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The Ancient Greek Custom of Decorating Tree Branches

Ancient Greek custom of decorating olive tree brunches, Eiresione
The Ancient Greek Custom of Decorating Tree Branches. Credit: Elliniki Agogi

Similar to how we decorate Christmas trees today, the ancient Greeks had a custom of decorating tree branches for what could be described as a sort of thanksgiving ritual, according to the scripts of 1st century historian Plutarch.

The custom, known with the name Eiresione, had its roots in ancient Greek mythology.

According to educational platform Elliniki Agogi, Theseus, before killing the Minotaur, asked for Apollo to help him and in return, he would offer him olive branches (hiketerias) and celebrations.

When he came back from Crete, he started the custom of Eiresione; kids would decorate an olive branch and carry it around houses by singing songs of wealth, health and happiness.

Elliniki Agogi recently revived the ancient Greek custom with pupils in Athens, Chicago, New York and Montreal, who learnt about and decorated the Eiresione.

School pupils learn about the ancient Greek custom of Eiresione.
School pupils learn about the ancient Greek custom of Eiresione. Credit: Elliniki Agogi

Provenance of ancient Greek custom Eiresione

The name Eiresione comes from the ancient Greek word for wool, eiros, it is explained in the Greek-English Lexicon by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott.

The choice of the name is linked to the decoration of the branch of the tree, which it describes.

The branch of olive or laurel, was covered with wool (eiros), fruit, cakes and olive flasks, dedicated to Apollo, and carried about by singing boys during the festivals of Pyanopsia (end of October) and Thargelia (end of May).

At the end of the festival, the Eiresione was hung up at the house door.

In Plutarch‘s own words, as translated by Bernadotte Perrin on Perseus, the Eiresione “is a bough of olive wreathed with wool, such as Theseus used at the time of his supplication, and laden with all sorts of fruit-offerings, to signify that scarcity was at an end.”

The ancient writer has also carried forward the ritual song of the boys:

“Eiresione for us brings figs and bread of the richest,

brings us honey in pots and oil to rub off from the body,

Strong wine too in a beaker, that one may go to bed mellow.”

Ancient Greek custom of Eiresione
School pupil decorating an olive tree branch in a modern-day revival of Eiresione. Credit: Elliniki Agogi

A second version about the custom

The Greek historian, who lived in the 1st century AD, chronicles a second version of the provenance of Eiresione.

“Some writers, however, say that these rites are in memory of the Heracleidae, who were maintained in this manner by the Athenians; but most put the matter as I have done,” Plutarch writes.

He refers to the legend that, after Hercules’s death, his children came to Athens as suppliants, bearing branches in their hands, to avoid the wrath of the tyrant Eurystheus, as recorded by the tragic poet Euripides.

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