Ever so often, I get the feeling I really need to write about something specific; references to the topic pop up everywhere, I get asked questions about it, and the desire to write about anything else drops to an all-time low. So here we go: today's blog post is about Hestia and Dionysos, and who has the throne up on snowy Olympos.
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The ancient Hellenes were very keen people, interested in all things nature, science and philosophy. They searched for answers to questions about their life, as well as the Theoi, and they theorized structurally about any discoveries they made, be it in health care, science or paleontology. Especially in the latter department, there are a few discoveries that might have shaped a large part of ancient Hellenic mythology and religion in general. Today, we'll be discussing some of those.
Nichoria (Νιχώρια) is a site in Messenia, a regional unit in the southwestern part of the Peloponnese, Greece, on a ridgetop near modern Rizomylos, at the northwestern corner of the Messenian Gulf. It was the home of an Acropolis where many--what we now call--fossils were stored. The Nichoria bone was discovered by the ancient Hellenes roughly around 1000 BC. It is the blackened and petrified thigh bone of an extinct mega mammal--likely a woolly rhinoceros, or a mammoth--that roamed southern Hellas around one million years ago. The rusty-black color of the fossil bone indicates that it was most likely collected from the lignite deposits near the ancient town of Megalopolis, some 55 kilometers (35 miles) away from Nichoria. The Megalopolis basin was known in antiquity as the 'battleground of the Giants', where the Titanomachy was believed to have taken place. The dense concentration of large fossil bones found at the basin inspired the belief that entire armies of giants were blasted by Zeus' thunderbolts, and the Nichoria bone--the distal end of a right femur, 15 cm (5-6 inches) wide, about twice the size of a regular human thigh bone--was most likely believed to have belonged to one of these giants. If the myth or the bone came first is unknown.
A very good friend of mine lost someone tonight, and came to me for spiritual advice on how to deal with this grief. He is not Hellenistic, but values the lessons of Hellenismos on life and religion, and as such, he wanted to hear about funerary traditions within Hellenismos, and ancient Hellenic practice. What came out what a bit of a rambled Facebook message that was vague enough for interpretation but was anywhere from complete. As such, I write this today--in a hurry before an appointment--with love and sorrow in my heart, for a friend who suffers, and a young girl who lost her life.
The ancient Hellenes believed that the moment a person died, their psyche--spirit--left the body in a puff or like a breath of wind. Proper burial was incredibly important to the ancient Hellenes, and to not give a loved one a fully ritualized funeral was unthinkable. It was, however, used as punishment of dead enemies, but only rarely. Funerary rites were performed solely to get the deceased into the afterlife, and everyone who passed away was prepared for burial according to time-honored rituals.
A burial or cremation had four parts: preparing the body, the prothesis (Προθησις, 'display of the body'), the ekphorá (ἐκφορά 'funeral procession'), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. Preparation of the body was always done by women, and was usually done by a woman over sixty, or a close relative who was related no further away from the deceased than the degree of second cousin. These were also the only people in the ekphorá. The deceased was stripped, washed, anointed with oil, and then dressed in his or her finest clothes. They also received jewelry and other fineries. A coin could be presented to the dead, and laid under or below the tongue, or even on the eyes, as payment to Kharon.
At dusk today, one of Hellenismos' most important festivals (if one can give classifications to the festivals at all) starts. It's the Anthesteria, and held in honor of Dionysos Limnaios, wine, and the dead. The Anthesteria was held annually for three days, the eleventh to thirteenth of the month of Anthesterion. It is an ancestral festival, the oldest of the festivals for Dionysos in Athens, a time of reflection and trust in the new growing season to come, a time to celebrate with the spirits of the departed the indefatigable resurgence of life. The festival centered around the celebration of the maturing of the wine stored at the previous vintage, whose pithoi were now ceremoniously opened, and the beginning of spring. The three days of the feast were called Pithoigia (after πίθοι 'storage jars'), Khoes (χοαί 'libations') and Khytroi (χύτροι 'pots').
Yesterday, I got a wonderful e-mail from a reader of Baring the Aegis, who came here through the Pagan Blog Project. Many who participate in the project are some form of Wiccan or witch--the writer herself included. The writer told me about reading this blog with only a Wiccan mindset to rely upon, and asked me the following question:
Because I write with Hellenists in mind, I realize I don't often make comparissons between Hellenismos and other religions or Traditions. Her questions are therefor absolutely logical. For those of you who also came here from a non-Hellenistic, or non-Recon path, I wanted to share my answer to her with you, just to see if I can clear up some confusion.
Coming of age ceremonies are prevalent in most cultures and are often linked to the religious views of the people performing it. Famous examples are the bar mitswa's and bat mitswa's of the Jewish. The ancient Hellens had coming of age rituals as well, and like almost everything else in ancient Hellenic life, these rituals were tied into deity worship. Today, I'm going to talk about these coming of age ceremonies, but because the differences are so great between girls and boys, I'm going to describe their coming of age ceremonies separately.