When the dragon rose the games began!
About 2,500 years ago, at a time when Athens was in its prime, the people of the city celebrated the birth of Athena, their patron goddess, with a great event.
Known as the Panathenaic festival it featured a series of athletic games that included chariot races, javelin throwing and boating. It even had a bloody contest known as pankration, a combination of wrestling and boxing which is not that dissimilar from today’s mixed martial arts.
Celebrated annually around late July – mid August it was an important part of the city’s life and now, thanks to new research by Professor Efrosyni Boutsikas of the University of Kent, we have evidence that astronomy played a role in these games. She reconstructed the sky over the Athenian acropolis, determining how it would have looked about 2,500 years ago. Her results were published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Archaeology.
Professor Boutsikas found that at the time of the Panathenaic festival the constellation Draco, a string of stars that look like a dragon, rose above the revellers – appearing prominently in the night sky.
“The Panathenaia took place at the one time in the year when Draco’s upper culmination was visible within one to two hours after sunset,” she writes in the paper. “If observed from the north porch of the Erechtheion [a temple on the Acropolis] or nearby, these movements of Draco would have been an impressive sight, as the constellation is one of the largest in the sky.”
Ironically this constellation has been making headlines the past two weeks as modern day astronomers have detected a massive explosion in it, a cataclysm that may have been caused by a star wandering near a black hole.
Boutsikas argues that the rising of Draco would have been used to designate the start of the games. “Stellar observations, in addition to the luni-solar calendar, were widely used in Greek timekeeping,” she writes.
“Stellar observations are more accurate than luni-solar ones, and, in the case of Greece, where each polis [city state] had its own calendar with different month names and intercalation times, stellar observations could have been a way to ensure that the gods received their sacrifices at the correct time of year and that pilgrims from across the Greek world would arrive in time to attend cult rites.”
She also pointed out that Draco is associated with Athena in ancient mythology. The Roman astronomer Hyginus mentioned this, writing 2,000 years ago that:
Some say that this dragon was thrown at Minerva [Roman name for Athena] by the Giants when she fought them. Minerva, however, snatched its twisted form and threw it to the stars, and fixed it at the very pole of heaven. And so to this day it appears with twisted body, as if recently transported to the stars.
(Translation by Mary Grant)
To the people of Athens this dragon would have remained there for all eternity, moving around the heavens. Each summer it would rise above the Acropolis, commanding the night sky and signalling the birthday of the goddess who put him there – Athena.