Festivals in Ancient Athens: History & Traditions

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

You will be introduced to several of the most important festivals to the everyday ancient Athenian in this lesson. Some of the traditions and mythic origins of these festivals will also be discussed.

Athenian Holidays

Are there any specific holidays that only your hometown or community celebrate? Not only did ancient Greek cities run their own governments and have their own currencies, they also had their own special holidays. Athens, being one of the biggest cities, had several special holidays. Three in particular are well-documented: the Panathenaea, the Greater Dionysia, and the Thesmophoria.

The Panathenaea

Also known as the Panatheanaic Festival, the Panathenaea is the most important holiday in the Athenian calendar. The festival celebrates the birth of Athena, goddess of wisdom, craft, and the patron of the city of Athens. All people located in and near Athens celebrate this holiday, hence the name Panathenaea, which means 'all Athenians'. According to legend, the festival was started by Theseus, an Athenian hero and king.

This festival also featured the Panathenaic Games, a series of athletic competitions that were divided among individual and group competitions. Some of these events included footraces, wrestling, boxing, and mock battles. Unlike the more well-known Olympics, the winners of these games were given amphorae (a jug) of olive oil, a product associated with Athena, instead of laurel wreaths.

The Panathenaea wasn't just athletics, though. Music and poetry competitions were also held, challenging Athenians at their skills of reciting Homeric and other epic poems. Finally, during the last days of the festival, a great procession was held in the city. The centerpiece of the procession was a special robe called a peplos, which was made specifically to honor Athena.

While all Athenians could participate in the festivities, only citizens could participate in all of the events. Non-citizens could not follow the procession to the Acropolis. Furthermore, during the following banquet, invitations were proportionally distributed based on the size of the outside districts, so not everyone was invited.

An image of Athena, for whom the Panathenaea was named. Amphorae, or clay jugs such as this, were distributed as prizes during the games of the festival.

The Great Dionysia

Among the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon, Dionysus was among the most curious because he seems to be a god not native to Greece. This is why the Great Dionysia, a festival dedicated to Dionysus, did not emerge in Athens until the 5th century BCE. Because Dionysus was such a charismatic god, and many people flocked to his worship, the Great Dionysia was open to all Greeks. As Dionysus was a god of death and rebirth, this festival was held in the early days of spring, often considered a time of rebirth of the earth.

This weeklong festival began with a grand procession in which the sacred statue of Dionysus was transported from outside the city to the theater dedicated to the god. Choruses, dressed as satyrs, would follow this procession and sing poetry as the statue was carried. Afterward, copious amounts of wine were consumed. On the second day of the festival, a smaller, more somber procession was held, as the war orphans of the city honored their fathers who had died in battle. They would then be the honored guests seated at the front of the theater.

The main event during this festival was the theater competition. Three playwrights brought four new plays to this competition every year: three tragedies and a satyr play. This was usually more comedic to cleanse the palate of high emotions brought on by the tragedies. For the next three days, each playwright would get to have a full day devoted to their plays. After three days of heady tragedies, the fourth day was devoted to five new comedies.

During the final day, people would vote on their favorite playwright and the winner was announced. Favorite writers included Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. Once these plays had been performed at the festival, they were never repeated in any other festivals.

The theater to Dionysus in Athens today.
Theater of Dionysus

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