For hellenic reconstructionists, the question of “what do the festivals mean and how did people celebrate?” is very real, especially when the information is fragmentary and doesn’t do justice to the religious diversity of the Ancient World.
One of the things that make holidays feel like holidays is symbolic decor. There’s a reason why, when December comes around, people get excited about shiny garlands, gingerbread cookies and branches of holy/mistletoe. If you take those elements apart, they don’t really mean much but once in context, they communicate a particular message linked to a particular tradition. While I’ve taken a Christian example, the association of symbolism to specific religious event is something that is found across cultures and faiths.
- the Eiresione: the eiresione is a branch of olive or laurel that is adorned with wool, dried fruits, nuts, sometimes little flasks of oil or honey. I’m putting it first because there’s a lot to cover. It’s part of at least the Pyanepsia, but some people associate it with both the Pyanepsia and the Thargelia, and I would even be tempted to add the Delphinia. The pattern is that those are all festivals to Apollo.
Plutarch, in his Life of Theseus (22), gives us more details:At that feast they also carry the so-called ‘eiresione,’ which is a bough of olive wreathed with wool, such as Theseus used at the time of his supplication, and laden with all sorts of fruit-offerings, to signify that scarcity was at an end, and as they go they sing:—“Eiresione for us brings figs and bread of the richest, brings us honey in pots and oil to rub off from the body, Strong wine too in a beaker, that one may go to bed mellow.”
The part in bold is what leads me to believe there might be a link with the Delphinia, even if they don’t have the same ritual purpose, as Plutarch also describes earlier in Life of Theseus (18.1):When the lot was cast, Theseus took those upon whom it fell from the prytaneium and went to the Delphinium, where he dedicated to Apollo in their behalf his suppliant’s badge. This was a bough from the sacred olive-tree, wreathed with white wool. Having made his vows and prayers, he went down to the sea on the sixth day of the month Munychion, on which day even now the Athenians still send their maidens to the Delphinium to propitiate the god.
In the ritual for the Pyanopsia, the eiresione would be carried by a young boy during the procession to the temple of Apollo, where it would be placed at the door. That being said, there’s indication that people had their own eiresione at home, close to their house door:several passages of Aristophanes which show that any normal house in Athens might be expected to have one outside the front door all year round; […] The orator Lycurgus associates the origin of the custom with an ancient famine, and says ‘decorating a large olive branch with everything that the seasons produce at that time they dedicated it to Apollo in front of their doors, calling it eiresione, making first fruit offerings of all the products of the earth, because the suppliant branch placed with Apollo ended the famine in our land.’
–Robert Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens, 2005
We could go on and on with this topic, but the point is just that the eiresione is meant to be a bringer of wealth to the household. Its purpose and use in religious festival make it an item to consider when thinking about stuff to add to your religious paraphernalia.
- Garlands: They are mentioned in sources and probably could exist both made out of flowers and fabric but we don’t really know what they actually looked like. This seems like a generally versatile festival decoration. Colour-coding could be an interesting modern adaptation.
- Wreaths: following with the garland logic, this is something that seems very universal and could easily be adapted to the time of the year/festival. Olive wreaths for important Athena festivals, laurel for Apollo, vine for Dionysus, wheat for Demeter etc. Wreaths could make up for a very rich and handy way of decorating for specific festivals.
- Phallus and phallic imagery: Again, a symbol that comes up in processions, especially for Dionysus. I’m aware this isn’t the easiest to pull off, but if 1) you’re fine with the imagery and 2) have the freedom to decorate your house however you want, this is something to consider for Dionysian and Demeter festivities.
- Torches, fire imagery/candles: Fire is a bit of a given considering the central place of the hearth in this religion, but I wanted to bring it up for some specific events. The Prometheia, the Panathenieia and the Hephaisteia all included a torch race. The Mounychia also featured “little torches” (dadia) that were put on the cake-offerings to Artemis (the amphiphontes).
- Cow and bull imagery: Appropriate for Zeus and Hera-centered festivals, especially the Dipolieia.
- Bear imagery: Especially appropriate for the Brauronia.
This is a work in progress, and I will probably update those ideas in the future. It’s while making the holiday cards that I realized what was missing was clear symbolism for the festivals that are part of my religious calendar. Feedback and ideas more than welcome.