Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos

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.

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Pyanepsia, Theseus and Apollo

I don't write about Hellenic holidays enough. There are many Hellenic festivals every month and most I only observe with libations, offerings and hymns. I don't have the manpower or time to do most of them justice. On top of that, some just draw me more, like the Kronia and the Panathenaia ta mikra. Today, the seventh day of the month Pyanepsio, is the Pyanepsia, and because it's based solidly in mythology, I am a big fan.

The Pyanepsai (Πυανέψια) was one of the many harvest festivals of the season, but instead of focussing on the actual harvest like well know Pagan harvest festivals like Mabon, the Pyanepsia focusses almost completely on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Theseus (Θησεύς) was fathered by Aegeus and Poseidon, whom had both slept with his mother Aethra, and was thus destined to become a hero. In order to claim his rightful place as ruler over Athens, he had to uncover his father's sandals and sword from under a stone in his mother's birth land where Theseus grew up, and bring it to his mortal father. He did, taking the long and dangerous route over land, and fought many Chthonic creatures and mortal bandits in the process. This was long before he would vow to bring down the Minotaur and thus, set in motion the events that led up to the strange festival of Pyanepsai.



Theseus' father, Aegeus, had taken Medea as his new wife. Afraid hat Theseus would claim the throne and take her position of power from her, Medea pressed Theseus to capture the Marathonian Bull. This, he did, but upon returning, Medea tried to poison him. Aegeus recognized his son just in time and Medea fled while father and son reunited. Theseus then heard about the Minotaur of Crete, and the nine-yearly sacrifices to it. These sacrifices were a punishment by King Minos of Crete for the death of his son Androgeus, at the hands of Athenian assassins.

Theseus offered to be one of the youths who sailed for Crete. Once there, Ariadne, daughter of the king, fell for him and offered him a ball of yarn so he would be able to find his way out off the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur the youths would be sacrificed to. Theseus defeated the Minotaur and took Ariadne and her sister Phaedra from their home in thanks for their help. That night, they slept on the beach but Athena woke up Theseus and told him to sail out now, and to leave Ariadne and Phaedra behind. He did, although it pained him greatly. In his dismay, he forgot to sail with the white sails he had promised his father to sail with if he was alive. As he reached the main land, Aegeus saw the black sails and figured his son dead. He then cast himself off of the cliffs overlooking the sea, and drowned.

Theseus blamed himself for his father's death, but was very relieved to be home none the less. He wished to thank Apollo for his safe journey and his victory over the Minotaur and thus, he ordered his men to gather all the foodstuffs that remained. This was mostly beans and grains, and he ordered the food to be cooked up for a feast and a sacrifice.

In celebration, Theseus then put together a eiresiône (εἰρεσιώνη), a branch of olive or laurel bound with purple or white wool. It was decorated with fruits of the season, pastries, and small jars of honey, oil and wine. The eiresiône was also called a 'supplicant branch', as it was intended as a thank-offering for blessings received, and at the same time as a prayer for similar blessings and protection against evil in future. He walked through the streets of Athens with his eiresiône, to signal his victory and the end of scarcity.

In ancient Hellas, and especially Athens, both observances were conglomerated into the Pyanepsia, and boys tended to carry their home made eiresiône through the streets in a Halloween-esque manner. They knocked on the doors of every house and sang a song. In return, they expected a gift. The eiresiône song from Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 22.5, goes as follows: 


'eiresiône suka pherei kai pionas artous
kai meli en kotulêi kai elaion apopsêsasthai
kai kulik' euzôron, hôs an methuousa katheudêi.'
 
Modern Greek pronunciation:
(Capitalized syllables are emphasized according to the poetic meter)
'EE-re-si-ON-NE SEE-ka fe-RE KE PEE-on-as AR-tous
KE me-lee EN ko-tee-LEE ke e-LE-on a-POP-SEE-SAS-the
KE kee-lik EF-ZO-RON, OS AN me-thee-OU-sa ka-THEV-dee.'
 
Pausanias has the song:
'Eiresione brings all good things,
Figs and fat cakes to eat, soft oil and honey sweet,
And brimming wine-cup deep, that she may drink and sleep.'
 
A special eiresiône was brought to the temple of Apollo by a boy whose parents were both alive. He was encouraged to recite the song during the procession. By the Classical Period an eiresione was hung over almost every door in Athens and remained here a full year before being replaced by a new one.
 
The sacrifice to Apollo was upheld for a long while as well. The ship Theseus used on his return from Crete to Athens was kept in the Athenian harbor as a memorial for several centuries. It was maintained and kept in proper shape. Often, this meant replacing parts of the ship, a practice which led to the question if the ship could still ethically be called the ship of Theseus after so much of it had been replaced. This dilemma became known as the 'Ship of Theseus paradox'. 
 
At any rate, the ship was sailed out to the island of Delos--which housed a sanctuary of Apollo--yearly after Theseus' return. To ensure the sanctity of the sacrifice, executions were not allowed to take place during the weeks it took to sail to Delos and back.
 
For modern Hellenics, the Pyanepsia is a fun festival to celebrate. It's encouraged to make your own eiresiône and hang it over your door. This is also a fun holiday to do with kids, as he or she can make their own eiresiône and sing the song to get a gift from the parents or anyone else in the community. For the more serious part, the eiresiône can be brought to the shrine of Apollo or the main shrine and laid down or set near it while you or the chosen kurios offers a mixture of beans and grains to Apollo before a meal of beans, grains and fruits is eaten. This mixture of beans is called a Panspermia and here is a good recipe. What's important is that you don't eat meat on this day, both in respect to Theseus' left over food stock and the fact that no executions were allowed to take place. Another tradition could be the retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur afterwards, or a storyteller could recount any of his other victories. 
 
I like the uplifting nature of the Pyanepsia, and the fact that it is a true family festival. It's light and fun, while appreciating life and the Theoi for providing enough food to keep us alive. I'll be offering my beans and grains sacrifice to Apollo today, and I'll try and recite the song as I approach my shrine. I'll refrain from eating meat, although a bean meal is not in the cards today. I'll also enjoy the company of family and the warmth of my home. Above all, I'll thank the Theoi for all I have received and for what I may yet receive. I wish you all a blessed Pyanepsia!
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Elani Temperance is a twenty-seven year old woman, who lives with her partner in The Netherlands. She has been Pagan for a little over twelve years and has explored Neo-Wicca, Technopaganism, Hedge Witchery and Eclectic Religious Witchcraft before progressing to Hellenismos. Although her home practice is fully Hellenic, she has an online Neo-Pagan magazine called 'Little Witch magazine' (www.littlewitchmagazine.com) in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BaringTheAegis

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