The Theseia was an ancient festival held in Athens in the honor of Theseus--as there were many others this month. The focus of this one is actually on his bones and lasting memory; it's a memorial rite. Will you join us in honouring Theseus? In remembering his deeds and the lessons he taught us? Join us on the 9th of October at the usual 10 am EDT.


Theseus (Θησεύς) was fathered by Aegeus and Poseidon, whom had both slept with his mother Aethra, and was thus destined to become a hero. All heroes were given at least one divine parent--usually one connected to their later deeds. The same held true for kings. When he heard about the Minotaur of Krete, and the nine-yearly sacrifices to it--a punishment by King Minos of Krete for the death of his son Androgeus, at the hands of Athenian assassins--Theseus offered to be one of the youths who sailed for Krete. Once there, Ariadne, daughter of the king, fell for him and offered him a ball of yarn so he would be able to find his way out off the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur the youths would be sacrificed to. With Ariadne's aid, Theseus defeated the Minotaur, and brought the sacrificial children home.
The Theseia (Θησεῖα) was not instituted till BC. 469, when Athenian statesman and strategos Cimon brought the (alledged) remains of Theseus from Scyros to Athens. After the Persian wars, around 476/5 BC, Athenian Archon Phaedo was prompted by a Pythian priestess at Delphi to return the bones of Theseus to their city. Cimon, upon hearing the oracle, sailed to Skyros to retrieve them. Plutarch, in 'Theseus' tells the story of discovery, collection and retrieval as follows:

"...when Cimon took the island (as is related in his life), and had a great ambition to find out the place where Theseus was buried, he, by chance, spied an eagle upon a rising ground pecking with her beak and tearing up the earth with her talons, when on the sudden it came into his mind, as it were by some divine inspiration, to dig there, and search for the bones of Theseus. There were found in that place a coffin of a man of more than ordinary size, and a brazen spear-head, and a sword lying by it, all which he took aboard his galley and brought with him to Athens."

The Athenians were delighted with the return and the bones that either were or were not Theseus' were laid to rest where they became an intrical part of Athenian life:

"Upon which the Athenians, greatly delighted, went out to meet and receive the relics with splendid processions and sacrifices, as if it were Theseus himself returning alive to the city. He lies interred in the middle of the city, near the present gymnasium. His tomb is a sanctuary and refuge for slaves, and all those of mean condition that fly from the persecution of men in power, in memory that Theseus while he lived was an assister and protector of the distressed, and never refused the petitions of the afflicted that fled to him."

The festival of the Theseia was held on the eighth of every month, but the eighth of Pyanepsion was especially important because the ancient Athenians considered this the day that Theseus returned from Krete:

"The chief and most solemn sacrifice which they celebrate to him is kept on the eighth day of Pyanepsion, on which he returned with the Athenian young men from Crete. Besides which they sacrifice to him on the eighth day of every month, either because he returned from Troezen the eighth day of Hecatombaeon, as Diodorus the geographer writes, or else thinking that number to be proper to him, because he was reputed to be born of Neptune, because they sacrifice to Neptune on the eighth day of every month. The number eight being the first cube of an even number, and the double of the first square, seemed to be an emblem of the steadfast and immovable power of this god, who from thence has the names of Asphalius and Gaeiochus, that is, the establisher and stayer of the earth."
The festival was celebrated with donations of bread and meat, which were given to the poor people so they could 'fancy themselves equal to the wealthiest citizens'. This happened on the evening portion of the eigth of the month (the ancient Hellenes started the new day at sundown). I suspect the offerings that went along with the shared banquet had a slightly Khthonic character. Heroes and heroines have a special place in Hellenismos, as they had in ancient Hellas. These were humans--most with at least a part divine heritage--who were considered so brave, so skillful, so extraordinary in their lifetime that they became revered. Hero worship was very specific and it's a concept that translates with more difficulty than straight-up deity worship.

Archeological evidence suggests that hero worship was closer to khthonic sacrifice in execution than ouranic ones the further back in time you go; especially in the archaic period, it seems that hero worship consisted of destructive sacrifices--sometimes in the form of a holókaustos where the entire animal was burned, sometimes in a sacrifice where only a part (most often 'a ninth' of the animal) was burned and the rest remained on the altar for the heroes to eat from until gone. The sacrifices were generally burned in an offering pit known as a bothros. The food offered to heroes consisted of meat, blood, and 'food eaten by men' like grains, fruits and other every-day dishes. These were usually offered to the heroes on a table--known as a trapeza--and the heroes were sometimes offered chairs or a bench to sit on. As time went on, the living began to eat part of the meal laid out for the heroes, joining them in celebration.

Contests were also part of the festival, during the daylight hours, but we don't know much about these contests; we don't know what sort of contests they were, for example. All we know is that they were 'gymnastic contests'.

We hope you will join us for the event! If you feel like doing so, the ritual can be found here and you can join the community here.