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Ritual Cycles: Calendars and Festivals

Abstract and Keywords

Time is one of the fundamental dimensions of ancient Greek religion. Scholarship has elucidated the essential links between nature and time-reckoning, notably the importance of seasonal and agricultural cycles in the constitution of Greek rituals and calendars. Recently, the focus has often oscillated between a synchronic perspective, considering myths and rituals as virtually sempiternal, or a diachronic one, approaching them in concrete historical terms. A temporal lens also affords us the opportunity to ask not, perhaps, ‘how it exactly happened’—a difficult question—but to form a suitable impression of different scales of ritual time; in other words, ‘what it felt like’, from seasonal and year-long rhythms, to major events and celebrations in the year. This contribution looks first at snapshots of the seasonal cycles described in the revised calendar of the small island of Mykonos, before turning to consider the peaks of the year, two major festivals at Magnesia-on-the-Maeander.

Keywords: Magnesia-on-the-Maeander, Mykonos, calendar, festivals, rituals, myth, diachronic, celebrations, seasonal cycles, agricultural cycles, time


When dealing with time and Greek religion, we are often concerned with a phenomenon that appears cyclical: the course of successive years, their recurring seasons and events, all represented by a constant calendar. One useful point of entry into the subject may be Hesiod’s Works and Days. Attempts have even been made to view the second half of the poem as a form of calendar (Kravaritou 2002; Hannah 2005: 18–27; especially on Hes. Op. 383–828). Though the verses occasionally mention specific days or months, the didactic chronology is not strictly sequential and the calendrical points of reference are primarily astronomical or astrological: the poem is more of an inspired and manifold almanac, seeking to give advice about toil (erga) and timing. Agricultural concerns are addressed, such as when to reap crops and plough fields (namely, the rising and setting of the Pleiades, ll. 383–4), along with a variety of other activities, such as seafaring. Nuggets of received wisdom are frequently interjected, which amount to proverbs of a sort: ‘remember seasonal work (horia erga)’ (l. 422); ‘be mindful of doing each thing in its own time’ (ll. 641–2, a similar expression).

There is a substantial—but not complete—disconnect between Hesiod’s work and the calendars which we find in later Greek sources, primarily as inscriptions or as accounts in other literary sources. Though the year and its seasonal rhythms were clearly defined by the sun, as Hesiod recognized, Greek calendars usually contained a series of twelve lunar months. One has to say ‘calendars’ because Greek cities employed a wide variety of names for their months and diverse starting-points for their calendrical years (Trümpy 1997). Though there is much common ground behind certain groups of calendars, their origins are often mysterious and many probably go back to a time before Hesiod’s poem was composed. What is clear, however, is that the vast majority (if not the entire set) of names of months in Greek calendars have a seasonal or religious (p. 538) significance; sometimes both. They are tied through etymology with specific times of the year or with the names of gods, rituals, and so on (again Trümpy 1997; or Nilsson 1906 for a more detailed discussion). Alongside this etymology, there is also a manifest reference to seasonal work and/or to cultic practice. For instance, Boedromion may have originally denoted the driving of oxen in the Athenian calendar, and Posideon, of course, refers to Poseidon and to sacrifices in his honour.

Beyond a year consisting of lunar months, Greek communities also developed several lengthier, multi-annual cycles of time. Famous among these are the Olympiad and the cycle of the Pythian Games, both quadrennial (in inclusive Greek terms, penteteric) and centred around major festivals at Olympia and Delphi respectively. Much valuable scholarly effort has been, and continues to be, expended in the scientific calculation of Greek chronology and history, notably using these penteteric cycles (Hannah 2005, especially ch. 4; the classic work is Bickerman 1968, with extensive tables). An often remarked crux is that a Greek year consisting of short lunar months (approximately 29.5 days long) regularly grew out of synchrony with the lengthier solar year and thus with the rhythm of the seasons. The addition of a supplementary (intercalary) month was sometimes deemed necessary to adjust the deficit. By the Hellenistic period at least, it might be possible to easily synchronize penteteric, lunar, solar, and other astronomical calendars, such as we find inscribed on the dials of the famous Antikythera Mechanism (Freeth, Jones, Steele, and Bitsakis 2008).

Recent work still has a tendency to focus on the chronometric deficit of lunar calendars, which is viewed as an exploitable failure in rigorous time-keeping. The result is that Greek calendars, like many other ancient calendars, are envisaged as instruments and publications that were primarily political and social tools (recently, Stern 2012: 25–70). There is an element of truth in that line of argument, but it must not be overemphasized. Natural cycles, as well as religious tradition, were paramount in the composition and the structure of any given Greek calendar. For example, one of the best-known calendars, that of Athens, carefully distinguished between ‘political’ days—when assembly meetings could be held and law courts were in session—and religious occasions such as sacrifices and festivals (Mikalson 1975). The former could usually only occur when the latter, more or less immobile, did not: in this case, religion habitually trumped politics. In the study of Greek religion, a fruitful approach has been pioneered by a few studies that seek to reconcile Greek lunar months with the solar year in a different way, namely, by taking an example from Hesiod and looking more closely at the seasonal and economic cycles inherent in the order and structure of calendars (for example, Brumfield 1981).

Sacrificial and Festal Calendars

One particularly interesting and prominent category in the extant epigraphical evidence is that of sacrificial and festal calendars. We usually define these documents simply as texts that list rituals or festivals in a precise chronological order (NGSL: 65–8). (p. 539) They often do not include verbs or conjunctions, and can merely contain elements in the following form: date (or festival); deity (in the dative); offering (usually an animal, in the nominative or the accusative). Other details can be filled in as necessary, but oftentimes they are simply not required. Several Linear B tablets from the final centuries of the second millennium bce are inscribed with what appear to be lists of provisions or offerings, which are prefixed by month names or festivals (Trümpy 1997: 2–3). Otherwise, our earliest evidence for Greek sacrificial calendars comes from the Archaic period. Cases include a fragmentary but monumental stele from Corinth (NGSL: 65–6, c.600–585 bce) and wall blocks inscribed with the calendar of Miletos (LSAM 41, c.525–500 bce). These calendars were manifestly intended for public display. In late Classical Athens, a specific change in the form of the calendars took place, but it was perhaps limited to this period alone. Though the texts remain chronologically arranged, the accounting of the cost and funding of the rituals now becomes essential as an added element in the tabulation (cf. LSCG 18, a diminutive stele from Erchia, c.375–350 bce). But that development remains an exception rather than the rule in a group of documents that come from all periods and from a variety of locations in the eastern Aegean.

Greek sacrificial calendars organize religious practice according to what one might call an ideal and traditional sequence, since the order of lunar months and dates is very seldom explicitly correlated with external phenomena or with other records. Beyond the possibility that it could be synchronized externally, it would be a false assumption to view such a calendar as principally a tool for precise time-reckoning. Yet this does not entail that the fixed and cyclically repetitive structure of time was merely symbolic. A sacrificial calendar was a self-standing aide-mémoire and therefore perfectly practical in that regard. Only the necessary information about the rituals is mentioned, and the customary timing remains primordial. Any person consulting a copy of the published text, perhaps especially priests and other officials, could view at a glance the key elements of a given day’s sacrifice. Like other documents, inscribing calendars was, of course, a political action, potentially enabling revisions, corrections, and other manipulations, but also conferring greater publicity and visibility on the ideal and traditional structure of time in the city. In other words, the form and content of a calendar were elaborated very much in the spirit of the Works and Days: the calendar followed the recurring seasons and their essential rituals, enabling one to remain ‘mindful of doing each thing in its own time’.

Here, we will look at one telling and vivid case of a sacrificial calendar from a Hellenistic island (in the next section). After tracing a year-long cycle and its seasonal rhythms within a city’s religious calendar, it seems appropriate to focus more specifically on highlights of the year, in this case two major but different festivals, occurring in the same city and during the same month (the following section, ‘Two Holidays at Magnesia-on-the-Maeander’). A temporal lens can attempt to shed some light, not on ‘how it exactly happened’, but on different scales of ritual time—a glimpse of ‘what it felt like’. By following seasonal and yearly rhythms down to major events and celebrations, we can form a suitable impression of the practical details of ritual cycles. Perhaps even some of the experiences attached to these different modes of time may be within our reach.

(p. 540) Seasonal Snapshots from Mykonos

From Mykonos in the central Aegean, long overshadowed by its much smaller neighbour, the sacred island of Delos, comes a tall inscribed stele bearing a sacrificial calendar (LSCG 96). The preamble of the inscription from Mykonos is short yet nonetheless unusually explicit for these terse documents: ‘Gods. In the archonship of Kratinos, Polyzelos and Philophron, when the cities came together in one community [ll. 2–3], it pleased the Mykonians to sacrifice the following rites in addition to earlier ones [ll. 3–4] and revised concerning earlier ones [ll. 4–5].’ In other words, the calendar must be dated to a specific political context, the synoikism (or ‘amalgamation’) of the cities on the island in c.230–200 bce (Reger 2001). This event naturally entailed some modification and recalibration of the rites that would now be shared by the unified citizenry. Since we have so little information about the religious landscape of Mykonos, it is not easy to discern which rituals are ‘additional’ and which are ‘amended’. Nevertheless, because it is so specific to this context and so unusually detailed, and at least half of it is well preserved, the calendar from this small island community is an excellent case for better comprehending and analysing the relationship between rituals and seasonal rhythms.

Let us visualize the scene. It is midwinter. The fields are void and silent. As with many Ionian cities, the year begins in this cold and stormy season on Mykonos (in the Dorian world, by contrast, the year usually begins in high summer). The month is Posideon: the Mykonians turn their gaze to the sea and to the eponymous god Poseidon. At this time, fishing is the prime source of activity and income (Beresford 2013: 258–9). The concern of the citizenry is naturally to safeguard this initial aspect of its yearly cycle. In a major celebration at the start of the calendar, the twelfth of this first month, Poseidon is honoured with a beautiful and ‘uncastrated’ white ram in a precinct outside the city, perhaps near the sea (ll. 5–8). Other analogous rites for Poseidon occurred elsewhere, for example at Sinope and Smyrna, sometimes on the same date (Robertson 1984: 7, nos 8 and 9); the timing may have corresponded, more or less, with the winter solstice in December. Another manifestation of Poseidon called Phykios—god of ‘seaweed’—is simultaneously honoured with a similar but younger male lamb. Only men—whose business is the sea—can participate in the rites. The civic council is explicitly said to fund these sacrifices from the fishery taxes (l. 10).

Yet the city also begins to look beyond the gloom of midwinter. At the same time as the Posideia are taking place, a verdant Demeter (Chloe) is propitiated with a sacrifice of twin sows (ll. 11–15). One of the two animals is pregnant, and the twin sacrifice is accompanied by two measures of barley grains and three of wine. It would be hard not to read this sacrifice as, to some degree, symbolizing the twin faces of this early part of the year for the Mykonians. They are thankful for past crops and for animal young, but also look forward to and wish to ensure a green and fertile spring. They keep one eye presently on Poseidon and the sea, but another prospectively on Demeter and the land.

(p. 541) A moon or so later, spring is indeed in the air. We are in the month Lenaion and agricultural concerns have now come even more to the fore. Probably at a sanctuary called the Lenaion outside the city, a major festival of the unified community is to take place over the course of three days. On the first, when a song is made for good crops (l. 16), sacrifices are held for Demeter, her daughter Kore, and Zeus Bouleus (‘Zeus of Good Council’, who is often identified with Plouton, a god of wealth and agricultural prosperity). Once again, the animal offered to Demeter is a pregnant sow, and, in the early spring, one that holds her first litter (l. 16). Barley grains are to be provided for this sacrifice, and particular care is to be taken by the priests and senior officials of the city to ensure that the rites are attractive and the divine omens favourable (ll. 19–20). Punctiliousness is necessary because the rites are envisioned as vital for the nourishment and prosperity of the whole community.

This festival is also to be distinguished from the one in Posideon by the wide-scale participation of women, whether citizens or foreigners, who are initiates of Demeter. A large gathering of people has taken place in the sanctuary outside the city (l. 23). On the second day of the festival, a sacrifice for Semele, the mother of Dionysos, is held, and on the last day comes finally a sacrifice to Dionysos called Leneus, god of the wine press or wine vat. Since this would seem a rather late stage to harvest and press wine, it may well be that the Lenaia on Mykonos marked a successful harvest, and involved drinking from the wine vat and tasting recently fermented wine, rather than the actual pressing of grapes. A similarly tardy Lenaia took place in Athens, before the sampling of the preceding year’s vintage in Anthesterion (February/March). At any rate, the rites clearly marked the beginning of spring. They are framed by a further sacrifice on behalf of crops, in this case to Zeus and Ge (Earth) of the Chthon (the surface of the earth and its underbelly), and consisting of flayed and black yearling animals. This sacrifice has a distinctive colouring—it is also held separately and excludes the participation of strangers—and it harks back to Hesiod and his injunction to propitiate these gods of the dark soil for good grain (Hes. Op. 465–6: ‘Pray to Zeus Chthonios and Pure Demeter to make the grain mature and heavy . . . when the ploughing begins’).

One could hardly ask for a more explicit expression of the seasonal dimension of the calendar than this major celebration. It appears to be the conflation of two separate occasions in the newly unified Mykonian polity: on the one hand, a large-scale festival of Demeter, Zeus, and Earth on behalf of crops; on the other, the Lenaia, in honour of Dionysos and his mother and focused on wine. Men and women leave the city in processions and are gathered together to sacrifice, sing, and drink. They honour the gods of the autumn wine, and, at the same time, herald the coming of spring and its new crops.

In the ensuing months, the year follows its course, but the calendar of Mykonos is somewhat less detailed. In Bacchion, perhaps the month immediately after Lenaion, Dionysos is again celebrated, with the epithet Baccheus and with feasting on a mountain ridge (ll. 26–9). There are possibly other intervening months in which nothing significant happens. Next, the calendar once again becomes more expansive and we are apparently in early or midsummer, in the month of Hekatombaion—literally, the (p. 542) occasion for the sacrifice of a hundred oxen. If all has gone well, new animals have been born in the spring and the flocks have increased considerably. But the hecatomb is a bit more modest on the small island of Mykonos. On the seventh day of the month—a sacred day for Apollo (cf. again Hes. Op. 770–1)—a token bull is sacrificed to the god, who is also the eponym of the month, Apollo Hekatombios, along with ten new lambs symbolic of a hecatomb. The participants are exclusively male: young boys (paides) and young men, ones who are of marriageable age or who have been recently married (nymphioi), along with the priest and perhaps other men.

In summer, the community’s focus has accordingly turned towards this further aspect of its fertility and well-being: animal husbandry and male maturation. Joining Apollo in this one-day festival is another god, Acheloios (also Achelous), who receives virtually the same sacrifice of eleven animals. While Apollo’s sacrifice highlights young men and their maturation, this other pendant of the celebration clearly takes place in the countryside, where Acheloios has land consecrated to him (l. 37). In fact, part of the god’s sacrifice is slaughtered directly into the river (l. 37). Acheloios is a bull-headed god of rivers; here he must designate the only central watercourse of the island (the modern Megalo Langadi). The river god is worshipped and placated to ensure that the water flows in sufficient (but not excessive) abundance, to moisten meadows and quench the thirst of shepherds’ flocks. In the summertime, it is quite possible that this watercourse, like many others in Greece, would have been dry and empty, hence the need to propitiate the god.

The summer month of Hekatombaion was an important turning point in a year on the island of Mykonos. A further sacrifice, taking place in this month, was devoted to the Archegetes or mythical founding hero of the island, presumably the eponymous Mykonos himself (Reger 2001: 179–80 discusses the possibilities). A small feast resulting from this sacrifice once again encapsulated the newly unified community. Regrettably, the lower portion of the stele has now become effaced and we can only barely read the remaining forty or so lines of the sacrificial calendar. These perhaps spanned a further four months or so. This was the undoubtedly equally significant season of autumn, with its harvesting of crops and grapes.

Despite this lacuna, the sacrificial calendar of Mykonos clearly shows how the high points of a given year occurred in direct connection with the seasonal rhythms. In all cases, the relationship between the economy of a small island community in the Aegean (Brun 1996) and its ritual practices is evident. Here, as elsewhere, religion was a yearly progression that formed an inextricable component of the community’s outlook and subsistence. The Mykonians began their year with a focus on Poseidon and fishing in the winter, then transitioned to rites for Demeter to prepare for the spring and the coming of the crops, while also paying homage to Dionysos, god of the new autumn wine; in the summer, after the lambing season of the spring, young boys and men honoured Apollo, linking their own maturing with that of new livestock; all the while, the river Acheloios and other deities and heroes formed the heart and core of the island in a geographical, political, and religious sense. The cycle would then begin anew.

(p. 543) Two Holidays at Magnesia-on-the-Maeander

The calendar from Mykonos reveals several major celebrations on the island, which were interspersed throughout the year and formed a coherent, cyclical whole. In various decrees and other inscribed regulations from Greek cities, we receive even more detailed accounts of individual festivals that were momentous occasions in the calendar. These peaks of the year are especially elucidated in lengthy civic decrees that sought to revitalize or enhance festivals in the latter half of the Hellenistic period (generally speaking, the second and first centuries bce; Paul 2013). This period has sometimes been called an ‘Indian summer’ of religious life in Greek cities, particularly in western Anatolia (so Deshours 2011). Yet this time was probably not characterized by an increase in religiosity compared to that of the past, but rather by a desire to make worship more prominent and vivid, sometimes due to innovative competition between polities, sometimes for restoring celebrations that had been interrupted due to wars or had fallen into desuetude; other times for the simple sake of increasing the conspicuousness of existing offerings; often all of the above. Two substantial, inscribed decrees from the city of Magnesia-on-the-Maeander, at the border between Ionia and Karia, may be taken as examples. Together, they constitute a richly detailed dossier concerning the mode of operation of festivals in the same city.

Zeus ‘Saviour of the City’

The first decree concerns a sacrifice in honour of Zeus Sosipolis, whose epithet means ‘Saviour of the City’ (LSAM 32, dated to 197/6 or in the 180s bce; see Wiemer 2009: 123–7, also on the context). We are told little about the motivations for its passing, but the epithet of Zeus may be thought to be key. We know almost nothing else about this manifestation of Zeus, and his cult might be thought to be a fairly recent introduction to the city, perhaps during some recent critical or desperate circumstances. Remains of a temple dating to the early second century bce have been attributed to the god, and the decree concerning the festival was inscribed on one of its doorposts. The temple of the major goddess of the city, Artemis Leukophryene, was also rebuilt around this time (discussion of both structures in Schädler 1991: 301–12). Asia Minor was a land of wars and conquest during the Hellenistic period, and the dates of the decree for Zeus Sosipolis are no exception: the Seleucid king Antiochos III conquered much of Asia Minor as part of the Roman–Syrian War in 197/6 (Chaniotis 2005: esp. 143–65 for ‘the effects of Hellenistic wars on religion’). That does not tell us that Magnesia chose to honour Zeus Sosipolis specifically because of this, but ‘the saving of the city’, whether from ‘occupiers’ or even from the depredations of the ‘liberators’, was clearly present in the minds of its citizens.

(p. 544) Perhaps the written act of foundation of the cult would have dealt with such motivations, but here the focus of the decree is on religion as an oblique but nonetheless revealing mirror for politics. A précis summarizes the primary concerns of the decree: first, the selection of an additional bull for sacrifice; second, the prayer and procession accompanying the ritual; finally, the erection of a circular tent (tholos) in the agora—where the Temple of Zeus at Magnesia was located—and the placement of couches within it for hosting the gods (represented by their statues).

The new plan is to purchase a bull several months in advance of the sacrifice. The occasion for the transaction is apparently a general gathering of the people (or panegyris), which takes place every year in the month Heraion; that festival is unknown but was perhaps also traditionally linked with Zeus and his consort Hera. The order of the calendar of Magnesia is unclear, but it is probable that this occasion took place in high or late summer. The bull purchased during this annual fair, abuzz with people and animals, is chosen to be ‘as beautiful as possible’ (l. 12). It could then be fattened up in the intervening time (ll. 59–64, provisions for the purchase and rearing of the bull, called trophe; see the liturgy called boutrophia at Bargylia SEG 45.1508A–B and 50.1101, c.120s–100 bce).

A short while later, during the early autumn, the bull was designated as being destined for Zeus Sosipolis in a special ceremony (Trümpy 1997: 110–11 §94, Kronion = September/October). Furthermore, the occasion explicitly marks the beginning of a new agricultural cycle, ‘when the sowing of seeds begins, on the new moon (first day) of the month Kronion’ (ll. 14–15). At this time, one proclaims the bull’s ‘consecration’ (anadeixis), at which are present most of the prominent officials of the city: the major priests and priestesses, the sacred herald, the military commanders, the administrators, the secretaries of the civic council, as well as a man who is eventually (but not yet!) to do the actual butchering of the animal. Also in attendance are nine boys and an equal number of maidens, sent by their caretakers as participants in the consecration and the ensuing prayers. The inclusion of these children of citizens appears to be aimed again at beautifying the rituals, notably through their invocations and through choral songs. We are expressly told some of the substance of the prayers, and their sentiment is a perfect summation of the concerns of the local community: ‘For the safety of the city and the countryside and the citizens and women and children and others who live in the area, and for peace and wealth and a good harvest of grain and all other produce and herds’ (ll. 26–31).

Still later is the actual sacrifice to Zeus Sosipolis, on the twelfth of the month Artemision (ll. 34–5). It is unclear exactly how much time has passed since the original purchase of the bull—at least three months, probably more—but it must now have been fairly well known as ‘bull-designate’ among the townsfolk and quite plump. Artemision is the principal month in the cultic calendar of Magnesia-on-the-Maeander, falling as far as the spring or summer after the bull was chosen. Rites for the major goddess of the city, Artemis Leukophryene, are known to have occurred on the sixth of the month and may have lasted over several days. The celebration of Zeus Sosipolis takes place (p. 545) some days afterwards, perhaps so as not to anticipate the Leukophryena, but also as an apt continuation of the major festival month of the city. Not only is Zeus himself particularly honoured, but the entire group of the Twelve Gods (Georgoudi 1998: 82) is brought to the fore on the symbolic day of the twelfth.

The statues of these gods are to be carried in the procession wearing their finest raiment (ll. 41–3). A round tent (tholos) is to be set up in the agora near the altar of these Twelve Gods. The ritual of hosting (theoxenia) which is to take place in this temporary tent is focused on a subset of this larger group of Twelve Gods: Zeus, honoured with an additional sacrifice of a ram, to take place on the nearby altar of Zeus Sosipolis; Artemis Leukophryene, as expected; and Apollo Pythios, whose priest, the crown-bearer (stephanephoros) of the city, officiates. The statues are arranged on three lavish couches and entertained with music, and are probably offered choice portions from these sacrifices. The significance of this additional ritual within the wider festival appears to be complementary, and at the same time definitional. It stresses that the rites for Zeus Sosipolis lie at the heart of the city whose safety he ensures, in the agora where his temple stands, and where the altar of the Twelve Gods is also located. And it further reinforces the city’s focus on its principal goddess Artemis Leukophryene, who is hosted alongside her father and brother, a few days after her own festival.

Similarly, the two separate lists of participants in the procession for Zeus and in the theoxenia rites are quite carefully structured. As we saw with the proclamation of the bull, a series of high-profile individuals are to be involved in the procession, all exclusively male, such as the major magistrates of the city and male priests, but also invoked are young men, boys, and winners of contests. The number of participants in the triple sacrifice to Zeus, Artemis, and Apollo during the theoxenia is much more narrow and selective: the priest called stephanephoros and likely the priest of Zeus also, the priestess of Artemis (apparently the sole woman involved), military commanders, select cultic officials (neopoiai), public examiners, and presiding officers of the public bodies, as well as men who have performed liturgies and benefactions for the city.

In other words, this was a highly politically charged celebration and its parameters should be understood as two concentric circles: the larger band of the male polis, within which lay a smaller, apparently more elite, ring. The wider, more encompassing circle, shared the bull sacrificed to Zeus (ll. 54–5). Its approximately one hundred kilograms of dressed meat would have provided sufficient material for a feast that included a good portion of the male citizenry of Magnesia-on-the-Maeander. The smaller triple sacrifice to Zeus, Artemis, and Apollo was shared by the more select group of prominent cultic and political officials (ll. 55–9). These two circles epitomize the practical ideals of a Greek city like Magnesia-on-the-Maeander. On the one hand, there was a desire to foster the inclusivity and participation of the citizenry in the augmented worship of the gods; on the other, the elaboration of the day’s rituals carefully mirrored the hierarchy of the political core of the city. Over much of the year, from the autumn to spring or summer, the focus of these circles of participants remained on the offering of a bull to Zeus for the safeguarding and the prosperity of the city.

(p. 546) The Special Day of the Isiteria

By contrast, another detailed festival decree from Magnesia-on-the-Maeander may make the occasion for Zeus Sosipolis seem somewhat limited in scope, not to say rather male and elitist. This text (LSAM 33A, to be read with Gauthier 1990) concerns a revitalized celebration for Artemis Leukophryene in the city, concomitant with the large-scale development of the festival of the goddess, the Leukophryena. An important and much-discussed inscription informs us that, as a result of an epiphany of the goddess, the Magnesians consulted Delphi (IMagn. 16, c.208/7–203 bce; see Paul 2013: 241–4, with references to recent work on the text). The oracle advised them to rebuild her temple and to invite Greek cities to participate in the revamped festival. The principal text discussed here (LSAM 33A) is roughly contemporaneous with the decree for Zeus Sosipolis in the early second century bce, but at least two other related documents are also known: one now lost, and one dating to about a century later (LSAM 33B, c.105–85 bce; for the date, see Santangelo 2006). We therefore have parts of a dossier, inscribed together on the pillar of a stoa in the agora. This dossier was gradually constituted, and incrementally sought to augment the celebrations of the fundamental holiday for the Magnesians.

Since a new temple (called Parthenon) for the goddess had recently been constructed, the purpose of the first decree (LSAM 33A) is to define the installation of the ancient statue (xoanon) of the goddess in this place and the practicalities of rituals for the goddess on the day in question. The setting up of the statue is to take place at a specific moment, the sixth of the eponymous month of the goddess, Artemision, probably in the springtime or early summer, as we have seen. By virtue of the decree, that day is now to be known as the Isiteria, a sacred ‘festival of inauguration’ (ll. 24–5). The sixth day of a given Greek month was typically sacred to Artemis (Mikalson 1975: 18). It remains unclear, though likely, that this day of the Isiteria had a close relationship with the larger festival of the Leukophryena in honour of the goddess, who was reckoned to be the founder of the city (Archegetis, ll. 18–19). The precise dates of the Leukophryena festival within the calendar year are unknown but probably also fell on the sixth as well as the days directly following the Isiteria.

At any rate, the Isiteria must have formed one of the most significant days of the year in the city of Magnesia-on-the-Maeander. The decree begins with the typical invocation for good fortune, but also ‘for the safety of the people and of those who are kindly disposed to the Magnesians and their wives and children’ (ll. 19–20). In other words, this celebration possessed a broad, almost universal, appeal. The festival of Artemis was therefore intended to involve all the residents of the community, not just male citizens or the inner political body which revolved around Zeus Sosipolis.

The practicalities of the day of the Isiteria are equally all-encompassing. It is to begin first with the actual installation of the statue of the goddess (l. 23) by the temple warden and the priestess, and this is accompanied by a superlative sacrifice. The use of the aorist infinitive form of the verb (ll. 22–3) in connection with these actions, contrasting with present infinitives and imperatives elsewhere in the inscription, suggests that (p. 547) this was a one-off affair: only the first iteration of the Isiteria will require these rituals for installing the cultic statue. But the inauguration of the statue will be commemorated in perpetuity through similar and other rituals. All mature or married women are to be allowed to enter the sanctuary on the special day of the Isiteria. There, they are to fulfil something unusual beyond the honour (time) due to the goddess: a cultic attendance that is described as paredreia . . . tes theou, literally ‘sitting’ or ‘installing beside’ the goddess (ll. 26–8). This rite not only implies the physical presence of women in the sanctuary as cult attendants and ‘co-chairs’ of the goddess, but ought also to suggest that the women had specific tactile contacts with the statue. The passage is very brief, but we know from other sources that this paredreia may have involved such gestures as washing the statue, clothing it, and beautifying it with various adornments (such were the rites performed by the genos of the Praxiergidai at Athens, attested in the very fragmentary LSCG 15, c.460–450 bce; and see the festivals called Kallynteria, and Plynteria—‘Washing’, which took place late in the month Thargelion—early June, Parker 2005: 474–5, 478–9).

Even more than in the case of Zeus Sosipolis, the day is to be a holiday for children and others (ll. 28–31). Choirs of maidens are to sing hymns to Artemis Leukophryene under the supervision of the temple warden. School is out for boys, and even male and female slaves can dispense with their usual labour. The successive annual priestesses of Artemis are to put on a procession and sacrifice to celebrate and commemorate the sacred day (ll. 31–4). As on the first day of the year at Magnesia, the administration and the transaction of goods and wares is also to take place on this day (ll. 34–6). This implies that some accounting took place, but, more importantly, that the Isiteria was market day, as one finds during the other major festivals at Magnesia and elsewhere. A fair (panegyris) will have taken place in the agora of the city (cp. also LSAM 33B, ll. 13–15).

As with the festival of Zeus Sosipolis, we again find a great gathering of important people in this location. Notable men and officials of the city are in their ‘best clothes’ and wearing laurel wreaths (ll. 36–42), but, as the inscription tells us, the gathering is larger: the agora is bustling and full to bursting. After libations have been performed, the sacred herald calls for silence and then addresses the general assembly (ll. 43–8):

Upon magnificent (and auspicious) Isiteria, I invite all of the inhabitants of the city and territory of Magnesia to make a sacrifice pleasing to Artemis Leukophryene on this very day, according to their household’s means, and to pray that Artemis Leukophryene will give the Magnesians and their wives health and prosperity, and that she will safeguard their existing progeny, and grant them good fortune, and make their future offspring (epigone) flourish . . .

The prayer has a wide appeal and the celebration is indeed to be a popular one. Already, a large group of women have had a hand in the celebrations taking place in the temple itself. Certainly, the male elite is once again present at the heart of the procession and the sacrifice, but there is a significant dissemination of the celebration beyond the cultic centre and the agora. All citizens and other residents of Magnesia and its (p. 548) surrounding countryside are urged to construct altars for the goddess privately in front of their household doors (cf. also ll. 7–10; and see Schorn 2004: 130–1, fr. *28.2 col. 1, for the papyrus of Satyros concerning altars built in front of houses or on balconies in honour of Arsinoe II at Alexandria; or FGrHist 160 F 1 28–30 (III), c.246 bce). It is important to note that participation is apparently voluntary and there is no minimum requirement for these altars: each household is to build one according to its own means (ll. 9 and 45). Of course, some form of competition may naturally have occurred between households, with peer pressure inciting each to surpass his neighbours in constructing something durable or fairly costly, rather than simply erecting a makeshift altar for the goddess. Indeed, the later decree from the dossier (LSAM 33B, ll. 38–42) reinforces public participation in this aspect of the Isiteria by invoking a form of curse on those who have bought houses or workshops and failed to build an altar. There, it is also specified that the altars are to be decorated and inscribed ‘of Artemis Leukophryene, Bringer-of-Victory’ (Nikephoros), thus implying that permanent structures were deemed more desirable.

While the festival of Zeus Sosipolis marked a major celebration and feast for the city of Magnesia, and particularly its elite, it is clear that the Isiteria was a different and highly special holiday for the whole community. There was a significant break in the daily routine and drudgery of the year on the sixth of Artemision. Each and every one of the inhabitants took part. Women, children, and even slaves, would be released from their usual obligations and could partake directly in the celebrations. While an important sacrifice was taking place in the centre of town, smaller ones would be offered throughout the city and the surrounding countryside on household altars built for this explicit purpose. Feasts, both large and small, would be consumed in parties and in familial settings. The circle of reciprocity was perpetuated: honours for Artemis were ubiquitous and, at the same time, she was asked to grant universal benefactions. As the festivities wound down from this pivotal holiday, the annual cycle of the religious calendar at Magnesia-on-the-Maeander would, as always, resume and continue.


In a reflective and stimulating introduction to the temporality of Greek religion, Davidson (2007: 237–8) has pointed to what he calls ‘three types of time’—accumulative, repetitive, and climactic. While events and innovations accumulate gradually like sand in the course of history, they may also be repeated annually or over even longer periods of time; particularly significant points in the year can reasonably be viewed as climaxes. We have seen these three ‘types’ at play here: occasions like the rites for Zeus Sosipolis or the Isiteria could be newly added or rekindled, but they would immediately be incorporated into a larger framework, the annual religious calendar of a city. They would form climaxes in a repetitive cycle, much like the celebrations found in the traditional and revised calendar of Mykonos.

Despite their utility, then, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Davidson’s distinctions only form three congruent, perceptible aspects (not types) of time and (p. 549) its role in Greek religion. Time, after all, is fundamentally a dimension which is distinguished from space in a Euclidian model, or which forms an integral part of the curvature of space-time in a relativistic model. More plainly, to an ancient Greek time probably appeared both as an accretive continuum and as an eventful annual cycle. In other words, it was felt in much the same way as it is today, though many of us have now lost touch with the essential rhythms of the year—except the seasons—and, for some of us, much of the background of our holidays has become quite murky.

Time, and especially religious and ritual time, is not easily represented in strict geometric concepts. For the Greeks, as for us, it was periodically and perpetually punctuated by meaningful highlights and regular celebrations alike. It was concomitantly linear and circular, transcending both of these simple forms.

Suggested Reading

Feeney 2007 is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging introduction to ancient concepts of time and calendars, especially concentrating on the Roman fasti but often keeping an eye on Greece (e.g. ch. 1). Many general surveys are inclined towards chronometry, for instance Hannah 2009. Hannah 2005 is a somewhat more balanced introduction and the small handbook of Nilsson 1962 can still be profitably consulted. A detailed, scientific study of ancient astronomical, astrological, and meteorological calendars can be found in Lehoux 2007.

Following the still useful work of Samuel 1972, Trümpy 1997 is a comprehensive (but sometimes speculative) attempt to reconstruct all of the lunar calendars attested in Greek cities. This is essentially the opposite approach to that which Nilsson adopted in his classic work (1906), which organized festivals according to their principal deity. Nilsson’s volume has comprehensive indices and remains a very good source of material, dealing with the whole of the Greek world except Attica. For the better attested festivals from Athens, Parker 2005, part II, is the most learned and insightful contemporary discussion (cf. also app. 1, for a checklist); Mikalson 1975 offers a month-by-month and day-by-day compendium of the Athenian calendar.

For a wider and admirably cautious discussion of ‘The Experience of Festivals’, see Parker 2011: 171–223 (ch. 6). A different and highly innovative approach can be found in Chaniotis 2006, as well as in a large body of recent work on the dynamic and emotive aspects of festivals and other Greek rituals.


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