How did ancient Greeks celebrate the change of year? There was no New Year’s celebration as we know it today, but instead, ancient Greeks held festivals throughout the year influenced by polytheism to honour the gods as well as celebrate the change of time and change of seasons. Astronomy played a vital role in religion, mythology, cosmology, and astrology of antiquity. All of which were intertwined with calendrical practices. The rituals and celebrations give insight into important cultural purposes and the ritual practice of the time. Calendars and festivities were used to maintain temporal order and mark the changing of seasons, as well as the flow of time. The celebrations were used to give a sense of community and unity through shared memories. Festivals involved much preparation, commitment and participation as there were often many activities in involved including religious rites, sacrifices, processions, performances, competitions, and feasts.
Calendars & Festivals
The astronomical technology we have today was not available to ancient Greeks to assist with accuracy. This does not undermine the ingenuity of antiquity’s astronomers as they laid the groundwork from which astronomy, as we know it today, emerged. There was no uniformity between ancient Greek calendars as every city-state had their own, meaning that each calendar was systematically different from the other according to each polis. Despite the differences, each polis used the moon phases as a means of regulation. As a result, many different types of calendars emerged, also for different purposes.
The calendar most often referred to and of which most information is retained to this day, is known as the Athenian (Civil) Calendar, otherwise referred to as the Attic Calendar, Ancient Greek Calendar, or Festival Calendar. The importance of the Athenian Calendar was to coordinate the abundance of festivals that took place throughout the year. The calendar begins after the Summer Solstice marking the beginning of the year during Summer for ancient Athenians, with each consecutive month beginning with the new moon. Each Greek calendar had its own constituents and the beginning of the year varied per city-state.
It is difficult to know exact dates of ancient Greek festivities as it is also difficult to compare the ancient Greek calendars with the Gregorian calendar used today. Athenians were fully aware that their lunar calendar fell short by 11 days compared to the solar calendar, resulting in the periodic intercalation of days and months. This way the months were aligned with the seasons. The Athenian calendars are therefore referred to as lunisolar. To regulate each ensuing year, the years were named after the archons respective of the year they held office. The archons were also in charge of planning the festivals for the year. The months are most broadly referenced as the following:
|Athenian Civil Calendar||Gregorian Calendar|
Each lunar cycle is most commonly named after the festivals honouring the gods, named after the gods. Several of the most prominent festivals are the Panathenaea, the Dionysia, the Boedromia, the Adonia, the Thesmophoria, and the Skirophoria, to mention a few. As well as these festivals, there were smaller monthly celebrations such as the Deipnon and Noumenia. The Deipnon, also known as Hekate’s Deipnon or Hene kai Nea (“Old and New”), celebrates the change from old moon to new moon. The Deipnon is celebrated before the new moon becomes visible and the Noumenia (“new month”) started the day after.
The Hekatombaion marked the beginning of the year for Athenians starting after the summer solstice and grain harvest. This month would have held the same temporal importance, for ancient Greeks, as the month of January does today.
The Panathenaea, held in the month of Hekatombaion (day 28), was one of the most spectacular and important festivals of ancient Greece. Literally translated, it means “all-Athenian festival”. All inhabitants, excluding slaves, were able to participate in the celebrations to honour the goddess and city protectress, Athena. The festival was held every year but every fourth year the festival named the Great Panathenaea, was celebrated more lavishly by incorporating the Panathenaic Games. The festival also included musical contests, sacrifices and a procession starting at the Dipylon gate at Kerameikos through the ancient agora, via the Panathenaic Way towards the Acropolis to the altar of Athena in front of the Erechtheion. The Panathenaic celebrations are captured on the frieze of the Parthenon, which can be seen in the Acropolis museum. This is significant as it is in contrast to other depictions of mythical subjects.
Hekatombaia was celebrated on the 7th day to honour Apollo. This festival used to be an important enough festival to name the month after, but by the classical period, the Hekatombaia was no longer as important as the other festivals in this month. Kronia was celebrated on the 12th day to honour Kronos/Chronos, the god of time, and possibly Rhea. The month used to be named after Kronos, indicating that this used to be the most important festival. Kronia was a reference to the mythical Golden Age where there was no hierarchy or slaves, there was complete freedom from work and social duties during these celebrations. The Synoikia (16 Hekatombaion) honoured Athena for politically unifying the Attica region and it is believed that offerings were made to Eirene (the goddess of peace) during the same festival. The Aphrodisia festival was held on 6 Hekatombaion to honour the goddess of love, Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite of the people). Aphrodite is associated with Peitho, who is the personification of persuasion. When they are depicted or worshipped together, this symbolises social and political union.
The Dionysia originated when the city of Eleutherae, on the border of Boeotia and Attica, presented a wooden statue of Dionysus (Xoanon) to Athens to signify Eleutherae’s separation from Boeotia and fusion with Attica instead. Athens rejected the offering, which resulting Athens being struck by a plague affecting male genitalia. Out of fear of Dionysus and further disaster, Athens held a celebration to honour Dionysus, the god of wine, which began with a procession carrying phalloi, wine, and the wooden statue from The Academy (outside the city walls), to Kerameikos (beginning of the Sacred Way, ancient cemetery, city gates and wall) and ending at the Lenaeum, the Dionysus sanctuary, situated on the south slope of the Acropolis. This marked the beginning of the annual City Dionysia (also known as Great Dionysia) celebrations held in Athens in the month of Elaphebolion. The celebrations included a competition where the infamous playwrights of ancient Greece, that we know of today, competed against each other for the honour.
The Rural Dionysia was celebrated in the month of Poseideon in rural areas, outside the city of Athens, as the name suggests. This was a chance for Athenians to travel and celebrate outside of Athens. The Lenaia festival was held during the month of Gamelion and was a festival held to honour Dionysus Lenaius. It is believed that Lenaius refers to the female worshippers of Dionysus. The Anthesteria is a three-day festival held from the 11th to 13th of the Anthesterion month to honour Dionysus.
The Anthesteria celebrated the beginning of Spring and the ripening of wine. The Pithoigia, meaning “Jar Opening”, marked the first day of celebrations by offering wine from a newly opened barrel. The second day, Choes, meaning “Wine Jugs”, was a day for drinking wine and participating in drinking competitions.On the third day, Chytroi, meaning “Pots”, was a celebration of the dead where pots of grains and seeds were offered to the dead. The polis held a mysterious ceremony at the Lenaeum of which much detail is not known. Part of the ceremony is believed to involve the marriage between the wife of the archon and Dionysus. During these days it is also believed that the souls of the dead rose from the underworld. People protected themselves from all evil during these days by chewing whitethorn leaves and shielded their homes by smudging tar on their doors.
The Boedromia, to which the month owes its name, was held on the 7th day in honour of Apollo Boedromius, the martial god and helper of the distressed. Apollo’s aid was sought for political and military purposes. The Boedromia celebrations were to commemorate different battles that can be traced back to the victory of Theseus over the Amazons and the attack of Athens, during the reign of Erechtheus, by Eumolpus and Ion. The festival is significant to thank the gods, through offerings, for their guidance during battles.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
“In Greek mythology, Demeter’s (goddess of harvest and agriculture) daughter, Persephone, was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, to become his wife. Demeter’s grief resulted in no harvest being produced, affecting humankind as a whole. At this point, Zeus intervened to bring Persephone back to her mother. Hades did not let her go that easily; not without eating the fatal pomegranate seeds, (fruit of the underworld) to tie her to the underworld for a part of every year, for eternity. The seasonal patterns are influenced by Demeter’s sorrow and happiness resulting in the creation of the season. To understand the celebrations of the Eleusinian mysteries and the worship of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, Elani Temperance, also known as Baring the Aegis, puts the festivals in chronological order according to the Athenian Calendar:
“The Eleusinian mysteries consist mostly of two festivals, but the worship of Demeter and Persephone consist of a cycle of seven festivals: the Greater Mysteries (13-23 Boedromion), Proerosia (6 Pyanepsion), Stenia (9 Pyanepsion), Thesmophoria (11-13 Pyanepsion), Haloa (26 Poseideon), the Lesser Mysteries (20-26 Anthesterion), and the Skiraphoria (12 Skirophorion).”
The Eleusinian mysteries are the oldest and most infamous secret religious rites- the rites of Eleusis- of ancient Greece. Not much is known about the rites and celebrations of the Eleusinian mysteries, hence the name. The mysteries are even referred to as an unresolved ancient Greek puzzle. The Mysteries were held twice a year in Eleusis (modern: Eleusina/Elefsina) and Agrae; the Greater Mysteries and the Lesser Mysteries, respectively. The Greater Mysteries were held during the Boedromion month and the Lesser Mysteries during the Anthesterion month. The Sacred Way extended from Athens to Eleusis where the procession would start to Eleusis for the initiations of the Greater Mysteries. The Mysteries celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone. Demeter is the daughter of Kronos and Rhea, and is the goddess of harvest and agriculture. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, and is the goddess of Spring and queen of the underworld. A short version of the story of Demeter and Persephone:
s. The winter months reflect Demeter’s grief whilst the summer months represent the period Persephone returns to her mother every year.”
Eleusis also hosted other festivals, including Proerosia, Thesmophoria, Stenia, Haloia and Skira. For ancient Greece, Eleusis was extremely important; it was an important fortress for the Attica region, a crucial crosspoint, and important for the festivals held in honour of Demeter (and Persephone).
These festivals are only a few of the many festivals held throughout the year on the Athenian civil calendar. The ancient Greeks used a multifaceted approach to the creation of the ancient Greek calendars, of which only one has been discussed further. It is difficult to completely understand and compare these calendars as the information today remains elusive. What we, at Mentor, hope you can take away from this post is, of course, some more insight into ancient Greek culture, but also to enjoy your temporal celebrations this year and enjoy creating shared memories with loved ones that last a lifetime. From all of us at Mentor, we wish you a very Happy New Year!
Researched & written by Emma Greenwood
MA in Heritage Management