Harvest season

We are still enjoying summer but the calendar is moving to autumn already!
Harvest season is coming soon. What was this celebration like in Greece?

 


 

Olive harvest

Olive pickers, 4th cent. BC. Amphora from Vulci. The British Musuem. ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Olive pickers, 4th cent. BC. Amphora from Vulci. The British Musuem.
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

 

At the legendary foundation of Athens, two great gods, Poseidon and Athene, competed for the coveted position of patron of the city. It was decreed that whoever donated the best gift to the people would win, and Poseidon led off the contest with the offer of a fine horse. Athene, however, tapped the rock of the Acropolis and an olive tree sprang up. She was universally acclaimed the winner. The soil of Attica is harsh but olive trees grow plentifully and live to a great age. The fine quality oil was used for eating, lighting and skin-care, with a good surplus for trade, and it was said that every part of the tree had a use. An olive tree still grows at the east side of the Erechtheum on the spot that marks Athene’s gift and the continuing importance of the olive in Athenian life.

 


 

Demeter, Goddess of harvest

Head of Demeter, Goddess of harvest. 4th century BC. Sanctuary of Demeter, Acropolis Museum, Athens ©Stephen Coyne/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Head of Demeter, Goddess of harvest. 4th century BC. Sanctuary of Demeter,
Acropolis Museum, Athens
©Stephen Coyne/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

 

The goddess Demeter, one of the more gentle and approachable of the Olympians, oversees the fertility and growth of fields and flocks. Her attention, however, is regularly diverted by her love and care for her daughter, Persephone. Legend tells that the girl was in the fields one day when she was snatched by the great god Hades, and carried off to his underground kingdom where he married her. Demeter fell into such grief that she allowed nothing to grow, and all life was in such danger that a compromise had to be reached. Accordingly Persephone returns to earth for six months every year, and her mother’s rejoicing brings all growth back to life for the season. Then Persephone goes back to the underworld, Demeter grieves, and winter closes in.

 


Harvesters vase

Harvesters vase, Hagia Triada, Singing Minoans with flails. 1500-1400 BC Herakleion Archaeological Museum, Crete.

Harvesters vase, Hagia Triada, Singing Minoans with flails. 1500-1400 BC
Herakleion Archaeological Museum, Crete.

 

Classical sculptors tend to draw their subjects from myth and legend, favouring the deeds of gods, heroes and great men. It is rare to see any representation of the labour that largely supported the ancient world. An artist of Bronze Age Crete, however, has happily defied convention by decorating a carved stone vase with a cheerful procession of Minoan field workers returning from the harvest in a truly festive scene. They are led by a man in a fine tunic, and many of them carry implements that may be either flails or rods for knocking the ripe olives off the trees. One of them is swinging a rattle. His head is thrown back, his mouth is wide open, and he looks as if he is singing his heart out.

 


 

Horn of Plenty

Demeter with Horn of Plenty & bouquet of corn and poppies, Greece ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Demeter with Horn of Plenty & bouquet of corn and poppies, Greece
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

 

A few miles from Athens at Eleusis is a curious building known as the Telesterium.  It does not conform to the traditional design of temple architecture, and was surrounded by a high wall. Every year in autumn a procession was formed in Athens and made its way with great ceremony to Eleusis to celebrate the fertility rites of Demeter and Persephone known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. When they reached the Telesterium and vanished inside, the mystery was, and remains, virtually complete. Initiants swore a solemn oath of secrecy invoking terrible penalties on anyone breaking their word. The oath was scrupulously kept, and to this day the Eleusinian Mysteries still remain largely mysterious.