Anthesteria on the Black Sea


One of the most detailed studies of Northern Bakcheia is Katerina Amanatidou’s The cult of Dionysos in the Black Sea region (which I discovered only after I had already done a significant amount of my own research.) With Anthesteria coming up I was curious to see if I could find anything on how the festival was celebrated among the Greek and indigenous populations of the area, to supplement what I’ve already written here and here. This is what I found. While not all of it can be taken as direct evidence of Anthesteria observances, these passages do speak to the milieu of the festival. 


In the area of city’s necropolis was unearthed the remains of a coroplastic workshop, dated from the 3rd century BC, which produced a variety of terracotta statuettes intended for the decoration of sarcophagi. Among the produced types were representations of Dionysos, of Satyrs and Maenads. A miniature mask of a smiling Silen wreathed with ivy leaves was found in the debris of the building.

Furthermore, clay figurines of Dionysos and his wife Ariadne came to light at excavations in other parts of the city. Likewise, votive reliefs made of lead and shaped as bull heads were found at the site. Those reliefs that were encircled with a decoration of grapes functioned, probably, as offerings to the god. An imported amphora neck of the Hellenistic period bearing the relief image of a Satyr’s head was also discovered. Finally, the excavations yielded an almost life-size marble statue of a Satyr and two attic red figure bell craters bearing Dionysian scenes with Satyrs and Maenads.


In the filling of a “thaviss” (a special pit where the worn out utensils of sacred premises were kept instead of being discarded) were found two statuettes that represent Silens in a squatting posture dated to the end of the 6th century B.C. The scholars correlate those finds with analogues found in the sanctuaries of Demeter and Kabeiroi which are also chthonic deities and gods functioning as protectors of farming. Finally in the same pit was discovered, beside the statuettes of various female deities, a skyphos who had on its outer surface inscribed the phrase “ΕΚΠΙΝΩΣΤΑΧΟ”, which means “drink it fast”. That phrase and the fact that the particular drinking vessel had about 2.5 liters capacity allude to the existence of the Dionysian feast of Anthesteria in which was held a wine drinking contest. 


Olbia is the best archaeologically searched site in the northern Black Sea area. Dionysos was among the primary deities that were venerated in the city of Olbia as well as in its rural territory. Taking into account the epigraphic data it is assumed that a theatre functioned in Olbia despite the fact it has not yet been discovered. According to an inscription a person named Anthesterios was rewarded by the polis of Olbia with a golden wreath annually, during the celebrations of the Dionysia festival held in the city’s theatre. This corroborates the existence of the theatre and the significance of festivals in honour of Dionysos.


During the excavation of Olbia was found a bronze mirror dated around 500 BC that was possibly a grave good. In the mirror, which is decorated with bucranium and labrys, is engraved a Bacchic inscription: “Demonassa, daughter of Lenaios euai, and Lenaios, son of Demokles eiai.” Both the decoration and the inscription are elements denoting a mystic aspect of Dionysos’ cult in the context of a blessed afterlife.


Some of the terracotta figurines and miniature clay masks that were discovered in this domestic sanctuary are connected with Dionysos’ worship. These include figurines of a bearded bull, a Silen on a goat, a Satyr with goat hooves wearing a cloak and a round hat, and the masks of a bearded Dionysos and a young Dionysos. 


To the west of the Poljanka settlement is located the General’skoye fortified site in which was excavated a sacred complex consisting of two structures with two rooms each. The complex functioned as a sanctuary or even a “rural” modest temple. Among the terracotta finds that were unearthed in the rooms belong two fragments of masks depicting, with high possibility, young Dionysos. The first one, which was found near an altar, preserves the lower part of the face. The other one, found in a different room, preserves the upper part of the face with lush hair and small horns, probably depicting Dionysos “the bull”. This fragment has, also, an aperture for suspension. The researchers date the series of the so-called votive masks of Dionysos in his youth found in the Cimmerian Bosporus from the 1st century BC to the 2nd century AD.


Porthmion was a small city situated near the shore of the Kerch Straits. Although the sanctuary has not been found a monumental altar was discovered with possibly related chthonic deities. Furthermore, excavations yielded among a variety of figurines representing mainly female deities, a head of great artistry portraying Dionysos in his youth. He is adorned with a wreath of vine leaves and bears an imperceptible smile. 


The excavations in the second terrace of the city unearthed a cult building of the 3rd century BC, which was interpreted as a temple of Dionysos, without excluding the possibility that other deities were worshiped there too, including Aphrodite. Owing to its proximity with the central edifice of the Panticapaion rulers’ palace complex the building was identified as a temple that served the residents of the palace. The temple had a roof of tiles, its floor was covered by mortar in which were embedded black polished pebbles and the internal surface of the walls was coated with plaster and painted with a variety of colours. Most probably it was destroyed due to an earthquake in 63 BC. The bulk of the terracotta figurines discovered in the destruction layer of the sanctuary’s area is connected with Dionysian iconography such as bunches of grapes. The most remarkable is a mask of Dionysos wreathed with a band of ivy and leaves from other flowers. 


The excavations in the ash hill, which covers the continental rock landscape in the center of the city, unearthed the religious area and the sanctuary of Kytaia. In the remains of a building with an altar, in a sacrificial bothros pit and in the natural and artificial clefts of the hill a great number of objects were discovered and identified as religious offerings. Those votive findings consist of pottery fragments, a lot of which bear incised dedications to Dionysos, terracotta statuettes depicting him and his companions, and clay models of bread and phalli, along with animal bones of pigs, sheep and goat. 

The researchers assume that, initially, the sanctuary was devoted more generally to deities of a chthonic nature that were associated with fertility, which was also a basic characteristic of the god Dionysos. A group of terracotta figurines and small votive clay masks representing Dionysos and Silenoi, Maenads and Satyrs, the members of his entourage, testifies its worship in the sanctuary. Most notable are a small mask portraying Dionysos with beard and a diadem on his head and a figurine of an actor wearing a Silens’ mask. 

As witnessed by the above mentioned archaeological data discovered in different Bosporan settlements, namely the terracotta figurines and the masks representing Dionysos and his companions, rituals in honor of Dionysos were being practiced from the 2nd- 1st century BC to the 2nd century AD in the Kerch peninsula and at the northeastern part of the Crimean Azov coast. From the 2nd – 1st centuries BC Dionysos’ chthonic functions and connection with mysteries made his cult popular in the Bosporus region. People, who were facing difficult conditions due to the natural disasters, war and economic crisis had pinned their hopes on the god’s assistance in overcoming their problems.


The inland site of Vani situated on three terraces on the slopes of a hill to the south of Rioni river is one of the most intensively researched and studied settlements of the Colchian coast. In the Hellenistic period Dionysos’ cult was especially popular and widespread among the inhabitants of Vani. That popularity is attributed by the researchers to the fact that the city and the whole region was closely linked with the cultivation of vines and wine production. During this period began the local production of fairly sizable amphorae for wine transportation that have been discovered to the north of the Black Sea area. In addition, during the early Hellenistic period a new burial practice was introduced in Vani, which was inhumation inside a large storage vessel, mainly for wine, the so-called pithos, which can be interpreted as a reflection of wine’s great significance in the life of the inhabitants.


A bronze plaque in high relief with the depiction of Dionysos Tauromorphos was found in a grave. The plaque, which is dated in the late 2nd century BC, presumably functioned as a decoration of a wooden sarcophagus. Furthermore, among the grave goods from another burial was discovered a bronze bust depicting Dionysos Botrys. Dionysos is rendered with long hair and a beard while wreathed with grape leaves and corymbs. Noteworthy in the case of Amisos is the abundance of terracotta statuettes and clay masks of Dionysos Botrys and Tauromorphos along with that of Silens, Satyrs and actors that were found in the excavations in various contexts. The figurines, which are of fine craftsmanship and quality, were being manufactured in local coroplastic workshops. The same also applies for the rather unique large sized tragedy and comedy masks, and masks representing Satyrs and Dionysos. In particular, the characteristic elements of the Dionysos Tauromorphos type of mask was two bull horns protruding out of the forehead, while in the Botrys type, the hair and the beard are rendered as bunches of grapes. In both of the types the god is depicted either young or elderly.


Apart from the terracotta figurines, the excavations brought to light a marble statue of Dionysos and coins bearing his image. The statue, which is based on an altar, is dated to the Roman period and depicts the god naked, but not barefoot, crowned with a garland made of ivy leaves and flower buds and accompanied most probably by a panther. Additionally, in some figurines Dionysos is depicted wearing a diadem of ivy leafs and flowers and a band, tainia, on his forehead. Lastly, his function as the patron deity especially of viticulture and of fertility of nature generally is also evident in Sinopean numismatics. In several coins is represented the head of Dionysos in his youth along with some of his attributes such as the thyrsos and the cista mystica.

One thought on “Anthesteria on the Black Sea

  1. This is all quite fascinating, literally and figuratively…

    But, what really caught my attention here and has caused me to comment is the matter of the “thaviss.” I was not aware of that term, though I wondered if there was precedent for such a practice, within the last week and over the last month or two because of some of my home Shrine activities. There are things that have been used in there for years at this point, which when they no longer “work” are not things I just want to dispose of in any regular way…they can’t be recycled, but they also don’t feel as though they should be just thrown out like any other trash (and I rather abhor the waste involved in most people’s daily lives these days)…so, what is done with them? I imagined having a box with them in my current Shrine, which would then at some future point when I have a bit of property or something then having it be interred in the ground…or, if I’m lucky enough to be able to build a proper temple one day, have a section somewhere in it where all of those worn-out but holy-by-contagion instruments get lovingly placed. I’m glad to know that wasn’t just some wacky idea on my own part, and it has some precedent in the ancient world! (I thought it probably would, but where does one look for such things? Ritual procedural scholarship is pretty lacking, alas…a lot of classicists seem to assume some knowledge of it in their readers, and clearly have it themselves, but don’t always lay it out clearly. It’s what we in pedagogical technical instruction sometimes call “the curse of knowledge,” i.e. not remembering one’s audience may not know as much as one does and thus leaving out such things, or not sufficiently paying attention to them because it is “assumed” knowledge, etc. But anyway, that’s another issue entirely! ;)

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