The Peplos of Athena

One of the traditions associated with ancient Athens’ greatest festival, the Panathenaia, was the presentation of a new peplos to Athena Polias on the Acropolis. This was no mere symbolic gift; the peplos. was woven by the women of Athens and worn by Athena herself–or, more precisely, by her statue, a life-sized image, very old and made from olive wood.

This gifting to a god of a garment was not unique. Hera received her own peplos at the Heraia in Argos, and Apollo Amyklaios of Sparta received a new chiton at the Hyacynthia festival.

The making and presentation of Athena’s peplos was associated with two different Athenian festivals: the Chalkeia, an artisans’ festival when the weaving of the peplos was begun; and the Panathenaia, when the finished peplos was presented to the goddess. A particularly elaborate festival or “Greater Panathenaia” was held every five years; originally the peplos was presented only at this larger festival but eventually it became an annual gift.  

The garment is believed to have been made of saffron-colored wool, with blue and purple decorations woven or embroidered into it in the theme of the gods’ mythic victory in battle over the giants (Gigantomachy).

You may want to make your own peplos to present to Athena. Unless you have a very large statue of the goddess (in which case I am envious!) you will have much less work to do than the women of ancient Athens did. If you have no statue, you can still present a peplos. And if you begin work at the time of the Chalkeia festival, as the ancients did, you will have nine months until the Panathenaia in which to complete it, which should be plenty of time in which to make a small, statue-sized peplos.

The peplos is an incredibly simple garment. It is, in its oldest and simplest form, a rectangle of fabric, folded, wrapped, and fastened at the shoulders with pins. No sewing is necessary, no fitting is required, and the size is easily determined by the size of your statue.

How to make the peplos is entirely up to you and your skill set. If you are a weaver, you’re all set. You can also knit the peplos; I would recommend using a stockinette stitch rather than a garter stitch, as you will want the piece to have a bit of drape. If you crochet, I would also recommend a less rigid stitch (although since I have never been able to grasp the crochet concept I can’t suggest anything more detailed than that). You can also make it from fabric, with or without adding an embroidered design.

An excellent description of how to wrap, fold, fasten and wear a peplos or a chiton (if you prefer it, or if you wish to present a garment to a male god) is available at the Roman Life website here.

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