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PANATHENAIA . One of the great pan-Hellenic festivals of the city of Athens and its tutelary deity, Athena, the Panathenaia can be seen as a commemorative celebration of the city's foundation. The great festival was performed every four years from 570 bce onward, though there were yearly "small" Panathenaias as well. The date was the twenty-eighth day of the month Hekatombaion (mid-July to mid-August). The ceremonial elements are the same for both forms of the cyclical feast, consisting of the following acts: first, the bringing of new fire to the temple of Athena Polias, protector of peasants and craftsmen; second, a procession (pompe ) with a new garment (peplos ), carried on a shiplike float, to clothe the seated olivewood statue of Athena (the xoanon ); third, large sacrifices (of more than one hundred animals for small festivals) of sheep and cattle to be distributed among and eaten by the assembly; and fourth, an ancient form of racing (agon ).

During the first day, fire was kindled after sunset on the Akademos (the district outside the sacred Dipylon, or double gate), accompanied by sacrifices to Athena and Eros amid songs and dances by the youths. The fire was then carried by torch race through the Agora to the altar of Athena, where the cotton wick was lit. The mythic legitimation of this act, which was understood as the mystical significance of the rites, refers to the birth of the founding king of the city, Erichthonios: When Athena was pursued in love by Hephaistos, she preserved her virginity by having his seed spilled on her thigh, then wiping it with a cotton ball that she threw on the earth. From this seed sprang Erichthonios, a creature half human, half snake.

On the second and main day, a large procession started from the Dipylon, where the road from Eleusis entered Athens; the procession consisted of old men with olive branches, young girls with sacrificial vessels and sacred baskets, and the sacrificial animals. The focus of the procession was the large peplos, woven during the previous nine months by the women of Athens under the guidance of the virginal attendants of the temple of Athena (the Arrephoroi). Weaving had started at the Chalkeia festival for Athena Ergane ("Athena, patroness of crafts and craftiness"). The peplos was draped around the wooden statue, which had been ritually washed at an earlier celebration (the festival Plynteria in the month Thargelion, mid-April to mid-May).

While the Panathenaia can be fully appreciated only in relation to all other festivals of the agricultural year, its importance is to mark the ancient founding of the city and the start of a fertile year: It is a New Year festival. The great chariot race, during which fully clad warriors had to jump from their wagons and race on, recalls its originator, Erichthonios. Many more references are made to Athena as founder, protector, and virgin deity with strong chthonic features: Central to the meaning are the multiple snake symbols. Both Erichthonios and the earlier autochthonous king Kekrops are depicted on vases as snakes winding around olive trees. Kekrops had three daughters, to whom Athena handed a closed basket in which she had secreted the snake-child Erichthonios. All three girls' names refer to fertility, containing the word for "dew," which also connotes "semen." One daughter, Pandrosos, also received sacrifices during the Panathenaia. The gist of the festival seems to be the symbolic association between fertility and autochthony, which accords well with the structural logic of the myths surrounding Athena: The goddess who was born without mother gives birth to progeny without her virginal status being violated.

See Also



Burkert, Walter. Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche. Stuttgart, 1977. Emphasizes strongly the central rite of dressing the statue of the goddess. Coherently integrates this festival into a rhythm of festivals of the city of Athens, in particular the constellation between goddess and primeval king.

Kerényi, Károly. Athene, die Jungfrau und Mutter der griechischen Religion. Zurich, 1952. Translated as Athene, Virgin and Mother (Irving, Tex., 1978). A thorough but often disorganized attempt to show the consistency of the myths around the many forms of Athena; often comes close to later structural analysis. Some daring philological derivations that nevertheless seem to capture the underlying logic of mythic narratives.

New Sources

Brulé, Pierre. "Fêtes grecques: périodicité et initiations: Hyakinthies et Panathénées." In L'initiation: actes du colloque international de Montpellier, 1114 avril 1991, vol. 1. Les rites d'adolescence et les mystères, pp. 1938. Montpellier, 1992.

Brulé, Pierre. "La cité en ses composantes." Kernos 9 (1996): 3763.

Neils, Jenifer. Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon. Madison, Wis., 1996.

Piblis, Spyros. Panathenaea: The Greatest Festival of Ancient Athens. Athens, 1970.

Robertson, Noel. "The Origin of the Panathenaea." Rheinisches Museum f. Philologie 128 (1985): 231295.

Sfyroeras, Pavlos. "Fireless Sacrifices." American Journal of Philology 114 (1993): 126.

Klaus-Peter KÖpping (1987)

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