Monday, 6 February 2017

The Seasons of the Greeks



The annoying thing about my trip to the Leibeighaus (which happens to be the home of Frankfurt's Sculpture museum) is that I didn't end up seeing any of the permanent sculptures. Mind you, they did have a major exhibition here, and I didn't actually make any effort to go and look for the permanent collection, and it wasn't until afterwards that I discovered that there was more to this museum than the exhibition that I ended up seeing (actually, now that I found the photos, I realised that I did see the permanent exhibition). Mind you, it isn't a huge collection and the only reason that people go to the museum is to see one of the temporary exhibitions - but then again that is the main draw card for most museums, though the other draw card are the tourists (and it can be annoying when you travel all the way to Europe only to discover that all of the Renoirs are out on loan).

Anyway, the  current exhibition at the Leibeighaus is a collection of religious sculptures that focus on the Christmas story, however that wasn't the exhibition that I saw: the one I saw happened to be the previous one, namely one focusing on the annual calendar, and festivals, of Ancient Athens. This is the exhibition that I will be writing about. Anyway, as it turns out the Leibeinghaus has a brief video introduction, which I will reproduce below (and while it is in German, they do have subtitles):


After watching this video I realise that they pretty much outline the mythology upon which the exhibition is based, though of course in the exhibition you get to see the statues, and the explanations around them. The problem was that no photography was allowed, which meant that I had to take my notebook and scribble some notes on what I saw (and even then I don't particularly remember the statues, but then again there is more to the exhibition than just the statues, even though the only reason that people actually go here is to see the statues). The other thing is that I can't quite remember if the exhibition was entirely in German, but considering the notes that I took suggests that there were English translations (though there were some instances where I simply had to rely upon my limited translation abilities).

The Grecian Calendar

The thing about calendars, especially in the ancient world, is that they are specifically linked to the culture, and in a way also have strong ties to religion and mythology. This isn't something that is as noticeable in our time since the number of festivals, compared to the ancient cultures, are minimal. Sure, we have our public holidays, usually commemorating the founding of our respective nations, and we also have holidays which commemorate our war dead and our veterans, but other than that there isn't a huge call for holidays and festivals in a secular society. Okay, we do have Christmas and Easter, but they are tied in with our Christian heritage, and while people still go to church on those days, these days they seem to be more an excuse to get away from the house and maybe go camping or fishing (in the case of Easter), and simply go from party to party (in the case of Christmas and New Years). In fact, it is not surprising that it is referred to as the festive season since in a way what our society is doing is celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of another.

However these days Calendars are a system designed not so much to teach us about our heritage or culture, but rather a system to be able to organise our days, weeks, months, and years. In a way, our culture simply uses time, and the measurement of time, as a means of personal and business planning - exams are set at certain times, as is the university semester. We also have our yearly planner where you can pencil in meetings, dentist appointments, school holidays, and a multitude of other things. Sure, this may have been the case in the ancient world, but the impression that I got from this exhibition is that it had a much stronger cultural heritage than did ours.

The Antikythera Device - an ancient Greek calander
One interesting thing is to see how the beginning of the year identifies with a cultural beginning. In our culture the new year begins shortly after Christmas, though Christmas actually falls on the Roman holiday of the Saturnalia, or the mid-winter's festival. In a way it was the darkest day of the year, and to survive that day brought new hope. However, there is probably more to Christians celebrating Christmas in mid-winter than simply taking over a Roman holiday - in a way it is symbolical of a new world, a new hope, a new certainty, that comes about with the birth of Jesus. Yet Easter, ironically, comes around the Jewish holiday of Passover, which incidentally is the beginning of the Jewish year. Passover represented the time when the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt, while similarly Easter represents our freedom from slavery to sin and death. Yet, for some reason, the Christian calendar doesn't begin at Easter, it begins at the end of December, no doubt due to the Roman heritage.

Another thing about the calender is that not only was it a local calendar (the calendar of Boetia, just across the border, was completely different) but there was also more than one calender. For instance you have the festive calendar, which is the focus of this post, the calendar that was used by the government, and a third calendar which was used by the farmers.

Hecatomb (Summer - July/August)

Hecatomb was the first month of the festive calendar and began at the end of the Partheneia, which was the most important festival in the Athenian year (and culminated with the sacrifice of 100 bulls). The festival concluded with the birth of Ericthonius, the adopted son of Athena. The story goes that Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena (she was visiting him to get some weapons and Hephaestus, who was lame, was so overcome with desire than he made advances on her), however Athena managed to evade his advances and the semen fell upon her thigh, which she wiped off causing it to fall to the ground, at which point Ericthonius was born and proceeded to become the first king of Athens.

The birth of Athena
Athena's birth is just as convoluted (though like most Greek myths there is no consistent version, and in fact Athena appears in writings long before Zeus appeared). Zeus, who is well known for his promiscuous nature, slept with the goddess Metis and conceived. However, fearing the consequences, as a prophecy indicated that Zeus' children would be his downfall, he ate his progeny as they were born. However he then developed a splitting headache, so his brothers basically hit him on the head with an axe and out popped Athena, fully formed.


Athena also had a bit of a tussle with Poseidon, though I would hardly call it friendly competition. The gods were vying for the position of patron of Athens, and Poseidon created a salt water spring to symbolise Athens' future naval power. However Athena provided them with the olive tree, which turned out to be much more useful than a salt water spring, and as such she became patron of the city (and the city took its name after her). Athena also went to war against the gorgons (of whom Medusa was the most famous), with whom Poseidon was an ally, and he protected them through their transformation into their current form. 

There are a few myths relating to Erichthonius, one of them being that Athena raised him in secret, and then hid him in a box and gave him to the daughters of Cecrops, the king of Athens. However, as is typical, curiosity overcame them and they opened the box and where horrified at what they saw (either a snake wound around him, or a half man half snake). He is said to have defeated a tyrannical king and became king himself, and as king introduced inventions such as the plough, the chariot, and also the ability to smelt silver. His fame was such that when he died he ascended into heaven to be with the gods.

The Panathenain festival included games, of which four sports were considered to be the sports of the gods: Discus, Javelin, Running, and Westling.

Metageitnion (Summer - August/September)

This month was dedicated to settlers and colonists, and is also the month when Hephaestus was cast out to Lemnos. Interestingly, there are two temples in Athens, the Parthenon, which sits at the top of a mountain and can basically be seen almost all over the city, and the Hephaeston, which is hidden away at the back of the Agora. These temples are dedicated to the parents of the first king, with the Parthenon being the temple of the mother (Athena) and the Hephaeston being dedicated to Hephaestus. Another interesting thing I noticed in this section was an ancient version of the Madonna and Child, this time it being Athena and Erectheus. Sometimes I do find it quite interesting how there are a lot of elements of modern Christianity hidden in the religion of the ancients.


Boedromion (Autumn - September/October)

The main festival during this month was the festival of Apollo when 500 sheep would be sacrificed. It was on that day that the battle of Marathon was fought (though it has been suggested that the battle was fought earlier in September). Another thing about this month was that during this time Apollo appeared to Ericthonius who was told that victory will only occur with the sacrifice of his daughter. This is interesting (and I am unsure how this myth is connected, since I have made notes about the sacrifice, but it is unclear as to which battle I was referring to - though it is not the one where Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter) because this theme of sacrifice for victory seems to run throughout Greek mythology. There is also reference to Ericthoneus being sacrificed to resolve a battle between Athena and Poseidon, though the sacrifice came through him being bitten by a snake.


It was also during this month that the Eleusian Mysteries were celebrated, which is one of the most famous mysteries of the Ancient Athenians. This festival, which was actually a closed door festival, as indicated by the name, celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone. Being held in late summer, no doubt it was around the time when it was believed that Persephone returned to the underworld to be with her husband Pluto, and her mother, Demeter, then went into a period of mourning, which coincided with the winter months). A part of the festival involved a procession from the cemetery in Athens, along to sacred way, to Eleusis, where an all night vigil would be held.

Pyanepsion (Autumn - October/November) 

It was about this time that Erecthoneus was said to have been conceived in Gaia (or the Earth - his name actually means 'earth born'). It was also at this time that the phallus cult had it's festival - the phallus was a symbol of fertility, and you would actually see statues with erect phalluses all around the city. Also this month had a number of sexual festivals, which is not surprising because it is a month for planting the harvest.



It was at this point that were we had a description of the average day of the Greek, though we should note that this was the Greek upper class, who basically lived off the proceeds of business interests. The Athenians loved their leisure time, and work was something that other people did. I would suggest that it seems to be the case with our society, but it isn't - it is just that manual labour and hard work is something that other people do, not just because it is dirty work, but because the dirty work doesn't pay all that much either. As for the Athenians, they spent their time at the gymnasium, and relaxing with friends, or recovering from a hangover that came about from the night before.

Mainmakterion (Autumn - November/December)

This month is known for the storms of late autumn (though interestingly the seasons differ a little to our seasons), and is dedicated to Zeus (who was a god of Storms). The festival that was celebrated during this month was the Horoe, which was an abstract festival that celebrated the idea of the changing times and seasons.

Poseidon (Winter - December/January)

The sixth month is dedicated to the god of the sea and storms, and no doubt this was a time when they Athenian sailors didn't attempt to cross the oceans. In our time it would be seen as the heart of winter, however this doesn't seem to be the case with the Athenians. A statue would be set up at the front of the Acropolis during this time, and there is also a temple dedicated to Poseidon at cape Souion, which is at the tip of the Athenian peninsula. Ironically, I had no idea about the existence of the temple of Poseidon until after I had returned from Greece.

Gamelion (Winter - January/February)

This was a quiet month, and also a month that was set aside for weddings. This is somewhat different to our culture where most weddings occur in the spring, namely a time of rebirth and renewal (and also when the weather is nice - nobody likes rain at a wedding). The word Gamea, in Greek, means sex, but it is sex that the set aside for marriage as opposed to sex for pleasure. We also have this concept of Heirosgamos, which means marriage of the gods, and is this concept that rains come about due to the gods having sex, which is why rain is good for fertile crops. Mind you, the gods weren't necessarily faithful, but then again neither were the Greek men - concubines abounded. In a way Zeus was seen as the god of Love Affairs, and we see a similar thing with the other heroes such as Odysseus. However the heroic women tend to be painted as chaste and faithful, such as Helen and Penelope (though one does wonder whether Helen willingly ran off with Paris). As for the gods, the powerful female gods - Artemis (Diana) and Athena, where not only warriors, but also virgins.

Anthesterion (Winter - February/March)

Apparently it is supposed to be the end of Winter, but according to Wikipedia it is actually the middle month of winter (though I suspect that Wikipedia is either wrong, or simply working off a different systems - or just trying to squeeze the months into a suitable format, though our seasons do cross over the turn of the year). Anyway, the Athenians celebrated the end off winter during the month, which included emptying a jar of wine, and a march from the temple down to the market place (and if you have a look at a map of Athens you will notice that the Agora is actually at the base of the Arcopolis.

Elaphebolion (Spring - March/April)

Well, it is now spring, and during this month we have the Dionysia festival, which is actually a festival involving plays and theatre. The festival would begin with a collection of new plays, but old favourites would also be performed. The plays would generally consist of a trilogy, and then a satyr play which tended to be a little more light hearted. Mind you, out of all the plays that were written and performed, only a handful have managed to survive, and only from four playwrights - three tragedians and one comic. The other interesting thing is that the plays would be performed with masks, some of them rather exaggerated (usually for the comedies though).

Mounichion (Spring - April/May)

Now we are heading into the heart of spring, and during this time we had a festival down at the Pireaus, which the the port of Athens (both then and now). Down here was the temple of Artemis, who was not only the god of the Hunt, but also the god of Youth (which is why the young men would celebrate). Also during this month the Athenians would celebrate the victory at Salamis, the battle where the Athenians turned the tide of the Persian invasion. Mind you, it is interesting to note that battles were celebrated back then as they are now. 

Thargalia (Spring - May/June)

There is speculation that the festival during this month actually included human sacrifice. I personally wouldn't be surprised, though it is believed that the sacrifice is only representative, and nobody was actually killed. Also, it is suggested that the scape goat would be a prisoner who was sentenced to death, though after the ritual was performed, the scape goat would then to cast out of the city, never to return. Interestingly enough this ceremony was about the scape goat taking away the sins of the city, which is remarkably similar to a Jewish festival in which a two goats are used, one sacrificed and the other sent out of the city as a symbol of somebody else taking their sins. The festival falls around the time that it was believed that Erectheus sacrificed his daughter to secure victory in a way, but was then turned into a serpent as a result.


Skirophorion (Summer - June/July)

Thus we come back full circle to the month in which the Panathenaic festival is celebrated. However, it is in this month, the beginning of summer, that Athena and Poseidon finally make peace and bring an end to their war. 

The one thing that is really interesting about the exhibition (other than the statues, and the challenge of trying to read German) was that it actually put a lot of these festivals into context, and also gave more of an idea of how the Athenian year was constructed. In a way, despite us being so familiar with the culture, and it having such an impact upon our modern society, in many ways Ancient Athens is still an incredibly alien culture.


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The Seasons of the Greeks by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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