Apollon’s MDT – Day 11: Festivals & Holy Days (2)

Χαίρετε ἀναγνώστες!

Today comes the final part of my Month of Devotional Thought, with a discussion of some Lacedaimonian (Spartan) festivals.

I want to start with the Hyakinthia, celebrated in honour or Hyakintos and Apollon Hyakinthios, commemorating the tragic love and death of Apollon and Hyakinthos. This festival took place in Amyklai, in the Amyklain temple, the temple dedicated to Apollon Amyklaios. Amyklai is an old Mykenaean era citadel that was one of the five towns that united into the polis of Sparta, predating the other four settlements by quite a bit. The other settlements were, according to myth, founded by two waves of Herakleidai who had invaded the Peloponnesos sometime after (or during) the collapse of the Bronze Age and Mykenaean civilisation. The Hyakinthia took place in early summer over the course of three days, and was counted as the second most important Lacedaimonian festival. According to the Wikipedia article, it took place during the Spartan month of Hyakinthios, however, elsewhere — including on Wikipedia — I find that the Spartans had no such month in their calendar. I think that it is supposed to be during the month of Φλειάσιος “Phleiasios”, which corresponds to the Attic month Σκιροφοριών “Skirophorion”.

The first day was dedicated to mourning the death of Hyakinthos, with very plain sacrifices. Sacrifices were made to the dead, sacrificial bread was very plain, and the banquets were sober and lacked any kind of pomp or circumstance. The second day of the Hyakinthia was one of rejoicement and rebirth, it was far merrier and livelier than the first day. Young men and women would play the kithara and the aulos, there would be horse races, singing choirs, dancing, merryment all around. In Amnyklai processions would take place with carts decorated by the womenfolk of Sparta,  and countless sacrifices would be made across the land — exclusively goats. It was an occasion for κοπίς “kopis”, a kind of banquets involving friends and family. The festival was so important that even foreigners and the helots were allowed to partake in the festivities. The third and final day was more solemn again, and may have involved Mysteries. The women of Sparta wove a khiton which was offered to the God, which seems very similar to the Athenian tradition of unmarried girls weaving a gaint peplos for Athena Parthenos for the Panathenaia festival.

As an indicator for just how important this festival was to the Lakedaimonians, Xenophon describes that they even interrupted their military campaigns in order to return to Lacedaimonia to participate in it, and Pausaniasgoes even further stating the Lacedaimonians even negotiated truces for the specific purpose of attending the festival. Thoukydides describes in His work on the Peloponnesian War, that during the Peace of Nikias, the Athenians promised to assist during the festivities, as a sign of good will towards the Spartans.

The next festival I wished to discuss is the Gymnopaidiai or Gymnopaidia. The word γυμνός “gymnos” means “naked”, but can also mean “unarmed”. And παιδιά “paidia” would be “children’s games”. This is a festival marked by choirs and dancing of naked children or young men and women, performing the festival for Apollon and in commemoration of the Spartans who fell at Hysiai, when Sparta was defeated by neighbouring Argos. By instituting this festival, in 668 BCE, they hoped to avert future military defeats and please the Gods. The dances performed were of a specifically military style, which heavily implies military success in Spartan society.

The fact that both young men and young women participated in this festival, also suggests an additional role as not just showing the men worthy of fighting in wars, but for the women to show their strength and worth to birth healthy sons for Sparta. It may thus also have had a role in allowing young men and women to come together and perhaps find suitable marriage partners for the future.

Pausanias describes this to happen on the agora, the marketplace, where statues of Apollon Pythaieus, Artemis, and Leto stood. And it took place in the summer heat, likely dating it to the Spartan month of Ἑκατομβεύς “Hekatombeus”, which corresponds to the almost identical Attic month of Ἑκατομβαιών “Hekatombaion”. The author Lucianus of Samosata describes the festival as still surviving in his time, eight centuries after it’s founding. While the military connection survives, as it happened right after the young men and women had done their military exercises, he does not describe any nudity as being part of it.

The final festival to discuss in the Karneia, likely the most well-known and the most important festival of the Lakedaimonians. This festival honoured Apollon Karneios (Κάρνειος), a specifically Doric cult epithet that is common to all Dorian Hellenes. The festival gives its name to the Spartan month of Κάρνειος “Karneios”, corresponding to Attic Μεταγειτνιών “Metageitnion”, and the festival lasted from the seventh to the fifteenth day. This seems to correspond with the moon phases from the first quarter of the moon to the full moon.

There are several origin myths for the epithet and festival, but the most likely, historical one is that it honours Apollon as a God of flocks and herds, of shepherding, and in a wider sense of a good harvest and vintage. This explanation etymologises the epithet to the word κάρνος “karnos “meaning “ram” (as in, a male sheep). However, from very early on the festival also assumed a military character. One etymology believes it derives from the name of a Karnos, a man who was a favourite of Apollon and a seer. During the invasion of the Peloponessos by the Herakleidai, one of their leaders killed Karnos on suspicion of espionage. This enraged Apollon, who cursed the camp of the Herakleidai with a pestilence. The murderer went into exile because of the blood guilt, and the Herakleidai instituted to the Karneia festival, named after the murdered Karnos, and surnamed Apollon as Karneios, to appease the God and lift the pestilence plaguing them.

This festival included a sacred peace during which no military action could be taken. This is likely why the Spartans arrived late to the Battle of Marathon, which was already won, and is also the reason why Leonidas only took 300 Spartans with him as an advance guard to defend Thermopylai and delay the advancing Persian armies. And during an attack on Epidauros in 419 BCE, the Spartans had to retreat in order to honour the festival, whereas the Argives chose to manipulate their calendar in order to avoid this.

The festivities went as follows. From each Lacedaimonian tribe, five unmarried youths were elected as Καρνεᾶται “Karneatai”, to oversee the proceedings of the festival. Their terms lasted four years. The lead priest overseeing everything was called the ἀγητής “agetes” or “leader”. There was an event at which a man was covered in garlands, who may have been the agetes, who would run away and had to try and evade the pursuing σταφυλοδρόμοι “staphylodromoi” or “men who run holding grapes”. If the staphylodromoi caught the man, it would mean good fortune for Sparta. If he managed to escape, bad fortune would befall the city.

Another part involved nine tents being set up throughout the land of Sparta, in which nine citizens, representing the phratries, would feast together in honour of the God. As far as the sacrifices go, we only know of the sacrifice of a ram at Thurii for the Karneia. This might tie in with the other etymology I mentioned, and may thus combine the military with the pastoral and agricultural character.

And with that, this month of Devotional Thought concludes. I hope you have enjoyed this series and have learned some new things. I will be doing more of these in the future, but for now, I wish to focus on other endeavours. See you then!


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