Children in Ancient (Athenian) Festivals

Religion was an integral part of ancient Greek life, and certainly was not kept away from children. If anything, children were important participants in city, household and mystery cult.

The introduction of children in city cult also contributed to their integration in the life of the polis. Meanwhile, private cult seems to have been one of the most important familial activities of the Athenian household.

It is also worth noting that, while Athens didn’t allow children to hold priesthood, this wasn’t unheard of in Greece. Pausanias gives us three accounts of the practice (8.47.3, Tegea, priest of Athena; 9.10.4, Thebes, priest of Apollo Ismenius; 10.34.8, Elateia, priest of Athena). However, this is not this post’s focus.

Outside of festivals, which I will be discussing in further details, we can also get a sneak peak of the kind of practice specific to children from this:

“Schools were associated with the Muses because choral dancing, lyre-playing and a concern for rhythm had been central to Greek education from the earliest times; by the late fifth century a character in Euripides could say ‘I have been not ill mused (ου μεμουσοωμαι κακωσ)’ to mean ‘my education has been good’. The association persisted—there were jokes about unsuccessful schools that contained more muses than pupils—and in the first century bc it was still a norm for groups of ‘mellephebes’ (those about to complete their elementary education) to make a dedication to the Muses. No source unfortunately describes the conduct of a Muse festival in a school.”

– Robert Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens, 2005

That said, the involvement of children in religious festivals is where we have more information.

Dionysian festivals: Anthesteria and Oschophoria

The second day of the Anthesteria, the Choes, seems to be the most associated with children. While interpretation on the details of the ritual vary, it seems that children of the age of three were introduced to Dionysian worship on the occasion of the Anthesteria, as attested by the many chous (drinking vessels) found that either depict children or that were placed in the grave of a child (if the child died before it was able to participate). Either way, miniature chous seemed to have served as a gift to the child, which likely served as the vessel from which the young child would take its first sip of (very watered down) wine. The children may have also been wreathed in flowers, though this is debated.  Other toys might have been gifted to children on this occasion as well. Children would also take part in the rite of swinging, which is thought to have purificatory purposes and perhaps, served as an initiation to the Bacchic Mysteries.

In Autumn, the Oschophoria seemed to have had something to do with the coming of age of Athenian boys. Two youths would lead the procession dressed as girls. The festival is said to have included stories and fables targeted towards children. Unfortunately, we do not know what they were about.

Zeus Meilichios “the kind” and children at the Diasia

We know of two sources linking the Diasia with children. One is a votive relief depicting a father and a son before the image of Zeus as a giant snake and the other is the mention of the festival in Aristophanes’ Clouds, in which Strepsiades buys his 6 year old son a toy for the occasion.

Pyanopsia: the ancient Athenian “trick-or-treat”

The Pyanopsia was held in honour of Apollo in Autumn. For the occasion, eiresione would be made: an olive branch decorated with wool, little clay figures (like lyres and vases) and fruits. One would be placed at the door of the house, but children would also carrying those and go door to door to ask for treats and sing songs. It is possible that afterwards the eiresione were given to the Temple of Apollo.

Brauronia and young girls

Young girls had a rich religious life, as every ritual procession would have at east unmarried girls as basket-bearers.

The Brauronia is a festival to Artemis which was only for unmarried girls, probably between the ages of 5 to 10, perhaps older. It seems young boys would occasionally be included too. The festival happened at the same time as the Mounychia, and so it seems the adults would be celebrating this festivals while the girls were sent to celebrate the Brauronia to the Temple of Artemis, where they would stay overnight and celebrate Artemis of the Bear. The rite involves dressing up as bears and dancing/running around the altar of Artemis. Archaeological evidence seems to indicate they were supervised by adult females.

Those are only a few selected examples. Children were also allowed to be initiated to the Eleusinian mysteries, and it seems to have also been the case for Orphic ones, later on.

I personally do not plan to have children, therefore reconstruction is not something in my interest. However, there is a lot potential for hellenic polytheists who have children and want to raise them in the faith. Especially with holidays that could involve cooking, crafting things, gifting and fun activities.

Further reading
  • Golden M.,  Children and Childhood in Classical Athens, 2015
  • Simon E., Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary, 1983
  • Utheim N.S., The Ancient Greek Festival of Anthesteria: A study of Invisible Participants in Classical Athens, 2019

2 thoughts on “Children in Ancient (Athenian) Festivals

    1. Phallic representations were common in the Ancient World, as a whole. If you want an example of phallic representation in a religious context, please take a look at the Stoibadeion in Delos (the temple of Dionysus), there are 2 phallic pillars still up and visible today.

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