On the 19th of Thargelion, an Athenian festival for the Thrakian Goddess Bendis (Βενδις) was held. This festival, which went on into the night of the 20th of the month, was designed especially for Bendis, who was introduced to Attika by Thrakian métoikoi who took the opportunity to introduce their Goddess into the Athenian pantheon after the Oracle of Dodona decreed that Thrakian worshippers should be granted the right for ground to build a sanctuary on. Their shrine to Her was built on the hill Mounykhia, near to the temple of Artemis Mounikhia, with whom She was identified. The temenos was completed somewhere before 429 BC, and at least one Thrakian festival to the Goddess was held before the Athenians got involved. Would you like to involve yourself with Her worship as well? Elaion is hosting a PAT ritual for Her, Artemis and Hekate on the 28th of May at the usual 10 am EDT.
The Goddess Bendis originated in Thrake, to the north of Hellas. Her cult was imported into Athens around 432 BC, at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Athens had always had close ties with Thrake, but besides the oracle’s decree, it seems that the acceptance of the foreign cult into the city at this time was probably connected with Athens’ military alliance with the Odrysian Thrakians, who supplied mercenaries throughout the war.
The Bendideia (Βενδίδεια) itself was celebrated in the port town of Peiraeeus. At first, only the Thrakians honored Her, but within a few years, the Athenians held their own procession alongside the Thrakians, theirs winding down from the Prataneion (Πρυτανεῖον)–the seat of government in ancient Hellas–in the morning to the sanctuary of the Goddess in the Peiraios, while the Thrakian procession was entirely within the port town. The six-mile procession of the Athenians was so unusual, that a decree called for basins, water and sponges to bathe after it, and garlands. It seems obvious to place a meal here in the timeframe, followed by a period of rest until it became dark enough to perform the most telling of cult worship to the Goddess: an evening torch race on horseback; a true novelty. Plato, in his ‘Republic
‘ tells us a little it about this race:
“Polemarchus said to me: I perceive, Socrates, that you and our companion are already on your way to the city.
You are not far wrong, I said.
But do you see, he rejoined, how many we are?
And are you stronger than all these? for if not, you will have to remain where you are.
May there not be the alternative, I said, that we may persuade you to let us go?
But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you? he said.
Certainly not, replied Glaucon.
Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured.
Adeimantus added: Has no one told you of the torch-race on horseback in honour of the goddess which will take place in the evening?
With horses! I replied: That is a novelty. Will horsemen carry torches and pass them one to another during the race?
Yes, said Polemarchus, and not only so, but a festival will he celebrated at night, which you certainly ought to see. Let us rise soon after supper and see this festival; there will be a gathering of young men, and we will have a good talk. Stay then, and do not be perverse.
Glaucon said: I suppose, since you insist, that we must.
Very good, I replied.”
What, exactly, Bendis presided over to either the Thrakians or the Athenians is unclear. She was identified mostly with Artemis, but not equated with Her, as She received a temple of Her own. Due to a connection with grain and the growth cycle of plants, she was identified with Demeter, and sometimes Persephone and/or Hekate. She was thus also associated with Selene. Mostly, however, she was equated with Artemis Mounikhia.
In the Classical literature and in later traditions, Artemis was portrayed as a huntress; a savage and wild deity of nature, and a virgin maiden. Artemis Mounikhia, however, differed from this Classical image. The characteristics of this particular epithet of Artemis were in fact more similar to the cult of the moon Goddess Hekate. In Classical tradition, the holy day of Artemis was on the 6th day of the month, but the Mounikhia festival was instead held on the 16th day of Mounychion, under the full moon, an element of the cult of Hekate. During the Mounikhia procession, round cakes with little torches were offered to the Goddess, corresponding directly to the torch races of the neighbouring cult of Bendis.
It appears that Artemis Mounychia was seen as a deity of protection, one connecting women with the moon cycle, and one which represents marriage, fertility and the protection of human life and nature. The physical proximity of the Bendis temple to that of Artemis Mounikhia, and the similarity of festival activities (such as the torch use in relation to the moon cycle) suggests their cults were similar and prehaps even linked. And through Artemis, Bendis is also linked to Hekate.
The worship of Bendis outside of Thrake and Athens never caught on; she was revered almost solely at these places. Yet, the Athenians seemed to have held Her in high regard for a Goddess not of their pantheon.
Will you be honoouring Bendis with us on the 28th of May, at 10 am EDT? You cn find the ritual here and the community page here.