Order of the Shining Helmet: Festivals of Athena

Festivals and Rites of Athena

by Linda Iles

Little is known of the ceremonies that attended the worship of Athena throughout the country of ancient Greece as a whole. But the ritual activities that were held within one localized area, her principle city of Athens, are well documented. A brief description of each of these rites, starting with the first month of the Athenian year, follows.

Month of Boedromion

(Preparation period before Great Mysteries of Eleusis)Boedromion 13th-14th

During the last two days of preparation for the Great Mysteries of Eleusis on the thirteenth day of the month of Boedromion, two mounted Epheboi, specially picked youths who ride white horses, travel to Eleusis from Athens. On the fourteenth day of Boedromion, they accompany the Ta Hiera, or Holy Things, which are contained in round Kistai, interpreted variously as a type of large round basket, wooden box or earthen vessel, bound with purple ribbons. The Kistai containing the Holy Things are loaded onto a wagon and brought to Athens, under the guardianship of the Epheboi.

The procession travels back to Athens and the holy implements are taken to be received at a special shrine known as the Eleusinion. A ritual official, known as the Phaidryntes, or ‘Cleaner of the Two Goddesses,’ reports their arrival to Athena's High Priestess. The ‘Two Goddesses’ are Demeter and Persephone, and it is believed that their images were among the Holy Things brought to Athens for celebration of the mysteries. The rites were administered by the Eumopids and the Kerykes. The Kerykes assembled the initiates, or Mystae for the Hierophant, who led the people through the mysteries. These were held in a dark chamber lit by a few torches called the Anaktoron, which translates as King’s Shrine, and in the Telesterion, or entrance hall of the temple. Curiously, the names of Demeter and Persephone are never openly mentioned in any of the public proceedings, (such as the procession through the city). It is as though they are considered too sacred to be mentioned out loud to the uninitiated members of the populace.

Month of Pyanepsion

Oskhophoria (also known as Oschophoria) Pyanepsion 7th (late Autumn)

The Oskhophoria, or Vintage Festival or the Feast of Boughs, celebrates the annual harvest of the grapes and subsequent making of wine. It was held to honor and thank Dionysos, and was celebrated on the same day as the Pyanepsia, the Mysteries of Apollo. Opposites in many ways, they provide a polar balance that was not lost on the ancient Greeks, who paired Dionysos and Apollo in a sanctuary at Delphi. Apollo is honored in the Delphic shrine in the summer and Dionysos in the winter. They are shown shaking hands over the Omphalos of the Delphic temple on an ancient krater, which was used as either a large chalice or bowl at the temple. This is the time of year when the traditional changing of the temple and civil guard occurs.

First a race was held comprised of youths bearing shoots of grape vines which was closely followed by a ritual procession, both of which were made from the temple of Dionysos to the temple of Athena in her aspect as Athena Skira (in her connection as protectress of crops from excessive light and heat during the height of summer), for the grape harvest, indeed all the crops and general well being and fertility of the land comprise areas of her concern for the well-being of her people. The ancient Grecian word Skira may derive from the vine goddess Skiras, worshipped in Salamis, who later came to Athens, or for the Skiron, a white canopy that is set up to mark the place where the first sowing of the season takes place for the Skirophoria festival. The next three or four days are spent in festival, called collectively the Apatyria.

Apatyria — (also Apaturia) Three festival days and one day of rest which fall in the month of Pyanepsion. Each individual Phratria, or Clan determines the date of its Apatyria; but all are held in the month of Pyanepsion, so accounts of dates will vary.

1st Day: Dorpia (called The Supper Eve) Reunion and feasting for the Phratria members.

2nd Day: Anarrhysis (Sacrificing, or Day of the Sacrifice) Sacrifices are held for the patron god and patroness goddess of the Clans, Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria. Depending on the customs of the various Phratria, sometimes observance to Dionysos and/or the god Hephaistos may be included.

3rd Day: Koureotis (Youths) Induction into a Clan. Lively celebration as new members are inducted into the various Phratria; which can occur in the first Apatyria after birth, though a full ritual of induction will still take place at puberty, accompanied by offering of their cut hair to the patron or patroness deity of the clan. A spouse of a Phratria member may be inducted into a clan.

4th Day: Epibda (The Day Following) Not a day of festival ritual ceremonies. This is literally time set aside for recovering from the past days of merrymaking. Wine was traditionally consumed in prodigious amounts during the Apatyria.

Khalkeia (also Chalkeia) Pyanepsion 29th

Known variously as the ‘Feast of Smiths,’ the ‘Feast of Artists’ during which the gifts and inventions given to humankind by the gods and goddesses were celebrated. The birth of Erechtheus was the foster-son of Athena, and the legendary serpent-man who founded Athens in her honor, was celebrated during this festival. His gift to mankind was the invention of the plough, an accomplishment that he shared with Athena.

Ergastinai, or Workers, consisting of a priestess of the temple of Athena and the Arrhephoroi (see listing under Arrhephoria) place spun wool on a special loom to form the woof of Athena's new peplos, or robe, which will be worked on for the next nine months and presented to Her during the festival of Panathenaia. It’s sole decoration lies in one broad strip near the hem of the garment which represents in yellow and blue the Gigantomachy, or war between the Giants and the Olympian gods and goddesses, including Athena's great feat during the battle, the defeat of Enkeladus.

Month of Thargelion

Kallynteria (also Kallunteria) Thargelion 22nd

This festival was enacted on a much smaller scale than many of the other ritual temple ceremonies and public festivals. Outer appearances aside, the Kallynteria was an important annual activity in Athens. Kallynteria is the festival of "Sweeping Out," and it is on this day that women attendants sweep out the temple of Athena. On this day as part of the ceremony, the lamp that carries Her eternal flame is refurbished, refilled with holy oil (probably olive oil) and re-lighted by the High Priestess of her temple.

Plynteria (also Plunteria) Thargelion 25th (some sources say the 21st)

The full name of this festival was Plynteria Hiera, for bathing the ancient statue of Pallas Athena. Ritual bathing of sacred images was a common custom in Greece, India and Egypt. The day is considered a day of apophras, it is ‘unlucky,’ for any type of enterprise, because Athena, as the patroness and protectress of Athens is absent from her city on this day. It is considered a breech of the normal divine order, which marks the advent of the coming new year which arrives one month later.

Attending priestesses removed the peplos or robe and jewelry from an image of Athena, which was situated within the Erechtheum, a shrine honoring her foster son, Erechtheus, an earth god, and which they shared in her temple. The shrine was carefully shrouded before the undressing of the image of Athena took place. It remained so until the statues return at the end of the rites. It was then wrapped in clean white linen and carried out of the city upon a wooden wagon in a solemn procession of priestesses and other female attendees. No males were allowed to view the image of Athena while it was undressed or wrapped in linen, although Epheboi, (young men) mounted on white horses were allowed to accompany the procession once outside of the temple. After this Athena was carried out of the temple, through the streets of Athens to the ritual washing place which was located just outside of the city. A women carrying trays and baskets of figs and fig pastries led the procession; for to the ancient Greeks, the fig was a fertility symbol and thought by them to be their first cultivated food. Bunches of figs were frequently in lustrations during these ceremonies and offered to Athena just before her bathing.

The procession carried the image of Athena to the shores of the river Ilissus which empties into the sea a few miles from the Acropolis. There was a specific ritual and story that attended the cleansing called the Argive, which illustrated this bath as a cleansing and purification after her victorious battle with the giants. Scenes of her struggles and victory were woven onto the hem of her robe, in a broad strip of yellow and blue near the hem, known as the Gigantomachy. The image used during these rites was reckoned as ancient in those times. It was life-sized and carved of olive wood and probably showed Athena seated, without weapons. It was brought to the shore of the Ilissus to be purified in running water, which during high tide mingled with seawater. The image was bathed by two Loutrides, or Bathers, who were young, chaste maidens. Loutrides is a term special to this rite, bathers of sacred images in general were called Praxiergids. The robe of Athena was cleansed at the same time by other female attendants.

As evening falls, the Goddess is returned to the temple in a solemn and beautiful torch light procession. In the temple she is dressed in her freshly cleaned peplos and adorned with her ritual jewels which included a type of tall, golden crown called a Stephane and an Aegis of the Head of Medusa which lay upon her breast. Only the Loutrides and the other female attendants were allowed to dress Athena within her temple, or view these activities.

Month of Skirophorion

Arrephoria (also Arrhephoria, Errephoria, Hersephoria)Skirophorion 5th (mid-June)

The name of this festival translates as “Dew-Bearing.” The oldest titles of her priestesses, Aglauros, Herse and Pandrosos, were called collectively the Dew Sisters. Athena was also titled as Aglauros and Pandrosos, though Pandrosos, the young maiden priestess of legend was also viewed separately as a minor deity. Two young girls of noble birth, between the ages of seven and eleven years old, were chosen to be the Arrephoroi, translated as Carriers of Unspoken (or Unknown) Things. In this ritual they are viewed as the daughters of the Arkhon Basileus, or Priest-King of Athens. Once chosen they will spend the following year living in special living quarters near the temple of Pallas Athena on the Acropolis. The Arrephoroi wore white robes and lived upon Anastatos, a special made-to-rise light bread while preparing for their coming participation in the rite.

While there they assisted two other specially chosen maidens in beginning the weaving of a new peplos, or robe for Athena, which will be brought to her in a later annual sacred procession called the Panathenaia. (Described in a later entry, below.)

In the darkness of night, a young priestess of the temple of Pallas Athena will come and give the Arrephoroi a wrapped basket whose contents are a carefully kept secret. Even the young priestess of Athena does not know what lies in the basket. Together the three take the basket by a hidden pathway to the sanctuary of Aphrodite in the Gardens, and bring back another secret package. The Arrephoroi are then replaced by two new girls who immediately begin preparations for another enactment of the rite the following year.

The legends surrounding this ritual say Athena once gave a casket to the three daughters of King Kekrops. These young maidens were enlisted to act as nurses to the contents of the casket, by safeguarding it and bringing food to the casket, but they were instructed to never glance within the casket to view who or what was inside. Two of them disobeyed this order. They were said to have viewed within the casket a serpent-man, Erikhtheus, (also Erichthonios) the sacred son of King Kekrops, and foster son of Athena. He was the serpent king who was to later become the founder of Athens. Some scholars believe that Erikhtheus was an earth god of the Ionians who was introduced to the vicinity of Athens and taken into fosterage by Athena as a show of reconciliation of their two cults. Once viewing his visage they knew they had committed a grave sacrilege so they jumped to their deaths from the Acropolis before their transgression could be reported.

The name of the faithful nurse was Pandrosos, which translates as All-Dew, she is represented by the young priestess of the temple. The two chosen young girls represent the ill-fated maidens who disobeyed Athena. Some scholars believe that the festival's name might also be more accurately spelled as Ersephoria, which means Dew Carrying. The olive tree, which was Athena's special gift to Athens, was said to have sprung instantaneously from the soil of the Acropolis when she struck that ground with her spear. It will only bear small, hard fruit if there is not sufficient dew or moisture at this time of year. Aphrodite, as Goddess of the Morning and Evening Star, was responsible for the dew which falls at morning and evening; so her blessings played an important part in protecting and administering to the final outcome of the crop of the sacred olive trees.

Skirophoria (also Skira) Skirophorion12th (late June)

The Skirophoria occurs at the time of cutting and threshing the grain. The High Priestess of Athena, the High Priest of Poseidon and the High Priest of Helios leave Athens in a great procession and travel to the vicinity known as Skiron, during the heat of summer. Once the members of the priest(ess)hood had arrived at their destination they would entreat Athena in her aspect as Athena Alea to stave off the summer heat, so as to protect the crops. This aspect of Athena alludes to her powers as a deity of light and warmth. The vicinity of Skiron was held sacred to Demeter and Kore, and to Athena Skiras and Poseidon Pater, for here their respective cities of Eleusis and Athens were reconciled after bitter rivalry. Athena and Poseidon represent city life, and Demeter and Kore represent agriculture; Helios through his priest, witnesses the oaths made by these patron and patroness deities (through their priest(ess)hood) to maintain peace and ensure fertility within the land. The Skiron according to tradition, is the place where the first ceremonial sowing of the crops took place for the year. It is marked by the setting up of a large, white canopy (called the skiron) which has been carried over the heads of the attending priests and priestesses during the procession.

The Skirophoria was observed mainly by women participants and had a threefold purpose. It was performed to (1) maintain and protect the fertility of the land, (2) to reaffirm the values that tied together family members around the hearth, and (3) to consequently form a bond between members of the community. In preparation for their part in the ritual, the women abstained from sexual intercourse on this day, and at the ending of the ceremonies they ate cloves of garlic to discourage advances from their sexual partners! They brought offerings to the megara or sacred caves of Demeter. These were cakes shaped like snakes, phalluses and suckling pigs which after being offered were termed Thesmoi, or Things Laid Down. These were later removed during another ritual festival called Thesmophoria, which recounts the story of the swineherd Eubouleus who was swallowed up with his pigs within the earth at the same time that Persephone was taken by Hades into the underworld.

While the women of the city are preoccupies with activities at the Skira, the men of Athens had a race in which they carried vine-branches from the sanctuary of Dionysos to the temple of Athena Skiras. The winner is given the Pentaploa, or ‘Fivefold Cup,’ containing wine, honey, cheese, corn (wheat) and olive oil. He alone may share this drink of bountiful harvest with Athena, to whom a libation is poured so that She will bless these fruits in the coming season.

The High Priestess of Athena plants a sapling olive tree between a symbolic fire of the hearth and one of the wells of the city. This act celebrated the gift of the olive tree of Athena to the people and it’s role as a source for food, fuel and shelter.

Month of Hekatombaion

The Lesser Panathenaia and Greater Panathenaia (also Panathenaea)Hekatombaion 28th (mid-August)

The name Panathenaia means ‘Festival of Athena,’ and was held in celebration of Athena's birthday, which according to tradition was the twenty-eighth day of the month of Hekatombion. All the other Olympian gods and goddesses are represented as attending these festivities for they were all said to be present at her birth. The ceremonies include a sacred feast during which gods, goddesses and mortals celebrate together within her city of Athens and all witness the offering to Athena of a new robe. It’s middle stripe of panels display the Gigantomachy, which was a battle of the Giants and the Olympians. The symbolism of the Gigantomachy told of savagery vanquished by civilization, or chaos replaced by the laws of divine order.

The day before the initial procession a festival called Pannykhis is held. This includes an all-night vigil which is common to most Greek festivals, since they traditionally begin at sunset. Just as the sun begins to rise on the next day, the sacred fire is fetched from the altar of Eros in the Academy. Afterwards a sacrifice was made to Eros and Athena and a torch race brought the fire to the altar of Athena.

Every four years, the Greater Panathenaia was presented and celebrated on a larger scale than the Lesser Panathenaia. Ten officials called Hieropoioi, a term which designates them as ‘Managers of the Rites,’ supervised all the attending activities of the Lesser Panathenaia. Ten Agonothetai, or ‘Contest Directors’ managed the activities of the GreaterPanathenaia. For the Greater Panathenaia representatives were present from all the dependent provinces of Athens. A race of torch bearers, athletic contests, mock fights featuring the events of legends surrounding Athena and the history of Athens, and contests featuring recitations of poetry and singing of epic hymns also took place.

During these festivities Athena was addressed as Athena Areia (warlike) and Athena Nikephoros (bringer of victory). A procession brings the new robe through the city, hung like a sail on the mast of a great, wooden, wheeled ship, which is steered by priests and priestesses adorned with colorful garlands; and safeguarded by mounted Epheboi on their white horses. This ship is left at the entrance of the sacred precincts and the mast which bears the sacred robe is carefully removed from the ship and then carried the rest of the way up the steps to the temple of Athena at the top of the Acropolis followed by a great procession.

At the head of the Panathenaic procession are Kanephoroi, young girls adorned with golden serpent necklaces, who each carry a Kana, or holy offering baskets, which they present to temple officials at the altar. The Kanoun (pl.) contain barley that is thrown over the sacrifice and sacrificial implements. The Ergastinai, or workers (who wove the new peplos, who also served as Arrephoroi in past rituals), and specially chosen young girls and maidens bring additional ritual implements, some on golden trays.

The procession traditionally split into two lines which eventually divided and worked their way to different areas of Athens. The north line brought a sacrificial cow for Pallas Athena, honoring her capacity as the official city guardian, and a ewe for Pandrosos, who had been the legendary faithful nurse in the Arrephoria, and subsequently became deified upon the merits of her faithful service. Sacrifices were held at the indoor altar in the Old Temple. This indoor rite is considered to be older than the outdoor sacrifice, its beginning may lie back in the Bronze Age. The second or south line, which brought cattle to Athena Parthenos, the patroness of democracy, at the great public altar outside the Parthenon.

In the northern line of the procession, victors of the torch races, one from the Lesser Panathenaia, and four in the Greater Panathenaia bring water to the sacrifices in special hydria, or water jugs filled with pure and consecrated water. They serve as Hydriaphoroi, or Water Bearers in the festivities. Other ritual celebrants follow, Kitharodoi, who play the lyre, Auletes, who play the flute, Skaphephoroi, or Tray Bearers, young men clothed in purple who carry bronze or silver trays of cakes and honeycombs on their shoulders, the Thallophoroi, or Sprig Bearers, Elders who carry sprigs of the sacred olive trees, members of the general populace of Athens and lastly came groups of non-Hellenes who were allowed to walk in the procession and carry branches of oak.

The new robe for Athena was carefully dismounted from the mast, to avoid its becoming soiled. It was folded by a young girl and a young boy and then handed to the High Priest of Athens (Arkhon Basileus) who then carried it to the High Priestess of Pallas Athena, who was waiting at the temple entrance. The girl was usually one of the former Arrhephoroi who served as the ritual daughters of the Arkhon; the boy, who is his ritual son, was probably the one charged with feeding the holy snake of the temple of Athena, said to live beneath the temple. They correspond to the daughter, Pandrosus, who was the faithful nurse, and the son of Kekrops, Erekhtheus, the serpent-man who was the first king of Athens and a great benefactor of the people.

In this particular rite, children were allowed to participate in the processional activities. They carried boxes of incense to fill the thymiateria, or incense burners which were being carried by the temple staff. They also carried small items of furniture, including sacred tables and chairs, which were set up to symbolically honor the earth goddesses who are associated with Athena; Pandrosos, the All Bedewed faithful nurse, and Ge Kourotrophos, the Nursing Mother Earth, patroness of nursing mothers. Ge Kourotrophos receives the prothyma or first offering at all Athenian sacrifices, consisting of barley and/or a honey cake and she is especially thanked for all the beautiful and healthy children and young healthy women of the city.

After all of this has been accomplished, the new robe is at last placed on Athena's knees as a gift, and she is addressed as Athena Ergane (goddess of industry). The new robe is later stored in the temple treasury. The new robe is not put on the image of Athena at this time, that will happen ten months later, during the festival of the Plynteria of the coming year. Sacrifices are also made during this ritual festival to Athena as Athena Hygieia for good health, to Athena Nikephoros, the bringer of victory, and to the goddess Nike.

The three to four days immediately following the Greater Panathenaia are taken up by the Agones, or sporting contests, which consist of races, boxing and wrestling. There are also contests of music and poetry. Traditionally the prize for athletes is a Panathenaic Amphora containing olive oil from the Goddess's sacred grove; for artists, a gilded crown of olives from the branches of her sacred trees and perhaps a gift of money; children are awarded with a crown of olives, but their prize is not gilded. They may be picked for temple duties or participation in civil ceremonies during the coming year.


Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon, editors, "The Art of Ancient Spectacle," New Haven Publishers, NY 2000

Cooper, J. C., "The Aquarian Dictionary of Festivals," The Aquarian Press, NY 1990

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Harrison, Jane Ellen, "Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion," Cambridge University Press, 1922

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Stow, Hester Harrington, "Greek Athletics and Festivals in the Fifth Century," Boston Museum of Fine Arts Publication, Boston, Mass., 1939

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