You are here

For the wheel’s still in spin: the evolution of the Skira festival in Classical Athens

Adam Rappold

Brock University

The Athenian Skira festival has long been an enigma to scholars of Classical religion (eg. Brumfield 1981, Foxhall 1995, Sourvinou-Inwood 2009). Particularly problematic is its combination of seemingly disparate elements: private, distributed women’s rituals run alongside a centralized masculine state festival, ancient fertility rituals celebrated together with more contemporary Olympian sacrifices and processions, and the combined worship of Demeter, Persephone, Helios, Poseidon, and Athena. The eminent scholar of religion Robert Parker said that this confusing mélange made the Skira “unique” amongst all other known Greek festivals (Parker 2005).

Despite the undeniable learning and erudition that has gone into various attempts to reconcile these contradictions (eg. Burkert 1983, Robertson 1996, Håland 2012), much of the complexity of the festival derives from the false premise that all of the existing evidence for the festival must be considered simultaneously. Instead, in this paper I argue that the Skira, and festivals on the whole, are best understood as existing in a process of cyclical evolution, constantly redefined and reshaped by the participants. To demonstrate this, I extend a methodology for religious change originally developed in folkloric anthropology (Noyes-Abrahams 1999) as a framework under which the sources for the Skira are considered within their context, both diachronically and synchronically, rather than holistically. Doing so reveals that although all of the sources refer to a single Skira festival, we are actually glimpsing several distinct Skira festivals at different points in its evolution. Heuristically, these different experiences of the Skira can be divided into three distinct festivals: a women’s festival 500-350 BCE, a state procession 350BCE-200 CE, and an antiquarian reconstruction 200 CE+.

This division of the sources documents a massive transformation of the festival wherein the Skira, which was originally exclusive to women and celebrated at a local level, is coopted by the state and transformed into something wholly new in the fourth century BCE.

To demonstrate this, I show that the sources before 350BCE unanimously describe the Skira as a women-only festival, celebrated in local communities, akin to the Thesmophoria (Pherecrates: Photius Sigma 521 <Σκίρον>, Aristophanes Thesm. ll. 830-834, Eccl. ll. 17-18, IG I3 250, IG II2 1358, IG II2 1177). Then, abruptly, apart from two antiquarian glances in the late fourth century, this version of the festival is not mentioned again for almost five hundred years (Menander Epitrepontes ll. 749-750 (A), Philochorus: Suda sv. Τροπηλίς). Instead, after 350BCE, the Skira is unanimously described as a state-run, nationalistic procession tied to the mythology of the autochthon, Erechtheus (Lycurgus, Philochorus, Praxion, Lysimachides: Harpocration 23.1, Theopompus: FGrH 115, Strabo; Pausanias,; Herodianus 3.1.36 sv. <Σκίριον>, 3.1.1 sv. <σκῖρον>, 3.2.22 sv. <Σκίρος>; Plutarch Life of Theseus 17.6, Coniugalia Praecepta (42) 144 B.1-11)). I then prove that this change in the sources represents a change in the festival itself, related to the evolving zeitgeist of fourth century Athenians and a desire to revitalize symbols of Athens' Periclean glory days. It is also the case that we can identify a singular individual who had the means, motive, and opportunity to enact changes on this scale – the orator Lycurgus and his program of religious reforms (cf. Humpreys 2004).

This new understanding of the festival provides the groundwork for future work on the politics of fourth century BCE Athens and for more accurately contexualizing allusions to the Skira in literature. Further, although scholars of Classical religion have long understood that cult changes and evolves, it has been difficult to document this change in literary sources. This paper then provides a clear demonstration of how morphing beliefs and understanding could rapidly transform religious cult. Finally, the fourth century transformation of the Skira is of interest to gender studies, showing how the language and ideology of Athenian women and women's cult could be appropriated and employed by the state.

Session/Panel Title

Ritual and Religious Belief

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy