Anthesteria was one of the most important of the Attic festivals for Dionysos and lent its name to the month Anthesterion. It was also one the oldest, and was common to all of the Ionians as Thucydides informs us. (2.15) Anthesteria derives its name from the Greek word anthes meaning “blossoming” or “flowering” and thus is a festival of new beginnings, of rebirth and vegetation. It was a time when the impulse of life was felt to stir throughout all of nature, when the ripe buds began to unfold on the branch and the shoots were springing up from the barren earth after the long, cold winter months. But there is no life without death. The earth from which the plants arise is nourished by the dead bodies placed into it; the souls of the deceased dwell under the earth, thirsty and bitter over their loss. The passages by which life flows into our world, once opened, could also permit other things to escape, and during this festival they did.
So Anthesteria is a strange festival, one of many conflicting layers that flow into each other. It is a time of joy, when we celebrate life triumphant and broach the casks of new wine, letting children get their first taste of the sweet vintage; it is also a time of gloom and pollution, when the dead walk the sunlit paths of the upper world and strange, unnatural things are observed; uniting these two poles, life and death which are really just two sides of the same coin, there is also a stream of sensuality, sex as a primal, liberating force at once the ultimate affirmation of animal existence and the closest we can come to obliteration while still breathing. In this single festival lies the essence of the mysteries of Dionysos.
Apollodoros of Athens informs us that the festival of Anthesteria consisted of three parts: Pithoigia “Opening of the Wine Jars”, Choes “Pitchers”, and Chutroi or “Pots”. (Scholia to Aristophanes’ Acharnians 961)
From Phanodemos (cited in Athenaios’ Deipnosophistai 11.465a) we learn that, “At the temple of Dionysos in Lemnai (“the Marshes”) the Athenians bring the new wine from the jars and mix it in honor of the God and then they drink it themselves. Because of this custom Dionysos is called Limnaios, because the wine was mixed with water and then for the first time drunk diluted.”
To observe this day of the festival you should set up an image of the God, especially one that is masked and draped with ivy or grape leaves, as we see from representations of this festival on drinking vessels. (Consult Carl Kerenyi’s Dionysos: Archetype of Indestructible Life for examples.) If you don’t have an image, print one off of the internet and frame it, or else use your creativity and make one yourself. The vegetation can either be harvested naturally or you can use the plastic stuff found at craft stores. Personally I feel that natural is better, but you may not have access to it where you live, and the plastic stuff works fine in a pinch. Decorate the altar with all sorts of vegetation and fruit (especially grapes, pomegranates, figs, and whatever produce is in season where you live), since we are honoring Dionysos as the embodiment of the life force. You can also buy flowers to set on his altar, or plait a wreath of wildflowers to garland his image with.
Next set up a bowl in front of the image where you will pour libations, and any other ritual items you wish to have such as candles or incense burners, etc. You may also wish to have a bowl of fresh water to mix with the wine, since this was part of the ritual in antiquity. But not everyone likes their wine mixed that way, and Dionysos himself doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. You will need to acquire lots of wine however. Ideally, this would be wine local to your area, but that’s not necessary. It should also be of a fairly recent vintage since we’re celebrating the tasting of the new wine. I generally prefer red wines for all of my Dionysian festivities, but if you like whites, go with that. You may also choose to use sweeter wines, such as the Greek Mavrodaphne, or even a port or dessert wine, but that’s not at all necessary.
At this point you may choose to follow the standard Hellenic ritual formula, or you can just do an informal rite of your own devising. You should, however, invite the God to be present, since the purpose of this part of the festival is to open the wine in front of him, and it never hurts to recite poetry or hymns appropriate to the occasion. Once that’s out of the way, open the wine and pour a large amount of it into his bowl. Then, if you are going to mix the wine you intend to drink with water do so, perhaps with a blessing and thanks to Dionysos the Savior who instituted the custom for our safety and to fend off madness, and then take a big sip of it. Afterwards express gratitude to the God for his gift to mankind, and an affirmation of the goodness of the season’s bounty. Spend the rest of the evening in his company, drinking and otherwise celebrating. Play music that you feel is appropriate to the God. This would also be a good time to dance or sing for him, especially if this is something you’re not normally comfortable doing. You can also tell jokes and play lighthearted games. But whatever you do this evening, be aware of doing it in the presence of the God. Meditate on his image, on who he is, on what he’s done for you over the last year. Think about what wine signifies, about life and the abundance of nature. Really try to feel the God around you and to respond to him in joy and friendship. Close the ritual in whatever way you feel appropriate, or just say good-night and collapse in a drunken stupor.
The second day of Anthesteria is Choes or “Pitchers”. The main part of this observance was celebrated in the sanctuary of Dionysos in the Marshes too, though it spilled over into the city and there were numerous private revels on that night.
Certain special rituals were performed by a college of priestesses, the Gerarai, in secret and while we have some clue as to what was done, and even the oath which they had to swear, a great deal of it has remained hidden to us. Apparently it involved a hieros gamos between the Basilinna or wife of the Archon Basileios who was seen as representing the land of Attica and was wedded to Dionysos in the Boukoleion or cowshed. There has been some speculation about how this rite was carried out. Some have conjectured that the part of Dionysos was performed by the Archon Basileios or a priest of Dionysos, who may only have represented him, or may have actually been possessed by the God in a form similar to those who “horse” the lwas in Afro-Caribbean religions. Others have conjectured that a phallic idol of the God was used instead or that he possessed her and they engaged in some type of spiritual sex. Others still postulate that the mating was only symbolic or metaphorical, but this is doubtful considering the terminology that Aristotle used in his discussion of the ritual in the Constitution of the Athenians 3.5 which has a very carnal context to it.
While the Basilinna was being wedded to Dionysos, a great deal of ribald celebration was being carried on throughout the city. Aristophanes tells us in the Acharnians, a play whose theme was the rural celebration of Choes, that rude phallic songs were sung on the occasion, penis-shaped cakes were eaten, and prostitutes were in attendance. We have a number of drinking vessels that were made for the celebration which depict matrons sneaking off in the company of Satyrs and people celebrating torchlit orgies (in the lurid sense of the word). (Again, Carl Kerenyi has gathered most of these for us.)
While all of this naughtiness was going on, a somewhat more sedate observance was also being held. Phanodemos (Athenaios 10.437c-d) informs us of this part of Choes and the alleged origins of the festival.
Demophon the King instituted the festival of the Pitchers at Athens. When Orestes arrived at Athens after killing his mother Demophon wanted to receive him, but was not willing to let him approach the sacred rites nor share the libations, since he had not yet been put on trial. So he ordered the sacred things to be locked up and a separate pitcher of wine to be set beside each person, saying that a flat cake would be given as a prize to the one who drained his first. He also ordered them, when they had stopped drinking, not to put the wreathes with which they were crowned on the sacred objects, because they had been under the same roof with Orestes. Rather each one was to twine them around his own pitcher and take the wreathes to the priestess at the precinct in Limnai, and then to perform the rest of the sacrifices in the sanctuary. The festival has been called Choes ever since.
So, for this part of the festival you should cover up any shrines that you might have for other Gods, lest they become defiled by the pollution of the day. Simple white or black pieces of cloth or shawls should suffice, and if possible perform your ritual outside of your normal temple space. If possible, make yourself a garland, either of flowers or vines or something similarly appropriate. This is an instance where the plastic ones from the craft store really come in handy. You can either choose to wear the garland during the ritual or drape it around the wine pitcher or bottle. A nice way to accentuate the solemness and abnormality of the day is to speak as little as possible. Obviously if you work in a job where you have to interact with customers this may not be possible, but otherwise try to keep to yourself and remain silent as much as you can. Later on, when you perform your ritual, do it in total silence. Process to the altar, light your incense, pour out your libations, greet the God – all without saying a single word. Believe me, this is an eerie experience and one that will trigger in your mind an awareness that something strange is going on.
Throughout the day think about gloomy and depressing things, especially those related to death and murder. Then, during the ritual, set out several cups of wine, one for yourself, one for Orestes, and one for the people of Athens. Drink your wine in silence. You may choose to make a game of it and challenge yourself to finish the glass in a single draught or to drink X amount of wine throughout the night.
When that part of the ritual is finished, sit for a while in front of the image of Dionysos. Imagine in your mind the God approaching your city, coming as a stranger in the night. Everything is shrouded in darkness and gloom – but here he is, beautiful and radiant and bursting with vibrant life, the King of the Vine, the Mighty Bull, the one who intoxicates the world. Envision him entering the cowshed and bursting in upon the Basilinna and her ladies in waiting, their eyes fearful and yet brimming with lust for him. Feel her joy as he takes her, as his presence awakens the warmth in her body and in the land. And let out an exultant yell, praising Dionysos, the God who comes!
At this time you may begin to speak again. You can recite poetry or sing for him. You can dance and perform joyous, ecstatic worship for the God. If you have a partner, now would be a wonderful time to make love, feeling the presence of the God surround and enfold you. Even if you are by yourself you may choose to experience the bliss of sexual release. But of course, do not feel that this is something that you have to do. Some people may be uncomfortable mixing sex and the Gods, and that’s perfectly alright. (It’s not an attitude that I particularly understand, but Dionysos would have each worship him in their own way, and as Tieresias says in Euripides’ Bakchai, a chaste maiden will come to no harm in the rites of Dionysos.)
After everything is finished, you may choose to take your garland and leave it somewhere outside. The best place to leave it, of course, would be in a wetlands or on the shore of a river or lake. But if such places are not available to you, find somewhere desolate or strange to leave it. You may choose not to discard it if it is non-biodegradable, but you should keep it somewhere where it won’t come into contact with your other religious items.
The final day of Anthesteria is Chutroi, “Pots”. While Pithoigia is a day of total exuberance, and Choes a mixture of joy and melancholy, Chutroi is given over entirely to solemnity and the uncanny, for it is on this day that the dead walk the earth.
During Chutroi we do not see the face of Dionysos as the God of life and light; here he is entirely the dark God of the underworld, the lord of souls, the son of Persephone and the companion of the underworld Hermes. We barely see him at all on this day. In fact, all of the ritual activity of Chutroi is consecrated to his brother.
Theopompos, in the Scholia to Aristophanes’ Acharnians 1076 describes Chutroi is the following way:
Those who had survived the great deluge of Deukalion boiled pots of every kind of seed, and from this the festival gets its name. It is their custom to sacrifice to Hermes Chthonios. No one tastes the pot. The survivors did this in propitiation to Hermes on behalf of those who had died.
According to Photius it was on this day that the Keres or spirits of the dead walked the earth and they had to be driven off with the ritual exclamation, “To the doors, ye Keres, it is no longer Anthesteria!” Photius also informs us that they used to chew buckthorn and anointed their doors with pitch in order to ward off the dead.
You should keep your shrines covered, since the temples in Athens were closed on this day. Spend the day thinking about your deceased and tell them anything you wish that you could have while they were alive. Make a meal for them. The most appropriate meal would of course be the panspermia which is a mixture of beans, grains, and seeds. To this some people add honey, oil and milk since these were the traditional libations to the dead, and additionally it fills the kitchen with a strong, unsettling aroma. If you don’t have access to this, you could offer them a plate of eggs, onions, garlic, pomegranate seeds, and fish or pork, since these were foods that were often given to the dead or considered impure. Or come up with your own morbid menu. But whatever you choose to make for the dead, do not taste any of it since this is dead people food, and if you eat it you may soon join them. Leave your offering for them outside and recite a prayer to Hermes while you do so. Later on, expel the spirits and purify your home in whatever you consider to be the customary manner and only after all of that is finished should you unveil your shrines.
There is another practice which is connected to the Anthesteria, though the date on which it was observed is contested. According to the story when Dionysos first came to Attica to share his wine with the people he was shown hospitality by the kindly farmer Ikarios. In return, Dionysos gave him the vine, and taught him how to make wine. The first people that Ikarios shared the gift of the God with became drunk and their families thought that they had been poisoned. So they killed Ikarios and stuffed his body in a well. When Ikarios’ daughter Erigone came upon the well and saw her father, she was overcome with grief and hanged herself. In punishment for their crime (and because Dionysos had fallen in love with Erigone) he cursed the land of Attica with barrenness and inflicted a plague of madness upon their daughters so that they hanged themselves. The people sought help from Delphi, and Apollon informed them that they needed to pay respects to Erigone and her father. So they gave them a proper burial and instituted the festival of Aiora in their honor. In return, Dionysos stopped the girls from killing themselves and made the land fruitful once more. At the Aiora young girls would hang ribbons, little cups, and dolls from the branches of trees and let themselves be pushed on a swing. Some hold that this took place on Choes, others on Chutroi, but the way I see it, either day works, and the theme of that myth and ritual fit nicely within the context of the Anthesteria.
On whichever night you choose to observe it you can sneak into a park and hang things from trees. (The strangeness of the surroundings and the danger of getting caught will only heighten the experience for you.) In addition to the ribbons, cups and dolls, you could always use bells or strips of paper with Erigone’s name written on them, or anything along those lines. Then go to the playground and swing for Erigone, thinking the whole time about her story and the mysteries hidden within it.