Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ancient Festivals and Games

A Roman Festival

Days off are something that we all look forward to. Who doesn’t? In Canada, we’ve just celebrated Canada Day with a barrage of red-and-white maple leaf flag waving, walks in the park, lazy lattes and roasting meat. And on tomorrow’s 4th of July, I suspect many will be celebrating Independence with even greater pomp.

Festival days are few and far between in modern society but they still serve social cohesion and provide the populace with a sort of release, a chance breather from the everyday doldrums most of us experience.

It was the same in the ancient world, except there were far more festivals throughout the year, each usually tied to a particular deity or event such as the harvest. In fact, there were so many religious festivals in ancient Greece and Rome that it is near impossible to keep track of them all, of the practices and rituals that accompanied each. It went far beyond the guzzling of beer and the overhead burst of pyrotechnics.

Ruins of Elefsina
Whether it was something as big and mysterious as the Elefsinian Mysteries in honour of Demeter and Persephone or something as seemingly small as celebrating a tiny shrine, these festivals and celebrations were essential acts in the life of ancient societies. Ancient Rome in particular had a never-ending agenda of sacred festivals. The imperial event planners must have been hard workers! What is fascinating for me is that even today, we have the rough dates of many festivals in ancient Rome due to the vast array of primary sources.

Statue of Apollo, Olympia
Traditionally, from about July 6-13, for instance, ran the ancient Roman festival of the Ludi Apollonares or, the Games of Apollo. The Games of Apollo, first held when Sulla was Praetor in 212 B.C., had been intended as a one-time event but became an annual celebration after the plague of 208 B.C. to honour Apollo who was also a god of healing. The games included equestrian competitions and stage performances which were followed by special markets and fairs. However, from a popular point of view, they were of somewhat less interest than other games because they only included one day of races in the Circus. Less popular meant less funding from a political point of view, but they were certainly no less important from a religious point of view.

The Pythia
Not only was Apollo the god of light and art, he was also the god of healing and of prophecy. It was his oracle, the Sibyl of Cumae, who uttered a series of prophecies on the future of Rome and its people in what is known as the Sibylline Books. These prophecies were sacred to Rome, stored in the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter and then in the Temple of Apollo, built by Augustus, on the Palatine Hill.

The celebration of festivals in the ancient world is extremely interesting to look at and, indeed, to write about. Festivals can provide a vivid backdrop to any novel or short story.

This weekend, on July 7 and 8, in honour of the god of art and prophecy, and to mark the Ludi Apollinares, there will be a special promotion of Children of Apollo, Book I of the Eagles and Dragons series. Stay tuned!

For those among you interested in prophecy and the Sibyl of Cumae, you won’t want to miss the next instalment of The World of Children of Apollo. Coming this weekend.

For now, here’s to health and light, creativity and all that might be. 
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