Sunday, 23 December 2012

Winter fertility festival in ancient Athens

December has been very full! 
I am working on the second draft of a commissioned story while trying to prepare for Christmas. On the very day of the solstice there was a death in the close family and another family member is recovering from major surgery. Thus the blog has been 16 days without attention. 

But in quiet moments, I have been wondering what the Ancient Greeks did to celebrate the winter solstice (Dec 21st) and done a little research. (The Boy with Two Heads is set during spring and summer, so I had not focused on this time of year in ancient Greece before.) The upshot is that calenders and festivals varied considerably from city to city, so it is all rather vague. The vagueness may also be due to the fact that it seems fertility rites were the order of the day. Scholars and archaeologists have often hidden or ignored references to such things. There were (and perhaps still are) special rooms in museums and libraries where only certain people could view them or read about them...

Looking south-west from Mount Pendelli over modern Athens in winter.
In Attica (the area round Athens), the agricultural year was half way through in December. Crops of wheat, barley and other cereals were sown (they would be harvested in May or June), and vines hoed and root-pruned. The tasting of the new vintage (pressed in September) is also mentioned. Add to these, festivals involving women's fertility and sexuality and you get what sounds like a riotous celebration!

One such was called the Haloa (page 32). It took place in the month named after Poseidon, equivalent to our December/January. This is the season in Greece when everything is green and the soil is damp, soft and relatively warm from the winter rain (although there can be snow on the mountains!) The celebrations seem to have involved cakes and bread rolls in the shapes of male and female genitalia, jokes and stories from the women's point of view about the 'war of the sexes', and perhaps sacrifices to the mother goddess of agriculture and fertility, Demeter. 

So more like the Medieval Lord of Misrule (but with more emphasis on reproduction!) than modern Christmas in this country, 

Keswick Moot Hall, December 2012
Which brings me to wishing all my readers

Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year!

And I wish you a 2013 full of positive events and energy.

[With my story deadline looming, I will probably not manage another posting for a couple of weeks, so back in January!]

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