I have mentioned in passing that the Skiraphoria was one of the few days when the women of ancient Athens would gather in public to honor Demeter and bless the harvest. They refused to sleep with the men on this day and took part in a very odd tradition: casting piglets down into a chasm where they were left to rot until the Stenia. I also promised I would reflect on this festival again when it came about, so here we are, because the Skiraphoria starts tonight, on the 12th of Skirophorion.

I should first elaborate on which deities were involved in the festival, because while Demeter was certainly honored during the festival, She was not the only one. The Skira, or Skiraphoria--both are correct--was first and foremost a fertility festival, mostly of the earth so that a good harvest was ensured for the following year, which started a little more than half a month later. Yet, many other deities are tied to the harvest and the success of the nation in some way, especially in Athens from where most of the surviving material originated. There, Athena Skiras, Poseidon Pater, and Dionysos also had a role to play.

Poseidon and Athena were important Gods in ancient Hellas, and in Athens in particular. Poseidon controlled the seas and tides, caused earthquakes, and gave men the horse; Athena protected the city, resided in its citadel, stimulated its economy and had gifted mankind with the swing plow used in the harvesting of the gifts of Demeter. They looked after Hellas, and Athens especially. Without Their influence, the following year would never be successful, so as the year ended, they were placated--a requirement as Poseidon and Athena most notably did not get along. Dionysos, as Athens' unofficial patron and God of wine was naturally included--perhaps even to help get Poseidon and Athena to get along, but that is pure speculation on my part.

It seems that there were more Gods that needed placating on this day: it seems that a gathering left Athens on the day of the Skiraphoria, and another delegation left Eleusis. At Skiron, a precinct on the road to Eleusis, stood a sanctuary dedicated to Athena Skiras, Poseidon Pater, Demeter and Kore. Here, the two delegations met, and the priests and priestesses of all Theoi involved interacted in some way; Plutarch mentions that one of the three “sacred plowings” of the Athenians took place at this time. It is, perhaps, possible that at this time, the priestesses of Athena and the priests Poseidon made amends with the priestesses of Demeter and Kore--there was bad blood between them for, as Apollodorus reminds us:

"Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself, and Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attica under the sea." [3.14.1]

The Thriasian plain is where Eleusis is located, and it would have been entirely flooded during this episode. Perhaps the Athenian deities ritually made amends for this during the Skiraphoria? Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, during the reign of Erechtheus in Athens, war broke out against the Eleusinians, who were assisted by Eumolpus, whose mother was Khione, daughter of Boreas, and whose father was said to be Poseidon Himself. Eumolpus attacked Ahens because, as he put it, that land belonged to his father. Could the rituals of the Skiraphoria be penance for this war as well, where Poseidon (and Athena) 'rode out' to meet Demeter and Kore in the middle for a rite that would settle their grievances?

Athena Skiras, it seems, was an epithet of Athena closely related to Eleusis and the war, and connected to both farming and seafaring. From Pausanias', 'Description of Greece':

"[In Attika on the road from Athens to Eleusis is] a place called Skiron, which received its name for the following reason. The Eleusinians were making war against Erekhtheus when there came from Dodona a seer called Skiros, who also set up at Phaleron the ancient sanctuary of Athena Skiras. When he fell in the fighting the Eleusinians buried him near a torrent, and the hero has given his name to both place and torrent." [1. 36. 4]

The details of the procession to the Skiron and the subsequent ritual are largely lost to us. Although debated by certain scholars, it seems that those in the procession--or perhaps only the priests and priestesses--carried umbrella-type canopies over their heads which were of a bright white color. It is possible that this was only one large canopy per group, and it was held over the heads of the priests and priestesses by others in the procession. The canopy was or were called 'skiron' as well. Of the sanctuary itself, we know very little besides its location and deities. It is, however, said to have been the place where the first sowing took place, tying the Skiraphoria rituals back in with the purpose of fertility.

The Skiraphoria was celebrated over a three day period, but when this procession took place is unclear. The Skiraphoria was celebrated mainly by women, perhaps to contrast the Greater Dionysia celebrated mostly by men. To bring fertility, they abstain from intercourse on these days, and to this end they ate garlic to keep the men away. We also know that during the Skiraphoria, offerings were thrown into the sacred caves of Demeter located in a cliff at Eleusis: cakes shaped like snakes and phalluses, and very real piglets. These became the Thesmoi--'things laid down'--that were removed in the Thesmophoria. The piglets were fertility symbols, but also related to the myth of Demeter, Persephone and Hades, because it is said that, when Hades opened a chasm to swallow up Persephone--the caves of Demeter--a swineherd called Eubouleus was grazing his pigs and they were swallowed up in the chasm as well.

For the men, there was a race in which they carried vine-branches from the sanctuary of Dionysos to the temple of Athena Skiras. The winner was given the Fivefold Cup, or 'pentaploa', containing wine, honey, cheese, some corn and olive oil. Only the winner was allowed to pour libations to Athena from the cup, and ask Her to bless these fruits of the season.

For a festival so elaborate and vague, it is in my opinion one of the easiest festivals to reinvent in modern times--especially if you're practicing with a group. Personally, I'd leave the piglets out of it, but that's just personal preference. If you are practicing in a group, the meeting of (the priest(esse)s) of Athena, Poseidon, Demeter, and Kore, can be loosely reenacted. On the spot where you meet, you could dig a shallow pit and all pour out libations with hymns to the deity you are representing. If you are alone, pour out all libations into a shallow pit yourself after a short hike. The men in your group can then partake in a race for the pentaploa and the honor to libate to Athena Skiras from it. If you're alone, make the mixture yourself and pour it out to Athena, asking for blessings for the coming year. No sex during these days is kind of a given, and although I could not find actual reference to it, this day is connected to the Eleusinian mysteries, so I would refrain from eating pomegranates, apples, eggs, fowls, and fish. Have a blessed Skiraphoria!