Athenians practiced a polytheistic religion which expressed itself through civic festivals and cults. The system developed greatly in the Classical period. The festival served to provide the Athenians with a basis in their worship, give them a sense and a meaning in life, and provide them with a sense of identity as human beings. The polytheistic religion provided a simple and safe explanation for all the facts of life, for their existence and for all the things they could not understand.
The Athenian festivals, together with all the religious festivals from all the city states and of the greater Attica, as well as, the other rituals practiced by the ancient Greeks, represented the expression and representation of their religious beliefs. These also helped in the determination and developing of a certain unique identity for the city states in terms of social structure, politics and cultural life.
The Athenian festivals are the most famous since life in Athens in general is the most historically documented out of the life of all the Greek city states and Athens was one of the, if not the, most influential and powerful of the city states. The herein essay purports to create an overview of the most important Athenian civic festivals.
The Panathenaia is the most important and well-known Athenian festival and also one of the grandest of Greece.
Its participants were not limited in category, therefore except for slaves, who did not have any civic recognition, all categories of persons participated in the Panathenaia.
The festival was held in the month of Hekatombaion (month 1). Its name could be translated as: the all-Athenian festival.
In fact most historians believe that the festival celebrated the Goddess Athena's birthday and honored her as the patron of the city, Athena Polias ("Athena of the city").
The festival involved the organization of a procession with a previously set route. It started at the Dipylon gate in the northern part of the city where the whole crowd gathered. The procession then continued on though out the Agora and ended up at the Acropolis. The route that the procession took was called the Panathenaic Way.
The crowd was lead by the Kanephoros. They were young unmarried women, virgins, who during this festival had the honor of leading the procession, or the pompe. The women lead the crowd to the place of sacrifice, which was the Areopagus facing Athena Nike's temple, next to Propylaea.
Despite the fact that every one could take part in the festival, except for slaves, only Athenians were allowed to celebrate it fully since they were the only ones allowed to go through Propylaea and enter the Acropolis. The route of the procession passed the Parthenon and ended at Athena's altar in front of the Erechteum.
The gift for Athena was a peplos, a garment for women. They manufactured a new one every year.
In the middle of the 6th century B.C. The festival was expanded as to include the Panathenaic Games, which were organized in every fourth year of the festival. In the year when the games were organized the festival changed its name to the Great Panathenaia. This was longer than the normal festival with about three or four days. The games were very well-known and acknowledged, but they did not rise to the importance of the Olympic Games or other Panhelleninc Games. The games had special sections for Athenians only and for Athenians and other Greeks.
The most important event was the chariot race. Its winners received the great trophy of the festival: the Panathenaic Amphorae, which was filled with olive oil.
The games were not limited only to sporting events. They included literature contests and musical competitions.
In the year of the games the whole festival was grander. To this respect the garment crafted for Athena was a special one. Also, a great sacrifice was made for the Goddess: the hekatombe. This implied the killing of a hundred oxen. Their meat was used to cook a large banquet in the last night of the festival, called the pannychis ("all-nighter").
The games took place in a large arena which is still used today: the Panathenaic Stadium.
The Anthesteria is an Athenian festival organized in the honor of Dionysus, one of the four of this kind.
The festival lasted for three days, from the 11th to the 13th, and was organized in the month of Anthesterion. This was the period of the fool moon from February/March. The month is actually named after the name of the festival.
The festival celebrated the beginning of spring and also the maturing of the wine from last year's crops that had been stored during autumn.
Documents show that the festival has been most likely celebrated for almost two millennia: from 1500 BC to AD 500.
The festival consisted of a three day celebration with a feast. They were called: Pithoigia (casks), Cho's (beakers) and Chytroi (pots).
A particular thing about this festival is the fact that slaves were allowed to participate in it. During the three days the social clases of the city state were not taken into consideration. Therefore the whole household participated in the festival, in a unitary manner.
Besides the celebration of spring and wine, the Anthesteria also had the significance of a festival for the dead, who were supposed to come out and roam the city. This is the beginning and the foundation for the creation of All Souls Night and other similar festivals.
The Keres, the female death spirits, and the Carians, the pre-Greeks, i.e. The souls of the dead and the origins of the inhabitants from Attica, were allowed to join the city in celebration during the festival, but were expelled from it afterwards.
During the first day of the festival, the wine casks were opened for Dionysus, the God of wine. This involved the whole household and it was done in a room that was adorned with spring flowers. The children also wore spring flowers.
The second day of the festival was one of celebration. The people dressed up. They would either dress in merry clothes as for celebration or like the characters that accompanied Dionysus. They would pay visits to their relatives and acquaintances.
They also organized drinking contests in special drinking places.
People would also go to the cemetery and perform libations at the graves of their deceased relatives.
A very important event that took place during this day was the opening of the Lenaeum sanctuary for Dionysus. This was the only moment when this shrine was open and the ceremony was quite secret and elitist. The wife of the king (the basileus), the basilissa, had to undergo a special ceremony that had the significance of matrimony with the wine god. In this endeavor she was assisted by fourteen women, called the geraerae, who had experience and knew the ritual. They were chosen by the king and had to have Athenian origin. They had to swear to keep the secret of the ceremony before being allowed to participate in it.
Since the dead were thought to resurrect during the festival, the first two days were considered unlucky. The Athenians would perform rituals to keep away this bad luck, thus preventing it from affecting them. One ritual involved spraying tar on their doors to prevent them from the forces of evil. However, since the celebration reasons were such joyous ones, the festival kept its cheery spirit.
The third day of the festivities, or the Chytroi, was literally a festival of the souls. An offering was made to Hermes, who was a God of the underworld, and to the souls of the dead. They were thus asked to leave the city. The offering consisted of a special kind of food made of pulse. The living did not taste the food since it was considered to be the food of the dead. Also this third day of the festival had no connection with the gods from Olympus. The day was a joyous one since the dead were finally leaving the city.
Dionysia was comprised of two different festivals that took place in two different periods of the year. They were the Rural Dionysia and the City Dionysia.
The Rural Dionysia is a festival that was found in the rural areas of Attica and not in Athens. It celebrated the cultivation of vines and the crops. The festival has very deep origins that come before the Gods of Olympus and, thus, initially, it had no connection with Dionysus.
The festivities took place in the winter, in the 12th month (the month of Poseidon).
They again took the form of a procession as in the Panathenaia. The procession consisted of the carrying of phalloi. In the procession there were also kanephoros, again like in the Panathenaia. In addition there were girls carrying loafs of bread (obeliaphoroi) and other offerings to the gods (skaphephoroi), water (hydriaphoroi) and wine (askophoroi).