Plynteria

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Roman statue of a goddess, possibly Athena, wearing a peplos over a chiton. Source: observer.com/2008/09/goddesses-minotaurs.

Today would have been reckoned as the 22 of Thargelion in the ancient Athenian ritual calendar, the date of the annual festival of Plynteria in honor of Athena Polias. The Greek word plynein means “to wash”, and during this festival the statue of Athena Polias was ceremonially disrobed, taken to the sea to be bathed, returned to the temple, presented with a new chiton, and re-dressed in the peplos from the previous Panathenaic Festival. The statue’s gold ornaments included a diadem, earrings, a neck band, and five necklaces.

This statue was obviously not the monumental sculpture of Athena created by Phidias, but a xoanon, an archaic life-size statue carved of olive wood. It was revered as the most sacred image of the goddess in Athens, and was said to have wonderously fallen from the sky.

During this festival, other statues of Athena were covered, and it may be that they were cleaned in situ. The temples sacred to Athena were roped off, to signify that the protecting goddess of the city was not present. It was for this reason considered an inauspicious day for the city. The ecclesia (assembly) did not meet, and it was deemed unlucky to transact business.

A parallel to the Plynteria in modern Hinduism provides additional insight to this ritual. Once a year, during a special ceremony, devotional statues are bathed, anointed, and dressed. At this point, it is believed that the deity is present in a special way, and is welcomed as an honored visitor. Those viewing the statue are believed to be in a state of reciprocal visual communication with the deity (Darshan), seeing – and being seen – in a direct, personal way which bestows a blessing upon the devotees. Through this ceremony, personal relationships with the deity are established and cultivated.

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