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Panathenaic Festival

East frieze of the Parthenon marbles possibly depicting kanephoroi, young women who led a procession to sacrifice. Louvre, MR825.

Also known as the Panatheanaea, the “all Athenian” festival was the most important festival in ancient Athens. Its importance is clear from the fact that everyone was allowed to attend - except slaves.

Held in honour of the city’s patron goddess (i.e. Athena), it was celebrated at the end of the month Hekatombaia, which corresponds to our July-August. It isn’t clear exactly how long the festival was celebrated for, but estimates have placed it from around a week to twelve days. To add some extra complexity, there was the Panathenaea, which occurred annually, and the Great Panathenaea, which was held every four years.

Both the lesser and greater Panathenaeas included a range of contests, performances, a procession and prizes. The festival is said to date back to at least the 8th or 9th century BCE, but not all of its elements were part of the itinerary in these early years.

Musical contests, for example, which included both singing and playing musical instruments, were first introduced to the festival in about the 5th century BCE. They took place in the Odeum, a building built for music which sat next to the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The prize? An olive wreath. Prizes were also given in monetary amounts and, in contrast to competitions outside the Panathenaea, prizes were awarded to runner ups. Parallel to the musical contests were the rhapsodic ones. ‘Rhapsodes’, or reciters, would recite Homer’s epic poetry, among others, in a competition unaccompanied by music. These recitations would only take place at the Great Panathenaea from the 6th century onward.

Athletic contests, which encompassed gymnastics and foot, chariot and horse races are the earliest components and contestants were divided into age categories. Only men could compete, and this was true for the musical contests as well. The athletic games and competitions eventually fell under their own name - the Panathenaic Games, which you can read more about below.

The prize for winners was an amphora (known as a ‘Panathenaic amphora’) filled with olive oil from a sacred grove in Athens. These amphoras would usually be decorated with an image of Athena on one side and the contest at hand on the other. It has been estimated that some of these olive oil amphoras would have been worth in the tens of thousands today!

Another component fo the Games, which you might recognise in its modern iteration, was the lampadephoria, a relay-like race where four runners would compete to bring a torch to the Acropolis without its flame dying out. Sound familiar?

Although this torch relay was never a part of the ancient Games, it was part of Greek culture. Relays were held in honour of various gods (here for Athena) and vase-paintings indicate the goal was to reach the finish as fast as possible with the torch still burning. Adding to the spectacle of the race, it would be run during a moonless night, providing the best possible conditions for the audience to be able to view the ceremony.

There are inscriptions attesting to the fourth-century prizes in the torch race: for the individual torch-bearer (lampadephoros) 30 drachmas and a water jar, and for the tribe an ox and 100 drachmas. Also as a reward, the winner was allowed to light the fire for the sacrifices at the altar. The ritual aspect, namely bringing fire from one sacred place to another without extinguishing it, was far more important than the competitive element. The torch race remained a purely religious act and probably this is the reason that it was never introduced into the competitive programme at many athletic games, including the Olympics.

During the race in the Panathenaic games a distance of over 2500 meters was covered by 40 runners per tribe, at approximately 60 metres each. The number of torch runners in each team differed in various places; in some races there were 8, 10, 40 and even 48 runners. Variation also appears in the number of teams competing and the distance covered.

Aristophanes The Frogs depicts a fifth-century race in a comic light:

Aeschylus ,comments to Dionysus that "these days no one is trained enough to

run the torch race," and Dionysus recalls seeing an inglorious runner plodding

along during the race and is abused by the crowds to a point where he broke wind, blew out his torch and ran away.

By the Powers, you are right! At the Panathenaea

I laughed till I felt like a potsherd to see a

Pale, paunchy young gentleman pounding along,

With his head butting forward, the last of the throng,

In the direst of straits; and behold at the gates,

The Ceramītes flapped him, and smacked him, and slapped him,

In the ribs, and the loin, and the flank, and the groin,

And still, as they spanked him, he puffed and he panted,

Till at one mighty cuff, he discharged such a puff

That he blew out his torch and levanted.

Two lampadedromia runners, ca. 430BCE. Attribute to The Kraipale Painter. © The Trustees of the British Museum

It isn’t clear exactly when the two different versions of the festival came about, but the greater was distinguished from its lesser counterpart by two main features: its solemnity and a grand procession.

The festival, like all festivals in ancient Greece, was inherently religious in nature. As part of the celebrations in honour of Athena, a procession was held, likely on the last day. Scenes of the procession, as it has been theorised, survive on the Parthenon Marbles. The procession would have been attended by everyone, citizens and metics alike, and was intended to bring a new and extravagant peplos to the goddess Athena Parthenos in the Acropolis, to where only Athenian citizens could enter. This peplos was so large that it was carried on a ship’s mast - the ship itself made its way over land.

As part of the festivities, animal sacrifices, particularly that of bulls, were made. Sacrificial animals would be brought by all of the Athenian dependencies, whose attendance was a part of the festival’s intent to encourage unity among all Attic people.


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