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The Greek Symposium

The symposium was an elaborate ceremony that usually took place in a ruler’s dining hall or public building, often a temple.

By the seventh century B.C. it was an accustomed practice. The best sources from ancient Greece are paintings on vases; the best current source is Massimo Vetta’s essay, “The Culture of the Symposium.”10 As Vetta states, the symposium was “a meeting of men that only took place following a meal” to consecrate a special public or private event like a wedding or to thank the gods for a victory in games or to make a political decision.

It began with a blood sacrifice-a religious offering to the gods of an animal, usually a young lamb or goat, that had been ritually killed. “The slaughter of animals in sacrifice and the butchering of the meat was the task of the mageiros (the Greek word for chef, butcher, and sacrificer of animals): he divided the meat between the worshippers.” After the gods got the best portion-thigh meat and fat-the humans ate.

Slaves served the guests, who took their sandals off and reclined on couches propped up on one arm. When the eating was over, tables were cleared, hands were washed, floors cleansed of the scraps thrown on them during dinner. The men were given garlands to put on their heads and chests. Then poetry was recited, flutes played, decisions made. The sense of community was further reinforced because all the men drank from the same cup. Except for a few drops of sacred wine at the beginning of the ceremony, the wine was diluted, often at the ratio of one part wine to two or three parts water. The Greeks regarded diluted wine as a symbol of civilization. It also helped to avoid drunkenness.

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