the shopping plaza toward the Acropolis. Only Athenian citizens could participate. It stopped at the shopping plaza (agora) for important ceremonies. The Royal Stoa (the civic center where the first written laws of Athens were kept and displayed) might have been headquarters for the festival. In a nearby workshop, women prepared the special gown for the statue of Athena. The highlight of the festival was when the parade reached the Parthenon and the special gown was presented to to Athena's wooden statue by two young priestesses. (In Athens, men tended to the temples of Gods, and women to those of Goddesses, so the Parthenon must have had a strong female presence.)

Chariot races held along the Panathenaic Way and a cavalry charge held along the Dromos Road were main attractions. Chariots were recreational and ceremonial vehicles, and had not been used in warfare since the end of the Bronze Age around 1200 B.C.

In 566 B.C., athletic games open to all Greeks were added to the festival every fourth year, and the festival became Panathenaia ta megala (Great Panathenaia). And late in the 6th century, the tyrant Peisistratos added musical competitions and recitations of the poetry of Homer. Athletic events included foot-races, a pentathlon, wrestling, and boxing, in three age categories: men, beardless youths, and boys. Horse competition were also held, including four-horse and two-horse chariot, javelin-throwing from horseback, and horse races. Winners received, among other things, olive oil said to be from the sacred olive tree of Athena. Second-place prizes were also awarded.

The victors in the musical contests received a vase, but with an additional pair of olive-branches. Herodotus is said to have recited his history to the Athenians at the Panathenea. The games and contests were managed by a committee of ten persons, one from each tribe, selected at each Great Panathena to serve for the next four years.

THESMOPHORIA - 11-13 Pyanopsion (October)

Thesmophoria

Thesmophoria was a three-day festival in ancient Greece. Women participating in the autumn sowing (Sporetos) festival had to fast and be chaste for several days. The first day of the Festival was Anodos (the ascent) on which married women took all the supplies they would need for two nights and three days, climbed a hill, and built leafy shelters with couches made of plants and then slept. The second day was the Nesteia or Fast. Besides fasting, they whipped each other with strips of bark. The third day was The Kalligeneia (Fair Offspring) recalling Demeter's torchlight search for her daughter Persephone. There was a torch light ceremony with a feast, and offerings were made to Demeter (usually corn, cakes, and pigs), in the hope of a good harvest.

NOTE: The calendar referred to here is the Athenian Civil Calendar, which was lunisolar and consisted of either 12 or 13 months (the sixth moth, Poseideon, was repeated in 13 month years). Athenian authorities were not above changing the calendar whenever it suited their needs. This often led to the calendar being out of sync with lunar phases.