A History of Music Festivals, Part 1: Ancient Greece – Utopik

A History of Music Festivals, Part 1: Ancient Greece

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Beginning within the 6th century BCE, the earliest known music festival is thought to be the Pythian Games in Ancient Greece. It was held in honor of Apollo, the god of music and dance, at Delphi.

Occurring every 4 years, in-between the Olympic Games, it is 1 of 4 separate festivals known as the Panhellenic Games (the other two are the Nemean and Isthmian Games).

The Pythian Games slowly declined in importance after the Romans gained power in Greece, but continued into the 5th century AD – as long as the Olympics of Ancient Greece.

Stadium of the Pythian Games

Stadium of the Pythian Games at Delphi


The art and dance competitions were, according to myth, founded by Apollo after he killed the Python of Delphi, a dragon that spread both mischief and death while releasing an obnoxious odor.

The death of the Python filled Apollo with great joy – he played a song of victory on his lyre, which delighted all nearby people.

Soon afterwards, Apollo buried the creature under the slopes of Mount Parnassus. Built upon this mountain was the Temple of Apollo, the home of the famous Oracle of Delphi.

In the eyes of his gods, Apollo had committed a crime. To purify himself, Zeus (the ruler of all gods) ordered Apollo to create the Pythian Games at Delphi. It is said that Apollo took part in the first games himself.

Much later, in cities that introduced Apollo worship, far less prestigious pseudo-Pythian Games took place.

Apollo vs the Python

Apollo slays the Python


To attract contestants, six months prior to the Pythian Games, 9 citizens from Delphi were sent to all the Greek cities to announce and promote the tournament.

They started the Games with a re-enactment of the victory of Apollo over the Python, which included a ritual sacrifice performed at the Temple of Apollo.

Following four days of festivities and processions, the events began and usually lasted over 6-8 days.

The Temple of Apollo

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo


In the earliest times, singing hymns to the gods was the major event.

In the later classical period, three less-religious musical events were contested: playing the kithara (a type of harp), the combination of kithara and singing, and playing the aulos (a wind instrument).

Frequently, musicians would play two auloi at the same time. Both the kithara and auloi could accompany singers, either soloists or choirs.

Afterwards, alongside the introduction of athletics, other events were added such as writing poetry or prose, painting, dance, and competitions for tragic and comic actors.

Despite the addition of sporting events, the musical contests remained the most important part of these games.

Kithara player

Woman playing a kithara

Aulos player

Man playing an aulos


Monetary prizes were not awarded to the winners of the Games, but they did receive a laurel crown made of bay leaves.

On their return home, however, their own community often presented them with material rewards – since they had also received glory from the victory.

Sometimes the champions were lavished with poems or songs written in their honor.

Apollo wearing a laurel crown

Apollo wearing a laurel crown






Check out Part 2: the Celtic festivals of Feiseanna, Eisteddfod and Mòd

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