Creating a Festival

Those who know me know I’m a Hellenic Polytheist and that I don’t follow the standard neopagan Wheel of the Year. However I’m not a reconstructionist (that somewhat suggests there’s a complete body of material waiting to be reconstructed, there isn’t, but that’s for another post). My practice is informed by historical sources, but it’s not a copy of them. As such, I don’t follow a traditional Attic festival calendar either (and there is evidence that the ancient Athenians used a number of different calendars). There are a few reasons for this, but the most relative reason is that I am not an Ancient Greek citizen living in Classical era Athens. There are a number of festivals related to events that were important to the Athenians, but are irrelevant to my practice. The Athenian climate and seasons differ greatly from mine, meaning the dates of agricultural festivals don’t sync up with what’s going on in the British landscape. The Ancient Greeks had access to strong traditions, communities of co-religionists, and large state-sponsored rites. I venerate a number of gods and spirits who happen to be Greek, but I am a 21st century Brit, and I have access to none of these things.  Lastly, my devotions are centred on Dionysos and His family, as well as some local nymphs. Therefore celebrating festivals for other unrelated gods and spirits doesn’t appeal to me (unless I’m told by Dionysos to include another holy power in my practice and it’s confirmed by divination).

While I do keep a few ancient festivals there are also a number of newly crafted festivals on my religious calendar. These have no historical precedence and are made up of a desire to acknowledge events and deities that otherwise get missed out by the Attic calendar.  My personal festival calendar has been fairly changeable over the years as I’ve added, updated or removed various events, but has settled on a cycle of eleven festivals; Lenaia, Anthesteria, Anegerseis, Asteria, Melissia, Ariadneia, Thalusia of Demeter, Oskhophoria, Hagiosnyktia, Lampteria and Kateunasmoi. Of these, only Lenaia, Anthesteria, Oskhophoria and Lampteria have anything like a decent amount of historical sources about them. Anegerseis and Kateunasmoi are ancient Phrygian festivals, but only the barest of details about them have survived, as well as Thalusia being described as harvest offering rites not especially dedicated to any deities, so lots of room for interpretation. This leaves Asteria, Melissia, Ariadneia and Hagiosnyktia as pure inventions of UPG, with some educated guesswork.

So how to create a festival? There are a few questions you need to ask yourself during the process.

What’s the festival’s purpose?
Do you want to honour a deity or spirit that doesn’t have any extant festivals? Do you want to celebrate as aspect of a deity or spirit that isn’t usually explored? Do you want something that is celebratory? Mystical? Sombre?

Who is it dedicated to? 
Which deities and/or spirits do you want to include in your festival? Are these holy powers you have a history with or are you approaching unfamiliar beings? What are Their hymns, epithets, cult titles, prayers and symbolism? How can these be incorporated into your festival?

When should the festival be held?
This will be determined by both practical and esoteric factors. If you are holding a harvest festival then you’ll want it to take place during your local harvest season. If you want to invite guests and participants, then holding a festival over a weekend when folk have more time off work might influence when you decide to date your festival. You can take lunar phases into account, or times that have historically been significant to a god or spirit.

What’s the format?
If you already participate in festivals that follow a certain format you might decide to use the same for your new festival. However there’s nothing wrong with adopting something new, especially if you’re approaching a deity or spirit from a tradition you’re not familiar with. Is your festival going to be an all-day affair, or an evening event. Or something that takes place over several days?

An example.

What’s the festival’s purpose?
It started simply because I wanted a festival that honoured the goddess Ariadne and incorporated aspects of Her as a starry/heavenly queen. As the daughter of Pasiphae (a demi-goddess of the moon), granddaughter of Helios (the sun god) and sister to Asterion (the starry), Ariadne’s celestial connections are pretty well established.

Who is it dedicated to?
Primarily Ariadne in Her heavenly guise, but also various celestial nymphs. Thematically Ariadneia is the polar opposite of Melissia (my Midsummer festival), during which Ariadne is a golden, summer, bee goddess. Here She is cool, starry, silvered and lunar. She is the spider who spins the silver threads of the labyrinth for her moon-horned sibling. The imagery used for the festival reflects these aspects of Her, and I use lunar incense as well as silver, pale blue and white candles.  Keeping the cool, lunar and starry themes my offerings are cold white wine, icy milk and broken silver chains (I’m clumsy with jewellery so I have a lot of these) cast into water. I like to play an excerpt from Mike Oldfield’s Incantations as the lyrics are taken from Ben Jonson’s ‘Cynthia’s Revels’.

When should the festival be held?
I chose the full moon in July as the date to hold the Ariadneia, because the constellation of Corona Borealis (Ariadne’s Crown) is brightest in July. Also, as I live in the UK, July is technically a drier, warmer month, which means I can be out of doors for most of the evening and night.

What’s the format?
I use the same ritual format as for all my other festivals. A festival for me is usually an all-day or several-day event. I start preparing for Ariadneia a few days before by gathering and purchasing any materials I might need. I have several hymns and prayers printed out so I don’t stumble over the words. I set up my ritual space earlier in the day, lay a fire, mix the incense I want to use and have a purification bath. I may fast or eat very lightly during the day, but I’ll leave offerings on all my shrines. The atmosphere is festive, and the other gods and spirits I venerate should be included in that, so I’ll put fresh flowers and glasses of alcohol on Their shrines. I’ll listen to music that puts me in the right frame of mind and do fun activities related to Ariadne during the day. Then I’ll hold my ritual, light the fire and candles, and feast with Dionysos’s celestial queen.

And that’s it. Perform your festival once and it’s a beginning. Twice and it’s a habit. Three times and it becomes a tradition.

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