[Text taken directly from my book, Dwelling on the Threshold, because this was one of the few pieces in it that wasn’t already on this blog, but rather was posted originally on Wildivine.]
A common quandary for Hellenic polytheists is how to properly celebrate religious festivals in modern times without temples, current traditions, or even communities with which to worship (many having just themselves, or perhaps one or two others). Often, this results in festivals either being abandoned entirely, or reduced to 20-minute rituals in the evening. A deplorable situation, as festivals were extremely important to ancient Greek religion. And, because things don’t have to be this way.
There are many ways to fill a day with activities that make it more fully a celebratory, festival event. Since most Hellenic festivals are focused on a particular deity, one can listen to music associated with that god, watch movies that capture the right spirit, make a temporary festival shrine for the day, eat appropriate foods, or do special activities that the deity holds dear. Since I use my computer to play music and thus often have it on during a festival day, I set the screensaver to a slideshow of thematic images that I collect for various gods. My partner and I will often play little games throughout the day that keep our minds focused on the gods (and contest – or agon – was a crucial part of ancient festivals anyway), such as naming random things and finding less than six degrees of separation between them and the god, or trying to name as many epithets as we can. I also always pay attention to what I wear all day (aside from special ritual clothes that may be donned later on), choosing colors and jewelry carefully to connect with the god’s associations. And no festival is complete without the Greeks’ favorite ritual accoutrement, the stephanos, or garland, made of flowers, vines or herbs (these are surprisingly easy to make with just a little wire and floral tape, plus making them becomes a festival activity in itself). And of course, one can prepare an elaborate feast, even if the only other invitees are the gods themselves (which is called a theoxenia).
But what I want to emphasize here is the idea of getting outside for your rituals on festival days. Too often, modern pagans seem stuck indoors – in their bedrooms or living rooms, perhaps in communal ritual spaces, but only venturing outdoors for special camping events or large gatherings. Strange for a collection of supposedly “earth-based” religions, but true. Especially true of those pagans living in the city – but almost all cities have parks and hidden wild places, if you take the time to explore. So here are a few reasons to go outdoors for your next festival:
It helps make the day an event, rather than just a brief ritual.
This is a continuation of what I was talking about above. If you venture out somewhere special, the time it takes to prepare, get there, and set up ritual space becomes part of the greater festival day, and sets it aside from more everyday ritual and worship.
Walking to the spot you’ve chosen can be a procession.
Pompe, or procession, was an important part of an ancient Greek festival. And yet, it’s kind of difficult to pull off if you’re just walking from one end of a room to the other, plus it can feel silly if there are only one or two of you doing it. But if you take a nice walk to the park or wherever you’re going, wearing your stephanoi and carrying your baskets of offerings and ritual supplies, you’ve got a procession right there, without it looking weird or feeling awkward, even for just one person.
It connects you to the ancient tradition.
Ancient Greek people often traveled quite far to attend a special festival, or worship in a sacred place.
You can connect with the gods in a natural environment.
This is especially crucial for certain deities and daimones – the nymphs of course foremost, not to mention Artemis, for instance, or Pan – but all have connections of some kind to certain landscapes, animals, plants, etc. Instead of just looking at representations of these things on your home shrine, you can experience some of them first-hand. There’s nothing like doing a ritual for Hermes on the side of a mountain and looking up to see hawks circling overhead. Or sacrificing to Zeus in a grove of oak trees. And I can’t imagine putting on a festival for the naiads without being near a body of water.
You create more space for the gods to communicate with you.
Letting go of some control over your environment means that the gods have more room to appear and take the reins. The most frequent way this may happen is by encountering something or someone that acts as a chance omen, which is much less likely to happen if you stay in your safe, predictable home. While you’re walking in your procession to the park, for instance, you may see a shop sign that seems to speak directly to a question you had. Or you might find that the place you were intending to go is occupied, and instead you end up somewhere even more special that you would never have found otherwise (yes, things can go wrong more frequently with this approach, but if you listen to the gods, they often work out for the best). Listen to the gods as best you can, and invite their participation by leaving some things unstructured, letting them guide you.
Over time, you can build up power spots in your local area.
Do this sort of festival enough times, and you’ll end up returning to some places over and over again, because you’ve had powerful experiences there, or even just that they are particularly beautiful or secluded. This then fosters deeper ties to your environment that will make future rituals there even better. I’ve found this is most likely to happen with the nymphs – while theoretically I keep meaning to go to different places to honor them (which I do in a more informal sense frequently), I find myself returning to the same few spots each year on their festival days, having established a rapport with the nymphs there.
Performing some rituals can bring spiritual blessings to the land and/or the community.
Fertility and agricultural festivals are the most obvious examples (and I do think it’s better to do those rituals in a way that spreads their energy across the land you inhabit, rather than doing them inside, completely cut off from the actual natural elements involved), but not the only ones. For instance, each year on the Lenaia I create a liknon for Dionysos, and bring it, veiled, through the streets to a hillside for the ritual itself. There is power in that procession, even if no one happens to see it – Dionysos and his power are brought to the city. Sometimes, the reverse also happens – you can utilize the energy of the community (even though they are not all pagan, of course) to feed into your festival. For instance, you could hold a first-fruits festival on the opening day of your local farmers’ market, or honor Apollon during a chamber music festival.
I challenge the Hellenic community to embrace the long-standing festival traditions of the ancients, and to get outside once in awhile to do so! You don’t have to follow the ancient festival calendar, either – it is entirely traditional to create new festivals that focus on your favorite gods, your local area, special events in your life or your community’s history, and the things that are important to you. The important thing is to give it your all, and create something beautiful and celebratory for the gods.