On the Noumenia
Noumenia means the festival of the new moon, which the ancient Greeks considered to be the appearance of the first sliver, something that can take some getting used to if you’re more familiar with the astrological reckoning of new moons. Hesiod (Works and Days 770) designated the Noumenia as the holiest of days, and it appears to have been among the oldest and most widespread of the Hellenic religious observances. Its antiquity is attested by the fact that Homer mentions it in the Odyssey (21.258) – a significant fact when we consider that he names only one other religious festival in his epics. Furthermore, the Noumenia continued to be observed well into the Christian period, since we find bishops in Byzantine Egypt during the 5th century railing against those who continue to light lamps and burn incense in their homes for the ancestral Gods and Spirits on the new moon.
The sacred nature of the day can be seen in the fact that no other festival was allowed to fall on that date in Athens and no legislative assemblies of the ekklesia, boule, or tribal associations occurred at this time. In fact, all important business was suspended as we learn in Plutarch’s 25th Roman Question – though it seems that the markets may have remained open.
Generally, it was seen as a day to stay at home and celebrate with the family. Sacrifices were made to Apollon, Selene, Hera, Hekate, Hermes, Hestia and the household Gods and Spirits. The domestic shrines were cleaned and then wreathed with flower-garlands, and then incense, wine, and cakes were offered anew to the Gods. (Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food 2.16)
The Noumenia is perhaps just as popular and universal for contemporary Hellenic polytheists and adherents of the Starry Bull tradition as it was for our cultural ancestors. Ours is a diverse community, and though we may have different festival calendars, honor different Gods and Spirits, and even employ different methods of worship – most of us still do at least something to mark the Noumenia. So, here are some of my own thoughts about this day and how I celebrate it.
To me the Noumenia is a time of new beginnings, of renewal. Each month we are given a chance to start over, to get it right. Living in this fast-paced, hectic world with endless distractions, frustrations, and demands on our time and attention, it is easy to lose our way, to forget the things that are important to us and sometimes we may even become estranged from our Gods and Spirits. We may have set out to maintain a regular religious routine or to make important life changes like eating better, exercising more, watching less television and the like, only to have life get in the way. It is easy to feel discouraged, to see all the missed opportunities and our life slipping away from us. But the Noumenia provides us with an opportunity to stop, get our bearings, connect with the divine, recharge our spiritual batteries, and renew our commitment to living the sort of life that, deep down, we have always wanted to. It is a time to clear away the old and outmoded, all the things that are cluttering our lives and holding us back, so that we can make room for new and wonderful blessings to enter them.
That is why the first thing that I do on the Noumenia (if I have not already done so on the previous evening, the deipnon or dinner of Hekate) is a thorough cleaning of my dwelling from top to bottom. Admittedly, this may not strike some as a particularly spiritual act – but it has taken on great significance for me. There is something deeply rewarding about all of that physical labor, especially when I use the time to think about all of the mental and spiritual “junk” that I need to remove from my life as well. It is also a devotional act, since by filling my home with numerous shrines to my Gods and Spirits I have invited them into my life and agreed to share my space with them. The Gods and Spirits should not be subjected to dirty laundry, stacks of dishes, clutter and dust – and in truth, neither should I. By making my home neat and orderly, a fitting place to receive my Gods and Spirits, I am making over my life in a similar fashion, for one’s home is, after all, a reflection of one’s own being. I have noticed, in fact, a strong correlation between my mood and my surroundings. When the place is messy and disgusting I tend to feel stressed, anxious, and sullen. But when it is sparklingly clean and well-ordered (or as close as it gets to that, because come on, I am a guy and a bachelor after all) my heart is light and my mind soars more freely. After I have cleaned my home, paying special attention to my shrines and the clearing away of any offerings I may have left on the altars, I begin a series of devotions that can last anywhere from an hour to the remainder of the day.
I begin by lighting candles and incense and pouring libations for each of my household Gods or Spirits. I spend a little time at each of their shrines, reciting poetry and hymns, praying aloud from the heart, or just talking to them in a casual manner. Then I simply bask in their presence for a bit, enjoying the beautiful sight of an active shrine full of offerings, thinking about my Gods and Spirits and what they mean to me, going over past encounters I’ve had with them, and what I hope to do for them in the future. If I have an ongoing oath to them I will renew my commitment to it and think of ways that I can live up to it over the month to come.
After I have done this for each of my household divinities I next turn to the remaining Gods and Spirits of the wider Starry Bull pantheon. This is actually one of the most important things about the Noumenia for me: the opportunity to touch base with all of the deities and divinities. Over the years I’ve managed to collect a smallish pantheon of Gods and Spirits who receive the bulk of my attention and devotional practice. These are very important entities to me, and I deeply enjoy the intense and personal nature of our relationships. But the other Gods and Spirits are important too, and worthy of my honor even if they haven’t made their presence as strongly felt in my life. So, on the Noumenia I take some time to honor them as well, making collective offerings to the whole group, reciting brief prayers to individual Gods and Spirits, and generally pausing to think about each of them for a while and all of the amazing things they have done and continue to do in our world.
After this I go into a quiet, meditative state, just sort of letting myself be in the presence of the divine. I often come away from this feeling peaceful, calm, collected – ready to face the challenges of life, grounded in an awareness of the all-pervading presence of my Gods and Spirits. It doesn’t matter what else is going on in my life; all the anxieties, fears, frustrations and doubts just melt away in the face of the Gods and Spirits.
After that I will sit with my calendar and make plans for the upcoming month. I look at the festivals that are approaching and think about what I would like to do for them and the supplies I’ll have to gather to celebrate them properly. I go over my writing and creative projects, and any other plans I may have either percolating in my brain or carried over from the previous month. I think about my life and what I need to do to make it better. In short, I plot out the rest of the month, making concrete plans of action, because honestly, I’d never get anything done otherwise.
At that point, it’s usually pretty late and so I make myself a lavish dinner, feasting in the company of my Gods and Spirits and sharing a portion of the meal with them. Then I make a final offering and go out for a walk, usually going on a long, circuitous route that ends up at one of the nearby parks where I do a lot of my outdoors worship. As I stroll through the dark city streets I let my gaze drift up to the heavens and note the lovely sliver of moon, just barely visible through the darkness – yet full of such promise and potential.
This is one of my favorite parts of the Noumenia – and in many ways, one of the most important. By anchoring my religious calendar to the phases of the moon it helps me connect with the cyclical powers she contains as well as the rhythms of nature which are all around me. It’s so easy to lose sight of this, to get caught up in the manic intensity of our modern lives. So much is going on all the time, a thousand tiny things constantly clamoring for our attention, that we’re often not aware of anything outside of our own heads. Weeks can pass by in a blur, and half the time we wouldn’t even know what day it was without the anchors of what show is on television or what trivial thing is happening at work. The earth and the moon, however, run at a slower pace, possess a deeper and more sacred motion, and I have found that pausing to take note of that, slowing myself down enough that I am able to attune myself to that more divine cycle, is an incredibly rewarding thing. Many people find it hard to follow the lunar Hellenic calendar, especially at first, but I find it well worth the effort. These energies are real and powerful, and life runs much more smoothly when we slow down enough to be aware of them, open ourselves enough to be conscious of their influence in the world around us – and the world within us as well.