The months of late fall and early winter are relatively light on the festival agenda--Maimakterion, the month we are in now, wasn't even on the sacrificial calendar of Erkhia, for example. This could have at least three reasons: It's getting cold and wet out and the ancient Hellenes held their rituals outdoors, most of the harvesting was done so food was assured or there was nothing that could be done to decrease the shortage, and with the fall of winter, warfare came to a halt; the seas were too rough to go on campaigns and it would soon be too cold to exist comfortably in a war camp. Seeing as these two latter two reasons were the major ones to have festivals, these months are quiet ones. In the Athenian calendar, only two festivals are attested to take place this month, and both are very minor--and archaic. Today, we speak of just one: the Pompaia, as Elaion will host a PAT ritual for the event November 20, at the usual 10 AM EST.

Let start with something obvious we do not know about the Pompaia: the actual date of the festival. Parke (in 'Festivals of the Athenians', page 96) states that the Pompaia in honor of Zeus Meilichios was held during the last third of Maimakterion which would be on or after 20 Maimakterion. Parke cites the treatise on the Pompaia by Polemon of Ilion so we're fairly confident he is correct on the date.

What we do know is that the Pompaia was not originally celebrated by the people of Athens, but solely by its priests. Potentially, it was only celebrated by the priests of Zeus. It was linked to purification. It was one of the festivals that, by Classical times, had already lost much of its original meaning, but which was repeated year after year because it had always been repeated year after year--and in general these had been good years. Not having the rite on the calendar could have devastating effects, so it was performed.

The Pompaia followed the Maimakteria during which a sheep was most likely sacrificed and the fleece collected and cleaned. During the Pompaia a second procession took place with the fleece. The fleece--the 'Diòs Koidion', as it was called--was said to have purifying and other magical qualities that would rub off on he who interacted with it, if he stood on it with his left foot. In fact, a sheep skin was used in the Eleusian Mysteries in this fashion to absolve those who had a lot of guilt to carry around--or a lot of grief. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter mentions her sitting down in a chair covered by a fleece, and there is also artwork of initiates shrowded in a fleece.

The sheep skin was most likely not connected to Zeus at the start of the practice; as we have seen, it had much stronger ties to other deities. The Pompaia rite simply called for a sheep skin. The connection with Zeus most likely happened through assimilation: the rite fell in a month where people prepared for winter and where the weather got harsher. As such, Zeus had a major impact on the inhabitants of Athens; he controls the weather after all. The sheep from which the skin was used became sacrificed to Him as an appeasement, and then the ritually charged skin made its way through the city.

In the same fashion, the kērukeion (κηρύκειον)--better known as the kaduceus--the snake-entwined staf that was the symbol of Hermes, was carried through the city. Most likely Hermes was not part of the actual rite; the kērukeion, like the Diòs Koidion, was a powerful symbol which was used to offer protection and purification to the city now winter was upon them. After all, the kērukeion was said to ward off all evil--and the cold, dark, days of winter most certainly had those. Hermes was added through the procession solely by association, but it is doubtful that He also recieved an animal sacrifice.

The Pompaia--meaning 'to exorcise'--was not popular, and in general these minor festivals were performed by the priests, for the city, without its inhabitants taking part. A small group of priests most likely walked the city with the objects and those who came upon the group would have said their prayers, spoke their wishes, and paid their respects. Yet, they were not included in the ceremony. This rite fell to the priests, so they could ask the Gods to continue placing their blanket of protection over the city.

As we have no ancient priests of Zeus hanging around, we take this responsibility upon ourselves instead. Will you join us on November 20, at 10 AM EST? You can join the community here and download the ritual here.