Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Page: 101

The Thesmophoria was another festival held in honour of Demeter, in her character as presiding over marriage and social institutions resulting from the spread of agriculture.

This festival was celebrated exclusively by women.


A joyous spring festival was held in honour of Dionysus, in the month of March, and lasted several days.

Celebrating the Dionysia

In the processions which took place during these festivities, the statue of Dionysus was carried, and men and women, crowned with ivy and bearing the thyrsus, were dressed in every description of grotesque costume, and played on drums, pipes, flutes, cymbals, &c. Some representing Silenus rode on asses, others wearing fawn-skins appeared as Pan or the Satyrs, and the whole multitude sang pæans in honour of the wine-god. Public shows, games, and sports took place, and the entire city was full of revelry.

What lent additional interest to these festivals was the custom of introducing new comedies and tragedies to the public, representations of which were given, and prizes awarded to those which elicited the greatest admiration.

Celebrating the Dionysia

The Lesser Dionysia were vintage festivals, celebrated in rural districts in the month of November, and were characterized by drinking, feasting, and joviality of all kinds.

In connection with some of the festivals in honour of Dionysus were certain mystic observances, into which only women, called Menades or Bacchantes, were initiated. Clad in fawn-skins, they assembled by night on the mountain sides, [199]some carrying blazing torches, others thyrsi, and all animated with religious enthusiasm and frenzy. They shouted, clapped their hands, danced wildly, and worked themselves up to such a pitch of excitement and fury that in their mad frenzy they tore in pieces the animal brought as a sacrifice to Dionysus.

Under the name of Bacchanalia, these mystic rites were introduced into Rome, where men also were allowed to participate in them; but they were attended with such frightful excesses that the state authorities at length interfered and prohibited them.


The Panathenæa was a famous festival celebrated in Athens in honour of Athene-Polias, the guardian of the state. There were two festivals of this name, the Lesser and the Greater Panathenæa. The former was held annually, and the latter, which lasted several days, was celebrated every fourth year.

For the Greater Panathenæa a garment, embroidered with gold, called the Peplus, was specially woven by Athenian maidens, on which was represented the victory gained by Athene over the Giants. This garment was suspended to the mast of a ship which stood outside the city; and during the festival, which was characterized by a grand procession, the ship (with the Peplus on its mast) was impelled forward by means of invisible machinery, and formed the most conspicuous feature of the pageant. The whole population, bearing olive branches in their hands, took part in the procession; and amidst music and rejoicings this imposing pageant wended its way to the temple of Athene-Polias, where the Peplus was deposited on the statue of the goddess.