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A Day In Old Athens by William Stearns Davis

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Higher still ascends the prayer of Socrates, when he begs for
"the good" merely, leaving it to the wise gods to determine what
"the good" for him may be; and in one prayer, which Plato puts in
Socrates's mouth, almost all the best of Greek ideals and morality
seems uttered. It is spoken not on the Acropolis, but beside the
Ilissus at the close of the delightful walk and chat related in
the "Phœdrus."

"Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me
the beauty of the inward soul, and may the outward and the inward
man be joined in perfect harmony. May I reckon the wise to be
wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as none but the
temperate can carry. Anything more?--That prayer, I think, is
enough for me."

Phormion and his party are descending to the city to spend the
evening in honest mirth and feasting, but we are fain to linger,
watching the slow course of the shadows as they stretch across the
Attic hills. Sea, sky, plain, mountains, and city are all before
us, but we will not spend words upon them now. Only for the
buildings, wrought by Pericles and his might peers, we will speak
out our admiration. We will gladly confirm the words Plutarch
shall some day say of them, "Unimpaired by time, their appearance
retains the fragrance of freshness, as though they had been inspired
by an eternally blooming life and a never aging soul."[*]

[*]Plutarch wrote this probably after 100 A.D., when the Parthenon
had stood for about five and half centuries.

Chapter XXI. The Great Festivals of Athens.

198. The Frequent Festivals at Athens.--Surely our "Day in Athens"
has been spent from morn till night several times over, so much
there is to see and tell. Yet he would be remiss who left the city
of Athena before witnessing at least several of the great public
festivals which are the city's noble pride. There are a prodigious
number of religions festivals in Athens.[*] They take the place
of the later "Christian Sabbath" and probably create a somewhat
equal number of rest days during the year, although at more irregular
intervals. They are far from being "Scotch Sundays,"[+] however.
On them the semi-riotous "joy of life" which is part of the Greek
nature finds its fullest, ofttimes its wildest, expression. They
are days of merriment, athletic sports, great civic spectacles,
chorals, public dances.[&] To complete our picture of Athens we
must tarry for a swift cursory glance upon at least three of these
fête days of the city of Pericles, Sophocles, and Phidias.

[*]In Gulick ("Life of the Ancient Greeks," pp. 304-310) there is
a valuable list of Attic festivals. The Athenians had over thirty
important religious festivals, several of them, e.g., the Thesmorphoria
(celebrated by the women in honor of Demeter), extending over a
number of days.

[+][NOTE from Brett: A "Scotch Sunday" refers to the practice of
the Sabbath day in Scotland. During the Sabbath day (at the time
of the author of this work) in Scotland no activity goes on except
for Church. There is no travel, no telecommunication, no cooking,
not allowed to read the newspaper, etc. A "Scotch Sunday" therefore,
represents a day of religious austerity.]

[&]It is needless to point out that to the Greeks, as to many other
ancient peoples,--for example, the Hebrews,--DANCING often had a
religious significance and might be a regular part of the worship
of the gods.

199. The Eleusinia.--Our first festival is the Eleusinia, the
festival of the Eleusinian mysteries. It is September, the "19th
of Boëdromiön," the Athenians will say. Four days have been spent
by the "initiates" and the "candidates" in symbolic sacrifices
and purifications.[*] On one of these days the arch priest, the
"Hierophant," has preached a manner of sermon at the Painted Porch
in the Agora setting forth the awfulness and spiritual efficacy
of these Mysteries, sacred to Demeter the Earth Mother, to her
daughter Persephone, and also to the young Iacchus, one of the many
incarnations of Dionysus, and who is always associated at Elusis
with the divine "Mother and Daughter." The great cry has gone
forth to the Initiates--"To the Sea, ye Mystæ!" and the whole vast
multitude has gone down to bathe in the purifying brine.

[*]Not all Athenians were among the "initiated," but it does not
seem to have been hard to be admitted to the oaths and examination
which gave one participation in the mysteries. About all a candidate
had to prove was blameless character. Women could be initiated as
well as men.

Now on this fifth day comes the sacred procession from Athens across
the mountain pass to Eleusis. The participates, by thousands, of
both sexes and of all ages, are drawn up in the Agora ere starting.
The Hierophant, the "Torchbearer," the "Sacred Herald," and the other
priests wear long flowing raiment and high mitres like Orientals.
They also, as well as the company, wear myrtle and ivy chaplets and
bear ears of corn and reapers' sickles. The holy image of Iacchus
is borne in a car, the high priests marching beside it; and forth
with pealing shout and chant they go,--down the Ceramicus, through
the Dipylon gate, and over the hill to Eleusis, twelve miles away.

200. The Holy Procession to Eleusis.--Very sacred is the procession,
but not silent and reverential. It is an hour when the untamed
animal spirits of the Greeks, who after all are a young race and
who are gripped fast by natural instinct, seem uncurbed. Loud
rings the "orgiastic" cry, "Iacchë! Iacchë! evoë!"

There are wild shouts, dances, jests, songs,[*] postures. As the
marchers pass the several sanctuaries along the road there are halts
for symbolic sacrifices. So the multitude slowly mounts the long
heights of Mount Ægaleos, until--close to the temple of Aphrodite
near the summit of the pass--the view opens of the broad blue bay
of Eleusis, shut in by the isle of Salamis, while to the northward
are seen the green Thrasian plain, with the white houses of Eleusis
town[+] near the center, and the long line of outer hills stretching
away to Megara and Bœotia.

[*]We do not possess the official chant of the Mystæ used on their
march to Eleusia. Very possibly it was of a swift riotous nature
like the Bacchinals' song in Euripides "Bacchinals" (well translated
by Way or by Murray).

[+]This was about the only considerable town in Attica outside of

The evening shadows are falling, while the peaceful army sweeps
over the mountain wall and into Eleusis. Every marcher produces
a torch, and bears it blazing aloft as he nears his destination.
Seen in the dark from Eleusis, the long procession of innumerable
torches must convey an effect most magical.

201. The Mysteries of Eleusis.--What follows at Eleusis? The
"mysteries" are "mysteries" still; we cannot claim initiation and
reveal them. There seem to be manifold sacrifices of a symbolic
significance, the tasting of sacred "portions" of food and drink--a
dim foreshadowing of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist;
especially in the great hall of the Temple of the Mystæ in Eleusis
there take place a manner of symbolic spectacles, dramas perhaps
one may call them, revealing the origins of Iacchus, the mystical
union of Persephone and Zeus, and the final joy of Demeter.

This certainly we can say of these ceremonies. They seem to have
afforded to spiritually minded men a sense of remission of personal
sin which the regular religion could never give; they seem also
to have conveyed a fair hope of immortality, such as most Greeks
doubted. Sophocles tells thus the story: "Thrice blessed are they
who behold these mystical rites, ere passing to Hades' realm. They
alone have life there. For the rest all things below are evil."[*]
And in face of imminent death, perhaps in hours of shipwreck, men
are wont to ask one another, "Have you been initiated at Eleusis?"

[*]Sophocles, "Frag." 719.

202. The Greater Dionysia and the Drama.--Again we are in Athens
in the springtime: "The eleventh of Elapheboliön" [March]. It is
the third day of the Greater Dionysia. The city has been in high
festival; all the booths in the Agora hum with redoubled life;
strangers have flocked in from outlying pars of Hellas to trade,
admire, and recreate; under pretext of honoring the wine god,
inordinate quantities of wine are drunk with less than the prudent
mixture of water. There is boisterous frolicking, singing, and
jesting everywhere. It is early blossom time. All whom you meet
wear huge flower crowns, and pelt you with the fragrant petals of

[*]Pindar ("Frag." 75) says thus of the joy and beauty of this fête:
"[Lo!] this festival is due when the chamber of the red-robed Hours
is opened and odorous plants wake to the fragrant spring. then
we scatter on undying earth the violet, like lovely tresses, and
twine roses in our hair; then sound the voice of song, the flute
keeps time, and dancing choirs resound the praise of Semele."

So for two days the city has made merry, and now on the third,
very early, "to the theater" is the word on every lip. Magistrates
in their purple robes of office, ambassadors from foreign states,
the priests and religious dignitaries, are all going to the front
seats of honor. Ladies of gentle family, carefully veiled but eager
and fluttering, are going with their maids, if the productions of
the day are to be tragedies not comedies.[*] All the citizens are
going, rich and poor, for here again we meet "Athenian democracy";
and the judgment and interest of the tatter-clad fishermen seeking
the general "two-obol" seats may be almost as correct and keen as
that of the lordly Alcmænoid in his gala himation.

[*]It seems probable (on our uncertain information) that Athenian
ladies attended the moral and proper tragedies. It was impossible
for them to attend the often very coarse comedies. Possibly at
the tragedies they sat in a special and decently secluded part of
the theater.

203. The Theater of Dionysus.--Early dawn it is when the crowds
pour through the barriers around the Theater of Dionysus upon the
southern slope of the Acropolis. They sit (full 15,000 or more)
wedged close together upon rough wooden benches set upon the hill
slopes.[*] At the foot of their wide semicircle is a circular
space of ground, beaten hard, and ringed by a low stone barrier.
It is some ninety feet in diameter. This is the "orchestra," the
"dancing place," wherein the chorus may disport itself and execute
its elaborate figures. Behind the orchestra stretches a kind
of tent or booth, the "skenë." Within this the actors may retire
to change their costumes, and the side nearest to the audience is
provided with a very simple scene,--some kind of elementary scenery
panted to represent the front of a temple or palace, or the rocks,
or the open country. This is nearly the entire setting.[+] If
there are any slight changes of this screen, they must be made in
the sight of the entire audience. The Athenian theater has the blue
dome of heaven above it, the red Acropolis rock behind it. Beyond
the "skenë" one can look far away to the country and the hills.
The keen Attic imagination will take the place of the thousand
arts of the later stage-setter. Sophocles and his rivals, even as
Shakespeare in Elizabeth's England, can sound the very depths and
scale the loftiest heights of human passion, with only a simulacrum
of the scenery, properties, and mechanical artifices which will
trick out a very mean twentieth century theater.

[*]These benches (before the stone theater was built in 340 B.C.)
may be imagined as set up much like the "bleachers" at a modern
baseball park. We know that ancient audiences wedged in very close.

[+]I think it is fairly certain that the classical Attic theater
was without any stage, and that the actors appeared on the same
level as the chorus. As to the extreme simplicity of all the
scenery and properties there is not the least doubt.

204. The production of a Play.--The crowds are hushed and expectant.
The herald, ere the play begins, proclaims the award of a golden
crown to some civic benefactor: a moment of ineffable joy to the
recipient; for when is a true Greek happier than when held up for
public glorification? Then comes the summons to the first competing

"Lead on your chorus."[*] The intellectual feast of the Dionysia
has begun.

[*]In the fourth century B.C. when the creation of original tragedies
was in decline, a considerable part of the dionysia productions
seem to have been devoted to the works of the earlier masters,
Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

To analyze the Attic drama is the task of the philosopher and the
literary expert. We observe only the superficialities. There are
never more than THREE speaking actors before the audience at once.
They wear huge masques, shaped to fit their parts. The wide
mouthpieces make the trained elocution carry to the most remote
parts of the theater. The actors wear long trailing robes and are
mounted on high shoes to give them sufficient stature before the
distant audience. When a new part is needed in the play, an actor
retires to the booth, and soon comes forth with a changed masque
and costume--an entirely new character. In such a costume and
masque, play of feature and easy gesture is impossible; but the
actors carry themselves with a stately dignity and recite their often
ponderous lines with a grace which redeems them from all bombast.
An essential part of the play is the chorus; indeed the chorus
was once the main feature of the drama, the actors insignificant
innovations. With fifteen members for the tragedy, twenty-four for
the comedy,[*] old men of Thebes, Trojan dames, Athenian charcoal
burners, as the case may demand--they sympathize with the hard-pressed
hero, sing lusty choral odes, and occupy the time with song and
dance while the actors are changing costume.

[*]In the "Middle" and "Later" comedy, so called, the chorus entirely
disappears. The actors do everything.

The audience follows all the philosophic reasoning of the tragedies,
the often subtle wit of the comedies, with that same shrewd alertness
displayed at the jury courts of the Pnyx. "Authis! Authis!"
(again! again!) is the frequent shout, if approving. Date stones
and pebbles as well as hootings are the reward of silly lines or bad
acting. At noon there is an interlude to snatch a hasty luncheon
(perhaps without leaving one's seat). Only when the evening
shadows are falling does the chorus of the last play approach the
altar in the center of the orchestra for the final sacrifice. A
whole round of tragedies have been given.[*] The five public judges
announce their decision: an ivy wreath to the victorious poet; to
his "choregus" (the rich man who has provided his chorus and who
shares his glory) the right to set up a monumnet in honor of the
victory. Home goes the multitude,--to quarrel over the result,
to praise or blame the acting, to analyze the remarkable acuteness
the poet's handling of religious, ethical, or social questions.

[*]Comedies, although given at this Dionysia, were more especially
favored at the Lenæa, an earlier winter festival.

The theater, like the dicasteries and the Pnyx, is one of the great
public schools of Athens.

205. The Great Panathenaic Procession.--Then for the last time
let us visit Athens, at the fête which in its major form comes only
once in four years. It is the 28th of Metageitniön (August), and
the eighth day of the Greater Panathenæa, the most notable of all
Athenian festivals. By it is celebrated the union of all Attica
by Theseus, as one happy united country under the benign sway of
might Athena,--an ever fortunate union, which saved the land from
the sorrowful feuds of hostile hamlets such as have plagued so many
Hellenic countries. On the earlier days of the feast there have
been musical contests and gymnastic games much after the manner of
the Olympic games, although the contestants have been drawn from
Attica only. There has been a public recital of Homer. Before a
great audience probably at the Pnyx or the Theater a rhapsodist of
noble presence--clad in purple and with a golden crown--has made
the Trojan War live again, as with his well-trained voice he held
the multitude spellbound by the music of the stately hexameters.

Now we are at the eighth day. All Athens will march in its glory
to the Acropolis, to bear to the shrine of Athena the sacred
"peplos"--a robe specially woven by the noble women of Athens to
adorn the image of the guardian goddess.[*] The houses have opened;
the wives, maids, and mothers of gentle family have come forth to
march in the procession, all elegantly wreathed and clad in their
best, bearing the sacred vessels and other proper offerings. The
daughter of the "metics," the resident foreigners, go as attendants
of honor with them. The young men and the old, the priests, the
civil magistrates, the generals, all have their places. Proudest
of all are the wealthy and high-born youths of the cavalry, who
now dash to and fro in their clattering pride. The procession is
formed in the outer Ceramicus. Amid cheers, chants, chorals, and
incense smoke it sweeps through the Agora, and slowly mounts the
Acropolis. Center of all the marchers is the glittering peplos,
raised like a sail upon a wheeled barge of state--"the ship
of Athena." Upon the Acropolis, while the old peplos is piously
withdrawn from the image and the new one substituted, there is a
prodigious sacrifice. A might flame roars heavenward from the "great
altar"; while enough bullocks[+] and kine[&] have been slaughtered
to enable every citizen--however poor--to bear away a goodly mess
of roasted meat that night.

[*]Not that this robe was for the revered ancient and wooden image
of Athena Polias, not for the far less venerable statue of Athena

[+][NOTE from Brett: A bullock is a young, possibly castrated,

[&][NOTE from Brett: kine is the archaic plural form of "cow."]

206. The View from the Temple of Wingless Victory.--We will not
wait for the feasting but rather will take our way to the Temple
of Wingless Victory, looking forth to the west of the Acropolis
Rock. So many things we see which we would fain print on the memory.
Behind us we have just left the glittering Parthenon, and the less
august but hardly less beautiful Erechtheum, with its "Porch of
the Maidens." To our right is the wide expanse of the roofs of the
city and beyond the dark olive groves of Colonus, and the slopes
of Ægaleos. In the near foreground, are the red crags of Areopagus
and the gray hill of the Pnyx. But the eye will wander farther.
It is led away across the plainland to the bay of Phaleron, the
castellated hill of Munychia, the thin stretch of blue water and
the brown island seen across it--Salamis and its strait of the
victory. Across the sparkling vista of the sea rise the headlands
of Ægina and of lesser isles; farther yet rise the lordly peaks of
Argolis. Or we can look to the southward. Our gaze rounds down the
mountainous Attic coast full thirty miles to where Sunium thrusts
out its haughty cape into the Ægean and points the way across the
island-studded sea.

Evening is creeping on. Behind us sounds the great pæan, the
solemn chant to Athena, bestower of good to men. As the sun goes
down over the distant Argolic hills his rays spread a clear pathway
of gold across the waters. Islands, seas, mountains far and near,
are touched now with shifting hues,--saffron, violet, and rose,--beryl,
topaz, sapphire, amethyst. There will never be another landscape
like unto this in all the world. Gladly we sum up our thoughts
in the cry of a son of Athens, Aristophanes, master of song, who
loved her with that love which the land of Athena can ever inspire
in all its children, whether its own by adoption or by birth:--


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