The Winter Solstice in Ancient Greece

Solstice Celebrations Honoring Poseidon

Painting of Poseidon in his chariot at Sea

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Solstice (from the Latin sol 'sun') celebrations honor the sun. At the summer solstice in late June, there is no dearth of the sun, so celebrants just enjoy the extra hours of daylight, but by the winter solstice in late December, the days are much shorter as the sun sets earlier.

Winter solstice celebrations often include two activities related to the failing sun: producing light and enjoying the cover the darkness provides. Thus, it is common for winter solstice celebrations to include candle lighting, bonfire creation, and drunken debauchery.

Poseidon and the Winter Solstice

In Greek mythology, the sea god Poseidon is one of the most lascivious of the gods, producing more children than many other gods. Greek calendars varied from polis to polis, but in some Greek calendars, a month around the time of the winter solstice is named for Poseidon.

In Athens and other parts of ancient Greece, there is a month that roughly corresponds with December/January that is named Poseideon for the sea-god Poseidon. Despite the fact that the Greeks were the least likely to sail during these months, they held a celebration in Athens called Posidea to celebrate Poseidon.

Haloea and Women's Rites

At Eleusis there was a festival called Haloea on the 26th of the month Poseideon. The Haloea—a festival for Demeter and Dionysus—included a procession for Poseidon. The Haloea is thought to have been a time for merriment. There is mention of a women's rite in connection with this holiday: Women are provided with wine and food, including cakes in the shapes of sexual organs. They withdraw to themselves and "exchange scurrilous banter, and are teased with suggestions of promiscuity whispered in their ears by 'the priestesses'." [p.5] The women are thought to have stayed secluded throughout the night and then to have joined the men the next day. While the women were off eating, drinking, and sounding much like the women of Lysistrata, the men are thought to have created a big pyre or a bunch of little bonfires.

Poseidonia of Aegina

The Poseidonia of Aegina may have taken place in the same month. There were 16 days of feasting with rites of Aphrodite concluding the festival. Like the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Poseidonia became so popular it was extended so that Athenaeus makes it 2 months long:

"In sum, the celebrants feast to satiety, then turn to lascivious teasing. What is the ritual purpose of such conduct? It obviously suits Poseidon's mythical reputation as the most lustful of gods, who far surpasses Apollo and Zeus in the number of his liaisons and his offspring. Poseidon the seducer is god of springs and rivers[...]"

Source

"Poseidon's Festival at the Winter Solstice," by Noel Robertson, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1984), 1-16.