Why were festivals important in Ancient Greece?
Festival was a way of connecting with the divine as most of them were in honor or worship of their gods and goddesses. Festivals ran throughout the year with almost an estimated 120 days of festivals in Ancient Athens. It consisted of processions. music, dancing, sacrifices, etc. It led to a flourishing of culture as it at many times involved playwrighting competitions which led to the creation of some of the greatest plays and it also involved sporting competitions like the legendary Olympic Games in honor of Zeus.
Religious festivals in Ancient Greece
There were mainly two types of festivals in ancient Greece: Harvest festivals and Religious. Most of them were in the honor of gods like Zeus, Poseidon, etc. It consisted of sacrifices and possessions for the gods and the normal Greek citizens felt a connection with divinity.
Ancient Greek Festivals were seasonal. Hence, the four most famous festivals were those in each of the four seasons held in honor of Dionysus. They were:
(1) Anthesteria (Early spring)
(2) Greater Dionysia (late spring early summer)
(3) Lesser Dionysia ( Mid Winter)
(4) Lenaea ( Late winter)
Anthesteria (Festival of the Vine flower)
Day 1: Pithoigia (“Opening of the Wine-Jars”) the jars of new wine was opened. The master and slave partook of the wine, side by side.
Day 2: Cohoes (“Pitchers”) The second day was known as “Beakers”, on which they blessed the new wine and competed in drinking from it to the sound of trumpets. On that day, children had a holiday from school and were supplied with small breakers in order to participate in the festivities
It was a custom in Athens as well as other cities to celebrate the Festival of the Vine Flower. This is a feast of the dead as well. This season was considered holy as Spring is the time when most new plants bloom. It would start off with a drinking contest amongst the men in which they would drink wine. The slaves were allowed to participate, and on this occasion, would be treated as equals.
Greater Dionysia was celebrated in Athens in the late spring for five days. Pisistratus, in the second half of the sixth century B.C., introduced the cult of Dionysos in the city as an addition to the popular rural one.
The Dionysian theatre was noted for its democratic nature for everyone was invited to be entertained. During the celebration business life stopped, prisoners were freed in order to participate.In the city, this Ancient Greek festival opened with a phallic parade, in which the god’s image was born through.
This festival took place during the month Poseideon (December), at various times in the various demes (villages) of Attica, the countryside around Athens. A feature of the celebration was a procession in which a large model of a phallic (a male organ) was carried along, accompanied by a noble lady serving as Basket-Bearer with a basket of raisins or other fruit. A billy-goat was led along to be sacrificed to Dionysos.
On the second day of the festival, there is the Klismos, a contest to see who can balance longest on top of a greased, inflated wine-skin (asks). One-legged games such as standing on one leg, one-legged races, one-legged tag with the raised leg, one-legged hopping endurance were also enjoyed.
Lenaea was the Ancient Greek Festivals where the wine of the season was born. The theatre was an integral part of Dionysus festival Lenaea. Many of the great Greek tragedies actually originated during this festival.
Lenaea took place in the beginning of winter, the followers of Dionysus referred to the time the wine finished fermenting as its birth. They also believed this coincided with one of the births of Dionysus (Kerenyi 284).
Panhellenic Games in Ancient Greece
The ancient Olympics is the most famed Panhellenic games of the Greek world but there were actually four Panhellenic Games in total in Anccient Greece and they included:
(1)Olympics founded in 776 BC in the honor of Zeus
(2)The Isthmian Games founded in 581 BC in honor of Poseidon
(3) The Nemean Games founded in 573 BC in the honor of Zeus and Hercules
(4) The Pythian games founded in 582 BC in the honor of Apollo
The Olympics was the most famous of the four Panhellenic games and was also the oldest. One should not confuse the modern worldwide Olympic games with the Ancient Panhellenic Olympics which was to honor the Greek God, Zeus.
Its origins are marred in mythology with many saying it began as a way to entertain a baby Zeus.
It was a very important event in the Greek world that even a truce was called between warring states to compete in the Olympics.
A crown of the olive leaf was presented as a prize and held very prestige in the ancient world. Statues were constructed of winners and they got a great position among the citizens.
It continued until the 2nd century AD before being restarted as world games in the 18th century.
The Isthmian Games
The Isthmian Games were held at Corinth being named after the Isthmus of Corinth and were held every 2 years. It is said to have been created by the founder of Corinth, Sisyphus, as a funeral game.
The festival included both musical and athletic competitions and was also used to honor the Greek God of the sea, Poseidon.
The games were open to all Greeks and consisted of chariot races, wrestling, and boxing but only men were allowed. Women were only allowed to take part in musical and poetic events.
The Nemean Games
The Nemean Games were held at Nemea every two or three years and were held in the honor of Zeus. Hercules is said to have started the games after defeating the Nemean lions.
The events included a foot race, a marathon like Long race, wrestling, a sport like boxing, and even a chariot race.
The winners of the events received wild celery leaves from the city of Argos. Initially, the games were quite warlike and only allowed warriors before being allowed to all Greeks.
The Pythian Games
The Pythian Games were held every 4 years, two years before and after the Olympics, and took place in the sanctuary of Delphi in honor of Apollo and were considered the second most prestigious after the Olympics.
The games lasted six to eight days and their pomp and glamour almost equaled the Olympics. A ritual took place in the temple of Apollo.
The events were the same as the Olympics except for a four-horse chariot and the addition of a running race of boys.
Festival held in honor of Demeter
An ancient Greek festival was held in honor of Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture known as Thesmophoria in cities like Athens and even in other cities around Ancient Greece and mainly held around the time of sowing seeds in Autumn and associated with agricultural as well as human fertility.
It was a widely celebrated festival in the Greek world and rituals were mainly practiced by adult women. Its rituals included the sacrifice of pigs, fasting, and women praying for their fertility.
5 Facts about Ancient Greek festivals
- According to a reference in Plato’s Republic, night time torch races on horses were quite popular to celebrate the goddess Bendis
- A plow ox was sacrificed to Zeus in the last of the Athenian calendar
Athenians gather once a year and took out Panathenaic processions in woven robes like the ones worn by Athens which were led by the cavalry.
- On the Day of misrule, people got a holiday on which day nothing was considered sacred. Even gods were ridiculed and sexual morality was discarded for the day.
On the day of the choes, Athenians are said to have smeared black on their doors to keep away evil.