Ecclesia Ordinis Caelestis Templum Olympicus/Celestial Order and Temple of Olympus

Festival of Panathenaia

August 14

(Greek) Ancient: 28 Hekatombaion (dark of the moon).
The Panathenaia is, in effect, the celebration of Athena’s birthday, for according to tradition 28 Hekatombion was the day She burst from Zeus’s head (depicted on the east pediment of the Parthenon). Though it is Her day, all the Olympians attend the festivities (as we see in the east frieze), for They were also all present at Her birth. This is a sacred feast at which gods and mortals celebrate Athena’s birthday together.

The day before the Panathenaic procession is a festival called Pannukhis (All-night Vigil—a common feature of Greek festivals, since they begin at sunset, like Roman festivals). At sunrise the sacred fire is fetched from the altar of Eros in the Academy, where a sacrifice was made to Eros and Athena. (An altar to Prometheus, who brought fire to mortals, was also in the Academy.) A torch race brings the fire to the altar of Athena.

Every fourth year the Greater Panathenaia is held, for which a new peplos (robe) is woven for the Goddess (Her birthday present). Its middle stripe of panels display the Gigantomachy, the battle of the Giants and the Olympians (depicted in the east metopes of the Parthenon), which symbolizes the triumph of civilization over savagery. The procession brings the peplos through the city, hung like a sail on the mast of a wheeled ship, which is steered by priests and priestesses adorned with colorful garlands; mounted Epheboi (young men) may accompany the procession. The ship is left at the entrance of the sacred precincts and the peplos is carried the rest of the way by itself or on the mast alone.

At the head of the Panathenaic procession are the Kanephoroi, the gold-bedecked girls who carry the Kana, the holy offering baskets, which they give to the marshals at the altar. The Kana contain the barley that is thrown over the sacrifice and covers the sacrificial implements in the Kana. (See “Neoclassical Sacrifice” in The Lyre #3 for more detail.) Next come the Ergastinai (Workers), who wove the new peplos, and other girls bring bowls, jugs, incense burners and additional ritual implements.

In ancient times the procession split into two lines. The north line brought a cow for Athena Polias, the Bronze Age city guardian, and a ewe for Pandrosos (one of the daughters of Kekrops). They were sacrificed at the altar in the “Old Temple,” which the Goddesses shared, and the roasted meat was eaten by the priests and officials. This indoor rite is older than the outdoor sacrifice, which was the destination of the south line, which brought cattle to Athena Parthenos, the patron of democracy, at the “Big Altar” outside the Parthenon, where the roasted meat was given to the public.

In the more sacred northern procession the victor(s) of the torch race (one victor in the Lesser Panathenaia, all four in the Greater) may bring water to the sacrifice in the hudria (water jugs) they won in the races; they serve as Hudriaphoroi (Water Bearers). They are followed by musicians, such as lyre players (Kitharodoi) and flutists (Auletes), since music usually accompanies sacrifices. The musicians are elegantly dressed, for example, in a sleeved chiton (tunic), a peplos (robe) and a himation (mantle), as we see on the north frieze of the Parthenon (slabs VII and VIII).

In both lines there are Skaphephoroi (Tray Bearers), purple-gowned young men who carry bronze or silver trays of cakes and honeycombs on their shoulders. (They followed the torch victors in the northern procession and the cattle in the southern procession.) After the Tray Bearers in the procession come the Thallophoroi (Sprig Bearers), good-looking Elders who carry sprigs of the sacred olive trees, and the other celebrants. Non-Hellenes carry oak branches. The number Four organizes the procession: four Hudriaphoroi, four Kitharodoi, four Auletes, four ewes and four cows.

The peplos is dismounted from the mast, if necessary, and folded by a young boy or girl and a priest (the Archon Basileus), who will give it to the priestess of Athena Polias. The girl may be one of the Arrhephoroi (see the Arrephoria of mid-June), who are the ritual daughters of the Archon; the boy, who is his ritual son, may be the lad charged with feeding the Holy Snake. They correspond to the three daughters and the son of Kekrops, the serpent-man who was the first king of Athens and a great benefactor of the people.

Children assist in many other ways; some carry accerai (Lat., incense boxes) to fill the thumiateria (incense burners). They also carry small, sacred tables and chairs, which are set up to entertain the chthonic goddesses allied with Athena: Pandrosos (All Bedewed) and Ge Kourotrophos (Nursing Mother Earth, a patron of nurses). Ge Kourotrophos has the bigger chair, since She is more important than Pandrosos, for Ge receives the prothuma (first offering) at all Athenian sacrifices, perhaps barley from the Kanoun (holy basket) or the honey cakes born by the Tray Carriers (both typical offerings to chthonic deities). The city is especially thankful to Her for beautiful children and young women, who walk together in the procession. The thirtieth Homeric Hymn thanks Mother Earth for “well-ordered states with women fair,” where

their sons exult with youthful merriment;
their daughters play in dances flower-strewn
with happy heart, and skip through fields abloom.
Such givest Thou, Holy Rich Divinity.
Notice that, like the sacrificial victims, which must be blemish-free, good-looking and distinguished people (hoi kaloi k’agathoi) are prominent in the procession—the Goddess is honored with the best the city has to offer.

The new peplos is placed on Athena’s knees as a gift, and is later stored in the treasury; She is not rerobed at this time, which was done in the Plunteria (mid-June). Sacrifices are also made for Athena Hugieia (Goddess of Health) and Nike (Victory).

In the Greater Pananthenaia, the three or four days following the procession are occupied by Agones (contests) of sport (races, boxing and wrestling) and art (music, poetry). Traditionally the prize for athletes is a “Panathenaic amphora“ containing olive oil from the Goddess’s sacred grove, and the prize for artists is a gilded crown of wild olives and sometimes money. There may be contests for children, for which they are awarded plain crowns of olive.

Ten officials called Hieropoioi (Managers of the Rites) organized the Lesser Panathenaia; the ten Agonothetai (Contest Directors) managed the Greater.