Festivals and Devotions

Greek Pagan Basics: Finding a Ritual Calendar

For a modern Hellenic polytheist, a ritual or festival calendar is, while not strictly a necessity, certainly very helpful. You can clearly honor the gods outside of festivals; for many if not most of us, that may be the majority of our religious experience. But festivals were of such great importance in the ancient world that it is, I think, worthwhile to observe them, whether reconstructed, revived, or entirely new.

First, though, a bit about the terms “ritual” and “festival.” In a modern context we sometimes use the two words interchangeably, but they really refer to two different things. A festival, in ancient times, was at least an all-day affair. It included a ritual, yes–sometimes more than one–but it had less religiously-focused aspects as well, and in some ways it was rather like a fair, with merchants and musicians and treats for the children. Depending on the festival there might be various competitions to participate in or to watch–athletic, musical, dramatic–as well as great feasts and all-night revels. It’s certainly in the spirit of things to spend time on less specifically spiritual activities as well, but I figure that’s something everyone has to figure out for themselves based on group size and interests.

If you are part of a group, the work of devising a ritual calendar may already have been done. A local group may have an established calendar and practice, and a national group will likely have both a calendar and some ritual resources. In either case, you probably have access to people who are already familiar with the group’s ways who can help you.

If, however, you are on your own (a solitary polytheist :)), you have the challenge and the opportunity of finding your own way.

Most of the available resources are based in great part on the festival calendar of Athens. This is not surprising, since there has been more information–and more detailed information–in existence about Athenian religion than about the practices of any other region. Even though we know more about religion in other regions than we used to, the bulk of what is readily available is still Athenian. There’s nothing wrong with using the Athenian calendar, as a strong base for practice or to form your practice in its entirety. Lots of people do, and there is the additional advantage that in doing so you become part of a modern community of practice that includes those people.

However, if you want a ritual calendar informed by the ancients but tied as well to the present day and suited to your individual circumstances, you may have to put a bit more effort into it.

Climate and season

Climate is not an issue with regard to all ancient festivals, but it often is. Many of us live in regions where the seasons bear little resemblance to those of Greece. Celebrating a harvest festival when there is no harvest to be seen may not be something you want to do. For example, the Anthesteria is a Dionysian festival that takes place when the new wine is ready; if you live in a wine-producing region, you may want to celebrate these days at the proper local time. Likewise, a number of festivals of Demeter were associated with particular stages of crop growth–again, it may make more sense for you to look to your own garden in determining when to observe these rituals.

As a more personal example, in my region, we have long winters and snow is an integral part of our lives; a rite to Chione, goddess of snow, is–for me–a must-have.

Historic and mythic events

A number of festivals are tied to specific events, historic, mythic, or both (the line can be quite thin between the two). These events and myths may or may not be pertinent to your own practice.

For example, the Athenian Synoikia celebrates the synoicism or joining together of numerous regions of Attica. It may be meaningful to you to celebrate it as a reminder of and connection with the Athenians. Alternatively, you may find inspiration there to create and celebrate a more locally or regionally meaningful example of people coming together in strength and solidarity–for example, the thirteen original US colonies joining together to become a country. Or you may decide that there is no strong connection at all between this festival and your own practice and simply not observe it.

The hero Erechthonius has a role in a number of Athenian festivals. It was a significant part of the Athenian identity that they considered themselves to be “autochthonous” or self-created–that they had always existed in Athens and were not colonists or immigrants; as descendants of Erechthonius they were able to make that claim. For us, it may not be pertinent or relatable.

After 475 BCE, a number of Athenian festivals began to be associated with Theseus. This followed the supposed retrieval of Theseus’ bones from the isle of Skyros and their subsequent installation in a tomb in Athens, thus gaining the hero’s protection for the city. Theseus became a part of the Delphinia, the Synoikia, even the Panathenaia, and gained his own festival, the Theseia.

This addition of Theseus to existing festivals also provides an example of how ritual practice and meaning can change and be changed, not only gradually over time, but consciously and all at once. This pragmatic view of myth and history is something good to keep in mind when you are crafting your own festival calendar.

Deity of the occasion

Your own religious practice and preferences can also determine which festivals you choose to observe. If you are a devotee of Apollo, you will probably have at least one festival of Apollo on your calendar and probably more. This will be easier to do with some deities than with others–on existing historical calendars there are numerous occasions on which to honor Athena or Zeus, or Dionysos or Demeter. Apollo and Artemis as well have many days to choose from. Other gods were less well represented on the calendar–Hermes, for example, did not have many great festivals in ancient times. If you are dedicated to Hermes, you may want to come up with your own festival to him.

Epithets and aspects of deity

While some festivals were dedicated to a specific deity in a more general sense, or in a sense that everyone in the city could relate to (such as protector of the city), others were focused on particular aspects of that deity.

The Khalkeia, for example, was a festival of Hephaistos and Athena in their role as patron gods of artisans and craftworkers. If you are an artisan or artist, the Khalkeia is likely to be on your personal calendar.

Artemis Agrotera was a patron goddess of hunters; her festival, the Kharisteria, was an occasion to ask for her favor in this field and to thank her for the luck she had granted in the past.

Some deities tended to have only festivals of a particular sort or focus. Festivals of Herakles were often held in the gymnasium and featured athletic competitions; festivals of Asklepios, unsurprisingly, were all about health and healing.

Purification

The idea of pollution or miasma was significant in ancient Greece, and a number of rituals included ways of addressing this. Some examples of purificatory ritual include the Thargelia, in which pharmakoi or ‘scapegoats’ are driven from the city, taking with them the city’s accumulated evil; the Pompaia, when a “polluted” fleece is likewise taken from the city; and the Kallynteria and Plynteria, during which the temple of Athena is cleaned and her statue washed.

Exclusive rites

There were a number of festivals in ancient times that were only celebrated by part of the population. This may be a consideration if you are a solitary polytheist, or if you simply don’t care to exclude any of your already-small group from religious activities.

Gender separation was not uncommon in Greek ritual. There were some rituals that were observed only by women, such as the Skira and the Thesmophoria; there were other rituals that were observed only by men, although the latter are not usually referred to as “men’s rituals” because the exclusion of women from ritual and other activity was not at all unusual.

Personally I feel that you need a certain number of people in your group before it’s feasible or useful to divide on gender lines, if indeed it ever is–after all, not everyone identifies in that way. And, honestly, I have not seen much with regard to ritual activity that would benefit from that sort of division.

Other rituals with limited participation may be difficult because the group that observed them in ancient times no longer exists. For example, the Athenian Apatouria, which in Athens was celebrated by ancient kinship groups known as phratries, may well have no relevance to you and your practice.

Mysteries

There is a lot of disagreement on whether to try to reconstruct or revive Greek festivals with an initiatory or other hidden component. The point of view that makes the most sense to me is that while it is not possible to knowingly recreate the mysteries as experienced in ancient times, that does not eliminate the possibility of similar rites existing again. There were, after all, a number of different Mysteries in existence back then, although certainly the Eleusinian Mysteries were the best known and most prestigious.

That said, this is not an area I have dealt with at all and not one I plan to deal with at all, so I can’t offer any useful information or advice on the subject. Chances are that nothing I could write would be at all helpful to those seeking these sorts of experiential practices.

A few calendars to look at

The HMEPA Calendar

Hellenic Month Established Per Athens, worked out over a very long period of time.

The Hellenion Calendar

Festival calendar of the organization Hellenion, based in great part on the Athenian calendar. Includes some modern festivals.

The Elaion Calendar

Festival calendar of the organization Elaion, includes known festivals from Athens, Erchia and other regions.

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