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The Panathenaia (in Greek: Παναθήναια) celebrations with very ancient origins were held in honor of the patron of the city of Athens, the goddess Athena. They were celebrated on her reputed birthday on the 28th of Hekatombaion (roughly equivalent to the month of July in our calendar) and brought together the ten races of Attica.

In about 566 BC the festival became quadri-annual (in the third year of each Olympiad and was called the Great Panathenaia. After Peisistratos reorganised the games he added rhapsodoi (epic poetry recital) competitions to the gymnic contests. Later on, Pericles increased the importance of the music competitions building the Odeion next to the Theatre of Dionysos.

The ten athlothetai elected every four years were responsible for organising the games and the procession on the final day. The games started with the equestrian competitions.

The prize was a Panathenian amphora depicting on one side Athena "Promachos" and on the other side the contest in which the victor had competed. The "pyrriche" (armoured war dance) and the "evandria" (young men's) contests were held next. The musical competitions included epic poetry recitals, song and lyrical poetry to flute music.

During the first day, fire was kindled after sunset on the Akademos (the district outside the sacred Dipylon, or double gate), accompanied by sacrifices to Athena and Eros amid songs and dances by the youths. The fire was then carried by torch race through the Agora to the altar of Athena, where the cotton wick was lit. The mythic legitimation of this act, which was understood as the mystical significance of the rites, refers to the birth of the founding king of the city, Erichthonios: When Athena was pursued in love by Hephaistos, she preserved her virginity by having his seed spilled on her thigh, then wiping it with a cotton ball that she threw on the earth. From this seed sprang Erichthonios, a creature half human, half snake.

On the second and main day, a large procession started from the Dipylon, where the road from Eleusis entered Athens; the procession consisted of old men with olive branches, young girls with sacrificial vessels and sacred baskets, and the sacrificial animals. The focus of the procession was the large peplos, woven during the previous nine months by the women of Athens under the guidance of the virginal attendants of the temple of Athena (the Arrephoroi). Weaving had started at the Chalkeia festival for Athena Ergane ("Athena, patroness of crafts and craftiness"). The peplos was draped around the wooden statue, which had been ritually washed at an earlier celebration (the festival Plynteria in the month Thargelion, mid-April to mid-May).

While the Panathenaia can be fully appreciated only in relation to all other festivals of the agricultural year, its importance is to mark the ancient founding of the city and the start of a fertile year: It is a New Year festival. The great chariot race, during which fully clad warriors had to jump from their wagons and race on, recalls its originator, Erichthonios. Many more references are made to Athena as founder, protector, and virgin deity with strong chthonic features: Central to the meaning are the multiple snake symbols. Both Erichthonios and the earlier autochthonous king Kekrops are depicted on vases as snakes winding around olive trees. Kekrops had three daughters, to whom Athena handed a closed basket in which she had secreted the snake-child Erichthonios. All three girls' names refer to fertility, containing the word for "dew," which also connotes "semen." One daughter, Pandrosos, also received sacrifices during the Panathenaia. The gist of the festival seems to be the symbolic association between fertility and autochthony, which accords well with the structural logic of the myths surrounding Athena: The goddess who was born without mother gives birth to progeny without her virginal status being violated.