Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome
Men who had deserved well of their country were presented at the festival with a crown of gold, and the name of the person so distinguished was announced publicly by a herald.
The victors in the races and athletic games received, as a prize, a vase of oil, supposed to have been extracted from the fruit of the sacred olive-tree of Athene.
The distinguishing feature of this festival was a procession to the temple of Apollo, in which a young priest (the Daphnephorus) of noble descent, splendidly attired and wearing a crown of gold, was preceded by a youth, carrying an emblematical representation of the sun, moon, stars, and days of the year, and followed by beautiful maidens bearing laurel branches, and singing hymns in honour of the god.
The Saturnalia, a national festival held in December in honour of Saturn, was celebrated after the ingathering of the harvest, and lasted several days.
It was a time of universal rejoicing, cessation from labour, and merry-making. School children had holidays, friends sent presents to each other, the law-courts were closed, and no business was transacted.
Crowds of people from the surrounding country flocked to Rome for this festival attired in every variety of masquerade dress; practical jokes were given and received with the utmost good humour, shouts of exultation filled the air, all classes abandoned themselves to enjoyment, and unrestrained hilarity reigned supreme. Social distinctions were for a time suspended, or even reversed; and so heartily was the spirit of this festival entered into, that masters waited upon their slaves at banquets which they provided for them; the slaves being dressed upon these occasions in the garments of their masters.
There appears little doubt that the modern Carnival is a survival of the ancient Saturnalia.
This festival was celebrated in honour of Ceres. It was solemnized exclusively by women, who, dressed in white garments, wandered about with torches in their hands, to represent the search of the goddess for her daughter Proserpine.
During this festival, games were celebrated in the Circus Maximus, to which none were admitted unless clothed in white.
The Vestalia was a festival held in honour of Vesta on the 9th of June, and was celebrated exclusively by women, who walked barefooted in procession to the temple of the goddess.
The priestesses of Vesta, called Vestales or Vestal Virgins, played a conspicuous part in these festivals. They were six in number, and were chosen—between the ages of six and ten—from the noblest families in Rome. Their term of office was thirty years. During the first ten years, they were initiated in their religious duties, during the second ten they performed them, and during the third they instructed novices. Their chief duty was to watch and feed the ever-burning flame on the altar of Vesta, the extinction of which was regarded as a national calamity of ominous import.
Great honours and privileges were accorded to them; the best seats were reserved for their use at all public spectacles, and even the consuls and prætors made way for them to pass. If they met a criminal on his way to execution they had the power to pardon him, provided it could be proved that the meeting was accidental.
The Vestales were vowed to chastity, a violation of which was visited by the frightful punishment of being buried alive.
The following is the legendary account of the founding of Thebes:—
After the abduction of his daughter Europa by Zeus, Agenor, king of Phœnicia, unable to reconcile himself to her loss, despatched his son Cadmus in search of her, desiring him not to return without his sister.
For many years Cadmus pursued his search through various countries, but without success. Not daring to return home without her, he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi; and the reply was that he must desist from his task, and take upon himself a new duty, i.e. that of founding a city, the site of which would be indicated to him by a heifer which had never borne the yoke, and which would lie down on the spot whereon the city was to be built.
Scarcely had Cadmus left the sacred fane, when he observed a heifer who bore no marks of servitude on her neck, walking slowly in front of him. He followed the animal for a considerable distance, until at length, on the site where Thebes afterwards stood, she looked towards heaven and, gently lowing, lay down in the long grass. Grateful for this mark of divine favour, Cadmus resolved to offer up the animal as a sacrifice, and accordingly sent his followers to fetch water for the libation from a neighbouring spring. This spring, which was sacred to Ares, was situated in a wood, and guarded by a fierce dragon, who, at the approach of the retainers of Cadmus, suddenly pounced upon them and killed them.
After waiting some time for the return of his servants Cadmus grew impatient, and hastily arming himself with his lance and spear, set out to seek them. On reaching the spot, the mangled remains of his unfortunate followers met his view, and near them he beheld the frightful monster, dripping with the blood of his victims. Seizing a huge rock, the hero hurled it with all his might upon the dragon; but protected by his tough black skin and steely scales as by a coat of mail, he remained unhurt. Cadmus now tried his lance, and with more success, for it pierced the side of the beast, who, furious with pain, sprang at his adversary, when Cadmus, leaping aside, succeeded in fixing the point of his spear within his jaws, which final stroke put an end to the encounter.
While Cadmus stood surveying his vanquished foe Pallas-Athene appeared to him, and commanded him to sow the teeth of the dead dragon in the ground. He obeyed; and out of the furrows there arose a band of armed men, who at once commenced to fight with each other, until all except five were killed. These last surviving warriors made peace with each other, and it was with their assistance that Cadmus now built the famous city of Thebes. In later times the noblest Theban families proudly claimed their descent from these mighty earth-born warriors.