The Four Seasons - Yannis Tsarouchis / Doxiadis collection - credits:
The Four Seasons - Yannis Tsarouchis / Doxiadis collection - credits:

Happy New Month, since September, is already here! Today, we perceive September as the first month of autumn, meaning that the relaxing days of August are gone and everyday life is back on track. Question is, is it truly the end of the summer? How did the ancient Greeks divide their year?

If you have in mind that the measurement of time, the division of the year into months, and the counting of the years is a universal, undebatable fact, you might get surprised travelling from place to place with what you are going to discover. Measuring time is a human construction as old as the organised communities themselves. Essentially, it is a collection of rules, based on observations, that facilitate the proper operation of each society’s structures, serving religious, social, administrative and commercial purposes. Today, the Gregorian calendar, introduced and established in the 16th century (1582) during the papacy of Gregory the XIII, is the most widespread calendar all around the globe, yet not the only one existing. Since our perception of time is just about four centuries old, how did ancient Greeks perceived theirs?

One crucial difference between us today and the ancient Greeks is the very nature of the calendar itself. The Gregorian calendar is a solar, one meaning that the divisions of months and years are based on the observations of the movement of the sun in relevance to the stars. On the contrary, ancient Greeks and especially ancient Athenians, -on whom we are going to focus on- relied on a lunar calendar, observing and documenting the movements and phases of Selene, the moon. As in many ancient cultures, the Sun and the Moon were perceived as deities by the ancient Greeks. Both these deities were Titans, offspring of the mighty Uranus and Gaia, meaning that they existed way before the Olympian Gods. The Sun (Helios in Greek/ Sol in Latin), was a male god, eternally radiant youthful, crowned with a shining aureole. His task was to ride his chariot with his fiery steeds across the skies every day and continue his journey during the night in the Oceanus (Ocean) to emerge again from the East. While he is struggling in the realm of Oceanus, his sister Selene jumps on her chariot and gives light to the skies when Nyx (the night) prevails. Selene (Luna in Latin) is often portrayed as a beautiful maiden, the very personification of the moon itself, carried across the heavens by divine horses (in some cases oxen or bulls). The Homeric Hymn to Selene describes her in every detail:

The air, unlit before, glows with the light of her golden crown, and her rays beam clear, whensoever bright Selene having bathed her lovely body in the waters of Ocean, and donned her far-gleaming raiment, and yoked her strong-necked, shining team, drives on her long-maned horses at full speed, at even time in the mid-month: then her great orbit is full and then her beams shine brightest as she increases. So she is a sure token and a sign to mortal men.  - Hymn to Selene (32) 5-14.

The journey of the deities is monumentally depicted on the Eastern pediment of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens, on display at the Acropolis and the British Museum.  

Since the Greeks were divided into many city-states, those different cities often had different calendars. The city of Athens had its own calendar serving its particular needs. Interestingly the Attic calendar was lunisolar, meaning it was based on both the movements of the sun and the moon. According to that type, the beginning of the year was set with the sighting of the new moon after the summer solstice. Like today, the ancient Athenians divided their year in twelve months each dedicated to an Olympian god. Therefore, summer for the Athenians started in the mid-July and ended approximately in the mid-October. 

September coincides with the Attic months of Metageitnion and Boedromion both dedicated to Apollo, the god of light. During the month of Metageitnion, the Athenians held the festival of Herakles in the region of Cynosarges, which today lies between Lycabettus Hill and the area of River Ilissos. There, the illegitimate offspring of the Athenians (meaning that not both of their parents were Athenian citizens) had the responsibility to hold the festival of their patron god Herakles (after all Herakles was the illegitimate son of Zeus and Alcmene). These young boys were called parasitoi (parasites) which originally meant the ones with whom I share food. The nature of the festival was jubilant, with sacrifices to the god and revelries that Athenians loved to participate in. It is known that even the great comedian Aristophanes often visited the festival and even wrote a play about it.

During the same month, the Athenians had the festival of Panhellenia. This festival was established during the 5th century BC to commemorate the joined accomplishment of the Greeks to defeat the Persians. Every year, delegations from different city-states were gathering at the battle-site of Plataies and paid tributes and offerings to the gods. Every fourth year, the Panhellenia (meaning for all the Greeks) was relocated to the city of Athens and was dedicated to Zeus the Liberator. The next month had three main festivals. Athenians used to commemorate their victory at the Marathon against the Persians during the month Boedromion, and also had their day of the dead, the Genesia or Nekysia. The most important festival during that month though were the Eleusinian Mysteries, honoring the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. This festival was of great importance for the Athenians and gradually came to be one of the crucial rituals of the ancient world.

Since the Attic calendar was lunisolar, there was a need of the addition of an extra month every two or three years and the months were not fixed. Nevertheless, you can always do it like an Athenian, pretend summer is not over, and continue without any guilt your summer holidays! Plan your own trip to Greece or perhaps check out one of our Greece tours.

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