Ancient Greek Samhain Festivals

John Opsopaus
(c) 1996


Because Ancient Greek festivals were held according to a lunar calendar, which was often out of step with the solar year, it is difficult to say what festivals would correspond to Samhain.

In Homer's time the cosmical setting (first visible setting on western horizon at sunrise) of Orion, the Pleiades and the Hyades, which marked the beginning of the winter, herding season, occurred at the beginning of November (Nov. 5-10, by various computations). (Orion was the son of Poseidon and Euruale, daughter of Minos and sister of Ariadne, about whom more later.). Significantly, these constellations, which mark the seasons, are at the center of the Shield of Achilles (Iliad XVIII), that famous mandala of the Homeric Universe.

In classical Greek times there were several important festivals that nominally occur at the end of October and beginning of November. Two of these, which occur on the same day (7 Puanepsion), are especially interesting; they are followed on the next day by the Theseia (for Theseus), which is intimately connected with the first two.



The Puanepsia is in honor of Phoebus (Bright) Apollo, Helios (the Sun) and the Horai (the "Hours" or Seasons) - all solar deities connected with the turning of the year. The festival celebrates late autumn fruit gathering and seeks divine blessings for the autumn sowing. In the cycle of the year it balances the (nominally late May) Thargelia, a first-fruit festival for Apollo (marked by the first appearance in the east at dawn of Orion, the Pleiades and Hyades - their heliacal rising).

In the procession, every child with two living parents carries an Eiresiônê: a wand of laurel (sacred to Apollo), 2-3 feet long, decorated with fruit and pastries in the shape of lyres (sacred to Apollo), and cups and vine branches (for Dionysos; see below). As the children come to each house, they sing:

The Eiresione bears rich cakes
and figs and honey in a jar, and olive oil
to sanctify yourself, and cups
of mellow wine that you may drink and fall asleep.
If you give the children a gift, then they will give you an Eiresione, which will bring good luck all year long if fixed above the door. If your house is off the path of the procession, you can place your own Eiresione to bless your house.

The Puanepsia gets its name from "puanon epsein" (to boil beans), in reference to the special Panspermia (Allseeds) served at the festival; it is composed of boiled beans, leguminous vegetables and cereals boiled in a cauldron. This is in celebration of the return of Theseus (see below), for these were the only provisions they had left from which to make an offering. Sowing rituals typically involve a Panspermia.


The Ôskhophoria, in honor of Dionysos, occurs on the same day as the Puanepsia. It may seem odd to honor Apollo and Dionysos, so often taken as polar opposites, on the same day, but we must remember that They share Delphi, and this is the time of year when the changing of the guard occurs. An ancient pot shows Them shaking hands over the Omphalos (World Naval) at Delphi.

The procession is led by the Oskhophoroi, two men dressed as women in ankle length tunics; this commemorates the two youths whom Theseus disguised as maidens to protect the other maidens (see below). They carry vine branches still bearing grapes (ôskhoi). The herald carries a wand with a garland wrapped around it, rather than on his head, to signify the triumph of Theseus return mixed with the grief for his father's death. The procession also includes "Dinner Carriers," women bringing the Sacred Meal, which represents the meat, bread, and encouraging tales that the parents brought to the Twice-seven Children, who went to Crete with Theseus. When the procession, which starts at temple of Dionysos, arrives at the Shrine of Athena Skira (Athena as protectress of the grape harvest), there are cries of "Eleleu! Iou! Iou!" This is a paradoxical combination of encouragement (Eleleu) and woe (Iou), which recalls both Theseus' return, and the death of Dionysos by which He is reborn.

The Oskhophoria balances summer (nominally mid-June) festivals, the Arrhephoria (for Athena) and Skiraphoria (for Athena, Dionysos and Poseidon; see below).


The Theseia, in honor of Theseus, is celebrated by processions, sacrifices and athletic contests. The sacred meal includes meat, distributed to the people, for Theseus was a benefactor of the people, and Atharê, a porridge of husked wheat and milk.

Ariadne and Theseus' Descent into the Labyrinth and Return

To throw some additional light on these festivals, and provide a subject for meditation, I will retell the story of Ariadne and Theseus' Descent into the Labyrinth and Return Home.

King Minos of Crete was a son of Europa the Bull and of Zeus, and was especially dear to Him (they met in the Idaen Cave every nine years to renew his kingship), but had angered His brother Poseidon. For he had promised to sacrifice to the Sea God his most beautiful bull, but when the time came he could not bring himself to do so. In this and other ways Minos (lord of a maritime empire!) had neglected the God of the Sea. Therefore Poseidon caused Minos' queen Pasiphaê to fall in love with the bull (for she had also neglected the Rites of Aphrodite). Through the contrivance of Daidalos, the master craftsman from Athens, they were able to mate, and so was born the monster Minotaur (from Minoos Tauros = the Bull of Minos), who was named Asterios (Star). Minos ordered that Daidalos build the Labyrinth to house it; like Hades' realm, it is easy to go in, but difficult, if not impossible, to come out again.

Crete and Athens were in conflict for many reasons. First, Daidalos, an exile from Athens, was instrumental in bringing the shame of the Minotaur upon Minos, but he also collaborated in Minos' plans. Also Androgeos, a son of Minos, had won all the games at the Panathenaia (the Athenian festival for Athena!) and befriended the enemies of King Aigeus of Athens, but then had been killed, either by treachery of accident. But most of all, Minos, son of Zeus, was alienated from Poseidon, a patron of Athens. (Recall that Athena and Poseidon had competed to see which would be the principal patron of Athens.)

When Athens was struck with a terrible drought the oracle of Apollo was consulted, and the God said that Minos had to be appeased. Therefore Minos demanded that every nine years, seven youths and seven maidens, chosen from the noblest of Athenian families, were to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.

Now the hero Theseus was taken to be the son of King Aigeus, but everyone says his real father was Poseidon, perhaps because He came to Theseus' mother Aithra (the Bright) when she was wading in the sea at Sphairia after having sex with Aigeus.

When Minos came for the Twice-seven, Theseus was chosen for the sacrifice. Theseus picked seven valiant youths and seven brave maidens to go with him to try to slay the beast. But in place of two of the maidens he picked two boys with girlish features, and trained them to walk and talk like girls, so that they could go among the maidens and protect them with their greater strength. The parents of the Twice-seven brought food down to the boats, and in spite of their grief tried to encourage the children with songs and stories.

While the black-sailed ship was returning to Crete, Minos began to molest one of the maidens, Eriboia, but Theseus stopped him, by his authority as a son of Poseidon. Minos asserted that he was a son of Zeus, and in proof called upon the Father to make a sign, whereupon the heavens shook with thunder. Then Minos threw his golden ring into the sea and challenged Theseus to prove his parentage by recovering it. Theseus immediately jumped into the water, where he was led by dolphins to his father Poseidon. In addition to the ring, Amphitrite, wife of Poseidon and Queen of the Sea, gave him a crown and cloak of royal purple. Athena was also there to encourage him. When he returned to the ship with these treasures, his pedigree was proved.

Ariadne (whose name means "Very Holy") was the daughter of Minos, son of Zeus, and of Pasiphae (All-shining), daughter of the Sun. Nevertheless she hoped for some means of escape from the her father's tainted kingdom, where she was Mistress of the Labyrinth. When she beheld Theseus disembarking from the boat, she immediately fell in love with him, but also saw him as her means of escape. She consulted with Daidalos and he taught her that the only way to ascend out of the Labyrinth was by the exact same path by which one had descended into it. And so she devised the method called Ariadne's Thread (Linon Ariadnês), by which Theseus might escape after the monster was killed.

Ariadne also had a radiant circular crown of gold, made by Aphrodite, which Dionysos had given her in token of His love. She gave this to Theseus, and Ariadne's Crown (Stephanos Ariadnês) illuminated his journey and guided him along the way. The Beast was slain and the Athenians were able to return from the Labyrinth. Before the admiring eyes of Ariadne, Theseus played a lyre (given him by Athena) and led the Twice-seven in a labyrinthine dance of celebration on the Dancing Floor (Choros Ariadnês), which Daidalos had made for her. Ariadne placed her Crown on Theseus' head in token of victory.

The Athenians broke holes in the hulls of all the ships but their own and set sail on it with Ariadne. However, a strange wind blew the ship to the isle of Dia (Divine). There, Theseus and Ariadne were offered "mellow wine that you might drink and fall asleep." While they slept, Dionysos came to Theseus in a dream and claimed the princess as His bride; when he awoke, Athena led him away and told him that his destiny was in Athens, and that he must leave Ariadne behind. Theseus sadly boarded his ship and the wind carried it quickly from shore.

Dionysos arrived in a chariot drawn by black panthers and awoke Ariadne from her deathlike sleep in time for her to see the ship disappearing over the horizon. First she offered him her cup and He filled it with His divine wine. Then He returned to her the Crown of His Love, and the two ascended together into the heavens where Her Crown is still visible (the constellation Corona). She is now a Goddess and dwells with Dionysos, Her Olympian husband. She bore Him two boys, Oinopion (from oinos = wine) and Staphulos (from staphulê = a bunch of grapes).

Theseus forgot, either because he was consumed with sorrow for having to leave Ariadne behind, or perhaps because Athena or Dionysos made him forget, that he had promised his father that if he was successful and killed the Minotaur he would take down the black sail and put up a white one. When King Aigeus saw the black sail come over the horizon, he threw himself in grief from the Acropolis, at the place where the Temple of Athena Nike stands, and so Theseus became king.

The ship touched land and Theseus and the Twice-seven made an offering of the only provisions they had left: beans, leguminous vegetables and cereals, which they boiled in a cauldron. Soon a herald arrived from Athens with a laurel wreath with which to crown Theseus in token of victory. But when Theseus heard of his father's death, he refused the wreath, and with the wreath wrapped around his staff, the herald led the Athenian children back to the city in a procession of grief for the old king and triumph for the new. So also each year dies to make way for the next.


  1. Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, pp. 248-249, 260-277.
  2. Carl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, Thames & Hudson, 1951, pp. 269-272.
  3. M. P. Nilsson, Greek Folk Religion, Harper & Row, p. 29, 34-35.
  4. Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, s.vv. labyrinth, Minos.
  5. Ginette Paris, Pagan Grace, Spring Publs., pp. 39-44.
  6. H. W. Parke, Festivals of the Athenians, Cornell Univ. Press, pp. 75-82.
  7. E. Simon, Festivals of Attica, Univ. Wisc. Press, pp. 75-77, 89-92, 107.

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Last updated: Thu Oct 31 23:03:07 EST 1996