Variations on the May Feast in the Hellenic Tradition(s)

While many of my pagan friends and colleagues are celebrating Beltane this weekend, those of us who identify with or practice within Hellenic paganism have a number of options on our celebratory calendar. Which deities will I honor? Will I emphasize the community/civic aspects of the holiday, or the agricultural cycle? What aspects of Hellenic culture correspond most closely to what the larger pagan world is celebrating? 

When it comes to answering questions such as these, Hellenic pagans are in luck. Ancient Greek religion does not require that we adhere to an orthodoxy in our practices or beliefs. In addition, Hellenic paganism is particularly rich in both its theology and mythology, so we have an enormous amount of material from which we can mine.

In other words, there are a lot of possibilities when it comes to celebrating the May Feast (or whatever you call this time around May 1). Here are a few ideas:

Observe the Festival of Thargelia

Thargelia is a summer festival observed during the first week of the month of Thargelion. The month and the festival are named “for the thargēlos or bread specially baked for the occasion from the first flour of the year and carried in procession to the altar” (Zaidman and Pantel, 38). Alternately, Burkert describes the Thargelia as coinciding with the beginning of the corn harvest (226). In both cases, it is clear that the festival marks a critical phase in the agricultural cycle.

More on that shortly. But Thargelia is also an occasion to mark the  birth two of the most important deities in Hellenic religion: the twins Artemis and Apollo.

Artemis & Apollo

My friends know that I can go on and on about these two. They are my patron deities and I’m something of an evangelical pagan when it comes to them. Have you heard the good news–er, I mean the very interesting and somewhat good news about the goddess Artemis? (Gotta work on that speech!) So today I will restrain myself and keep it simple. Why celebrate these two particular deities during the May Feast?

Of the two, Apollo’s significance is most obvious. He’s the god who controls (and hopefully prevents) crop blight and plagues such as mice and locusts. Honoring Apollo is a straightforward means of trying to keep the corn harvest safe.

Artemis’ connection to the agricultural cycles is less apparent, but she too plays an important function. As the deity whose domain includes wilderness, hunting, and birth, Artemis also plays a pivotal role in the livelihood of the ancient Greeks.

Demeter & Dionysus

Another alternative to the Thargelia would be to celebrate and honor Demeter and Dionysus. Not two deities that are usually associated with one another, but they share some important correspondences. Demeter is the deity of grain and all cultivated vegetation, while Dionysus’ realm includes wild plants (and wine!).

Marking Demeter’s reunion with her daughter Kore might also be appropriate at this time, since (at least in the northern/western hemisphere) farming has begun and the forests are thriving with new plant life.

So there are a few possibilities for celebrating the May Feast as a Hellenic pagan. I’m sure there are many more, and I’d love for you to tell me about them in the comments below. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Essay – Winter Feast

The winter solstice, like all the feasts, is first and foremost an occasion to observe (and celebrate) the turning of the year. Psychologically, the winter solstice is an important milestone for me because it signals the beginning (although far away) return of the sun’s light and warmth. Here in the northernmost part of the Midwest, days will continue to be very short for the next two months. But at least I know that, astronomically speaking, the darkest times are past.

As a Druid practicing within the Greek culture, there is once again a sense of disconnect between what the majority of ADF members are celebrating and the historical practices of my hearth culture. Most of my fellow pagans are observing a tradition heavily influenced by the Germanic traditions, i.e. Yule or Mother’s Night. And this tends to resonate with me as well, so I don’t make too much of a fuss with regard to what the ancient Greeks did or did not do. Both within the pagan community and popular culture, the Winter Solstice is most often celebrated with general revelry (Saturnalia, Oreibasia), gift-giving, time with family, and a break from work.

To my mind, the feast is really comprised of two parts. The first is of gratitude and recognition of generosity, for what the earth provides in agricultural abundance and mineral wealth (this latter I always associate with the Roman myth of the chthonic god Pluto as provider of subterranean riches), reflected in the act of exchanging gifts. The second significance for me is that of rest, closure, and celebrating the end of the calendar and fiscal years.

 

 

 

Essay- Spring Equinox

The beginning of astronomical (and in come climates, meteorological) Spring represents a critical turning point in the agricultural cycle. Livestock reproduction is in full swing, milk is now more plentiful, and the disappearance of snow and ice mean that the earth is now accessible and warm enough to prepare for the sowing season.

Outside the domestic sphere, animal and plant life are also in the midst of a dramatic change. Wild animals have already (or will soon) produce their young, and plants are beginning to bud and bloom. Longer days and warmer weather have arrived or will very soon, and that means that the dangers of winter have nearly passed. The Spring Feast marks the beginning of a focus on fertility and new life.

Across the spectrum of Indo-European cultures, celebrations of the Spring Equinox seem to vary in importance. The Ancient Greeks celebrated the God Dionysus by opening new jars of wine, the Romans observed several feast days that tend to focus on vegetation deities, and the Celts mark the equinox through their mythological cycle. There is some evidence that the Norse celebrated the spring equinox; such an observance makes sense considering the importance (and dramatic nature) of the solar cycle among the Scandinavian cultures.

I lived most of my life in the American South, where the weather for the spring equinox varied from very warm to cool, but you could more or less count on the trees already beginning to bud, noticeably longer days, and signs of animal life all around. My experience of Spring in the South has heavily shaped my own practice, and even if the time of fertility and warmth are not as pronounced here in the Midwest, the psychological effect of the season remain intact.

Feasting has always been my favorite part of the Spring Equinox, whether that means a big Easter dinners with my family or having a meal with my fellow Neopagans. From a ritual perspective, my devotional practice aligns well with the Norse celebration of the solar cycle (or at least it aligns well with what has been speculated about it) and the Roman preoccupation with vegetation deities. Above all, there is a distinct notion of awakening, and that is always my guiding principle.

Essay – Fall Feast

The last of the harvest festivals marks the end (or beginning) of the agricultural year and the turning point from which a period of fertility, growth, and abundance gives way to a fallow time of rest, darkness, and regeneration. The festival is most commonly referred to as Samhain, and the mythology, lore, and customs most commonly associated with the season and its secular counterpart, Halloween, are derived from Celtic and Germanic Pagan traditions.

For most Neopagans, the Fall Feast is a fire festival which marks the end of summer and preparations for the perilous winter to come. In earlier agrarian societies, harvests were stored and animals are slaughtered in order to ensure survival through the long, cold season. Of course these cycles are still repeated, but 21st century Neopagans such as myself are no longer as spiritually connected the agricultural processes or animal husbandry which lie at the heart of the feast.

In the spiritual sense, the Fall Feast is generally celebrated by Neopagans as the time when the division between life and death is least pronounced. Put another way, the Fall Feast brings into sharp relief the frail nature of life and its dependence on the cycles of life and death. Animals must be slaughtered for food, vegetation must succumb to the cold in order to regenerate, and the question of whether or not one will survive the coming winter surfaces.

The idea that the spiritual world or realm of the dead is accessible to the living at this time derives from Celtic tradition, and this concept has heavily influenced spiritual and secular celebrations of the feast. Ancestor worship, divination, and magic are common themes for this High Day. Masking, revelry, and fear of the restless dead are also elements of the broader celebration.

A direct and commensurate celebration to the Fall Feast of the Celtic and Germanic traditions is elusive within Hellenic Paganism. The agricultural cycles of the Mediterranean do not align closely to those of cultures in the more northern or western regions of Europe, so Hellenic Druids are forced to make a choice: recreate (as best we can) the culturally-appropriate festivals of Thesmophoria or perhaps the Eleusinian Mysteries (of which we know virtually nothing), or adapt the practices of the Ancient Greeks to the rubrics of the more widely-celebrated Fall Feast. I choose the latter option.

In my practice, the Fall Feast occurs within an agricultural cycle and climate similar to that of Northern and Western Europe. By the end of October, the frosts have arrived, the fields are harvested, and meteorological winter has begun.  The days are noticeabley shorter, and it is nearly dark by the time I arrive home from work everyday at 5PM. This trend of decreasing sunlight is dramatic this far north, and it has a pronounced effect on my mood. I know that it will be almost two months before the light begins to increase, and I settle into a habit of sleeping longer and spending much more time indoors.

For my Fall Feast, I honor Demeter, the Goddess of grains, fruits, and cultivated vegetation, as well the myth of Kore/Persephone and Hades, which for the ancient Greeks explained the seasonal change from summer into winter. I embrace the dying of one year and the rest that must come before the commencement of the next. I find it natural and fitting to also celebrate my ancestors at this time. I also lean into the magical and divinatory significance of the season because this is a liminal time and the hinge upon which the agricultural season changes.

 

 

Essay – February Feast

The February Feast celebrates the first stirrings of the coming spring, which can be difficult to detect in the upper Midwest at this time of year. Although my northern and western European ancestors may have been delighted by the availability of fresh milk after the first part of the winter, my experience in an urban environment of the 21st century does easily not lend itself to such a connection.

As a Druid working in the Hellenic tradition, the February Feast poses a second challenge. How do I incorporate a holiday into my practice that derives from Celtic, Gaulish, and Germanic traditions? Although there are similar festivals in the Ancient Greek practice, differences in agricultural, economic, and social realities do not readily lend themselves to a clearly compatible celebration.

To resolve this dilemma, I focus on the hearth customs of the season and the festival’s associations with fire and purification. In Hellenic paganism, Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth and the figurative representation of the hearth fire, plays a crucial role in the spiritual lives of the people. Although there are virtually no myths about Hestia, her prominence in the lives of the Ancient Greeks is evident in the many offerings she received within the household and the critical importance of keeping the home hearth lit at all times.

The hearth fire was, for all Indo-European peoples, the center of domestic life. Fire protected people from predators, it provided warmth and comfort, and was the means by which food was prepared. In short, the hearth was an instrument of survival.

While my friends in the larger Neopagan community are celebrating hearth culture in the Celtic or Germanic traditions, I find it natural to do the same. I focus on giving thanks to Hestia, on celebrating the coming spring, and purification.

Psychologically, the February Feast plays a critical role for me because I know that astronomical and meteorological spring are not far away; the long dark of winter can wreak havoc on my mood. So I use the February Feast as a time to clear the mental slate and prepare for the brighter days ahead. This is my last real winter rest.