A reader question today: "I was just wondering what your views are concerning women only hellenic festivals such as the ploughing festival pyanepsion being practiced an observed by a gay man? Also, how would one go about performing rituals for the various festivals?"

I have spoken before about how many women-only festivals were women-only festivals for a reason. Ploughing festivals, especially connected to the Eleusinian Mysteries, were tied to fertility. They celebrated the bond between mother and daughter, and the one thing for which all women were respected and honoured: the ability to produce children--and sons especially. For the women, these rites gave them a rare opportunity to assert their independence and escape from the restrictions of their household.

That said, many women-only festivals had special rites for the men as well. There was a male and female encampment at the Thesmophorian, for example, and the division was clearly set; no men were allowed in the female encampment, and no women in the male encampment. Sex was not allowed. What the women did is fairly well preserved, but what the men did is less clear. What we do know is that Eleusinian festivals honoured many other deities which were also 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 huge 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.

Many Eleusinian festivals had a special rite reserved for Poseidon and/or Dionysos, especially, and during the Haloa, for example, these rites were reserved for men only. We don't have evidence for this at the Thesmophoria, for example, but there is a good chance the men performed a rite like this.

I am of the opinion that women-only festivals should be celebrated by those who identify as women only, and male-only festivals should be celebrated by those who identify as male only. Women-only festivals were the Stenia, the Thesmophoria, the Skiraphoria, the Haloa, the Theogamia, the Adonia, the Tauropolia, and the Brauronia. Male-only festivals were the Theseia, the Dipolieia, the Olympieia, and the Demokratia. Sexual preference does not matter in this case; the ancient Hellenes had strict gender roles and social status was most likely far more important in deciding who could and could not attend which ritual than sexual orientation--which was of very little importance to begin with. Of course, what you decide to do is up to you, but I would never perform the rites of a male-only rite; it is not my place, and I do not feel it would be appreciated by the deity in question.

How one would go about performing rites for a festival depends largely on the festival. I have written about many of them, so you can read up what was done and what you can do today to celebrate them. In general, though, the format is simple: procession, purification, prayers and hymns, sacrifice/offerings, prayers of supplication and thanks, usually followed by a feast and/or theatre and sporting events. What these sacrifices and processions--and especially the after party--entailed was very specific to the festival, so you will have to look that up through the link provided above, or by asking me a follow-up question about a specific festival.