Ancient Mysteries of The World: The Ancient Greek Festivals, Rites and Games

Ritual expressed the relationship between mortals and the gods. At one end of the scale, individuals prayed and made small offerings to the deities that presided over the household, while, at the other, the whole of the Greek world came together at the ma

Ancient Mysteries of The World: The Ancient Greek Festivals, Rites and Games

By Mr Ghaz, December 20, 2010

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Ancient Mysteries of The World: The Ancient Greek Festivals, Rites and Games

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The rites performed at temples and shrines of all kinds varied as much as the holy places themselves. Most rituals were accompanied by prayers, for which there were special formulaic phrases, and which might be spoken privately for individual needs, pronounced before a gathering, or spoken in unison by a crow following the lead of a herald.

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There was a formulaic element to hymns, too, which often included reference to the deity’s life story and sphere of influence. The simplest form of offering was a libation-a few drops of wine or other liquids poured first into a flat dish and then onto the ground, the remainder being drunk by each of those present in turn. Libations might be performed in the home every morning and evening, or at the beginning of a meal, or just before setting off on a journey. Offerings of hair, clothes, or personal belongings were made at rites of passage, particularly in preparation for marriage and in connection with childbirth. More permanent dedications could be made at a sanctuary in the form of votive reliefs, and even statues, representing either the deity or the worshipper.

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The heart of Greek religious ritual, however, lay in sacrifice. A few deities demanded “bloodless sacrifices” in the form of the first fruits of cereal and olive crops, of bread, cakes, cooked vegetables, or even burnt spices, but commonest was the blood sacrifice. The most humble victim would be a dove or cockerel, then a piglet, lamb, or kid, then a full-grown sheep or goat, and at the top end of the scale, the ox. To sacrifice to the Olympians was to “fumigate,” because the gods were thought to enjoy the smell of the fatty smoke rising, but to a hero one had to “devote” the victim by burning it whole. An individual or family would probably sacrifice one small animal, but the great city festivals in honor of the gods, which usually lasted several days, entailed the slaughter of dozens of sheep and cattle. A festival procession would be followed by the sacrifice, after which the meat would be prepared for a ritual feast. The cooked meat was divided into portions of equal size but variable quality; its distribution among the assembled worshippers was sometimes decided by lot, sometimes by the recipients’ political and social status.

The Beautiful Crown of Zeus

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Some festivals held at local village or city level included athletic competitions, but the best known are the Panhelenic games at the great interstate sanctuaries. These may have originated in the funeral games held in honor of the dead, such as those for Patroklos described in the Iliad, but they developed over time to include more and more events, with subdivisions for different age groups. The oldest were the games in honor of Zeus at Olympia, traditionally founded in 776BCE, followed by the Pythian Games for Apollo at Delphi founded in 586BCE, the Isthmian Games for Poseidon in 580BCE, and the Nemean Games for Zeus in 573BCE.

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The Olympic and Pythian Games were held once every four years, the Isthmian and Nemean every two, and between them they made up a “circuit” (periodos). Special honors were accorded to “circuit-winners” (periodonikos)-individuals who had won victories at all four games. The prizes for the Panhellenic games had no inherent value. Instead the victor in each event was awarded an honorific crown (stephanos), made of a plant which had a mythological connection with the sanctuary in question-wild olive at Olympia, laurel at Delphi, pine at the Isthmos, and wild celery at nemea.

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A special feature of the games at Olympia was the Olympic Truce, the terms of which stipulated that all states had to suspend any hostilities for several weeks either side of the festival to allow athletes safe passage to and from the games. The Olympic officials had the power to impose hefty fines on any state which broke the truce and ban its athletes from competing.

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The earliest games consisted only of the stadion, which was a sprint over a distance of a stade, or 600 feet (about 180m), but longer foot-races were added over time, the two-stade diaulos, the long-distance dolichos (ca. 16,000 feet, or nearly 5,000m), and the grueling hoplites, run over a distance of two to four stades in full hoplite armor weighing around 56 pounds (25kg). There was also wrestling, boxing and the pankration (a kind of all-in wrestling), and the pentathlon, which consisted of running, jumping, throwing the javelin and discus, and wrestling; two and four-horse chariot-racing and horse-racing were accommodated in the hippodrome. By 400BCE the games lasted for five days, instead of the original one. All males who were native Greek-speakers and free citizens were entitled to take part in the games, provided they were not ritually impure.

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Women were not usually allowed among the spectators, although exceptions were made for certain priestesses and virgins, and there was nothing to prevent women from entering teams in the chariot-race, a competition in which the fourth-century BCE Spartan princess Kyniska won several victories.

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