ANTHESTERIA (blossoming rites) was the new-wine festival of the god Dionysos as celebrated at Athens and in cities of Ionia (on the Aegean Islands and the coast of Anatolia). The first of the new wine was opened and drunk in the month that takes its name from the festival, Anthesterion (February). It was a moment of anxiety and relief, of superstitious fear and joyous thanksgiving. At Athens, where the festival program is best known, Anthesteria lasted three days, from the eleventh through the thirteenth of the month. Wine was first distributed to everyone, tasted and tried by everyone on command, and finally used for general festivity. Each day was fondly named for the kind of vessel that typified the day's activity: Pithoigia (jar-opening), Choes, (jugs), and Chytroi, (pots).
On the first day, Pithoigia, the wine was drawn from the large clay "jars" sunk in the ground, where it had fermented since the vintage, and was carried in skins or amphorae to households throughout the countryside and the city and to public buildings in the old city center, the original Agora, just east of the Akropolis. When Athens grew larger, wine and the jugs of the second day were sold at a special market.
At the same time Dionysos was welcomed with joyous ceremony. His effigy was conveyed through the streets in a wagon fitted out like a ship, as if he had just arrived from overseas. Celebrants costumed as satyrs joined him in the wagon, playing pipes. The procession went its merry way to the city center, to the official quarters of the Basileus "king," the chief magistrate whose title was handed down from an earlier day. Here the wife of the Basileus was presented to the god in a symbolic "meeting and marriage."
The life of Dionysos as expressed in myth and ritual runs parallel to the growth and maturation cycle of vine and wine. He is born at the pruning of the vines, a helpless frightened babe nursed by women in the hills. But now, at the moment for opening the wine, he is imagined as an exulting, impetuous young man. Stories tell how he once arrived in one city or another and was resisted, only to demonstrate his overwhelming power. Within each city a ritual marriage celebrates the consummation of his manhood, which is reflected in the famous myth of Ariadne, a royal woman yearning on the seashore, taken by Dionysos.
On the second day, Choes, drinking contests were staged at the city center and in the households as a means of implicating everyone, all at once, in the magic peril of the new wine. At a trumpet signal, each contestant sought to drain his own chous, a three-liter jug of neat wine (wine that was not mixed with water). The individual jugs and the neat wine were in contrast to the usual style of social drinking in which the company was served from a large mixing bowl with cups of wine uniformly watered in agreed-upon proportion. The festival custom was explained by the story that Athens, always a haven for the persecuted, had once harbored the fugitive Orestes, son of Agamemnon, after he killed his mother Klytaimnestra, and on this one day kept all the drinkers separate so that blood pollution would not spread.
When the contests were over, households settled down to eat and drink in comfort. Boys in their second year had a special role. They were crowned with flowers and given smaller jugs of wine so that they could join the celebration. Hundreds of these little jugs have survived, with painted scenes of children crawling on the floor, playing with wagon-wheels and other toys, and also mimicking adult ceremonies. It was another way to glorify the new wine. The wine, if we take it back to the pruning of the vines nearly two years before, was of the same age as the boys. Ritual in the vineyards was conducted on a matching two-year cycle. "Blossoming rites," the festival name, refers both to the completion of the cycle and to the crowning of the boys.
At day's end many people still had not finished their wine, so they wreathed the jugs and carried the remnants to the sanctuary of Dionysos in an area of springs beside the river Ilissos, called "the Marshes." The wine was collected and poured over the head of a young he-goat, which was then sacrificed to Dionysos. Sacrifice in its various forms had the effect of reinforcing some part of nature with the vigor of animals. In being soaked with wine, the he-goat was directed to the corresponding part of nature, the domain of Dionysos. The sanctuary was opened just once a year, on Anthesterion 12, for this all-important sacrifice.
The third day, Chytroi, was again devoted to the use of wine, but more sociably, and indeed publicly, with song and dance and masking. Chytros denotes the vessel in which the wine was now mixed with water—a large "pot." A mixing bowl in general is called krater, and some of the handsomest Athenian vases are of this kind. The festival shape however always remained much simpler—it is a chytros, though modern experts have adopted another conventional name, stamnos. Vases of this shape have also survived, and the painted scenes show women mixing the wine in just such vases and ladling it into cups and dancing with tambourines and castanets. At the center is an impromptu image of Dionysos, a wooden pillar surmounted by a bearded mask and draped with a long robe, so that the god is present among his worshipers. Chytroi or stamnoi were placed at the Marshes among the springs, and filled with wine and fresh cold water, and the hangovers from the day before were soon cured. Then the worshipers set out through the streets, singing or shouting in praise of Dionysos.
Their destination was the south side of the Akropolis—the lower slope and the ground in front—which eventually became the marble theater of Dionysos and its orchestra or dancing-place. Performers called ithyphalloi (with-erect-phallus) formed choruses and competed in song and dance. They too were robed and masked to look like reeling drunkards; and they too had paraded through the streets behind a carved and painted phallus pole from which they took their name. The exuberant masking is a precursor of Attic drama in its developed forms of satyr play, comedy, and tragedy, which came to be performed during other festivals of Dionysos at the same locale.
There was revelry in the Attic countryside as well. Amid the general disorder, girls went out freely (as they did not at other times) and amused themselves by riding on swings hung from trees. This sportive conduct was another kind of license appropriate to the occasion and was known by two standard names: aletis (roaming) and aiora (swinging). The country celebration gave rise to its own tale of origin, covering all three days. An old rustic named Ikarios was visited by the god Dionysos and became the first to learn how to make wine. Going round on his wagon, he distributed skins of wine to the country people, and they first drank it neat and were stupefied, then drank it with water and were sexually excited. Thinking it a harmful drug, they killed Ikarios. His daughter Erigone (Child-of-the-morning) went out at dawn to search for the body and, when she found it, hanged herself from a tree. Thus did she "roam" and "swing."
The story was told by the Hellenistic scholar and poet Eratosthenes, who in the fashion of his time pointed to constellations that attest it, Bootes ("ox-driver," i.e., Ikarios) and Virgo (Erigone). In another story that explains the same ritual (as often happens), the suicidal girl, still named Erigone, is the daughter of Klytaimnestra's paramour Aigisthos, also murdered by Orestes. She had followed Orestes to Athens in the vain hope that he would be tried and condemned for the murders. One of these stories, more likely the latter, was brought to the stage by Sophocles in a lost tragedy titled Erigone.
Such was Athens' version of the Anthesteria. Ionia celebrated in much the same way. At Ephesos and Smyrna the pageant of the ship-wagon, with its train of revelers, was especially renowned. At Kolophon the poet Theodoros wrote songs of remarkable lewdness for women to sing at the "roaming" (they have not survived). The festival continued under Roman rule. Mark Antony was hailed as the "New Dionysos," and when he arrived at Ephesos in early 41 bce he was led through the city by a costumed train of satyrs and bacchants. It was likewise in Ephesos that Saint Timothy, the companion of Saint Paul, was allegedly martyred in 97 ce when he fell into the hands of the revelers. Like many pagan festivals, the Anthesteria died out in the third century ce.
Other Festivals of Dionysos
Whereas the new-wine festival marked the end of the growth and maturation cycle, another standard festival of Dionysos came at the beginning, at the pruning of the vines in winter. At Athens and in Ionia it was called Lenaia, and the corresponding month was Lenaion (January). The name is taken from the lenai, women who reveled on the hills where the vines were mostly grown. Bakchai, "bacchants," and maenads (meaning "mad ones," cognate with "mania") are other terms for these women. (Male celebrants, such as the maskers at the new-wine festival, are bakchoi).
The women's conduct in the hills was alternately tender and furious, a strange reversal that typifies the myths of Dionysos. They made a show of cherishing a baby, crooning and dandling and even suckling. This was a magic means of reviving the withered and ravaged vines. But they also ran and howled and flung about, and they beat the ground with a thyrsos, a rod festooned with ivy or pinecones, winter's tokens of new growth. This too was a magic means of stimulating nature, like a rain dance. Vase paintings often depict the women in their wildness. They slice and scatter small animals, a drastic form of sacrifice—nature was again reinforced with animal vigor. Myth equates the animal victims with human ones. There is in fact a magic or mystic unity that embraces the god, the worshipers, the victims, and life in nature. Bakchos (Bacchus) is another name for Dionysos himself, and bakchos another term for the fertilizing rod.
Myths of Dionysos dwell on all these features. They tell how nymphs were nursing the baby god, or how royal women were nursing offspring, until they were either routed or transformed by some intruder and the happy scene changed to savagery. The baby is threatened, or even torn and scattered, like the small animals. In the charter myth of Orphic societies the baby Dionysos is torn to pieces, only to be strangely reborn. Euripides' Bacchae, the most famous literary treatment, varies the pattern by substituting for the babies a youthful and untried king who is torn by his mother and other women.
Every Greek city had its own calendar of months named for local festivals, and the months named for the two festivals of Dionysos are among the commonest of all. In early days, every community produced wine as a dietary staple and worshipped the wine god zealously. The other two main branches of the Greek stock, Aeolian and Dorian, differed from the Ionian but agreed with each other in the naming of festivals and months. The new-wine festival was Agerrania (gathering rites); that is, the occasion for collecting wine and assembling people. The new-growth festival was Theodaisia (god-dividing rites), a name that identified the god with both the vines as they were pruned and the animal victims as they were scattered.
Among festivals of Dionysos, the Anthesteria has been the subject of persistent misunderstanding, with consequences also for the nature of the god. It began with the commentators of late antiquity, who were called upon to explain the many references to the festival in classical literature, especially in the works of the comic poet Aristophanes. The word chytros occurring in the name of the third day was unfamiliar to them, and they equated this masculine form, meaning "a large pot," with the feminine form chytra (a small pot), which happened to be employed in a distinctive ritual of another kind—the offering of a mixture of boiled seeds to underworld powers. So the third day, which was in fact the liveliest of all, was said to be a somber placation of the dead, as if the mood had changed abruptly. Other evidence was made to fit this theory. There was a famous line from a play that had become a proverb: "Out of the house, you Carians; the Anthesteria is over!" The Carians were slaves who were ordered back to work after the holiday. For Carians a different word was substituted, keres, meaning "evil spirits," which makes it appear that they had been conjured up during the festival.
On this outlook the Anthesteria became a curious amalgam of gaiety and gloom. The same contradiction was found in the nature of Dionysos, thought to be the lord of souls who at once brings new life and ecstasy and rules over the dead. It was indeed a fertile misunderstanding, propagated by two acute and influential writers on Greek religion, Erwin Rohde, the friend of Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book Psyche (1894), translated by W. B. Hillis (London and New York, 1925), and Jane Harrison, the leading voice of the Cambridge school of ritualists. Thereafter, Walter F. Otto, in Dionysos: Myth and Cult (1933), translated by Robert B. Palmer (Bloomington, Ind., 1965), described a god of polar opposites, of boundless vitality and all-consuming destruction. As an avowed variation, Karl Kerényi, in Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Princeton, 1976), spoke of "infinite life and limited life." The dark side is emphasized but also somewhat attenuated by Parisian structuralists as a strangeness or otherness or, by Marcel Detienne, Dionysos at Large, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), as a sudden disruptive force. These larger views, important as they are to the history of religion, have the effect of distorting Dionysos's function in Greek society as the god of wine.
Although the festivals were focused on this function, they too have been reinterpreted. Walter Burkert, "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual," Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 7 (1966): 87–121, regards the goat sacrifice of Dionysos's festivals as a way of acting out, and atoning for, the ancient and necessary human impulse to aggression. In the chapter "Anthesteria" of Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (Berkeley, 1983), pp. 213–247, Burkert argues that the use of wine was assimilated to sacrifice and killing as a guilty consumption of other life; the keres of the third day are masked figures representing demons whose onslaught embodies the guilty feeling. Jan Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Soul (Princeton, 1983), pp. 109–122, assigns the Anthesteria to the general category of festivals of license and disorder; the Carians are outsiders who burst into the community in order to be driven off. The picture of the festival given above is fully argued by Noel Robertson, "Athens' Festival of the New Wine," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 95 (1993): 197–250. For the other festivals of the vine and wine cycle, see Robertson, "Orphic Mysteries and Dionysiac Ritual," in Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults, edited by Michael B. Cosmopoulos (London, 2003), pp. 218–240. In "The Magic Properties of Female Age-groups in Greek Ritual," Ancient World 26 (1995): 193–203, Robertson illustrates the similarity of women's roles in promoting both staple crops—wine and grain—at festivals of Dionysos and Demeter.
The two kinds of vase distinctive of the Anthesteria, the chous of the second day and the chytros or stamnos of the third, have often been studied separately. Richard Hamilton, Choes and Anthesteria: Athenian Iconography and Ritual (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1992), tabulates the childhood toys and treats depicted on chous vases and arranges them in statistical groups, which are taken to reflect the adult activities of the festival. Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux, Le dieu-masque: Une figure de Dionysos d'Athènes (Paris, 1991), interprets the stamnos vases in a structuralist mode, not as festival scenes but as an expressive collage of ritual and mythical motifs. It is remarkable that these Athenian vases were mostly used and admired far from Athens. The chous vases were exported to all parts of the Greek world, where local customs were not necessarily the same. The stamnos vases were made exclusively for Etruria, a prosperous non-Greek area that had its own new-wine festival and gave women much freedom. Thus the vases evoke an ideal celebration for everyone, and they might be compared to Christmas cards with tableaux of Dickensian London.
Dionysos's festivals gave a customary or institutional form to unruly, even frenzied behavior. Albert Henrichs, "Greek Maenadism from Olympias to Messalina," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978): 121–160, traces the appearances of declared maenads at different places. Henrichs also, in "Changing Dionysiac Identities," in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, vol. 3: Self-Definition in the Graeco-Roman World, edited by Ben F. Meyer and E. P. Sanders (London, 1982), pp. 137–160, provides examples of private associations named for Dionysos and his ritual, among them mere drinking clubs, which sought to reproduce an intense communal feeling. Susan G. Cole, "Procession and Celebration at the Dionysia," in Theater and Society in the Classical World, edited by Ruth Scodel (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993), pp. 25–38, documents the official status of obscene language and display.
Since Dionysos's festivals are reflected in a great many myths, and the myths are firmly located in different Greek cities, it is possible to distinguish both local patterns and historical changes. The most famous myths belong to Boeotia and the northeastern Peloponnesus, the heartland of Mycenaean (late Bronze Age) civilization. Viticulture and its religion started here but afterwards declined and flourished more in other regions. Giovanni Casadio treats several of the early centers and the history of their festivals in Storia del culto di Dioniso in Argolide (Rome, 1994) and Il vino dell' animo: Storia del culto di Dioniso a Corinto, Sicione, Trezene (Rome, 1999).
Noel Robertson (2005)