The Thargelia was a festival celebrated in ancient Greece every spring. It occurred on the 6th and 7th days of the month Thargelion. The name of the month actually takes its name from this festival. (1) As the ancient calendar was a luni-solar calendar, and our modern one is a solar calendar, the dates will not remain constant from year to year. Thus, this year Thargelia will begin at sundown on May 3rd and continue until sundown on the 5th.
The festival lasted for two days, and it had two separate components to it. The first day is sacred to Artemis, as the 6th of the month was universally regarded as the day sacred to her. (2) A rather interesting purification ritual took place on this first day. The details, however, vary by location. In Athens, two unattractive men were chosen to be the pharmakoi; one represented the women and one represented the men of the city. Each wore a necklace of strung figs and was chased from the city. In Abdera only one person was chosen. He was treated to an elaborate feast, but then forced to walk the circumference of the city. Following that, the citizens threw stones at him until he ran out of the city walls.(3) We read of a similar event in the poetry of Hipponax, who wrote in the 6th century BC. He says that one ugly man is chosen to be the pharmakos. He also is given a grand meal of figs, cheese and barley broth. Afterwards he is chased from the city while the citizens whip him with sea onions and sea branches. He is also struck seven times on his “membrum virile.”(4)
Nilsson explains that the pharmakos was the person “on whom the sins and the impurity of the people were loaded and who was then expelled or destroyed.” He also comments that other scholars believe that he represented the vegetation spirit of the old year, which must be ritually expelled (or in some cases killed) in order to allow for the new one. (5) While this is an attractive idea, it is one that I do not think can be justified. Nilsson gives no mention of who his “other scholars” are, and the only place in which this is mentioned is in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a work which unfortunately seems to contain as much fiction as it does fact. He does present an interesting argument in regards to the example from Hipponax, and his reasoning is thus: The purpose of beating the scapegoat with sea onions was not meant for harming him. If the people simply wanted to cause him injury, they could use just about anything. Sea onions were used in ancient times to rid evil influences from a person or place. A similar ritual is seen in Arkadia after unsuccessful hunting parties; a statue of Pan is also beaten with sea onions, not to harm the god, but to serve as a means of purification for whatever ill influence has come over the god (and thus prevented a good hunt). Coming back to our Thargelia scapegoat, since his genitals are specifically singled out as the place to hit him, Frazer concludes that this act must represent the purification of the reproductive forces. Since it is not a fertility festival for humans or livestock, but rather a harvest festival, then the pharmakos must represent the vegetation god. (6)
Most contemporary scholars, however, would not make the leap that Frazer does; instead they see it (as do I) as a means of magically purifying the city. The classicist Robert Parker says “The scapegoat ritual has therefore sometimes been seen as a magical protection for the new year’s ripening produce at a perilous time.”(7) This sentiment is echoed by other classicists as well: “At a crucial junction of the year, the expulsion of a member of society cleanses the town and prepares for the new harvest.” (8)
After having rid the city of any ill influences on the first day of the festival, the second day begins with a joyous attitude. It follows the basic structure of any other Hellenic festival. First, there was a procession, which included children who carried the eiresione, an olive branch decorated with woolen fillets, bread, fruits, small flasks of honey, and some with oil. (9) The children would sing while carrying this: “The Eiresione brings figs and fat bread, honey in pots, and oil to rub down, a cup of strong wine so you go drunk to bed.”(10) As they moved through the city, they would collect offerings along the way. Once arriving at the temple, the offering of the first fruits of the grain harvest would begin. From the surviving texts we learn that the offering was of two types: a boiled stew of grains and seasonal vegetables, or the loaf of grain bread called the thargelos. It is from the name of the loaf that the festival takes its name. This loaf was also called eueteria, meaning “good year.”(11)
There would also be libations, hymns, much feasting and other activities during the celebration. Singing competitions were especially popular, in which 50 men from the 10 tribes of Athens participated. (12) All of these were done in honor of Apollo, god of purification.
As an idea for modern-day worshippers, Campbell suggests that an effigy be used as the pharmakos. A fig necklace can be placed around the effigy, and it can be carried and deposited far from the site where the first fruits offering will be held the following day. (12) The celebration on the second day could resemble the ancient practices as closely as possible.
Practitioners of Hellenismos (ancient Greek paganism) will be celebrating this most auspicious holiday around the globe. My hope in writing this piece is that you will celebrate this spring festival with us!
- For more information on the ancient Greek calendar, please see the following website: http://www.hellenion.org/calendar.pdf
- The 6th of every month is sacred to Artemis because she was born on the 6th.
- Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1985, p. 82
- Nilsson, Martin, Greek Folk Religion, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1972, p. 27
- Frazer, Sir James Geroge, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (abridged edition), MacMillen, New York, 1971, pp. 671-2
- Parker, Robert, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983, p. 25
- Price, Simon & Kearns, Emily (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, p. 542
- Plutarch, Theseus, 22
- Iliad 16.605
- Nilsson, p. 29
- Adkins, Lesley & Adkins, Roy, Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, Facts on File, New York, 1997, p. 263
- Campbell, Drew, Old Stones, New Temples: Ancient Greek Paganism Reborn, Xlibris Corporation, 2000, p. 290
Gitana is a Hellenic Reconstructionist, and member of Hellenion. http://www.hellenion.org She is an active member of the Hellenic pagan community, hosts many rituals, and writes numerous articles on the topic of Hellenic paganism. They are available on her website: http://persephones.250free.com