Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
Stenia, Skiraphoria and the Thesmophoria: ancient festivals of Demeter and Persephone
In the spirit of sharing more about the Hellenic festivals, I'm combining two of the coming ones in this post; three if you count a reference to a past one I hadn't talked about yet. Like I said on Sunday, I really only pay special attention to the festivals that resonate with me. This is not picking-and-choosing--because I try to at least offer libations to the stars of every single festival--but simply a matter of practicality.
I have to accept that I am a solitary Hellenic, which is a bit of an oxymoron. Like being a solitary Wiccan, being a solitary Hellenic is really not possible. Hellenismos is a community religion, like most of the Recon Traditions. Yes, you can focus solely on household worship, but in my view of the religion, you're practicing only half of it if you do that. The festivals made up a huge part of ancient Hellenic worship. With around ten festivals that took place outside of the home every month, it's hard to ignore that they mattered very much.
I feel it's very important to honor the festivals in my own small way, and I have come to realize that the festivals really make me long for a Hellenic community of my own. For a lot of the festivals, the entire city or town--especially in Athens--celebrated. Men, women, children, slaves, free men, everyone. There were special festivals for nearly all of them. Two women-only festivals were the Stenia and the Thesmophoria.
The Stenia was celebrated on 9 Pyanepsion, which is today. It was a festival dedicated solely to Demeter and Persephone and was held three days before the Thesmophoria. Not much information about this festival has survived, but because bits and pieces have survived of the Thesmophoria and the preceding Skiraphoria, we can put parts of the festival back together.
On 12 Skirophorion (which was on 2 Juli this year), the Skiraphoria was celebrated. It was a pretty elaborate festival which I'll probably describe in detail next Juli, but for now let me suffice by saying that the Skiraphoria was one of the few days when the women of ancient Athens would gather in public to honor Demeter and bless the harvest. They refused to sleep with the men on this day and took part in a very odd tradition: casting piglets down into a chasm where they were left to rot until the Stenia.
During the Stenia, women came together and begun the extensive purification rituals needed to partake in the Thesmophoria. How, exactly, the women purified themselves is unknown but it is known that the women engaged in Aiskhrologia, insulting each other and using foul language. To understand this practice, it's important to know the mythology behind it. Nearly all festivals where Demeter is included, recount the myth of Kore/Persephone who was abducted by Hades. While Demeter grieved and vowed to get her daughter out, Persephone was seduced to eat of the pomegranate fruit. This decision allowed Hades to keep Persephone in the Underworld for a part of the year, while she was allowed to rejoin her mother for the rest of it. While Demeter grieved, there was only one who could make her laugh: the strange Goddess Baubo. For the longer version of this story, go here.
Important to know is that Baubo is a wise, cheeky, and sexually free Goddess and I believe that a large part of the Stenia was to make the other women laugh by shouting witty insults, making crude jokes or any other way they could think of that was out of character and liberal. It's a laughing day. Yet, there was also a serious note to it. At the Stenia, some women, called 'Bailers', hiked to the chasm where the piglets had been thrown into months ago. Then, in a gruesome display of devotion, the women hauled out the rotting corpses of the piglets and carried them to the Thesmophorion, a site probably on the hillside of the Pnyx.
Two days later, the three day festival of Thesmophoria took place. There was a male and female encampment at the Thesmophorian and the division was clearly set; no men were allowed in the female encampment, and no women in the male encampment. Sex was not allowed. From what I have been able to gather, the three days in the female encampment followed a strict regime.
On the first day, called Anodos ('ascent') and Kathodos ('descent'), the women sacrificed the rotting piglets to Demeter and Persephone. The remains were mixed with seeds and would be plowed into the earth after the festival to assure a good harvest. The piglets were fertility symbols, but also related to the myth of Demeter, Persephone and Hades, because it is said that, when Hades opened a chasm to swallow up Persephone, a swineherd called Eubouleus was grazing his pigs and they were swallowed up in the chasm as well. The women ate on this day, but only food which would not upset Demeter. Pomegranate fruits were off the menu.
The second day was called Nēsteia ('feast of lamentation'). On this day, the women did not eat. They recreated the time before Demeter taught humankind to cultivate the fields. It was a dark time, a time of hunger and pain. At the same time, this day was also used to remember the time when Demeter sought her daughter and neglected her duties as a harvest Goddess. This had also been a time of great hunger.
The third day, Kalligeneia ('she who is of beautiful birth'), was a happy one. The women prayed to Demeter and Persephone for fertility for themselves, their loved ones and the earth. They celebrated the magic of new life, fertility and the kindness of the Gods.
These festivals were huge. All free women, except for maidens, were allowed to participate. As a modern Hellenic practitioner who does not have a community to share these festivals with, I have to improvise. The positives first: I'm a woman and I'm married under ancient Hellenic law, although I'm not sure the ancient Hellens would have understood my living arrangements with a woman as a marriage. Still, a marriage took place when the woman moved into the house of her husband, and I have done this with my girlfriend. Allowing for cultural discrepancies, I can take the liberty of including myself in these festivals.
The negative: I don't have a rotting pig to pull out of a chasm, although I don't feel particularly negative about that. I also can't come together with other women and shout insults at them, nor camp out at the foot of a hill in Greece with them on friday, saturday and sunday. It sucks, but such is the life of a practitioner of a fringe religion.
Today, I will offer libations to Demeter, Persephone and Baubo. I'm going to watch the show of the crudest female comedian I can find and laugh as much as I can over inappropriate jokes. I am also going to lay out a piece of pork, which I will sacrifice on friday. I'll offer fresh libations to Demeter and Persephone on friday. I'll eat lightly and refrain from eating anything that could upset Demeter. On saturday, I'll fast, recount the story of Demeter and Persephone and count my blessings. Sunday, I'll offer libations to Demeter and Persephone and ask for the fulfillment of my needs; fertile soil for the end of my problems.
So there you go, three more ancient Hellenic festivals, and my way of practicing them. What do you think of them? Did the piglets scare you off?
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