The Gods have proclaimed laws; ethical guidelines at least. They can be followed to a tee and if one does, one might expect the Gods to reward that person. I think we all expect that, deep down. Euripides, after all, in 'Elektra' had Castor proclaim the following at the very end:
"As we go through the plains of the air,
we do not come to the aid of those who are polluted;
but we save and release from severe hardships
those who love piety and justice in their ways of life.
And so, let no one wish to act unjustly,
or set sail with perjurers; as a god,
I give this address to mortals." [1341]

And yet, some of the Gods' most loyal followers seem unable to ever catch a break. They struggle with health, money, friendships, love... and along the way, they begin to doubt. They might doubt themselves at first--question if they are, indeed, practicing right, if they are, indeed, pleasing the Gods--and then the Gods. They might question their fairness, Their judgement... and perhaps Their very existence. It is, after all, the age old question: why do the Gods take care of some but not of others? We are not the first to ponder this. Xenophon, in 'Oeconomicos' wrote:'

"I seem to realise that, while the gods have made it im-
possible for men to prosper without knowing and
attending to the things they ought to do, to some of
the wise and careful they grant prosperity, and to
some deny it." [11.8]

No one has a clear cut answer. Even the ancient Hellenes accepted this faith as was. Xenophon goes on to say:

"...and therefore I begin by worshipping
the gods, and try to conduct myself in such a way
that I may have health and strength in answer to
my prayers, the respect of my fellow-citizens, the
affection of my friends, safety with honour in war,
and wealth increased by honest means." [11.8]

So why do we do it? Why do we foollow proper practice? Why do we sacrifice and labour like Xenophon wrote? Antiphon, in his 'On the Choreutes' says it best, I feel:

"Most of the life of man rests upon hope;
and by defying the gods
and committing transgressions against them,
he would rob himself even of hope,
the greatest of human blessings." [5]
The British Museum seems to enjoy telling the world about its statutory restrictions. Whenever would-be claimants approach the museum seeking restitution of an object from the collection, the almost mechanical response from the museum is that its trustees are prevented from doing so, even if they wanted to, because of the onerous restrictions on deaccessioning collection items found within the British Museum Act 1963.

This has been part of the response to Greek representatives regarding the Parthenon Sculptures, and, most recently, to the delegation from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) who emotionally pleaded to get the giant carved moai figure back from the museum.

But this spring, a delegation from Ethiopia arrived at the British Museum with a somewhat different sort of request. The country’s culture minister was looking to discuss the potential return of 11 tabots currently held at the museum. These are tablets of wood or stone meant to represent the Ten Commandments, sacred to the Christian church of Ethiopia. Though they entered the collection at different times, the tabots had originally been taken during a particularly notorious expedition by British imperial forces at Maqdala against the Abyssinian Empire in East Africa (current-day Ethiopia). These, along with Abyssinian regalia and manuscripts, were brought back to Britain as war loot and entered a number of major British institutions.

Today, the tabots are rightly revered by British Museum authorities. They are apparently kept in a sealed storage room, each one meticulously wrapped in cloth, and museum staff is not allowed to touch or even look at them. On occasion members of the Ethiopian church have been allowed to perform religious rites with the objects. But the Ethiopian delegation was looking to go further. They suggested that these items be sent back to Ethiopia in order to be properly looked after by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. According to Ethiopian belief, tabots should be kept in churches, not in a secular space.

As reported by Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper in May, after the delegation met with British Museum director Hartwig Fischer, a museum spokesperson relayed that Fischer was “going to report to the trustees, and the suggestion of a long-term loan of the tabots may be discussed.” Unlike the British Museum’s openness to dialogue, Westminster Abbey has refused access for Ethiopian Church authorities to an Abyssinian tabot kept on its premises.

In this light, the British Museum’s long-term loan suggestion may seem like a reasonable response. Long-term loans are, after all, often practical solutions to restitution requests, avoiding the legal difficulties of permanent returns, while offering meaningful access to the items in their place of origin, even if for a finite period. Long-term loans make sense in cases where the interest of the museum in retaining custodianship is significant and is necessarily balanced with the interests of communities of origin. That’s why the willingness of the British Museum to participate in the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium of European museums intent on establishing a series of loans of the Benin Bronzes from their collections to Nigeria, is to be applauded.

But in the case of the 11 tabots, a loan will simply not do. These are items of compelling importance to an active church in Ethiopia today. They were taken in particularly egregious circumstances during a punitive raid. They are serving no museological or academic purpose within the institution and create an unnecessary obstacle for church officials looking to venerate them.

The British Museum will likely answer that its hands are tied and that the statutory prohibition precludes it from even considering a complete restitution to the Ethiopian Church. But if one reads the British Museum Act 1963 closely, one will see that such stonewalling is untenable.

There is a specific provision that allows the British Museum trustees to give away items from the collection if the trustees deem them to be “unfit” for retention in the collection and that the removal wouldn’t be detrimental to the interests of students. Of course, in the case of the tabots, no student has access in the first place, so no detriment exists. As to whether the trustees deem them “unfit” for the collection will necessarily depend on the circumstances in which they are held. While unfitness for the collection is unlikely to apply to key items like the Parthenon Sculptures or the Benin Bronzes, it most certainly can apply to items like the tabots: of great religious importance and with no measurable value to the museum itself. The trustees should, at their next meeting, take the step – entirely consistent with the language and intention of the British Museum Act 1963 – of approving the disposal of these items from the collection for the benefit of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

In the past, the trustees have played it safe with the Act’s “unfit” provision. They have always appeared to either disregard or ignore it for fear of becoming vulnerable to an avalanche of restitution claims: the famous “floodgates” argument so familiar to Greek, Turkish and Indigenous ears. If we accept that your items are unfit for our collection, then what’s stopping a multitude of other groups lodging similar claims? While the argument might hold true in the case of the majority of museum objects, it most certainly does not in the case of the tabots.

When the Act was passed by Parliament, the MPs debating the provision made reference to “unfit” including forgeries and wrongly identified works. This is indeed comprised in the meaning of the term and nothing would stop the trustees from disposing of, say, a watercolour that has turned out to be a worthless forgery. But “unfit” is broader than this. If Parliament had wanted this power of the trustees to apply only to fakes and forgeries, it would have used those very words in the Act. Instead it opted for the broader and more circumstance-driven phrase “unfit to be retained in the collections”. The trustees should honour Parliament’s decision and use their powers appropriately. In this case that should lead to only one result: the permanent restitution of the tabots to the Ethiopian Church.
On the day of the Hene kai Nea (or sometimes, like this month, the day after), I post a monthly update about things that happened on the blog and in projects and organizations related to it. I will also announce Elaion's coming PAT rituals.

PAT rituals for Skirophorion:
  • Skirophorion 3 - May 26 - Sacrifice to Kourotrophos, Athena Polias, Aglaurus, Zeus Polieus, Poseidon & possibly Pandrosos at Erkhia
  • Skirophorion 12 - June 4 - Skirophoria - festival in honor of Athena, Poseidon, Apollon & Demeter; the Tritopatores were worshipped at Marathon on the eve of this festival
  • Skirophorion 14 - June 6- Dipolieia/Bouphonia - festival in honor of Zeus Poleius
  • Skirophorion 29n - June 22 - Disoteria - Sacrifice to Zeus the Savior and Athene the Savior

    Anything else?
    Are you looking for an online shop to buy incenses and other Hellenistic basics from? Try The Hellenic Handmaid on Etsy.

    Would you like to support me? Buy me a coffee.

    While some museums are organizing online exhibitions as a way to safely share art during the pandemic, students in Ambra Spinelli's spring archaeology class had planned an online show all along. It's a bit of a side-step, but I like it too much not to share.

    That show, Spectacle in Antiquity and Beyond, features displays of objects and photographs from ancient Greece and Rome to the twentieth century. Together, the objects in the exhibition's six galleries illuminate how large, spectacular events—a Roman gladiator fight, an Inuit kayak contest, a Christian pilgrimage, a Nazi march—can foster and sustain a shared identity and reinforce social cohesion.

    Spinelli, who specializes in Roman art and archaeology, designed her course to culminate with a student-curated exhibition that spans centuries. "[The show] looks at spectacles as a way to connect people in time and space, as something that characterized both ancient and modern societies," she said.

    The three students in the small Classics department class—Mike Brown ’20, Brooke Wrubel ’21, and Benjamin Wu ’18—were each responsible for two of the show's galleries. They selected objects from the Museum of Art and the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum collections and, after researching them, wrote object labels and introductory texts for their items.

    "The collections here are stunning," Spinelli said. "The Museums have so much to offer—I wanted students to explore and engage with the many resources on campus."

    The variety of pieces in Spectacle highlights the breadth of Bowdoin's collections, Wu said. "There are all these different ways to interpret these objects to form a story," he added. "A lot of the items we picked were either directly involved in the specific spectacles, or they were commemorating or depicting such spectacles."
    On the 26th of May, which converts to the third of the month of Skiraphorion, two festivals were held, one in Athens and one in Erkhia. The first was the Arrephoria and, as I will explain later, was not a public festival. As such, we will not celebrate it as such. It is, however, a festival of Athena Polias who was also honoured at Erkhia on this day, along with the Kourotrophos, Aglaurus, Pandrosos, Zeus Polieus, and Poseidon. Will you join us at 10 am EDT on 26 May?

    Let's start with some background on the Arrephoria festival, as it seems to have influenced the sacrifice at Erkhia. The Arrephoria festival wasn't a state festival; young girls in the service performed a ritual for Athena Polias as a public service, but beyond those girls, their mentors, and perhaps their parents, no one was very concerned with it. As with most secret rites, I'm sure people knew a rite was being held, but knew it was not their business to interfere. As long as the rite was performed, all would be well for them. The girls who were selected for the honour of tending for Athena were in service of Athena Polias for an entire year and were called 'Arrephoros' (Ἀρρήφορος), Arrephoroi as a group, consisting of four members.

    The Arrephoroi were always girls between the age of seven and eleven, although seven and ten seem to be the ages that are mentioned most often. They were selected from the wealthy and powerful families of Athens, as those families were considered to be especially blessed. Excavations on the Acropolis have led to the discovery of their quarters, and even their playground. It seems even mini-priestesses can't be priestesses all the time. The young girls seem to have favored ball games and were lodged near the Erechtheion in an area which was the main inhabited area on the Acropolis in Mycenaean times.

    The Arrephoroi had three important tasks to perform in their term. One of the tasks the young girls assisted in was the creation of the peplos for Athena Polias, which was presented to Her during the Panathenaia. Secondly, they were almost solely in charge of grounding the meal for the honey cakes which were placed upon the altar of Athena during religious ceremonies. As a special part of their service, they performed the Arrephoria. During the Arrephoria, the priestess of Athena Polias gave the young arrephoroi sealed baskets to carry to a nearby cave. Here, the girls were supposed to enter, walk the corridor, set down their baskets at the end and pick up ones which have stood there for a year. When they returned with the baskets, it signaled the end of their year of service and they were dismissed. They were replaced with new girls who would serve the Theia.

    It seems the Arrephoria ritual has ties to the ancient Athenian myth of Erichthonios (Ἐριχθόνιος), child of Hēphaistos and Athena, through Gaea, who was half man, half snake, and left in a basket by Athena, to be cared for by three of Her young attendants at the Acropolis, with clear instructions not to open the basket. They did, of course, and were scared so by the sight of either a snake in the basket, or Erichthonios' deformities, they cast themselves off of the Acropolis in terror. Yet, despite his deformities, Erichthonios became king of Athens and ruled it long and well. Myth tells us it was Erichthonios who founded the Panathenaiac Festival in the honour of Athena.

    It seems that there was a certain fertility aspect to the rite, not for humans, but for the olive tree. The rite was most likely performed when the first dew settled on the sacred olive tree on top of the Acropolis--very near where the girls were housed--or when dew was about to settle onto it. In climates as dry as Hellas, dew was needed to produce rich fruit. The months following Skiraphorion are crucial to the olive crop and in ancient times, olive trees--and Athena's sacred olive tree--were vital to the survival of Athens. Olive oil was a main export product, it was used in nearly everything, from cooking to sacred rites, and Athena's olive tree atop the Acropolis had been her gift to the city, which led to her patronage over the city, instead of that of Poseidon. It is said that the sacred olive oil gifted as a reward for winning the Panathenaia te megala was harvested from that very tree. Its survival, and the bearing of good fruit, were therefor essential.

    The Arrephoria was performed to appease Athena and to assure the best possible (divine) conditions for the sacred olive tree of Athena on the Acropolis--and, by proxy, all olive trees--to grow and bear fruit. These young girls performed a vital part of this rite to make up for the failings of Herse and Aglauros. For much more information about the Arrephoria, please see here.

    So why did the ancient Erkhians sacrifice to this marry band of Theoi on this day? They are all linked to the city's well-being and the circumstances that led to the creation of the Arrephoria festival. Athena Polias is regarded as Protector of the City (of Athens). She had a sactuary on the north side of the Acropolis, the Erechtheion. Built between 421 and 406, the Erechtheion was associated with some of the most ancient and holy relics of the Athenians: the Palladion, which was a xoanon--an aniconic cult-statue--of Athena Polias, the marks of Poseidon's trident and the salt water well that resulted from Poseidon's strike, the sacred olive tree that sprouted when Athena struck the rock with her spear in her successful rivalry with Poseidon for the city, the supposed burial places of the mythical kings Cecrops and Erechtheus, the sacred precincts of Cecrops' three daughters and those of the tribal heroes Pandion and Boutes.

    The sisters entrusted with the care for Erichthonios, hidden away in a basket, were Aglauros and her sister Pandrosos. For their roles in the Arrephoria rites, they seem to have been regarded as fertility deities in Athens. Aglauros had a sanctuary on the Acropolis in which young men of military age swore an oath to her as well as to Zeus and to other deities. Herse, sometimes regarded as a third sister, has no mention in the accounts of the Arrephoria and was not honoured at Erkhia.

    Athena Polias and Poseidon were included because of the founding mythology surrounding Athens and Zeus Polieus was another powerful protector of the city. His inclusion might not be intirely linked to myths and practices surrounding Erichthonios, but His inclusion makes sense.

    The Kourotrophos (κουροτρόφος, child nurturer) are (mostly) female deities who watched over growing children--and especially boys. Gaea, Artemis, and Hekate come to mind but Aglauros and Pandrossos were also considered Kouroptrophoi. Specific offerings to Them are known from the demos Erkhia but duplicate similar offerings on the Acropolis of Athens. Especially at Erkhia, it varied per sacrifice which Kourotrophos was/were sacrificed to. In this sacrifice They were honoured for the fertility aspect of Erichthonios being born from Athena as well as Gaea and the desired fertility of olive trees so we know at least Gaea, Aglauros and Pandrosos were honoured.

    The Kourotrophos received a pig, Athena Polias a sheep, Aglouros received a sheep as well, but the remains of which were not to be removed from the bomos, which was equally true for the sheep Zeus Polieus received. Poseidon and Pandrosos also received sheep. All animals were the gender of the deity in question.

    We hope you will join us for this sacrifice on 26 May at 10 am EDT. You can find the ritual here and join the community page here.
    Antiphanes (Ἀντιφάνης) an ancient writer of Middle Attic comedy who was alive from around 408BC to 334 BC. He was apparently a metoikos, a resident alien; foreigner, from either Cius on the Propontis, Smyrna or Rhodes) who settled in Athens. It seems he started writing around 387 BC and he created a massive body of work--more than 200 of the 365 comedies attributed to him are known from the titles. Nearly all of his work has been lost, save fragments that have survived in the works of others, most notably in the work of Athenaeus. His plays chiefly deal with matters connected to mythological subjects, although others referenced particular professional and national persons or characters, while other plays focused on the intrigues of personal life.

    I came across one of his fragments, not in Athenaeus but in Porphyry's 'On Abstinance'. They deal with sacrifice to the Gods and speak directly to a modern reconstructionistic issue: how much we are truly able to give to the Gods.

    In ancient Greece, sacrifices were usually given of meat--lots of meat. Hecatombes were rather commonplace--the sacrifice of a hundred animals for a single (set of) Gods presiding over a festival. Porphyry saw in that a waste and needless slaughter and he quoted Antiphanes to explain why he thought this. His words, taken from the lost work 'Mystis'; 'Woman Initiated Into the Mysteries':

    "In simple offerings most the Gods delight:
    For though before them hecatombs are placed,
    Yet frankincense is burnt the last of all.
    An indication this that all the rest,
    Preceding, was a vain expense, bestowed
    Through ostentation, for the sake of men;
    But a small offering gratifies the Gods."
    [Book 2]

    I find these words comforting, as most of my sacrifices consist of wine, cakes and incense--as I suspect most of our sacrifices today are. Yes, animal sacrifice is traditional, but even in ancient times there were voices raised against it--and they managed to practice their religion with bloodless and small sacrifices that seemed to have satisfied the Gods.
    A government decree is expected to prohibit the construction of buildings over five stories tall in the area surrounding Athens’ world-renowned Acropolis.

    In a bid to prevent any future buildings from blocking the public’s views of the Acropolis, the new rules will prohibit either residential or commercial buildings, particularly hotels, from blocking the sight of the hill overlooking the city.

    In its Tuesday ruling, Greece’s Central Archaeological Council (KAS) approved a maximum height of 21 meters (68.89 feet), or just below five stories, for all buildings built near the Acropolis.

    Additionally, the Archaeological Council has issued an order for the demolition of the top two floors of a 10-story luxury hotel managed by the Coco-Mat mattress company, noting that the height of the building was blocking the public’s view of the Acropolis and its monuments.

    Commenting on the demolition order today, Athens mayor Kostas Bakoyannis said “It was a very brave decision. The Acropolis is our heart and our soul, an essential part of our cultural heritage. It’s very important that everyone can enjoy it,” as reported in The National Herald.

    Additionally, Greece’s highest court, the Council of State, revoked construction permits for an even taller hotel, which had earlier been approved at a site near the Acropolis.