Party the Ancient Greek Way
by Taylor

Can you imagine walking through a quiet mountain pass only to encounter a group of frenzied women killing animals with their bare hands and eating them raw? (Dionysus) The maenads, followers of the god Dionysus, were known to celebrate their god by wandering through the mountains singing and performing feats of strength such as killing animals and ripping trees out of the ground. (Dionysus) The Ancient Greeks celebrated their gods and goddess in many different ways, some stranger than others. These festivals however, played an important role in Greek society as a means of affirming their religious beliefs while creating an enjoyable environment.
Although small localized festivals are not as well documented as others; there were often different types of celebrations in every town. (Nardo) However, there were several celebrations that were consistently recognized almost everywhere. One of these universally celebrated events was the Panhellenic festivals. (Atkins) The Panhellenic festivals were comprised of four events recognized as national Greek festivals: the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games, the Isthmian Games and the Nemean Games. These games took place at different intervals within a four year cycle called an Olympiad. The games were played in a particular sequence, first the Olympic Games, then the Nemean Games, followed by the Isthmian Games, and finally the Pythian Games. After each game was played once, the Nemean Games and then the Isthmian were played for a second time that Olympiad. The winner of the Olymiad was called the circuit victor, or, periodonikes. Other important festivals were the Athenian and Attic games. These were monthly festivals dedicated to different gods and goddesses. For example, the eighth day of each month was devoted to the god Poseidon. Additional important festivals included Asclepieia (celebrating Aslepieia), Gymnopaidiai, Carena (in honor of Apollo), Heraea and Daidala (in honor of Hera), Eleutheria, Lycaea, and Hyacinthia (Atkins).

A representation of a Competitor

In book three of the Odyssey, Homer describes a feast for the god Poseidon-

The people were on the shore, sacrificing jet-black bulls to the blue-crested god who shakes the earth. There were nine parties, five hundred sitting in each party, and nine bulls were laid out before each. They had already distributed the stomach lining as food, and they were roasting the thigh-pieces for the god,...his companions (were) preparing the feast with meat broiling and grilling on the spits....and seated them in front of the spread, upon soft fleeces laid on the sands,...Then he gave them their plates of tripe and chitterlings and poured wine into a golden cup...”.

(Festivals in Ancient Greece)

Like this passage from the book describes, the cuisine at most festivals included a lot of meat. The food was eaten using either their fingers or it was place upon a piece of flatbread. (Festivals in Ancient Greece) A typical banquet included music and entertainment. Male guest lounged around on special 6’ by 2.5’ by 40’ high beds that were placed around the walls of the room. In front of these beds was placed food and wine. The banquets also often included games and lengthy conversations discussing current politics. (Festivals in Ancient Greece)

In Greek mythology, each deity had a particular power and/or controlled some type of element or object. To celebrate this individuality of the gods, the festivals for each entity had distinct rituals. For example, the festivals of the goddess of harvest, Demeter, the Themophoria, were solely for women. They prayed for fertility for the city and for themselves. Grain was then cut and threshed. The festival for the great Dionysia was a festival for men only. In this festival a drama was played about the life of Dionysus. In the mysteries of Dionysus, women called maenads threw themselves into a frenzy invoked by powerful wine. (Dionysus) Munichia was a festival honoring Airtimes and it involved special cakes and candles in the shape of moons. (Adkins) During the festival of Diadala, wooden figures were carved (one is dressed as a bride) and carried up to Mount Cithaeron in accordance to a myth about a quarrel between Hera and Zeus. (Adkins) During Puanepsia, every child with parents carried a two to three foot long laurel branchdecorated with fruits and pastries in the shape of lyres to honor Apollo. (Ancient Greek Sahamin)

Many festivals worshiped the Greek God Dionysus

Religious festivals, though varied to match the deity they honored, did follow a general pattern. (Atkins) A festival would normally begin with a procession. This procession started at a dedicated area and proceeded onto a temple or altar. The parade included the worshipers with their gifts and petitions to be laid before the deity. The gift might model the type of petition being presented. If the worshiper had a headache, then the gift might be a replica of a human head. Another common type of gift was a sacrificial animal. When the procession reached the temple or altar, libations were poured while prayers were chanted. At this point the animal was usually sacrificed. Before the sacrifice took place, the executioner carried out a cleansing hand washing ritual while water was sprinkled on the animal. Then a holy silence was declared, followed by a prayer. A lock of hair was then taken from the head of the sacrifice. The victim for the sacrifice was given a blow to the head, its throat was split, and its blood collected in a bowl and splashed on the altar. Then the animal’s thigh bones were wrapped in fat and burned with wine as an offering to the according deity The sweet smell of the burning meat was said to rise to heaven were the gods would enjoy the savory scents. (Atkins)
Games of physical strength were also a significant part of the Ancient Greek festivals. (Atkins) The skills of men and boys were tested and the winners honored. Most athletic events were held in the summer months because of the fairer weather. Athletes (almost always men) competed naked and oiled their flesh to protect it from the sun. Some festivals consisted solely of athletic challenges. They might have lasted several days including the introduction, the events and the concluding ceremony. One of these festivals was the Olympic Games, a tradition still carried on today. This celebration honored Zeus and consisted of events in: running, wrestling, horse and chariot racing, jumping, boxing and races completed by men in armor. An event, which is no longer practiced, was the pankration, a mixture of boxing, wrestling, kicking, and strangling. The prizes were chaplets of wild olive. (Atkins) Other festivals were not centered on sports but still involved contests devised to demonstrate athletic expertise.
The Panathenea was the celebration of Athena’s birth and every fourth year, there was an athletic event held to honor her. (Festivals in Ancient Greece)
The Ancient Greeks had an abundance of festivals to pay tribute to their gods and goddesses. The festivities provided a social outlet as well as a break from the drudgery of life. Those with talents could express them and adequate homage was given to appease the gods until the next festival. The festivals reflect the culture of the ancient Greeks, allowing us to make connections between the modern Greeks and their ancestor

Works Cited

Adkins, Lesley, and Roy A. Adkins. Handbook To Life In Ancient Greece New York: Facts on File, 2005.

"Dionysus." Dionysus (2000): n. pag. Web. 8 Dec 2009.

"Festivals in Ancient Greece." Ancient Greek Festivals. FJKluth LLC , 25 Oct. 1999. Web. 1 Dec. 2009.

Nardo , Don. Life in Ancient Greece . San Diego, California: Lucent Books inc, 1996. Print.

Opsopaus, John . " Ancient Greek Samhain Festivals ." Department of Computer Science, The University of Tennessee at Knoxville. 31 Oct. 1996. Web. 1 Dec. 2009.