Festivals: Boreaia (An Exercise in Modern Festival-building)

As far as I know, there was no ancient Greek festival that went by the name of Boreaia. If there were, it probably would not be thematically similar to this one. There was, in ancient times in Athens, a festival called the Boreasmia honoring Boreas for his help during the Persian War, when the fleet of Xerxes was destroyed by a strong north wind. This is not that festival. This is modern.

Living in a cold-weather region as I do, I’ve always felt a certain affinity for Boreas and his kin, and this is the result.

I thought I’d share a little bit about the process I used in building this ritual.

While the idea of welcoming a coming season is pretty common in modern pagan ritual practice (the Wheel of the Year is often followed as a progress of the seasons), it wasn’t the usual thing in ancient Greece.* There were festivals associated with seasonal activities such as a particular harvest. There were certainly festivals commemorating historical (and/or mythical) events; placing a festival in the broader historical context gave it the legitimacy of age, among other things. However, a festival celebrating the coming of summer, or winter, or spring in and of itself was not at all a common practice.

What was a common festival theme was the arrival in the city of a deity. This might be commemorative, an annual retelling of the god’s original arrival (Dionysos was celebrated in this way in several regions), or it might be conceived as an actual arrival as in some rites of Persephone. Sometimes such a rite might involve the transport of a statue of the deity to their temple. (This generally entailed the taking away of the statue and it’s nearly-immediate return. The arrival of a god was a good thing and might be noted; however, the god was not usually considered to actually leave the city during the year at any point. Probably bad math but decent theology. :))

So, the “reason for the season” here, for me, is the arrival of the god Boreas and his daughter Chione**. (By “arrival” I mean a ritual arrival rather than an actual arrival; I think all gods are potentially present at all times although they may manifest differently at different times and in different situations.) It may seem like a small or even a semantic difference, the arrival of the gods vs. the arrival of the season, but it’s a difference that adds some weight to the rite, and has the additional benefit of a conscious focus on the gods involved.

Another consideration is that while the arrival of Boreas may be seen as marking the arrival of the winter season, there is more to his time and this season than simply the change itself. Winter means harsh weather and additional risks in daily life (freezing cold, dangerous driving conditions and the like) but it also brings its blessings–winter recreational activities can provide benefits to community, including but not limited to the economic boost the region gets from winter tourism, which can be seen as its own sort of seasonal “harvest.”

Boreas is thus seen not only as a god of climate and weather (he is, after all, the god of the north wind), but as a bringer of some measure of abundance.

Given a larger community, he could be honored at a full-blown festival with contests–athletic contests (cross-country skiing, perhaps) or even artistic competitions (snow or ice sculpting? :)).

As I am not a larger community, my ritual includes a much smaller offering, one that can remain on the altar either until the end of the season or until the next year’s rite. I am offering a paper snowflake to the two gods. It’s thematically appropriate to the rite, it’s a creative work that can be made relatively easily, and (a consideration for me because my representation of Boreas at this time is a picture hanging on the wall, not a statue on the shrine) it can be displayed near the god’s image, also relatively easily. If there were more people taking part in the rite, it would be appropriate for any or all to offer a small votive offering at this time.

* This doesn’t mean that a modern rite to the Greek gods marking the changing of the seasons couldn’t be done and be an absolutely valid way to honor deity; it just wasn’t my thought process while working on this.

** While there are some thematic similarities between this rite and the Maimakteria rite I posted recently, they are I think quite different rites, although both are modern in conception. (There almost certainly was a Maimakteria rite in ancient Greece, given the existence of a month named Maimakterion, and it seems likely that it honored Zeus Maimaktes or “Blustering Zeus” of the storm, but this information is in great part supposition, as is the rite I posted.)

The Maimakteria is intended to honor Zeus Maimaktes in hopes of a relatively gentle storm season; “storm season” in this case includes but is not limited to blizzards–certainly the people of ancient Athens would have expected rainstorms, not snowstorms. It is primarily a ritual that asks for the god’s favor in terms of reducing risk.

The Boreaia here, on the other hand, includes the plea for a gentle season but also praises and thanks the gods for the blessings they bring in winter. I wrote it from the point of view of someone who sees a lot of snow, but the rite could be reworked (perhaps as a rite for Boreas alone, since Chione is specifically a snow goddess :)) to include gratitude for a rainy winter season as well, since in such a region the winter rains make the next year’s harvest possible.

I’ve posted my ritual for the Boreaia at my other blog.

A PDF version of the ritual script is available here.

Useful resources

Larson, Jennifer (2007-05-07). Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide. Taylor and Francis, 2005. Kindle Edition.

Parker, Robert. On Greek Religion (Cornell Studies in Classical Philology). Cornell University Press, 2011. Kindle Edition.

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