When you are reconstructing an ancient religion, you will always run into several problems, one of which is the fact that people rarely describe in detail something everyone knew at the time. What would have been the point? Everyone knew it already, or was taught about it by their parents. An example is the eiresiône (εἰρεσιώνη), and its even less famous cousin, the iketiria (ικετηρία).

The eiresiône and the iketiria are two branches of the same tree--literally--but were used very differently. I have mentioned both before, the eiresiône mostly in connection to the Pyanepsia festival in honor of Apollon and Theseus, and the iketiria mostly in connection to the Delphinia festival, in honor of Artemis Delphinia and Apollon Delphinios. Both are branches of a sacred tree--usually an olive or laurel tree--wrapped in wool.


The eiresiône is described as a branch of olive or laurel (probably a sturdy one) bound with purple or white wool. It was decorated with fruits of the season, pastries, and small jars of honey, oil and wine. The eiresiône was also called a 'supplicant branch', as it was intended as a thank-offering for blessings received, and at the same time as a prayer for similar blessings and protection against evil in the future. During the Pyanepsia festival, boys tended to carry their home made eiresiône through the streets in a Halloween-esque manner. They knocked on the doors of every house and sang a song. In return, they expected a gift. The eiresiône song from Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 22.5, goes as follows:

'eiresiône suka pherei kai pionas artous
kai meli en kotulêi kai elaion apopsêsasthai
kai kulik' euzôron, hôs an methuousa katheudêi.'

Modern Greek pronunciation:
(Capitalized syllables are emphasized according to the poetic meter)
'EE-re-si-ON-NE SEE-ka fe-RE KE PEE-on-as AR-tous
KE me-lee EN ko-tee-LEE ke e-LE-on a-POP-SEE-SAS-the
KE kee-lik EF-ZO-RON, OS AN me-thee-OU-sa ka-THEV-dee.'

'Eiresione for us brings figs and bread of the richest,
brings us honey in pots and oil to rub off from the body,
Strong wine too in a beaker, that one may go to bed mellow.'

A special eiresiône was brought to the temple of Apollon by a boy whose parents were both alive. He was encouraged to recite the song during the procession. By the Classical Period an eiresiône was hung over almost every door in Athens and remained here a full year before being replaced by a new one. At the Thargalia, seven months later, either this eiresiône was re-used, or a new one created for another round through the town by the boys.

My colorful iketiria

The iketiria is, again, an olive branch, but could have been much smaller: for the purpose, a twig would have sufficed. While the eiresiône was used in rites of celebration and thanks giving, the iketiria was primarily used in rites of supplication, and was therefore a lot more sober. It's highly possible, the branch was wrapped only in white wool. Theseus used an iketiria to appease Apollon and Artemis for his journey to Krete, but the most attested use of the branch was as a purifier for those seeking asylia--asylum.

The olive tree was used in antiquity as a basic spiritual cleansing material. This is important to know, as those seeking asylia in a temple or grove usually were not spiritually clean. They had often committed crimes, most of which could taint the sanctuary with miasma, which would put it out commission until it was thoroughly cleansed.

To prevent this miasma tainting the sanctuary, the person seeking asylia had to go through a special rite: the hiketei. First, they openly had to declare what crime they had committed. Then they kneeled at the altar or statue of the Theoi or Thei the sanctuary was dedicated to, and present Them with an iketiria, often hastily constructed as the supplicant fled his or her pursuers. From this moment on, he or she (male: hikétes; female: hikétis) became a supplicant, and entitled to protection from prosecution. To break asylia was a heinous crime, and was punished almost always by death. Zeus Hikesios (Ζευς Ἱκεσιος, Zeus Protector) watched over supplicants at temples and avenged injury done to them.

The supplicant's olive branch remained on the altar while the supplicant waited for a city official to oversee his safe journey to the ancient Hellenic version of a courthouse. When the official arrived he would take the iketiria and transport both it, and the supplicant, safely through the city. A court would then pass judgment upon the supplicant, at which point, he or she was no longer protected by Zeus Hikesios.

Note--especially with every ritual connected to the (h)iketiria--how similar all the words are: a basic root to indicate supplication and protection, but also cleansing. The Kretan Epimenides, famed purifier who is among the seven wise men of the ancient world, used the olive branch in cleansing rituals. Theseus did the same during the Delphinia, and there are many accounts of pilgrims in the Hellenic and Roman time period who carried olive branches with them to the sacred places they visited. These account do not name the branches 'iketiria', but it would not surprise me at all if that was what these branches were called in ancient Hellas: supplicant branches, iketiria.

The difference between the functions of the branch are huge, but both are important objects in Hellenimos. The eiresiône has its role in many festivals of Apollon, as a symbol of thanks and a bringer of wealth, while the iketiria can be used as an offering for mercy from the Theoi, as well as a purifier. Should we ever be in a situation that requires one--even if the circumstances are less severe--an iketiria could really help us.