The Stepteria has three principle things going on…set aside the whole fighting a dragon/monster scenario. Really that has little to do with it. Dragon is what nature designs its nature to be. Being harmful to people is a side effect of its massive territorial nature in western myth (as would be the consuming of livestock). Delphyne is neither a god nor a man. Typhon, whom she reared at the request of Hera, was evil, because he was not a dragon or a creature of such innate nature. As the child of god, while the way he reared may have ruined him in many ways instilling in him a destructive lifestyle, he was of a higher state. He was of the divine stock, whereas Delphyne was a creature of the earthen stock. The Erinyes are not exactly pleasant and are considered pretty baneful but they are not considered evil as the do as their nature dictates that their role in the cosmos is. Dragons do as their natures dictate that they do. So set Delphyne more or less aside in the specifics of being a monster (something which distinguishes her from the other Python who looted pilgrims to Delphi). Apollon slaying her was not personal, but a matter of just what he did…as was the purpose of decaying her on the ground.
This leads me to the first point. Delphyne in many ways represents the purpose of Apollon as Pytho, the decayer. He frees the spirit from the miasma that has attached to it simply from life. He frees the soul from the burdens of its life and form. The most expedient way to do this was by burning (hence we see early practices too of funeral pyres being used). However painful it is for us, it is a liberation. And how liberating it is for us, it still instills grief among those who are left behind. Why would the residents of Delphi have funerary rites for Delphyne if not to appease her and a sacred relationship with her that they benefit from. Her bones and flesh literally becomes the sacred precinct. She is transformed into a guardian spirit of the precinct by all of this. But all it carries certain ramifications….and his own purifications for having to deal intimately with it is part of his cycle. I would say that Delphyne allegorically takes the place of every innocent life he slays out of his natural role.
This is the second point. Apollon exacts nature’s laws in which Thanatos operates, in that which is born and lives must die, that which is miasmatic must be expunged for the welfare of all. Stepteria ought to make us deal with very harsh realities about our own natures and that we have our own “impure” inclinations that are just part of being living beings. And that at the end of our days we will have to lay down to rot in order to be freed and progress. As such this cycle with Delphyne purifies Apollon by the river Peneios and by Daphne for his duties in nature. There is a reason why Apollon is associated with so many purifying agents…..it is often because he himself is need of their use prior to anyone else having their use available to them.
Lastly, it is a recognition of transformation and change. It is unyielding and always eventual. There is nothing evil in the act of destruction but it is a necessity with its own consequences within nature. We cannot find against it, but ought to celebrate it even as we mourn for it. Change is hard, but it is a blessing even if it doesn’t appear so. That Delphyne’s bones and ashes were used to make the foundation of the sacred precinct of Delphi we can not a punishment (and while Apollon did punish Telphousa in myth, there is really no indication that his battle with Delphyne was a punishment but rather the movement of forces.
By celebrating the Stepteria, we see that it is aptly named….the crowning festival. This may seem at odds with the rather downer mythic component of exile. In reality it stresses victory. victory of the god yes, but also a kind of spiritual victory. We ask that the god crown us, that the god slay us, destroy us, and remake us by cleansing us. The boughs that were gathered likely to crown heroes from the Pythian games probably has the same emphasis. The proof of worth, the remaking of the self to be crowned heroically to dwell among the blessed. Stepteria is a most holy sacred festival of our lord even as we grieve and purify as we await to celebrate his return. We identify with Apollon and with the serpent.
Following the birth of Apollon during the Delphic Polythousia (or the Theban Prostateria) that occurs on the 7th day of the Delphic month Bysios (derived from Pythios) or the Theban month Prostaterios (Anthesteria to people who are only familiar with the Attic calendar lol) in the this month following (reminding you all that I am a month ahead of most people by my calendar since I celebrated Poseidon II last year) this month (Attic Elaphebolia) honors the slaying of the dragoness Python and the narration of the myth of the return of Apollon next month.
For those who are not familiar with the myth, Apollon following his birth, arrived at Delphi. There are two variations of this myth. One in which he has come as a grown man, and another in which he and Artemis are carried to Delphi by their mother. There he encounters to the guardian of the stream Castilla. In the Homeric hymn to Pythian Apollon we find a description of Delphyne as a great bane of a creature who is a plague bringer and devourer of flocks. Apollon slays her either with his golden sword or with his bow, either alone or with the aid of his sister (as all of these versions exist). He (or they in the case of Artemis as well) departs Delphi in sorrow, weeping in his exile. Myth has it that as he leaves for Hyperborea that his tears fall as amber on the earth.
However in the Stepteria we have the program of the slaying of Delphyne acted out in which the youth, standing in for Apollon, slays the dragon. It has been suggested by scholars that this may have either been by throwing a live serpent or effigy of a snake into a structure to burn to death as Delphyne was consumed. So doing, he would flee immediately, taking no part of food or comfort. There he would be at the mercy of strangers as he traveled from town to town with his attendants, acting the role of an outcast in exile before finally arriving at the Tempe Valley. There he would be purified by entering the laurel grove and would cut branches from the sacred laurel at the side of the river Peneios to return with them to temple around the time of the spring equinox to the temple with great celebration.
For this ritual, unless you have a sacred river and laurel trees to act out the exile on a small scale (or the means for roughly a month of camping) the best way I have found to celebrate this ritual is to praise Apollon, the slayer of the serpent, to invite him of the golden sword to liberate and free, to destroy the miasma that infects our homes and cities and regions. Invite the shooter from afar to pour out his arrows as he begins the season of his return. From paper make a small serpent (or out of any other flammable substance) and set this in a fire safe bowl upon your altar, as you do so lighting it on fire as you praise Apollon as purifier and averter of evil, praising him for being Pythios, who causes things to rot and pass away to release all things for new rebirth. You are welcoming here too the dawn of spring as you destroy the fortifying wintry dragon. I then follow this with grieving for the exiled lord Apollon, and grieving for the death of the dragoness as was carried out in Delphi. I pour offerings upon the earth for her even as Apollon does to appease her spirit as he flees.
The ritual should be finished with a simple meal, the fair of exiles without friend or shelter, relying on what little they could manage. A humble meal should follow. Tonight we are having some chicken and roasted potatoes. Simple fare without extras or indulgences. For seven days then I pray to Apollon for his return. On the 21st day of the month that is sacred to him I enact my own ritual that I call the Daphneaia which is about his entrance into the holy grove and his purification by the river Peneios and Daphne. Until then it is a time of reflection, awaiting purifications of the Daphneaia.
Post Ritual Update:
This year I did something a bit different. I had burned the paper serpent in a brass incense burner bowl and watched her dissolve into dust from the flames even as I prayed to Apollon. I had forgotten to mention above that it is appropriate to read from the Homeric Hymn to Pythios, which I did reading the segment of her destruction. Following her destruction I pray to Apollon that that which is miasmatic, that which breeds evil is not in and of itself evil in all entirety and that he cleanses and purifies all things to release us from the bonds. I lamented for Delphyne and lauded her place that she gained as guardian spirit of Delphi as upon her bones the precinct rested. I poured the libation, not directly on the earth this time, but upon her ashes (which will be disposed of upon the earth at some point this evening), lamenting her death as I did so. I then followed as my usual lamentation for his exile that he shall not be among friends, that he departed for the far lands and left all bereft of his presence as he attends to his blessed cleansing.
I then played my wooden flute for Delphyne. In Delphi the youth representing Apollon would as Apollon play the flute for Delphyne as Apollon was said to have done. Its long mournful tones singing to her passing and mourning too his banishment from the company of men.
In the end there are many ways you may come up with to celebrate this festival that will all be spiritually fulfilling and meaningful.