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!

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Greek Religion

Introduction

Students seeking a thorough introduction to the religious practices and beliefs of Hellenic civilization need look no further than Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion. First published in 1977, Greek Religion remains the definitive survey of the theories, scholarship, and archaeological evidence related to the religion of the Hellenes. Burkert maps out the most recent and prominent theories of the development of ancient Greek religion while simultaneously acknowledging that there is much that is not known.

 
One of Burkert’s most useful contributions is his comparison of the mythological and poetic stylizations of Greek religion to existing archaeological and linguistic evidence. Burkert makes clear that Homeric poetry is just as likely to obscure and distort the beliefs and practices of Hellenic culture as it is illuminate them.

 
Burkert’s introduction to Greek Religion begins with an exploration of the most prominent scholarship in the field of ancient Hellenic religion. Burkert identifies the work of Wilhelm Mannhardt, James Frazer, and Jane Harrison as forces which have shaped 20th (and 21st) century ideas about Greek civilization and culture, and counts the theories of Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud among the lenses which have dramatically altered modern interpretations of the ancient civilization.

 
Burkert also spends time exploring our sources for what we do know about Greek religion, and acknowledges that literature, especially in the form of Homeric poetry, is our “principal evidence” (4). However, the picture that emerges in the works of Homer is sometimes at odds with what we have learned from other sources: ancient Greek art, inscriptions, statues, pottery, cult monuments, altars, ritual vessels, votive gifts, and temples.

 
Finally, Burkert uses the remainder of his introduction to sketch out the Mycenaean, Minoan, Indo-European, and Near Eastern influences on the religious practices of the ancient Greeks. Burkert argues that it is more accurate to speak of a “plural of Greek religions” (8) than a single unified system of belief or practice. Further, Burkert argues that “The Greeks themselves regarded the various manifestations of their religious life as essentially compatible, as a diversity of practice in devotion to the same gods, within the framework of a single world.” (8).

 

In other words, religion in ancient Greece was characterized by the mutation and proliferation of beliefs and practices as well as the influence of local customs and varying degrees of influence from other civilizations.

Prehistory and the Minoan-Mycenaean Age

In laying the foundation for a contemporary examination of Ancient Greek religion, Burkert notes that “for all periods of prehistory, the evidence of language to interpret the manifold and often confusing finds is lost forever. Moreover, what survives is always only a very one-sided assortment of remains decided by the accidents of physics and chemistry” (10). In other words, there is only so much we can ever expect to know about what the ancient Greeks believed or how they practiced their religion.

 
Burkert quickly stakes out the various influences on Greek religion, by pointing out that many of the plants and animals that are today seen as characteristically Greek were in fact imports from the East. This is significant because it means that cultures to the East of the Greeks wielded considerable influence over them from the Neolithic period onward. Burkert also calls into question the once widely popular theory of a prehistoric, matriarchal culture in which a “great Mother” goddess was widely worshipped. Burkert argues that such speculations go “far beyond the evidence” (12) and notes that this theory is being increasingly met with skepticism.

Instead, Burkert suggests that archaeological evidence from the excavations at Çatal Hüyük offer more insight into the earliest Greek cultures. From Çatal Hüyük archaeologists have learned what they do know about the earliest sanctuary sites and are given a glimpse at a tradition of religious continuity that stretches back over five thousand years.

Indo-European, Minoan, and Mycenaean Influences on Greek Religion

At this point Burkert begins to consider the second major influence on early Greek religion: the Indo-European migrations. After offering a short summary of the IE hypothesis, Burkert notes that Greece only came under the IE influence in the Bronze Age (16). From this point forward, Burkert traces linguistic evidence beginning with the first known record of the Greek language in Linear B. In staking out the significance of linguistic forensics, Burkert observes that

The vocabulary of Indo-European enshrines a spiritual world in which value structures, social divisions, and also religious ideas may be discerned. Evident is the patriarchal organization, the central position of the father within the extended family; agriculture is known, but pasturage, cattle, and horses and much more important. (17)

Burkert also considers the mingling of the IE Greek language with linguistic elements from neighboring civilizations, concluding that “there is no single origin of Greek religion (17).

 
For the remainder of the first chapter, Burkert focuses on what is known about the two major influences on Greek religion, the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. Particularly helpful is his discussion of their places of worship/sanctuaries, including mountain peaks, caves, trees, graves, temples, and homes shrines. Also familiar to ADF members will be the practice of exchanging gifts with the deities in exchange for blessings or some divine intervention.

 
Burkert’s summary is exhaustive. One of my favorite lines from conclusion of this chapter is this:

…the fire altar which stands open to the sky is the most essential part of the sanctuary. This is not an exchange of gifts celebrated by a hierarchical society of gods, kings, priests, and commoners: together on the same level, men and women stand here about the altar, experience and bring death, honor the immortals and in eating affirm life in its conditionality: it is the solidarity of mortals in the face of the immortals. (53)

The remainder of Greek Religion consists of a catalog of what was, at the time, everything known from archaeological and linguistic evidence. Burkert gives ample consideration to topics such as rituals and sanctuaries, the Gods, the dead and the chthonic cult, polytheism, plurality in beliefs and practices, various cults and mystery traditions, festivals and calendars, and the emergence and impact of new philosophical traditions on the Hellenic religion.

 
Overall, Greek Religion is an essential resource for anyone interested in the Hellenic religion and in celebrating ADF Druidry in the Hellenic tradition. The book is almost encyclopedic in scope, so it serves as a both an excellent introduction to the subject as well as an indispensable reference guide.