Chapter XXI. The Great Festivals of Athens.

198. The Frequent Festivals at Athens. - Surely our "Day in Athens" has been spent from morn till night several times over, so much there is to see and tell. Yet he would be remiss who left the city of Athena before witnessing at least several of the great public festivals which are the city's noble pride. There are a prodigious number of religions festivals in Athens.[*] They take the place of the later "Christian Sabbath" and probably create a somewhat equal number of rest days during the year, although at more irregular intervals. They are far from being "Scotch Sundays,"[+] however. On them the semi-riotous "joy of life" which is part of the Greek nature finds its fullest, ofttimes its wildest, expression. They are days of merriment, athletic sports, great civic spectacles, chorals, public dances.[] To complete our picture of Athens we must tarry for a swift cursory glance upon at least three of these fete days of the city of Pericles, Sophocles, and Phidias.

[*]In Gulick ("Life of the Ancient Greeks," pp. 304-310) there is a valuable list of Attic festivals. The Athenians had over thirty important religious festivals, several of them, e.g., the Thesmorphoria (celebrated by the women in honor of Demeter), extending over a number of days.

[+][NOTE from Brett: A "Scotch Sunday" refers to the practice of the Sabbath day in Scotland. During the Sabbath day (at the time of the author of this work) in Scotland no activity goes on except for Church. There is no travel, no telecommunication, no cooking, not allowed to read the newspaper, etc. A "Scotch Sunday" therefore, represents a day of religious austerity.]

[is needless to point out that to the Greeks, as to many other ancient peoples, - for example, the Hebrews, - DANCING often had a religious significance and might be a regular part of the worship of the gods.

199. The Eleusinia. - Our first festival is the Eleusinia, the festival of the Eleusinian mysteries. It is September, the "19th of Boedromion," the Athenians will say. Four days have been spent by the "initiates" and the "candidates" in symbolic sacrifices and purifications.[*] On one of these days the arch priest, the "Hierophant," has preached a manner of sermon at the Painted Porch in the Agora setting forth the awfulness and spiritual efficacy of these Mysteries, sacred to Demeter the Earth Mother, to her daughter Persephone, and also to the young Iacchus, one of the many incarnations of Dionysus, and who is always associated at Elusis with the divine "Mother and Daughter." The great cry has gone forth to the Initiates - "To the Sea, ye Myste!" and the whole vast multitude has gone down to bathe in the purifying brine.

[*]Not all Athenians were among the "initiated," but it does not seem to have been hard to be admitted to the oaths and examination which gave one participation in the mysteries. About all a candidate had to prove was blameless character. Women could be initiated as well as men.

Now on this fifth day comes the sacred procession from Athens across the mountain pass to Eleusis. The participates, by thousands, of both sexes and of all ages, are drawn up in the Agora ere starting. The Hierophant, the "Torchbearer," the "Sacred Herald," and the other priests wear long flowing raiment and high mitres like Orientals. They also, as well as the company, wear myrtle and ivy chaplets and bear ears of corn and reapers' sickles. The holy image of Iacchus is borne in a car, the high priests marching beside it; and forth with pealing shout and chant they go, - down the Ceramicus, through the Dipylon gate, and over the hill to Eleusis, twelve miles away.

200. The Holy Procession to Eleusis. - Very sacred is the procession, but not silent and reverential. It is an hour when the untamed animal spirits of the Greeks, who after all are a young race and who are gripped fast by natural instinct, seem uncurbed. Loud rings the "orgiastic" cry, "Iacche! Iacche! evoe!"

There are wild shouts, dances, jests, songs,[*] postures. As the marchers pass the several sanctuaries along the road there are halts for symbolic sacrifices. So the multitude slowly mounts the long heights of Mount Aegaleos, until - close to the temple of Aphrodite near the summit of the pass - the view opens of the broad blue bay of Eleusis, shut in by the isle of Salamis, while to the northward are seen the green Thrasian plain, with the white houses of Eleusis town[+] near the center, and the long line of outer hills stretching away to Megara and Boeotia.

[*]We do not possess the official chant of the Myste used on their march to Eleusia. Very possibly it was of a swift riotous nature like the Bacchinals' song in Euripides "Bacchinals" (well translated by Way or by Murray).

[+]This was about the only considerable town in Attica outside of Athens.

The evening shadows are falling, while the peaceful army sweeps over the mountain wall and into Eleusis. Every marcher produces a torch, and bears it blazing aloft as he nears his destination. Seen in the dark from Eleusis, the long procession of innumerable torches must convey an effect most magical.

201. The Mysteries of Eleusis. - What follows at Eleusis? The "mysteries" are "mysteries" still; we cannot claim initiation and reveal them. There seem to be manifold sacrifices of a symbolic significance, the tasting of sacred "portions" of food and drink - a dim foreshadowing of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist; especially in the great hall of the Temple of the Myste in Eleusis there take place a manner of symbolic spectacles, dramas perhaps one may call them, revealing the origins of Iacchus, the mystical union of Persephone and Zeus, and the final joy of Demeter.

This certainly we can say of these ceremonies. They seem to have afforded to spiritually minded men a sense of remission of personal sin which the regular religion could never give; they seem also to have conveyed a fair hope of immortality, such as most Greeks doubted. Sophocles tells thus the story: "Thrice blessed are they who behold these mystical rites, ere passing to Hades' realm. They alone have life there. For the rest all things below are evil."[*] And in face of imminent death, perhaps in hours of shipwreck, men are wont to ask one another, "Have you been initiated at Eleusis?"

[*]Sophocles, "Frag." 719.

202. The Greater Dionysia and the Drama. - Again we are in Athens in the springtime: "The eleventh of Elaphebolion" [March]. It is the third day of the Greater Dionysia. The city has been in high festival; all the booths in the Agora hum with redoubled life; strangers have flocked in from outlying pars of Hellas to trade, admire, and recreate; under pretext of honoring the wine god, inordinate quantities of wine are drunk with less than the prudent mixture of water. There is boisterous frolicking, singing, and jesting everywhere. It is early blossom time. All whom you meet wear huge flower crowns, and pelt you with the fragrant petals of spring.[*]

[*]Pindar ("Frag." 75) says thus of the joy and beauty of this fete: "[Lo!] this festival is due when the chamber of the red-robed Hours is opened and odorous plants wake to the fragrant spring. then we scatter on undying earth the violet, like lovely tresses, and twine roses in our hair; then sound the voice of song, the flute keeps time, and dancing choirs resound the praise of Semele."

So for two days the city has made merry, and now on the third, very early, "to the theater" is the word on every lip. Magistrates in their purple robes of office, ambassadors from foreign states, the priests and religious dignitaries, are all going to the front seats of honor. Ladies of gentle family, carefully veiled but eager and fluttering, are going with their maids, if the productions of the day are to be tragedies not comedies.[*] All the citizens are going, rich and poor, for here again we meet "Athenian democracy"; and the judgment and interest of the tatter-clad fishermen seeking the general "two-obol" seats may be almost as correct and keen as that of the lordly Alcmenoid in his gala himation.

[*]It seems probable (on our uncertain information) that Athenian ladies attended the moral and proper tragedies. It was impossible for them to attend the often very coarse comedies. Possibly at the tragedies they sat in a special and decently secluded part of the theater.

203. The Theater of Dionysus. - Early dawn it is when the crowds pour through the barriers around the Theater of Dionysus upon the southern slope of the Acropolis. They sit (full 15,000 or more) wedged close together upon rough wooden benches set upon the hill slopes.[*] At the foot of their wide semicircle is a circular space of ground, beaten hard, and ringed by a low stone barrier. It is some ninety feet in diameter. This is the "orchestra," the "dancing place," wherein the chorus may disport itself and execute its elaborate figures. Behind the orchestra stretches a kind of tent or booth, the "skene." Within this the actors may retire to change their costumes, and the side nearest to the audience is provided with a very simple scene, - some kind of elementary scenery panted to represent the front of a temple or palace, or the rocks, or the open country. This is nearly the entire setting.[+] If there are any slight changes of this screen, they must be made in the sight of the entire audience. The Athenian theater has the blue dome of heaven above it, the red Acropolis rock behind it. Beyond the "skene" one can look far away to the country and the hills. The keen Attic imagination will take the place of the thousand arts of the later stage-setter. Sophocles and his rivals, even as Shakespeare in Elizabeth's England, can sound the very depths and scale the loftiest heights of human passion, with only a simulacrum of the scenery, properties, and mechanical artifices which will trick out a very mean twentieth century theater.

[*]These benches (before the stone theater was built in 340 B.C.) may be imagined as set up much like the "bleachers" at a modern baseball park. We know that ancient audiences wedged in very close.

[+]I think it is fairly certain that the classical Attic theater was without any stage, and that the actors appeared on the same level as the chorus. As to the extreme simplicity of all the scenery and properties there is not the least doubt.

204. The production of a Play. - The crowds are hushed and expectant. The herald, ere the play begins, proclaims the award of a golden crown to some civic benefactor: a moment of ineffable joy to the recipient; for when is a true Greek happier than when held up for public glorification? Then comes the summons to the first competing poet.

"Lead on your chorus."[*] The intellectual feast of the Dionysia has begun.

[*]In the fourth century B.C. when the creation of original tragedies was in decline, a considerable part of the dionysia productions seem to have been devoted to the works of the earlier masters, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

To analyze the Attic drama is the task of the philosopher and the literary expert. We observe only the superficialities. There are never more than THREE speaking actors before the audience at once. They wear huge masques, shaped to fit their parts. The wide mouthpieces make the trained elocution carry to the most remote parts of the theater. The actors wear long trailing robes and are mounted on high shoes to give them sufficient stature before the distant audience. When a new part is needed in the play, an actor retires to the booth, and soon comes forth with a changed masque and costume - an entirely new character. In such a costume and masque, play of feature and easy gesture is impossible; but the actors carry themselves with a stately dignity and recite their often ponderous lines with a grace which redeems them from all bombast. An essential part of the play is the chorus; indeed the chorus was once the main feature of the drama, the actors insignificant innovations. With fifteen members for the tragedy, twenty-four for the comedy,[*] old men of Thebes, Trojan dames, Athenian charcoal burners, as the case may demand - they sympathize with the hard-pressed hero, sing lusty choral odes, and occupy the time with song and dance while the actors are changing costume.

[*]In the "Middle" and "Later" comedy, so called, the chorus entirely disappears. The actors do everything.

The audience follows all the philosophic reasoning of the tragedies, the often subtle wit of the comedies, with that same shrewd alertness displayed at the jury courts of the Pnyx. "Authis! Authis!" (again! again!) is the frequent shout, if approving. Date stones and pebbles as well as hootings are the reward of silly lines or bad acting. At noon there is an interlude to snatch a hasty luncheon (perhaps without leaving one's seat). Only when the evening shadows are falling does the chorus of the last play approach the altar in the center of the orchestra for the final sacrifice. A whole round of tragedies have been given.[*] The five public judges announce their decision: an ivy wreath to the victorious poet; to his "choregus" (the rich man who has provided his chorus and who shares his glory) the right to set up a monumnet in honor of the victory. Home goes the multitude, - to quarrel over the result, to praise or blame the acting, to analyze the remarkable acuteness the poet's handling of religious, ethical, or social questions.

[*]Comedies, although given at this Dionysia, were more especially favored at the Lenea, an earlier winter festival.

The theater, like the dicasteries and the Pnyx, is one of the great public schools of Athens.

205. The Great Panathenaic Procession. - Then for the last time let us visit Athens, at the fete which in its major form comes only once in four years. It is the 28th of Metageitnion (August), and the eighth day of the Greater Panathenea, the most notable of all Athenian festivals. By it is celebrated the union of all Attica by Theseus, as one happy united country under the benign sway of might Athena, - an ever fortunate union, which saved the land from the sorrowful feuds of hostile hamlets such as have plagued so many Hellenic countries. On the earlier days of the feast there have been musical contests and gymnastic games much after the manner of the Olympic games, although the contestants have been drawn from Attica only. There has been a public recital of Homer. Before a great audience probably at the Pnyx or the Theater a rhapsodist of noble presence - clad in purple and with a golden crown - has made the Trojan War live again, as with his well-trained voice he held the multitude spellbound by the music of the stately hexameters.

Now we are at the eighth day. All Athens will march in its glory to the Acropolis, to bear to the shrine of Athena the sacred "peplos" - a robe specially woven by the noble women of Athens to adorn the image of the guardian goddess.[*] The houses have opened; the wives, maids, and mothers of gentle family have come forth to march in the procession, all elegantly wreathed and clad in their best, bearing the sacred vessels and other proper offerings. The daughter of the "metics," the resident foreigners, go as attendants of honor with them. The young men and the old, the priests, the civil magistrates, the generals, all have their places. Proudest of all are the wealthy and high-born youths of the cavalry, who now dash to and fro in their clattering pride. The procession is formed in the outer Ceramicus. Amid cheers, chants, chorals, and incense smoke it sweeps through the Agora, and slowly mounts the Acropolis. Center of all the marchers is the glittering peplos, raised like a sail upon a wheeled barge of state - "the ship of Athena." Upon the Acropolis, while the old peplos is piously withdrawn from the image and the new one substituted, there is a prodigious sacrifice. A might flame roars heavenward from the "great altar"; while enough bullocks[+] and kine[]have been slaughtered to enable every citizen - however poor - to bear away a goodly mess of roasted meat that night.

[*]Not that this robe was for the revered ancient and wooden image of Athena Polias, not for the far less venerable statue of Athena Parthenos.

[+][NOTE from Brett: A bullock is a young, possibly castrated, bull.]

[from Brett: kine is the archaic plural form of "cow."]

206. The View from the Temple of Wingless Victory. - We will not wait for the feasting but rather will take our way to the Temple of Wingless Victory, looking forth to the west of the Acropolis Rock. So many things we see which we would fain print on the memory. Behind us we have just left the glittering Parthenon, and the less august but hardly less beautiful Erechtheum, with its "Porch of the Maidens." To our right is the wide expanse of the roofs of the city and beyond the dark olive groves of Colonus, and the slopes of Aegaleos. In the near foreground, are the red crags of Areopagus and the gray hill of the Pnyx. But the eye will wander farther. It is led away across the plainland to the bay of Phaleron, the castellated hill of Munychia, the thin stretch of blue water and the brown island seen across it - Salamis and its strait of the victory. Across the sparkling vista of the sea rise the headlands of Aegina and of lesser isles; farther yet rise the lordly peaks of Argolis. Or we can look to the southward. Our gaze rounds down the mountainous Attic coast full thirty miles to where Sunium thrusts out its haughty cape into the Aegean and points the way across the island-studded sea.

Evening is creeping on. Behind us sounds the great pean, the solemn chant to Athena, bestower of good to men. As the sun goes down over the distant Argolic hills his rays spread a clear pathway of gold across the waters. Islands, seas, mountains far and near, are touched now with shifting hues, - saffron, violet, and rose, - beryl, topaz, sapphire, amethyst. There will never be another landscape like unto this in all the world. Gladly we sum up our thoughts in the cry of a son of Athens, Aristophanes, master of song, who loved her with that love which the land of Athena can ever inspire in all its children, whether its own by adoption or by birth: -