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Before the Olympiad There Was The Panathenaea – The Greek Festival and Games to Honor Athena

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The Panathenaea was an ancient and important festival celebrated in the ancient Greek city state of Athens. This festival was held in honor of Athena Polias , the city’s patron goddess, and Erechtheus, the legendary founder of the city. The celebrations included sacrifices, ceremonies, and competitions.

Origin of the Panathenaea

The establishment of the Panathenaea is attributed to Erichthonius, a legendary early ruler of Athens (initially identified by the Greeks with Erechtheus, though the two were later regarded as separate figures). The first Panathenaea is said to have been held 729 years before the first Olympiad. The original name of the festival is believed to have been Athenaea. When Attica was united by Theseus, however, the festival’s name was changed to Panathenaea, which meant that the festival was to be celebrated not only by the Athenians, but also by the inhabitants of Attica.

The finding of the infant Erichthonius by Cecrops's daughters. (Feldkurat Katz / Public Domain)

The finding of the infant Erichthonius by Cecrops's daughters. ( Feldkurat Katz / Public Domain )

The Lesser Panathenaea was held on an annual basis. Once every four years, however, this celebration was incorporated into the Greater Panathenaea, which may be considered to be an extension and grander celebration of the Lesser Panathenaea.

The Panathenaea was called by the ancient Greeks as the longest of all festivals, though it is uncertain today as to the number of days the festival lasted. According to one estimation, based on the starting date of the Lesser Panathenaea and the Greater Panathenaea’s ending date the festival lasted 12 days. It is clear, however, that the festival was held in the month of Hecatombaeon and that the most important and solemn day of the celebration was on the 28 th day of that month, which marked Athena’s birthday.

Contests of the Panathenaea

The Panathenaea featured a number of contests that were open to all the Hellenes. It was only during the Greater Panathenaea that the Musical, Gymnastic, and Equestrian Contests were held. The prize given to the victors of these contests was a vase containing some oil from the ancient and sacred olive tree of Athena on the acropolis. Such vases, known as Panathenaic vases, depict Athena on one side, and the contest in which the vase was awarded on the other. These vases have been found not only in Greece, but also further west on the island of Sicily, southern Italy, and Etruria. There were also a number of minor competitions, which were held during both the Lesser and Greater Panathenaea. These include the Euandria (during which the leaders of the procession were chosen) and the Pyrrhic Dance.

Several types of Greek athletic sports were held during the Panathenaea. (SteinsplitterBot / Public Domain)

Several types of Greek athletic sports were held during the Panathenaea. (SteinsplitterBot / Public Domain )

The most impressive event of the Panathenaea, however, was the procession that was held on the last day of the festival. It is generally accepted that the reliefs on the Parthenon frieze depict this procession. On the day of the procession, the participants would assemble at the Dipylon gate in the northern part of the city. From the Parthenon frieze, it is known that the participants of the procession included infantry, cavalry, chariots, musicians, metics (resident aliens), Athenian women bearing gifts, old men carrying olive branches, and ordinary Athenians grouped according to deme. In short, all segments of Athenian society were represented in the procession.

Athena depicted on a Panathenaic amphora, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. (Cropbot / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Athena depicted on a Panathenaic amphora, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. (Cropbot / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

What Was the Highlight of the Grand Procession?

The highlight of the grand procession was the peplos, the garment typically used by women in ancient Greece, which was presented to the goddess. The peplos was woven by a group of Athenian craftswomen known as the ergastinai, whose work was supervised by a priestess of Athena. The garment depicted the Gigantomachy (the mythical battle between the gods and the giants), in which Athena played a significant role. Each year, a new peplos would be taken into the Erechtheum after the procession and placed on the life-size wooden statue of Athena Polias. During the Great Panathenaea, a giant peplos would also be prepared for the colossal statue of Athena Parthenos. The garment was suspended from the mast of a ship on wheels. This peplos was probably just hung in the Parthenon, as it would have been quite impossible to have it placed on the cult statue. At the end of the procession, a large number of animals were sacrificed at the goddess’s altar and a banquet prepared from their flesh. Representatives of each deme were chosen by lot to partake of the feast.

Athena of the Parthenos wearing a peplos. (Aavindraa / Public Domain)

Athena of the Parthenos wearing a peplos. (Aavindraa / Public Domain )

Top image: Statue of ancient Greek athlete ( Radoslaw Maciejewski / Adobe Stock )

By Wu Mingren

References

Atsma, A. J., 2017. Panathenaia. [Online] Available at: https://www.theoi.com/Festival/Panathenaia.html
Brooklyn College Classics Department, 2019. Panathenaic Festival. [Online] Available at: http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Morals%20and%20Law/M+L/Plato/rligious.htm
Schmitz, L., 1875. Panathenaea. [Online] Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Panathenaea.html
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016. Panathenaea. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Panathenaea
www.ime.gr, 2019. The Panathenaia. [Online] Available at: http://www.ime.gr/chronos/05/en/culture/4130panathenaia.html

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