Most of the information we have regarding Anthesteria comes from Attica and more specifically Athens itself. However from Thucydides we learn that it was one of the most ancient festivals of Dionysos and was common to all of the Ionian Greeks, and he specifically mentions its celebration among colonists in Asia Minor. Kallimachos attests its presence among the Greco-Makedonian population of Egypt and Athenaios describes a drinking-contest held on Choes by Dionysios the Sicilian tyrant, so clearly it wasn’t just limited to Athens. In fact I knew that it was also found in Magna Graecia from this passage by Carl Kerényi:
It must have been a festival of all-souls related to the Athenian Anthesteria. One of these choes from Italy shows – through a siren approaching the sacrificial altar – a connection with the realm of souls, and the picture on a larger vase even indicates that this form of vessel was used in the funeral sacrifice. The conception of the departure of the youthful dead, especially women, as an exodus from the city to Dionysian nuptials – such an exodus is represented on innumerable south Italian vases – was based on actual departures to private mysteries during the Anthesteria. An Italic chous bears the image of a characteristic figure in this nocturnal exodus: a boy satyr with torch and situla. A chous from near Brindisi shows Dionysos and his female companion on a couch served by a boy satyr. The vases with these scenes were found in tombs, and it was for this purpose no doubt that they were manufactured in such quantity. The spread of this conception required vases for burial with men as well as women; or better still, vases with pictures of two kinds that could be buried with persons of either sex. (Dionysos Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 364-65)
Since Seirens aren’t part of the iconography or mythic background of the Attic Anthesteria I periodically wondered if there were other differences in how the festival was observed on Italian soil but never really got around to pursuing that line of inquiry. Then while looking for information on the cult of Hermes in the Tarentine region I came across an article by Lucian called The Greek Anthesteria in Southern Italy. While providing a decent, if dated, overview of the festival there wasn’t a lot of information on regional variations aside from a further mention of the Seirens.
This intrigued me since the Seirens were kind of a big deal in Italy:
And Odysseus shall slay the triple daughters of Tethys’ son, who imitated the strains of their melodious mother: self-hurled from the cliff’s top they dive with their wings into the Tyrrhenian Sea, where the bitter thread spun by the Moirai shall draw them. One of them washed ashore the tower of Phaleros shall receive, and Glanis wetting the earth with its streams. There the inhabitants shall build a tomb for the maiden and with libations and sacrifice of oxen shall yearly honour the bird Goddess Parthenope. And Leukosia shall be cast on the jutting strand of Enipeus and shall long haunt the rock that bears her name, where rapid Is and neighbouring Laris pour forth their waters. And Ligeia shall come ashore at Tereina spitting out the wave. And her shall sailormen bury on the stony beach nigh to the eddies of Okinaros; and an ox-horned Ares shall lave her tomb with his streams, cleansing with his waters the foundation of her whose children were turned into birds. And there one day in honour of the first Goddess of the sisterhood shall the ruler of the navy of Popsops array for his mariners a torch-race, in obedience to an oracle, which one day the people of the Neapolitans shall celebrate. (Lycophron, Alexandra 712 ff )
Lots of interesting threads to tease out there. For instance, the grieving maiden jumping into the ocean obviously recalls Dionysos’ aunt Ino who dove off a cliff with her son Melikertes, the pair being transformed into the divinities Leukotheia and Palaimon. Likewise there are parallels with Arion, Phalanthos and Taras, the last of which is sometimes paired or equated with Iakchos. Since the latter is represented in Italy holding a distaff the mention of the threads of the Moirai stood out for me. Likewise the fact that the Seirens were daughters of the river-God Acheloos who was represented as a bull with a human head. Acheloos has connections with the similarly depicted hero Euthymos who was involved in the mysteries of Persephone and Aphrodite at Lokroi. (Mysteries that also incorporated the marriage of Dionysos and Ariadne, which is sometimes claimed as an aition for Anthesteria.) When Deïaneira (the daughter of Dionysos when he cuckolded Oeneus) found out that Herakles had spent a year as a cross-dressing sex-slave to Omphale, she threw in his face the fact that Acheloos had been a rival suitor for her affections – the same Omphale who instructed Herakles in the art of weaving.
I’m not sure if this constellation of ideas was behind the Italiote inclusion of the Seirens in Anthesteria but it makes sense to me – especially in light of the fact that the city Parthenope, which was named after one of the three sisters who washed ashore nearby, was later refounded as Neapolis (“the New City”, modern Naples) and during the Roman period a cult of Dionysos Hebon flourished here. Hebon means “youthful” and is related to the divine cup-bearer Hebe, daughter of cow-eyed Hera whom Herakles receives as his wife when he ascends to Olympos after immolating himself in order to undergo apotheosis.) This form of Dionysos is very interesting since he was represented (wait for it …) as a bull with a youthful human head. I haven’t been able to find much about this particular form of Dionysos beyond the fact that he was associated with fertility – however since Naples is near Mount Vesuvius I wonder if he didn’t specifically preside over the fertility that comes from volcanic ash since this was one of his sacred mountains, as Martial relates:
This is Vesuvius, green yesterday with viny shades; here had the noble grape loaded the dripping vats; these ridges Bacchus loved more than the hills of Nysa; on this mount of late the Satyrs set afoot their dances; this was the haunt of Venus, more pleasant to her than Lacedaemon; this spot was made glorious by the fame of Hercules. All lies drowned in fire and melancholy ash; even the High Gods could have wished this had not been permitted them. (Epigrams IV.44)
Naples is also near Pompeii, home to the Villa of the Mysteries which depicts either an initiation rite or a Dionysian hieros gamos like the one the wife of the King Archon participated in during Anthesteria.
Dionysos’ cult was so strong in the region that it persisted through the 5th century of the common era, well after Naples had been Christianized; the villa of a mystery-association operated here until it was forcibly shut down by another eruption of Vesuvius. This villa was decorated in an oceanic motif, with Nereids and Tritons figuring prominently.
Aside from all of the above, the inclusion of the Seirens in the South Italian Anthesteria has some interesting implications, considering their relationship with Persephone:
Why should it be that the Acheloides have feathers now and feet of birds, though still a girl’s fair face, the sweet-voiced Sirens? Was it not because, when Proserpine was picking those spring flowers, they were her comrades there, and, when in vain they’d sought for her through all the lands, they prayed for wings to carry them across the waves, so that the seas should know their search, and found the Gods gracious, and then suddenly saw golden plumage clothing all their limbs? Yet to reserve that dower of glorious song, their melodies’ enchantment, they retained their fair girls’ features and their human voice. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 552 ff)
As well as Aphrodite and Orpheus:
Before long the Argonauts sighted the beautiful island of Anthemoessa, where the clear-voiced Seirenes Achelous’ daughters, used to bewitch with their seductive melodies whatever sailors anchored there. Lovely Terpsichore, one of the Mousai, had borne them to Acheloios, and at one time they had been handmaids to Demeter’s gallant Daughter, before she was married, and sung to her in chorus. But now, half human and half bird in form, they spent their time watching for ships from a height that overlooked their excellent harbour; and many a traveller, reduced by them to skin and bones, had forfeited the happiness of reaching home. The Seirenes, hoping to add the Argonauts to these, made haste to greet them with a liquid melody; and the young men would soon have cast their hawsers on the beach if Thracian Orpheus had not intervened. Raising his Bistonian lyre, he drew from it the lively tune of a fast-moving song, so as to din their ears with a medley of competing sounds. The girlish voices were defeated by the lure; and the set wind, aided by the sounding backwash from the shore, carried the ship off. The Seirenes’ song grew indistinct; yet even so there was one man, Boutes the noble son of Teleon, who was so enchanted by their sweet voices that before he could be stopped he leapt into the sea from his polished bench. The poor man swam through the dark swell making for the shore, and had he landed, they would soon have robbed him of all hope of reaching home. But Aphrodite, Queen of Eryx, had pity on him. She snatched him up while he was still battling with the surf; and having saved his life, she took him to her heart and found a home for him on the heights of Lilybaion. (Apollonius Rhodios, Argonautica 4. 892 ff)
Which means that the Seirens were also linked to the Sicilian and Southern Italian flower-gathering festival Anthesphoria, which commemorated the abduction of the maiden Persephone and her marriage to the Lord of the Dead. A festival, by the way, which Herakles had a hand in founding:
While Herakles was making the circuit of Sicily at this time he came to the city which is now Syracuse, and on learning what the myth relates about the rape of Kore he offered sacrifices to the Goddesses on a magnificent scale, and after dedicating to her the fairest bull of his heard and casting it in the spring Kyane he commanded the natives to sacrifice each year to Kore and to conduct at Kyane a festive gathering and a sacrifice in splendid fashion. (Diodoros Sikeleiotes, Library of History 4.23.4)
Note that the abduction is said to take place near the spring of Kyane, which is significant when you consider 1) that the temple of Dionysos where the Basilinna and her attendants made preparations for the hieros gamos was located en lemnais or “in the swamp” according to Demosthenes and 2) Satyra, Ariadne’s sister and the mother of Taras, became a swamp-nymph. And also that a sacrificial bull was drowned, which brings to mind the dead of Deukalion, the Lernaean lake and the chest of Semele (which I tend to equate with Herakles’ chest, brought across the seas to Italy by Aeneas after the Trojan War.)
Curious to see if I could uncover anything more on the unique characteristics of this festival in Southern Italy I consulted Richard Hamilton’s monumental Choes and Anthesteria and came across the following:
A good many Italiote Choes show the same pictures as the Attic ones. Youths pouring a libation on an altar from an ornamented chous; a boy with a painted chous and an obelias-cake (reminding one of a streptos), standing near a table; a youth sitting near an altar; youth crowned with feathers or spikes holding out a garland; – all these pictures bring us into a well-known sphere. A jug-race is depicted on an Italiote chous. A boy juggling with three balls, using only one hand, surpasses the skill of the Attic ball-player; hence his conceited attitude, reminding one of a circus-acrobat. Is a rattle or a streptos-cake depicted here? Neither is unfamiliar to us. The rhombos or inyx is shown on many Attic vases, but not on Attic choes: it occurs on this Lucanian chous. The chthonic connection of the chous is proved by the siren approaching a sacrificial altar. The chous was used in the cult at a tomb. […] Very remarkable is the marriage of Dionysos on an Italiote vase, where the young bridegroom is represented with short horns. No Attic vase alludes so clearly to the God, whose wedding was celebrated in the Boukoleion, the bull-stable. Some of the Italiote pictures are equivalent to the theatrical scenes on Attic choes: travesty of Herakles, seen pilfering chous and omphalos-cake from a woman at the Anthesteria; a farce of masked actors on a luxuriously decorated chous; the results of over-eating; a scene at a fair: phlyakes on a merry-go-round to the accompaniment of the flute. Other subjects are a boy hastening to the revel; a single head; women holding mirrors and birds. (50-51)
Which has a metric fuck-ton of significance. This is getting pretty long already, so I’m not going to unravel all of the threads but I will point out 1) Herakles shows up again 2) as do birds and feathers 3) as well as a bull-horned Dionysos and the presence of phlyakes. Phlyax plays were invented by Rhinthon of Tarentum who was honored as a hero at Lokroi and had a role to play in the mysteries of Aphrodite, Persephone and Dionysos. This dramatic form, characterized by its comic treatment of tragic and mythological themes, evolved into the Atellan farce which was one of the primary inspirations for the later Italian commedia dell’arte whose most famous characters were Arlecchino and Columbina, the leader of the Wild Hunt and his dove-like girlfriend.
And finally I discovered a way to weave all of this together, thanks to this evocative passage from John Garthwaite’s The Keres of the Athenian Anthesteria and Their Near Eastern Counterparts:
In sum, the weight of evidence points to an uncanny atmosphere of miasma and pollution, and associated rituals, during at least part of the Anthesteria. More problematic, however, is the question of whether spirits were thought to return temporarily from the netherworld to be present during the festival. Of course, seasonal ceremonies involving communal meals and hosting of the dead were not uncommon in the classical world, the Parentalia in mid-February and the Lemuria in May being two obvious Roman examples. And the Derveni Papyrus now attests to a Greek practice of making choas (‘drink offerings’, col. 6.1-7), as well as prayers and sacrifices, to appease the souls of the dead. The same text speaks of the power of incantations to dispel ‘daimons who impede’, defined as ‘vengeful souls’. Burkert, however, prefers to interpret the rituals of Choes as a means of exorcising communal guilt, not ghosts; so that, in this context, the chewing of buckthorn was a cathartic preparation for the ensuing drinking and feasting rather than a superstitious defence against the presence of underworld spirits. Unsurprisingly, then, the cry that supposedly concluded the Anthesteria (‘Out of doors, you spirits [Keres], the Anthesteria is over’) has been subject to emendation if not outright rejection. Other commentators have pointed out that Keres would not have been used to describe the souls of the dead or the spirits of the ancestors. Rather, the term typically denoted more fearsome entities such as ‘harmful demons’ or ‘the source of disease and death’. ‘In popular belief’, Dietrich concludes, ‘they embodied the manifestation of sickness, any form of physical affliction, and death’. Sometimes personified in particularly chilling form, as in the Hesiodic Shield of Heracles (248-57), with hooked talons and a vampirish taste for blood, the Keres became, in general, manifestations of ‘powers of evil’, representing the various afflictions and forms of disease that brought death (Hes. Op. 92). Indeed, the singular Ker could be synonymous simply with the fate of death itself (e.g., Hom. Od. 11.171). Consequently, some modern critics prefer the alternate reading, ‘Carians’, offered by Photius. But this, too, comes with difficulties of interpretation. Burkert suggests that ‘Carians’ was a byword either for slaves who were allowed briefly to join the festivities or, more likely, what he calls ‘masked mummers’, that is men masquerading as intruders or even ‘aboriginal inhabitants’ who had to be given temporary hospitality before being expelled at the close of the festival. Bremmer elaborates the suggestion with the hypothesis that the Anthesteria, being a time when normal social structures were interrupted or reversed, entertained the brief presence of masked individuals playing the role of uncanny or otherworldly entities. Thus, he argues, the Keres do not need to be seen as souls of the dead, but both they and Carians are ‘representatives of a demonic, nonsocial, and unstructured world who are absent in normal times’. Dionysus was not, of course, simply a God of wine and lively congregation but a power with intimate links to the underworld and its inhabitants. Like Aristophanes’ ghostly chorus of Limnaian frogs, he too seems equally at home in his marshland temple and in the world below. This, after all, is a God with a grave at Delphi and possibly also at Thebes. And thanks in large part to the discovery and translation of more inscribed gold tablets from a variety of grave sites stretching from southern Italy and Sicily to central and northern Greece, it is now evident that Dionysus promised his adherents safe passage into the afterlife and guaranteed their blessed existence in the world of the dead. Sophocles describes Dionysus as poluènume (‘the many-named God’) with power in Italy ‘who rules in the welcoming folds of Eleusinian Deo’ (Ant. 1114-21), which alludes to his role in the chthonic mysteries alongside Demeter and Persephone.