The Megala Antinoeia is one of the Greater Festivals in the yearly calendar of Festivals for the Naos Antínoou. In some ways, this festival can be seen as a collection of several festivals and observances and draws inspiration from several sources. As such, there are many different opportunities and options on how one chooses to observe this greater festival day.
Antinoeia: The Megala Antinoeia is the name used in several ancient texts for the sacred games commemorating Antinous, usually participated in by the youths of the community, known as ephebes, who were between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-two. Many athletic competitions were held, including footraces, wrestling and boxing, chariot races, swimming, and rowing. There were also artistic competitions involving music and poetry, and there might have even been theatrical competitions in the Dionysian tradition in some places. The coveted prize of these games was the Antinoeios, or red-lotus flower garland. These sacred games began to take place as early as 131, less than a year after the death of Antinous. Hadrian is known to have founded games in many cities, including “mystical” games based most likely on re-enactments of mystery rites or episodes from mythology, so, it’s possible that some element of this also played into the Megala Antinoeia on occasion.
While the Naos Antínoou has not had organized full-scale athletic competitions as part of our own modern observances of this aspect of the festival, it has become our custom to hold a yearly artistic competition.
Veneralia: Hadrian’s foundation of the Temple of Venus and Roma Aeterna was one of his greatest building projects in Rome, and was made with the intent of showing that though Civitas Romae was the child of Venus (through Aeneas) and Mars (through Romulus), that Venus was the more important of the two. It was also the first time that the goddess Roma was enshrined within the city of Rome. The month of April in the Roman calendar begins with the Veneralia on April 1, and the entire month was considered sacred to the goddess, but the celebration of the foundation of the temple shifted the focus. The great goddess of love emerged from the ocean and landed first on Cyprus, where it was said that Aphrodite would yearly renew herself in a spring to cleanse herself of the bad influences of males. As an annual purification rite, this seems an appropriate time to be renewed in the waters of early spring, wherever you might find them.
Natalis Urbis: Originally, April 21st was the festival of the Parilia, sacred to the deity Pares, who was associated with shepherds. However, it wasn’t known whether this god was singular or dual, nor male or female. Various events took place having to do with the guardianship and maintenance of sheep and flocks, including distribution of blood from the October Horse sacrifice and the Vestal Virgin’s distribution of burnt ashes of cattle from the Fordicidia—a festival on April 15 in honor of the Roman earth-goddess Tellus Mater. The sheep were lead between bonfires in order to bless and protect them on the Parilia. This was also considered the traditional foundation day of Rome itself, in 753 BCE. After the commissioning of Hadrian’s new temple to Venus and Roma Aeterna in 121, it was re-instituted as the festival of Natalis Urbis “in the 874th year A.U.C. (ab urbe condita),” and celebrated across the Empire.
Venatio Ursae/Erotikon: Also commemorated on this day are several bear hunts of Hadrian. On one of these hunts he killed a she-bear in Mysia in 123 or 124, and subsequently commissioned the city of Hadrianoutherae (“Hadrian’s Hunts”) in Bithynia. Later coins from that city show Antinous on one side and a bear on the other. But his successful killing of a bear in the Spring of 125 near Thespiae on his Greek sojourn is of particular interest to the Naos Antínoou. Thespiae was the seat of the god Eros. Hadrian’s dedication and poem found near there commemorating his slaying of the bear expresses a wish to the Cyprian Aphrodite Ourania (goddess of homoerotic love) and the archer Eros (connected to homoerotic love of youths) to have a lover granted to him. Thus, this day is also known as the “Erotikon.” Hadrian may have met Antinous by this time, but it is not certain. It’s possible he met Hadrian soon after. Regardless, whether he met Antinous soon before or after this bear hunt and inscription, we know the meeting was sometime in this general frame of time, and therefore, their meeting is considered by many in the Naos to be a direct answer to prayer.
In a sense, Hadrian’s re-foundation of Rome based in a dedicatory gesture to Venus, and a wish for love expressed to Aphrodite and Eros in Thespiae on the occasion of successfully hunting a bear, all point toward his eventual attainment of his own love, a descendant of the bear Arkas (which is the Latin word for an Arcadian in its form Arcas), the Arcadian-Bithynian Antinous, who was remembered for centuries afterwards in the form of his sacred games, which were especially celebrated in the Greek states, Bithynia, and Arcadian Mantineia. While Joseph Campbell used the following statement to make an entirely different point, it bears repeating here: AMOR, “love,” spelled backwards is “ROMA”; and it would not be surprising if Hadrian realized this himself.
Antinous the Lover: As a further result, this is the date on which the Naos Antínoou celebrates the entry of Antinous the Lover into precedence throughout the majority of our ritual year. The Lover represents the Via Positiva in mystical practice, the praise of creation through words, celebration, and acknowledgement of divine beauty in all things.
The Megala Antinoeia represents a set of coincidences, correspondences, and events on a day that looms large on the sacred calendar of the Naos Antínoou that has been part of modern Antinoan devotional practice since 2004. If a wish for love is harbored in one’s heart, today is the day to work poems, prayers, and magic to bring it about!
Blessed Megala Antinoeia to everyone who reads this! May you be victorious in your strength and health always; may you be sonorous in your praises and poems; may you have overflowing love as your foundation –by Antinous the Lover, by Hadrian, and by the goddesses Diana and Artemis, Venus and Roma!
The information above is largely collected and edited from P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’ blog post about the Megala Antinoiea found on the Aedicula Antinoi blog. As the founder of the Ekklesía Antínoou and its Doctor (Teacher) until April 2016, we are grateful for the words, information, and wisdom e has imparted over many years. Many of the resources presented originate on eir blog.