Poseidon was once worshiped in every part of Greece as a God of general importance to the community. In ancient Greece, the feast day in his honor was widely celebrated at the beginning of the winter.
POSEIDO′NIA (ποσειδώνια), a festival held every year in Aegina in honour of Poseidon. It seems to have been celebrated by all the inhabitants of the island, as Athenaeus calls it a panegyris, and mentions that during one celebration Phryne, the celebrated hetaera, walked naked into the sea in the presence of the assembled Greeks. This was possibly because in Greek mythology, the sea god Poseidon is one of the most lascivious of the gods, producing more offspring than other note worthily randy gods.
Greek calendars vary from place to place, but in Athens and other parts of ancient Greece, there is a month that corresponds to roughly December/January that is named Poseideon for the sea-god Poseidon. The month of Poseidonia’s most anticipated and most important festival is the feast of the Poseidonia, a winter festival in honor of Poseidon. Since Poseidon is a sea god it is curious that his festival would be held during the time the Greeks were least likely to set sail.
It was celebrated with the pouring and drinking of wine, merriment, bonfires, and most likely a form of gift giving. Not much more is known about the way it was celebrated.
On a larger scale, “there was a festival once every fifth year at Sunium in honor of Poseidon – evidently, then, a major event. Also, animal offerings to Poseidon were a common feature at the feast days of other gods, including the “festival at the temple of Hera on the 27th of Gamelion,” which honored the goddess “together with Zeus the Accomplisher, Kourotrophos and Poseidon.”
Collected from various sources
At dusk on January 8th, the Haloa (῾Αλῶα) starts. Haloa took place every year, during the month Poseideon (Ποσειδέωνας), after the first harvest was over. The festival took place around the threshing floor (αλώνια) at the same time throughout Attica. At Eleusis there was a festival called Haloea on the 26th of the month Poseideon.
All women were expected to attend this event, but men were almost always excluded. Interestingly enough, men had a legal and moral expectation to pay for their wives’ expenses in these festivities. The strange timing of the harvest festival—mid-winter—is significant as well.
The Haloea, a festival for Demeter and Dionysus, included a procession for Poseidon. The Haloea is thought to have been a time for merriment. There is mention of a women’s rite in connection with this holiday: Women are provided with wine and food, including cakes in the shapes of sexual organs. They withdraw to themselves and “exchange scurrilous banter, and are teased with suggestions of promiscuity whispered in their ears by ‘the priestesses’.” The women are thought to have stayed secluded throughout the night and then to have joined the men the next day. While the women were off eating, drinking, and sounding much like the women of Lysistrata, the men are thought to have created a big pyre or a bunch of little bonfires.
The Greeks regarded the festival as sacred to not only Demeter but also to Dionysus. With the inclusion of Dionysus in the festival worship, the date shifted towards the winter as “he possessed himself of the festivals of Demeter, took over her threshing-floor and compelled the anomaly of a winter threshing festival.” In many ways, the festival was just as connected, if not more so, with Dionysus than with Demeter. Thus, we see the power and influence of the incoming god and of the importance of wine to Greek cult activity. Practically, Greeks were able to coax out a harvest just early enough to revel with Dionysus.
Despite being among the most documented of Greek festivals, very few records of what exactly occurred during Haloa. Because it was a predominantly, if not exclusively, women’s festival, little information has survived, or was recorded at all, about its characteristics and rituals. In fact, one of the most detailed sources of Haloa actually consists of marginal notes from the 13th century AD on the Roman writer Lucian’s works.
According to these notes, the women’s ritual practices involved “pits, snakes, pigs, and models of genitalia, all of which have a more or less marked sexual significance.” We also know that the festival “is said to have comprised Mysteries of Demeter, Kore, and Dionysus.” Another source singled out these women’s festivals as “containing the germ of ‘Mysteries,’” referencing here the Eleusinian Mysteries—annual initiation ceremonies devoted to the cult of Demeter and Persephone.
In the earliest times the religious part of the festival might have been restricted to married women, but after the fourth century BCE its celebration may have been limited to hetairai (ἑταῖραι, female companions, a term used non-sexually for women, about women, but used by men to indicate a woman hired for entertainment, often leading to sex), or they were simply also allowed to hold their own symposium during the Haloa, either at home or at Eleusis. The Haloa would have been the day on which they were initiated into the Mysteries. The Eleusinian Arkhontes (Ἄρχοντες, male magistrates of the Mysteries) prepared a huge banquet on this day, with a huge variety, including phallus- and vagina-shaped cakes, but not foods forbidden in the Mysteries: pomegranates, apples, eggs, fowls, some types of fish were out. Animal sacrifice was also disallowed on this day: Demeter received offerings of fresh fruit.
After preparing the food, the Arkhontes left, leaving the women to eat, to drink lots and lots of wine, and to celebrate being a woman and fertile (or the wish to be fertile). The Arkhontes went to the men who were waiting outside of Eleusis for their part in the Mysteries, and told them the story of Eleusis, and how the Eleusinians had discovered nourishment for the entire human race. A giant phallus is often assumed to have been set up on the hálōs, and the women would dance around it carrying clay models of phalli and vaginas, but it is more likely the phallus was never there, but depicted on art work about the Haloa to indicate the fertility aspects of the festival and the dances that occurred there. As part of the festivities, the women engaged in sexualized conversation with each other. As part of the sacrifice, the women carried kernoi (κέρνοι, offering dishes) on their heads, containing incense, grains or other offerings, which they tipped onto the giant phallus or, and this is probably far more accurate, onto the altar.
After the feast and sacrifice, the men who had been waiting were admitted to the grounds, and the women were encouraged by each other–including the priestesses–to take secret lovers for the night. A priest and priestess–with torches representing Demeter and Persephone–apparently sat watch on chests as they presided over the fertility celebration.
To Do Today:
The Haloa is the perfect time to organize an adult ‘girl’s night’ with your closest female friends. Watch a movie with erotic tones, drink wine together, gorge yourselves on chocolate and gossip about your partners. If you have an agreement about it with your partner, you could find a lover for the night. If not, go home to him or her and spend the night together in your own ‘fertility rite’. If you’re single and have no one to fill your bed… well… a girl can get creative, can’t she?
For the men, the Haloa might have had an extra ritual part as well; honoring Poseidon as an agricultural Theos. There is evidence that the men built a huge bonfire and had their own conversations around it. Afterwards, they joined the women, when possible (and desired). Single men; I’m sure you can be as creative as the single women reading this.
In Athens and other parts of ancient Greece, there is a month that corresponds to roughly December/January that is named Poseideon for the sea-god Poseidon. The Poseidonia of Aegina may have taken place in the same month. Presumably on or around the Winter Solstice.
There were 16 days of feasting with rites of Aphrodite concluding the festival. Like the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Poseidonia became so popular it was extended so that Athenaeus makes it 2 months long.
Poseidon as savior of ships, protector of those who voyage in ships, and God of the lapping waters both salt and fresh important for agriculture, is thanked for the many gifts that came from faraway places that were likely given at that time. The immense trade and distribution was nearly all through shipping, relatively little overland, whether it be perfume from Cyprus or pottery from Corinth.
It is interesting today that Agios Nikolaos (Saint Nikolas) is the Patron Saint of seafarers in the Orthodox Church. Celebrating Poseidon’s Festival seems to be lost in modern practice. It likely entailed bonfires, feasting, cutting of trees (probably decorated), and very likely gift giving. As God of begetting, that aspect was not forgotten.
The most complete account of the festival is Noel Robertson’s article Poseidon’s Festival at the Winter Solstice, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 1. (1984), pp. 1-16:
“The record shows that Poseidon was once worshiped in every part of Greece as a god of general importance to the community.”
“The festival falls near the winter solstice, and the ritual business marked by jollity and license, belongs to the general type of solstice festival known the world over. At Poseidon’s festival, however, the sportive conduct has a definite purpose; this purpose arises from the fundamental agrarian background if Mediterranean society, and may bring us close to the origin of solstice festivals.”
“It has scarcely been noticed that festivals of Poseidon, more than those of any other Greek deity, fall at just this time of year; yet the evidence is extensive.”
“The festival Poseidea and some of the rites in question are often claimed for Poseidon the sea-god, but at this season sailing is furthest from one’s mind, and fishing on the shore is by no means an overriding concern. Such details as we have point elsewhere, to Poseidon as the god of fresh water who fructifies Demeter’s fields.”
One of Poseidon’s epithets is prosklystios, ‘of the lapping water’. He is also invoked as Poseidon phytalmios which implies natural fertility and human procreation. There are also implications in the legends that imply bonfires at the winter solstice.
Noel Robertson concludes:
“…the celebrants feast to satiety, then turn to lascivious teasing. What is the ritual purpose of such conduct? It obviously suits Poseidon’s mythical reputation as the most lustful of gods, who far surpasses Apollo and Zeus in the number of his liaisons and his offspring. Poseidon the seducer is the god of springs and rivers; his women typically succumb while bathing or drawing water; the type of the river god is a rampant bull. But the ritual likewise treats Poseidon as a procreant force; witness the epithets phytalmios, genesios, pater, etc. as interpreted above. The myths and the ritual reflect the same belief. The rushing waters are a proponent male power, just as the fields which they fertilize are a prolific female. Both water and the fields, both Poseidon and Demeter, can be made to operate by sympathetic magic. The rites of our winter festival rouse Poseidon and bring the rushing waters…”
It is interesting that that Theophrastus tells us that the silver fir was important in ship building, especially for masts. The ‘tannenbaum’ is a silver fir. It is also interesting to compare with the Roman Saturnalia which may very well have borrowed from the Poseidea.