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 p1120  Thargelia

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on p1120 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

THARGE′LIA (θαργήλια), a festival celebrated at Athens on the 6th and 7th of Thargelion in honour of Apollo and Artemis (Etymol. M.; Suidas, s.v. Θαργήλια), or according to the Scholiast on Aristophanes (Equit. 1405) in honour of Helios and the Horae; the latter statement however is in substance the same as the former. The Apollo who was honoured by this festival was the Delian Apollo (Athen. X p424).

The real festival, or the Thargelia in a narrower sense of the word, appears to have taken place on the 7th, and on the preceding day the city of Athens or rather its inhabitants were purified (Plut. Symp. VIII.1; Diog. Laërt. II.44; Harpocrat. s.v. Φαρμακός). The manner in which this purification was effected is very extraordinary and certainly a remnant of very ancient rites, for two persons were put to death on that day, and the one died on behalf of the men and the other on behalf of the women of Athens. The name by which these victims were designated was φαρμακοί: according to some accounts both of them were men, but according to others the one dying on behalf of the women was a woman and the other a man (Hesych. s.v. Φαρμακοί). On the day when the sacrifice was to be performed the victims were led out of the city to a place near the sea, with the accompaniment of a peculiar melody, called κραδίης νόμος, played on the flute (Hesych, s.v.). The neck of the one who died for the men was surrounded with a garland of black figs, and that of the other with a garland of white ones; and while they were proceeding to the place of their destiny they were beaten with rods of fig-wood, and figs and other things were thrown at them. Cheese, figs, and cake were put into their hands that they might eat them. They were at last burnt on a funeral pile made of wild fig-wood, and their ashes were thrown into the sea and scattered to the winds (Tzetzes, Chil. V.25). Some writers maintain from a passage of Ammonius (de Different. Vocab. p142, ed. Valck.) that they were thrown into the sea alive, but this passage leaves the matter uncertain. We are not informed whether this expiatory and purifying sacrifice was offered regularly every year, but from the name of the victims (φαρμακοί)​a1 as well as from the whole account of Tzetzes, which is founded on good authorities, it appears highly probable that this sacrifice only took place in case of a heavy calamity having befallen the city (νοσούσης τῆς πόλεως),​a2 such as the plague, a famine, &c. What persons were chosen as victims on such occasions is not mentioned, and we only learn from Suidas (s.v. Φαρμακοί) that they were kept at the public expense (δημοσίᾳ τρεφόμενοι). But they were in all probability criminals sentenced to death, and who were kept by the state from the time of their condemnation to be sacrificed at the Thargelia. In the earlier times however they were not criminals, but either cripples (Tzetzes, l.c.; Schol. ad Aristoph. Ran. 733), or persons who offered to die voluntarily for the good of their country (Athen. IX p370; Suidas, s.v. Παρθένοι).

The second day of the Thargelia was solemnized with a procession and an agon which consisted of a cyclic chorus performed by men at the expense of a choragus (Lysias, de Muner. accept. p255; Antiphon, de Choreut. c11; Demosth. in Mid. p517). The prize of the victor in this agon was a tripod which he had to dedicate in the temple of Apollo which had been built by Peisistratus (Suidas, s.v. Πύθιον). On this day it was customary for persons who were adopted into a family to be solemnly registered and received into the genos and the phratria of the adoptive parents. This solemnity was the same as that of registering one's own children at the apaturia (Isaeus, de Apollod. hered. c15, de Aristarch. hered. c8). [Adoptio (Greek).]

Respecting the origin of the Thargelia there are two accounts. According to Istrus (ap. Phot. Lex. p467; Etymol. M., and Harpocrat. s.v. Φαρμακός), the φαρμακοί derived their name from one Pharmacus, who having stolen the sacred phials of Apollo and being caught in the act by the men of Achilles, was stoned to death, and this event was commemorated by the awful sacrifice at the Thargelia. Helladius (p534.3), on the other hand, states that at first these expiatory sacrifices were offered for the purpose of purifying the city of contagious diseases, as the Athenians after the death of the Cretan Androgeus were visited by the plague. A similar festival, probably an imitation of the Thargelia, was celebrated at Massilia (Petron. 141).º (See Meursius, Graecia Feriata, s.v. Θαργήλια: Bode, Gesch.der lyrisch. Dichtkunst der Hellen. I p173, &c., where an account is also given of the κραδίης νόμος; K. F. Hermann, Handb. der Gottesd. Alterth. § 60 n4, &c.).

Thayer's Note:

a1 a2 In case your Greek is rusty, pharmakoi is the same word from which we derive pharmacy: it means "drugs" (that heal some illness); and the expression nosousēs tēs poleōs literally means "the city having fallen ill".

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