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Poseidon's Festival at the Winter Solstice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Noel Robertson
Brock University, St Catharines, Ontario


The record shows that Poseidon was once worshipped in every part of Greece as a god of general importance to the community. In the glimpse of Mycenaean ritual afforded by the Pylos tablets Poseidon is the chief deity, and the offerings and perhaps also the custom of ‘spreading the bed’ point to agrarian concerns. In each of the main districts of historical Greece he is rooted in tradition: Arcadia, that ancient landscape, is full of ancient cults of Poseidon; Ionia gathers to honour Poseidon Helikônios; ‘all Boeotia is sacred to Poseidon’, according to Aristarchus (Et. Magn. 5.Kypris), and here and in Thessaly he dominates mythical genealogy; the Dorian Peloponnesus is likewise ‘sacred to Poseidon’ (Diod. 15. 49. 4), and at his shrine on Calaureia, the seat of an early amphictyony, Mycenaean antecedents come into question – as at few other shrines in Greece. Yet much of the testimony is antiquarian and retrospective; Poseidon's pre-eminence is more of a memory than a reality. In such a well-documented city as Athens Poseidon has a very small place indeed in public festivities. In Greek literature his authority is slight and his powers are narrow, being virtually confined to earthquakes and storms at sea; he is chivvied by Zeus and flouted by Odysseus, and the reparation which Odysseus is required to make, of establishing Poseidon's worship among landsmen who take an oar for a winnowing fan, is a mocking and belated tribute to his former domain.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1984

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1 See e.g. Gérard-Rousseau, M., Les mentions religieuses dans les tablettes mycéniennes (Rome, 1968), pp. 181–5, 201–3Google Scholar. The hecatomb of bulls offered by Nestor, , Od. 3. 466Google Scholar, does not resemble the offerings of the tablets but is often lumped with them by commentators, as if the cult of Poseidon were a local speciality of ‘Pylos’, Mycenaean and Homeric. Yet it must first be shown that Homer's geographic indications suit the Messenian Pylos better than the Triphylian, and this will not be easy; cf. Meyer's, Ernst summary at RE Suppl. 15 (1978), 227–30Google Scholar. Messenien.

2 The leading example, on a scale which has not been attempted lately for any other Greek deity, is Schachermeyr, F., Poseidon und die Entstehung des griechischen Gotterglaubens (Bern, 1950)Google Scholar. One of Schachermeyr's main theses is described as ‘tempting’ by Burkert, W., Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche (Stuttgart, 1977), p. 218Google Scholar; but no one who heeds Nilsson's, M. P. objections in principle, AJP 74 (1953), 161–8Google Scholar, will be likely to succumb.

3 Yet Burkert's ingenious studies of a number of rites should not go unmentioned, nor those of his associate, F. Graf.

4 See Samuel, A. E., Greek and Roman Chronology (Munich, 1972)Google Scholar, index of months's. Poseideôn, Posidaios, Posideiôn, Posidêiôn, Posideiô, Posideon, Posudeon. Among the cities listed thereunder Priene is not wanted (as Samuel's own discussion shows), and Dardanus should be substituted for Lesbos, and Demetrias for Pagasae; cf. J, and, REG 86 (1973), 69, 72Google Scholar. In the calendar of Demetrias the months are named after the twelve gods, so that Poseideon has not the same significance here. The various instances will be mentioned below in their proper place. The month Poseideon and also the months Geraestius and Taureon, named from other festivals of Poseidon, have been treated by Sarcady, J., Ada Cl Debrecen 1 (1965), 1317Google Scholar; 5 (1969), 14; 7 (1971), 17, and made to serve his theory that the Greek calendar was formed in the early Dark Age, when migrating peoples borrowed festivals from each other; but Poseidon's festivals have not the ethnic colour which he imagines.

5 Forthe Haloea see Deubner, L., Attische Feste (Berlin, 1932), pp. 60–7Google Scholar, and Parke, H. W., Festivals of the Athenians (London, 1977), pp. 98100Google Scholar. Both give too much to Demeter and too little to Dionysusand Poseidon.In particular, the full import of [Dem.] 59 Neaera 116–17 has not been grasped. The misconduct of the hierophant Archias at the Haloea is compared with the misconduct of Neaera's daughter at the Anthesteria as another outrage against ‘this same god’, i.e. Dionysus; cf. Clinton, K., The Sacred Officials of the Eleusinian Mysteries (TAPS 64. 3, 1974), p. 17Google Scholar n. 41. The passage shows that in the popular view of the Haloea, as in the learned theorizing of schol. Lucian, Dionysus was to the fore. The composite nature of the festival also gives rise to the varied explanations of the namec Ἁλια threshing-floors and vineyards both come into it.

6 Note however Hsch. προτργαια, ‘a festival of Dionysus and Poseidon'. The vintage falls in Boedromion.

7 The extension of Eleusinian ritual to other parts of Attica was briefly treated by Nilsson, , Eranos 42 (1944), 70–6Google Scholar= Opuscula Selecta 3 (Lund, 1960), 92–8Google Scholar, apropos of IG 13 250, the sacrificial regulations of Paeania. That the Eleusinian Proerosia fell on Pyanopsion 7 and included a supplication of Apollo seems to follow surely from Euripides, Lycurgus, and ‘the sacred calendar of Eleusis’, though the conclusion has not been drawn by commentators.

8 Poseidon's name is plausibly restored in IG 13 5 = LSCG 4, the list of sacrifices prescribed for the Eleusinia or, as Clinton would have it, AJP 100 (1979), 112Google Scholar, for the Mysteries. It is not clear whether this part of the list deals with preliminary offerings or with others belonging to the main programme; in any case it is not an important occasion for Poseidon.

9 For the temple and the eschara see Mylonas, G. E., Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton, 1961), pp. 167–70Google Scholar and pis. 61–2.

10 The coincident dates of the sacrifice at Erchia and the transaction at Eleusis are noted by Burkert, apud Mikalson, J. D., The Sacred and Civil Calendar of the Athenian Year (Princeton, 1975), p. 92Google Scholar.

11 The Eleusinian cult of Poseidon patêr is often thought to be connected with the mythical paternity of Eumolpus, eponym of the Eumolpidae. Two objections can be raised. First, the epithet pater resembles other epithets of Poseidon – genethlios, genesios, patrogeneios – which require a comprehensive explanation, to be considered below. Second, Eumolpus son of Poseidon is firmly tied, as the adversary of Erechtheus, to the cult of Poseidon on the Acropolis; conversely, his paternity is not explained by anything we know of Eleusinian ritual (unless we invent a ceremonial immersion of the hierophant). Now the conflict between Eumolpus and Erechtheus, as we see more clearly than ever from Pap. Sorb. 2328 = , Eur.Erechtheus fr. 65Google Scholar Austin, is the aition of the great sacrifice to Poseidon Erechtheus, which in the Athenian calendar can be nothing but the Scira; the Scira I take to be the festival of the threshing, its aition a tale of violence such as threshing always inspires, and Eumolpus and Erechtheus emblematic figures of this agricultural activity, ‘Fine-singer’ and ‘Thresher', sprung from the two sources of the corn, the winter moisture (Poseidon and Chione) and the earth. The conventional view links the sacrifice in question with the Panathenaea; whether or not this makes sense of Erechtheus, it does not help with Eumolpus.

12 Roussel, P., Mélanges Bidez 2 (Brussels, 1934), pp. 824–7Google Scholar, noted the ‘idea of stability’ implicit in these epithets, but could suggest nothing more definite.

13 Of course Zeus horios is honoured at other times and places: cf. IG 22 1458 = LSCG 20 A11, an offering in the Tetrapolis in Scirophorion; [Dem.] 7 Halon. 39–40, an altar in the Thracian Chersonese. Peek, W., AthMitt 67 (1942), 351–2Google Scholar no. 132 line 2, restores some broken letters in IG 22 5172 to give ‘Hera horia not very plausibly, so far as one can judge.

14 The form Πετρς used in the Erchia calendar was identified by Jameson, M. H., BCH 89 (1965), 158CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 This scholium is very like another by the same hand, probably Arethas'. in which three Athenian festivals, the Thesmophoria, Scirophoria, and ‘Arrhetophoria’, are obscurely and tendentiously equated as expressing the same physikos logos about human and vegetable procreation (pp. 275–6 Rabe). The other scholium has been widely but inconclusively discussed; in my opinion the details are reliable, if we allow for some confusion and equivocation: the scholiast was confused because his source equivocated. The two scholia plainly derive from the same source, known also to Clem. Protr. 2. 17 and perhaps to Steph. Byz. s. Μλητος; Jacoby, , FGrHist IIIbGoogle ScholarSuppl. 2. 204 n. 77, thinks of Poseidonius or Apollodorus, but Theophrastus seems at least as likely. Although our scholium, unlike the other, mentions only one festival, the Haloea, the ritual details are subjoined to an aetiology that looks exclusively to Dionysus; for the festival is said to be concerned with the pruning of the vine and the tasting of new wine, and to commemorate the murder of Icarius by drunken and prurient shepherds. One might therefore ask whether the scholiast's exposition of the ritual does not contaminate the Haloea with a Dionysiac festival in which phalli, if not cunni, would be routine. Against this are the red-figure vases which Deubner adduced in the light of the scholium; these vases, showing women and phalli – most notably a pelike showing four phalli set up amid sprouting corn –, exactly suit the season and the purpose of the Haloea. And since other notices likewise speak of Dionysus, it is clear that the ritual had features of Dionysiac aspect – but perhaps not of Dionysiac origin; they may be the reason why Dionysus was brought into it in the first place. I do not think that the Haloea are depicted on the Niinnion tablet, as proposed by Simon, E., AntK 9 (1966), 8692Google Scholar.

16 Gill, D., HThR 67 (1974), 122Google Scholar, suggests that the food, which is heaped on tables, is an offering for the gods rather than a meal for the worshippers, but the scholiast makes it very clear that the tables are set out by the authorities for the benefit of the women.

17 Parke, , Fest. of the Alh. (n. 5 above), p. 98Google Scholar, rejected both derivations, from ‘threshing-floor’ and from ‘cultivated field’, without offering anything in their place.

18 At IG 2 2 1672. 233Google Scholar ‘the sacred threshing-floor’ receives attention of some sort during the tenth prytany, obviously in connection with the threshing.

19 So Jameson on IG 13 255. Another offering to Poseidon at line 18 comes between offerings assignable to Thargelion and to Hecatombaeon or Boedromion, and so may appertain to the Scira.

20 In the next month, Gamelion, ‘Gê at the manteion’ follows Daera (B 12–13), a n agrarian deity related to Demeter, and in Elaphebolion she stands alone (B 17–18).Hêroinê appears often in the calendar of Marathon, in various company (B 4 a s restored, B 16, 20, 22, 24, 25–6).

21 The epigraphic evidence for the Delian Posidea has been assembled and interpreted by Bruneau, P., Recherches sur les cultes de Délos à l' èpoque hellénistique et à l' époque impériale (Paris, 1970), pp. 260–4Google Scholar, and need not be cited here. Bruneau reckons the number of banqueters as 1,500 and suggests the Hypostyle Hall as the setting.

22 Nilsson's comments on Poseidon temenités are not quite consistent; at Gr. Feste, p. 83 he calls him a sea-god, but at pp. 328–9 compares the agrarian background of the Haloea.

23 According to Salviat, F., BCH 82 (1958), 225–6Google Scholar, who published the stone, the Posideia are a nautical rite which comes ‘at the bad season … by a tradition of the Aegean’.

23 See Nilsson, , Gr. Feste, p. 37Google Scholar; Ziehen, L., RE 19. 1 (1937), 394–6 sGoogle Scholar. Πελώρια 2; Jacoby ad loc. Jacoby indeed supposes that Baton simply invented the festival, but this is not a game which ancient writers play.

26 The Greek festivals which Athenaeus has already likened to the Saturnalia, and which he takes from other writers, are the Hermaea of Crete, with no date given; a festival of Troezen ‘in the month Geraestius’, and so perhaps the Geraestia as a festival of Poseidon in late autumn; the Sacaea of Babylon ‘in Loos, the eleventh month’, i.e. August; and a festival of Hera on Cos, with no date given. So it remains an open question why he singles out the Peloria as the best example. There is nothing to be said for Jacoby's view that it was Baton, not Athenaeus, who first compared the Peloria with the Saturnalia – or rather, who excogitated the Peloria from the Saturnalia, in order to feign that the Roman festival was instituted by migrating Pelasgians!

26 The section on Saturnalienartige Feste which Nilsson appends to the festivals of Zeus, , Gr. Feste, pp. 3540Google Scholar, is potentially misleading; apart from our festival and apart from speculation about a festival of Cyrene, Zeus does not come into it at all.

27 Both the festival and the avatar of Zeus were probably widespread in Thessaly. Baton and Athenaeus ascribe the festival to the Thessalians at large; the Pelasgians of the aition may have the same scope. Nilsson, Gesch. der gr. Ret. 2/3 1. 513 n. 2, adduces Zeus pelôris on a coin of Pharsalus, and Zeus pelôrios is also known to Quintus, (Posthom. 11. 273)Google Scholar.

28 Orion, it is said, established a popular shrine of Poseidon on Cape Pelorus, after he formed the cape as a breakwater (Diod. 4. 85. 4, citing [Hes.] fr. 149 M-W), but it would be wishful to deduce a connection between Poseidon and the place-name; Pelorus is a natural place for him.

29 Nilsson, , Gr. Feste, p. 67Google Scholar, observes that whereas the normal Dorian form is Ποτιδν, the form Ποοἱδαν attested for Helos, Thuria, and Taenarum represents the Arcadian form, though with the Laconian aspiration of medial sigma. ‘All three cults are therefore pre-Laconian and belong to the same stock who were so attached to the god in Arcadia.’

30 The bits of aetiology which Pausanias supplies are of little value. Poseidon's cult and epithet are traced to a conventional lis deorum, when Argos was awarded to Hera and Poseidon flooded the land in despite. The torches thrown into the pit are said to honour ‘Kore daughter of Demeter’, a perfunctory explanation which really explains nothing; this is not the normal use of torches in the cult of Demeter and Kore. Nilsson, , Gr. Feste, pp. 361–2Google Scholar, was driven to suppose that the pit was a megaron, such as women use for the distinctive offerings of the Thesmophoria; but the open area visited by Pausanias is not the place for a megaron, nor is there any reason to think that women threw in torches along with slaughtered pigs and the rest. In any case the rite was not reserved for women, for it was reputedly instituted – perhaps it was somehow altered – by ’Nicostratus, a local man’; the name is common at Argos (cf. Mitsos, M., Ἀργολικ Προσωπογραπα [Athens, 1952], pp. 135–6Google Scholar, listing five instances in the fourth and third centuries). Pausanias also reports a ‘festival of watch-fires’ at Argos in which fires were lit on Lyrceia and Larisa (2. 25. 4).

31 See Henrichs, A., BASP 16 (1979), 8592Google Scholar; his survey of ‘tree-murder’ in Manichaean and Indian sources, ibid. pp. 92–108, is of great interest, but does not illuminate the Erysichthon story. Burkert, , Gnomon 46 (1974), 322–4Google Scholar, and again in Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1979), p. 135Google Scholar, thinks of a tree carried as a seasonal emblem by ritual beggars serving Demeter at the Triopium near Cnidus. Yet although ritual begging has indeed helped to form the parallel stories of Erysichthon, Triopas, and of Phorbas on Rhodes (whose reception in a private household, as recounted by Dieuchidas, , FGr Hist 485Google Scholar F 7, is unmistakably the aition of such a practice), it is ritual begging in the cult of Apollo, the commonest sort; the Athenian setting of [Hes.] fr. 43a shows that Erysichthon himself is the eponym of the Apolline genos Erysichthonidae, whom the poet attaches to the Aeolid stemma, presumably for the first time, by making Triopas his father. For the rest, the violation of the grove does not at all suggest the carrying of a tree hung with tokens of plenty, and the ritual background envisaged by Burkert, and by G. Zuntz before him, is quite illusory; the Triopium is a shrine of Apollo, not Demeter (the ‘Triopium’ of Herodes Atticus, IG 14. 13891390Google Scholar, does not evoke this shrine as commentators always say, but rather Demeter's grove in Thessaly, in order to deter intruders from despoiling Herodes' fields and orchards).

31 See e.g. Wilamowitz, A., Hellenistische Dichtung 2 (Berlin, 1924), pp. 3941Google Scholar; McKay, K. J., Erysichthon. A Callimachean Comedy (Leiden, 1962), pp. 826Google Scholar. Opinion is divided or reserved over Aithôn as a fictitious identity of Odysseus (Od. 19. 193) and as the title of a satyr play by Achaeus (TrGFmin. 20 F 5a–l 1). Since Odysseus is a famished beggar, and his rightful substance is being depleted by continual feasting, Homer may well have his eye on the Erysichthon story. Achaeus’ subject may be either Erysichthon or Odysseus or, if he could use the name as freely as Homer, some trencherman like Heracles.

33 A ritual origin can also be deduced for Ạἴθουσα daughter of Poseidon, consort of Apollo, and mother of Eleuther eponym of Eleutherae, himself the father of Iasius or Iasion, ’Healer’ (, Apollod.Bibl. 3 [111] 10. 1. 2Google Scholar; Paus. 1.20. 1; cf. [Hes.] fr. 185 M–W) – perhaps the celebrated ritual ofEleutherae which stands behind Plutarch, , Quaest. Gr. 39, 300a–bGoogle Scholar.

34 For the other phratry names see Wörrle, M., Untersuchungen zur Verfassungsgeschichte von Argos an 5. Jahrhundert vor Christus (Munich, 1964), p. 17Google Scholar n. 32; Pierart, M., BCH 105 (1981), 611–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The Aithônidai were linked with Erysichthon of Thessaly by Vollgraff and, doubtfully, by Guarducci, M., Uistituzione dellafratria 2 (MemLinc' 6 8. 2, 1938), 88Google Scholar; with Odysseus by von Gaertringen, Hiller on SIG 3735Google Scholar.

35 Gr. Feste, p. 327.

36 Demeter Mysia is also worshipped at a rural shrine near Argos (Paus. 2. 18. 3), and Hesychius has the entry Μσης κώμη Ἀργεας. This place-name resembles Μσαιον the sanctuary near Pellene; the epithet Mysia derives from these, and also Mysios as the name of Demeter's mythical host at Argos (Paus. 2. 18. 3, 2. 35. 4, 7. 2. 79; IG 4. 664) or of a man of Hermione (IG 4. 732 col. 4. 4, perhaps the brother of Damatrios, ibid.); the common view that Mysios personifies the ‘mysteries’ of Demeter is plainly misguided. The festivities at the Musaion lend some interest to Hesychius’ gloss μυσλμαι πολὺ πενντες κα σθανττες.

37 Nilsson, , Gr. Feste, pp. 73–4Google Scholar, does not suggest a date, unless autumn is implied by the fancied resemblance to the Apaturia. Halliday, W. R., The Greek Questions of Plutarch (Oxford, 1928), p. 185Google Scholar, proposes ‘early spring’ in view of the fancied resemblance to the Anthesteria.

38 The mention of the season rings a suitably ominous note in Agamemnon's speech. Some commentators refuse to allow the meaning which attaches to ‘the setting of the Pleiades’ everywhere else in ancient literature, but Thomson, G., Aeschylus. Oresteia 22 (Amste rdam/Prague, 1966), pp. 68–9Google Scholar, argues well for the seasonal connotation. A tradition found in Hellanicus et al., doubtless aetiological, gave a date in summer for the sack of Troy – early or late Thargelion, late Scirophorion, late Panemus – which could be reconciled without much difficulty with the winter homecoming; for the details see Robert, C., Die griechische Heldensage (Berlin, 19201926), p. 1289Google Scholar, and for a discussion of the aetiology, Burkert, , Homo Necans (Berlin, 1972), pp. 178–81Google Scholar.

39 Phryne's voluptuous figure was revealed to the crowd at the Eleusinian Mysteries and again at the Poseidonia – obviously the Aeginetan festival – when ‘she removed her mantle, unbound her hair, and waded into the sea’ (Ath. 13. 59, 590f). ‘The story of Phryne’, says Halliday (n. 37 above), ‘shows that it was then warm enough to bathe, but the bathing season begins early in Greece.’ Until recently the Greeks did not go in for recreational bathing, and Phryne was performing her ritual duties: at a certain stage of the Mysteries the initiates bathed in the sea, andthe mythical heroines who encounter Poseidon within his element prefigure an act of ritual immersion. Since ritual bathing may be required at any time, the story has no bearing on the season.

40 So Halliday (n. 37 above); ‘no real Aphrodite festival, but only a great carouse’, says Nilsson, , Gr. Fesle, p. 375Google Scholar, in similar vein; but he also, p. 74, thinks of Aphrodite's role in the Ionian Apaturia and as a sea-goddess.

41 cf. Andrewes, A., JHS 81 (1961), 912CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Of course phratries at large worshipped all manner of gods and heroes, and it comes as no surprise that the statutes of the Labyadae, , CIDelph 1 Lois sacrees, 9 B 1314Google Scholar, name Poseidon phratrios between Apollo and Zeus patrôos – an exception to prove the rule. At Sparta Poseidon dômatitas has to do with kinship groups, to judge from the company he keeps in IG 5. 1. 497 (Carneius oiketas and Heracles genarchas among others, all served by a hereditary priest).

43 cf. Samuel, , Gr. and Rom. Chron. (n. 4 above), pp. 107–10Google Scholar.

44 Wilamowitz, , Der Glaube der Hellenen 2/3 1 (Basel 1955, 1959), p. 209n. 1Google Scholar, regarding Poseidon's agrarian function as quite secondary, dismisses out of hand the agrarian interpretation of phytalmios – and flies in the face of the evidence. The wide distribution of the epithet is enough I to show that it need not be connected with the Attic genos Phytalidae, a view of Toepffer which has had some success.

45 In a display of hieratic learning Plutarch speaks first of Poseidon phytalmios at Megara, , and then says that ‘the descendants of ancient Hellen also sacrifice to Poseidon patrogeneioso’ (Quaest. Com. 8. 8. 4, 730d)Google Scholar; this must be another local cult which was traced aetiologjcally to Hellen. Pausanias' notice of Poseidon genesios near Lerna is somewhat to our purpose (2. 38. 4). He has a small shrine by the shore, at a place called genesion; next to it is another place called apobathmoi, where Danaus and his daughters first disembarked. Perhaps apobathmoi was the site of ritual bathing, and perhaps the nubile Danaids stand for comparable women at a festival of Poseidon.

46 For this family see Robert, , Heldensage (n. 38 above), p. 453 n. 6Google Scholar.

47 Fluck, H., Skurrile Riten in griechischen Kulten (Endingen, 1931), pp. 1112Google Scholar, rightly sets Aristotle beside schol. Lucian on the Haloea, but he is not at pains to distinguish scurrilous rites conducted by men and women jointly from those conducted by women alone (cf. his p. 23 on the festival of Pellene).

48 For this inference see e.g. West, M. L. on , Hes.Theog. 971Google Scholar.

49 The general sense of the Baubo episode was explained by Diels, H. in Miscellanea A. Salinas (Palermo, 1907), pp. 314Google Scholar, and again by Graf, , Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit (Berlin, 1974), pp. 168–71, 194–9Google Scholar; it has not however been set in its proper context at the Thesmophoria. The agrarian purpose and the magical procedure of this festival are badly obscured in some recent accounts, which speak of initiation rites and of the fellowship of matrons and so on; yet refutation is hardly needed, for there is no lack of evidence to show the single focus of both the Thesmophoria and all the other seasonal festivals of Demeter.

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