Dionysian Meditations:

The Anthesteria

also known as

The More Ancient Dionysia
(Ta Arkhaiotera Dionysia)

of Apollonius Sophistes

(c) 1997


The Anthestêria is a Festival of Flowers (Anthê) for Dionysos Anthios (also Antheus and Euanthês - Fair-flowering), the Blooming God. For, as Ovid (Fasti 5.345) says, "Bacchus loves flowers," which herald His arrival by their appearance in the spring.

At this time (c. Feb. 25-27), when also the Lesser Mysteries are held at Agrai, the Divine Child was conceived; He grew in the womb of Semele (who is Persephone) for seven months, until the time of the Greater (Eleusinian) Mysteries and grape harvest, when Zeus blasted her with his bolt (c. Sept. 29 - Oct. 5) and sewed the Child into His thigh. After the wine fermented for 40 days (c. Nov 8), we called Dionysos in the Marshes. This is the beginning of winter, marked by the rising of the Pleiades, when Dionysos rules at Delphi. He came to term ten months after conception, when we first tasted the wine at the Rural Dionysia (early Jan.). We celebrated Dionysos' birth and also His emergence from the Underworld in the Lênaia (c. Feb. 2). Now we have come full circle and we celebrate the God's wedding. At Delphi He yields to Apollo, whose birthday was four days ago.

This is the time when the fermentation of the wine is complete and the new wine is ready to drink, and so we make a first-fruit offering, but it is also the time when the vines are pruned in preparation for the next season. Therefore the Anthestêria is also the most important Festival of the Dead, for we appreciate the beauty and fruits of the Earth, the delights of wine, and indeed all pleasures, the most when we salute the Dead. Indestructible Life (Zôê) necessitates the birth and death of Individual Lives (Bioi), and so our Mother Earth both brings forth fruits and welcomes the dead back to Her bosom.

We have held this festival since before the Greeks sailed to Troy [c. 1200 BCE]; its origin is beyond the limits of memory. The rites occur on the 11th, 12th and 13th - that is, during the full moon - of the month called Anthesterion. Nominally, this is the end of February, but more precisely the full moon following the full moon of the Lênaia, and two moons following the full moon nearest the winter solstice. This is the time when Zeus mated with Semele, who is also Persephone, and Dionysos was conceived. It is also the time when Dionysos took Ariadne to be His wife, and so we celebrate the marriage of the Basilinna (religious Queen {BASI/LINNA}) and the God. (The days are reckoned from sundown to sundown.)

The First Day: Pithoigia (Jar-opening)

Today we open the Pithoi (large wine jars), which have been half buried in the Earth, and in which the wine has fermented, since the time when Dionysos was sewn in the Father's thigh. Therefore, this day is called the Pithoigia, the Festival of Pithoi-opening.

At this time of year the World also lies open (Patet Mundus, as they say in Latin), and Varro wrote, "When the World lies open, it is as though the gates of the sad Underworld Gods are open." We give offerings to the Underworld and accept Its gifts in turn. The fragrance of the wine from the open Pithoi will attract the Thirsty Ones (Dipsioi), the Shades of the dead, who will come to drink. Dionysos too, who has been dwelling among them as the Emasculated God, is also reborn from the Underworld.

[ship-chariot image] This is the day of the God's epiphany, when He comes to His sanctuary. A festive procession accompanies His ship-chariot, for He is Lord of Moist Nature (Kurios Hugras Phuseos). It looks like a small boat with its ram shaped like an mule's head; it rolls on four wagon wheels and is drawn by Silenoi or Satyrs. In it sits the dignified image of Lord Dionysos, around which Silenoi and Satyrs pipe and sing dithyrambs. (Therefore some say that Carnival, which is celebrated at this time of year, takes its name from the Carrus Navalis, the ship-chariot.) Sometimes the ship-chariot may be drawn by mules, or the God may arrive riding on a mule, for the lusty mule, one of Dionysos' favorite animals, reminds us that pleasure for its own sake can be as worthwhile as pleasure that serves a purpose.

The Second Day: Khoes (Pitchers)

At sundown, when the next day begins, the new wine is brought to the Limnaion, His sanctuary in the Marshes, where it is mixed with water the way He taught us. First we pour a libation of the new wine to Lord Dionysos; by this first-fruit offering it becomes right for us to enjoy the bounty of the harvest. We pray:
Lord Dionysos, hear! We thank You for
this gift of wine, now mixed as You have taught,
and pray its potent force will always be
of benefit to us,
both now and evermore.
Then we taste the new wine, miraculous gift of the God. Now to bed to await sunrise, for the day will be spent celebrating the pleasure of the vine!

* * *

As Dionysos comprehends all opposites, so the Anthestêria comprises both joy and sorrow, both life and death. Although this is a day of joyous celebration, it is also an uncanny day, a polluted day (miara hêmera), for Shades and other Daimônes are free to roam abroad. Therefore I chew the buckthorn (rhamnus) leaves, and smear my door with pitch to keep Them away. So also the sanctuaries are closed to keep the Shades outside, and no one may swear an oath today.

This day is for drinking, and is named for the Khoes (sing. Khous), the distinctive pitchers that hold the mixed wine: they are short and squat with a trefoil lip, and we can buy them at the special market held for the festival. (A Khous holds about three liters of mixed wine, which is enough to fill a Kotulê, a large Skuphos or cup, 12 times.)

Everyone joins in the joyous celebration, man and woman, adult and child. Everyone drinks. In a procession we all come to the sanctuary of Dionysos Limnaios (In the Marshes), the sacred spring which is a passage to the Underworld. Today is the only day of the year on which the Limnaion, the oldest Dionysian sanctuary, is open, and likewise only during the Anthestêria is the way open between the worlds of the living and the dead. (Conversely, all the other sanctuaries are closed during the Anthestêria.) On this day we are compelled to think of love and death, Eros and Thanatos. Indeed, the journey to the Underworld becomes an exciting erotic adventure.

A stele by the Altar in the Marshes declares that the Basilinna must have been a virgin when she married her husband, the Basileus (religious King), otherwise she is not fit to be the God's bride. (In origin the Basileus is a Guild-master, especially of smiths.)

The Basileus has chosen the twice-seven Gerairai {GE/RAIRAI}, the Venerable Women, who will assist the Basilinna. With the Sacred Herald standing by, she swears them in with this oath:

I sanctify myself and am both pure
and holy from all things that are impure,
especially from intercourse with men,
and I shall act as Geraira in the
ancestral way and at appropriate times.**
Now they assist her mixing the wine in front of the awesome Mask of the God set up in the sanctuary.

While we are lined up, waiting for the Priestesses to fill our Khoes with the mixed wine, we call the God from the Underworld, where He is Lord over the Shades:

Euanthês! (Fair-flowering)

Cry out to Him:
We shall sing Dionysos
On the Holy Days,
Him who was so long away.
Now the season! Now the flowers!
(Para d' hôra, para d' anthê!)
{PA/RA D' W(/RA, PA/RA D' A)/NQH}***

Although the Anthestêria is primarily a festival for women, children and the Dead, the Priest of Dionysos invites distinguished men to a strange drinking contest supervised by the Basileus at the Thesmotheteion {QESMOQETEI=ON}, to which we bring our jugs of mixed wine. We sit apart; no one speaks; a blast from the ancient Salpinx, the trumpet of Dionysos, hidden in the leaves of a Thursos (Dionysian staff), signals everyone to start, and the winner is whomever the Basileus judges to have emptied his cup first. And so the rounds continue. Thus we call Dionysos back to our world.

Unlike at ordinary parties, we bring our own wine and food; our host provides only the garlands, perfumes and desserts. This, and the silence, is an inversion of the usual sharing and conversation that accompany our symposia (drinking parties). Instead, we act as in the days before Orestes had been purified of the Pollution (Miasma) of murder, having taken vengeance on his mother for slaying his father. Each person used a different vessel so that the pollution would not be spread. Then as now, everyone drank in silence and in isolation. So also all the temples were closed to prevent Orestes from defiling the sacred places. Likewise, we are guilty of killing the God whose gifts we enjoy today. Our ancestors, the Titans, killed the Child and cut Him into seven pieces. Now we cut back the vine, crush the fruit, and drink the scarlet lifeblood pressed from its flesh.

The winner of this contest receives a skin full of wine, but there are many informal contests taking place around the city, and the winners of these will receive cakes or garlands for their heads.

Everyone drinks today! Everyone who is at least three years old, for that is the age at which children are enrolled in their clans (phratriai). Each little boy is presented with his first Khous, which is smaller than an adult's, and with many other gifts, including toys and pets. First-Khoes is one of the milestones of our lives: Birth, Khoes, Ephêbia (Puberty), Marriage. Indeed the garlands of flowers (anthê) worn by the three-year-olds give their name to the festival. Many of the children push toy wagons with long handles, and they imitate the sacred processions and rituals of the adults. Thus is the Divine Child honored through the mortal children. Thus we celebrate the "new shoots" brought forth from the Earth. Today the children and the Shades throng the streets together, for everyone is welcome at our feasts, the Dead as well as the living.

As in the Lênaia, in the Khoes procession there are carts of male revellers who sing Ribald Songs (Skômmata) to drive away unhealthy pollutions. The revellers shout abuse at the crowd as they pass, which the people happily return, with interest! In this way we release our tensions and exult in lusty life. Laughter banishes the impotent enemies of Life.

Before the Altar of the Twelve in the Agora stands a chorus singing dithyrambs that celebrate the birth of the Divine Child after His long incubation. The six men wear long, decorative tunics (khitônes) with long sleeves, and togas (himationa) over them; garlands wreathe their brows. They are the choral leader, his four singers (two holding ivy sprigs), and the double-aulos (reed pipe) player to accompany them. They stand around Dionysos' Pole: a thin shaft, taller than the men, standing on an omphalos-shaped tripod wound with ivy and surmounted by a crossbar: the Tree of Life Growing from the Navel of the Earth. As in the Lênaia, this skeletal Pole shows the God as Lord of the Underworld, for when the Anthestêria are done, He will return to the Underworld with the other Shades, and appear to us only in this form. The Dead descend into the Earth, from which new Life is born.

[Pole image]

Also on Khoes day we celebrate the Aiôra (Swing), the Feast of Swings, for this is the day when Êrigonê found her father's grave. The maidens sing "Alêtis" ("The Wandering One"), which tells the story:

Êrigonê (Born-at-Dawn) is called Alêtis because she wandered like the Moon Goddess, searching with her she-dog Maira (Glittering One) for her father Ikaros. For the farmer Ikaros had brought the gift of wine from the birthplace of Dionysos, where the God Himself had taught him viticulture. Ikaros hitched up his plough team to pull the wagon of full wine skins through the countryside, but he was killed by wild shepherds when they became drunk. The dog Maira found the corpse where they had buried it by a tree, and brought Êrigonê to it. In grief she hung herself from that very tree, around which a vine had grown; thereby her love was fulfilled.

The three ascended to the heavens; Ikaros became Bootes (the Ploughman), Êrigonê became Virgo (the Virgin) and Maira became Canicula (the Little Dog), or, as others say, the Dog-star (Sirius). For the Dog-star is called Iakar, and the first rising of Sirius at dusk (c. July 19) marks the New Year, the date of Apollo's arrival at Delphi, and the beginning of Opôra (Fruit-time); the wine harvest follows in 49 days with the setting of Arcturus (early Sept.), at that time of year when Dionysos was plucked from Semele's womb in blazing heat, for the Pure Light of High Summer (Hagnon Phengos Opôras) is essentially Dionysos. Therefore the Dog shows us the way to the Vine, and Dionysos transforms the stifling heat of the Dog Days into the Pure Light of High Summer, from which the grapes are born. Therefore He comes as torch-bearing Iakkhos, keeper of the treasures of the vine, by which name He is invoked in the Greater (Eleusinian) Mysteries [c. Sept. 29 - Oct. 5], at the time of the wine harvest, when the Divine Child was born in the Underworld.

Some say Father Eleuthereus (Freedom, i.e., Dionysos) transformed Ikaros, Êrigonê and Maira into stars. But in truth, Ikaros and Êrigonê were Iakkhos and Ariadne disguised as wandering strangers; the tree grew from the body of the Slain God, whereby He was reborn in the vine that grew around it, which the faithful Dog brought to light.

Therefore in the Aiôra children (boys as well as girls) swing like Êrigonê from trees near their homes; the Delphic Oracle told us to do this to appease Êrigonê's spirit. This is also the reason we hang little figures and masks in the trees so they swing in the breeze; good luck goes wherever they look.

[swinging image] [swinging image] Also, parents put their children on swings near open, half-buried pithoi (jugs) of wine, which are openings to the Underworld. Therefore they swing between the upper and lower worlds, like Êrigonê and Ariadne, who descended into death and ascended to the heavens. Sometimes they swing over smoking censors, and as they swing they are purified by the element Air. But beyond this, the swinging is fun, and a theme in this festival is joy for its own sake. Like wine, swinging elevates us to the heavens. By swinging, girls participate in the tragedy of Êrigonê, but through the Maenadic toss of the head (krata seisai), swinging may bring erotic pleasure, by which the young maids (and older women too!) share the ecstasy of Dionysos' Bride. Therefore we sometimes see Silenoi pushing them on their swings.

As Dionysos was slain by the shepherds, so now a he-goat is slain for the God, that his blood may nourish the vines, and Dionysos' tragic death is lamented in Goat-songs (trag-ôidia = tragedies). We sing and dance for the Goat, and after he is slaughtered, we make a wineskin (askos) of his hide. We use it for the Askôliasmos, wherein we blow up the wineskin and grease it with oil, to see who can balance longest on it. A source of much laughter!

Thus we relive the ancient myth that tells how a Goat got into the first vineyard, which had been planted by Ikaros according to the directions of Father Eleuthereus, and ate all the most tender leaves. In anger, Ikaros killed the Goat and made the first wineskin from his hide. Then he blew it up, tied it tight, threw it to his companions, and told them to dance around it. As Eratosthenes says in his Êrigonê, "Then first they danced around the goat of Ikaros." In this way too, the Goat is made to expiate his sin against the vine and the God. Thus tragedy is transmuted into comedy. (So also the dramatic tragedies are followed by satyr plays to make us laugh.)

While we men are occupied in our drinking contests, all the city's women are preparing for the arrival of the God tonight. Each Geraira {GE/RAIRA} goes to the Marshes, accompanied by her servant, a Silenus, who holds a three-cornered umbrella over her head. In the inner sanctum of the Sanctuary in the Marshes, the Gerairai make their secret preparations for the sacred marriage to the God to the Basilinna. From the Marshes each carries a mysterious basket to one of the twice-seven Dionysian altars, where she performs the sacred rite. The Gerairai also make preparations at the Boukoleion (Bull's Stable), where the Basilinna will marry the Horned Dionysos, for the Old Women call the Bull-footed God:

Come, Lord Dionysos,
with the Graces to the temple,
holy temple by the sea,
raving with Your bull's foot,
worthy Bull,
worthy Bull!****
At sundown we all, including the contest winners, wrap our garlands, which have become polluted by blood-guilt, around our Khoes and walk back to the Limnaion, singing as we go. Many of us are more than a little tipsy and suffering hangovers! When we arrive at the Marshes, we give our garlands to the Priestess, who is seated in her throne and holding a torch in her right hand. There we pour out the rest of our wine as a libation to the God. We eagerly anticipate the arrival of Dionysos among us tomorrow! Spurning the God brings madness!

The Third Day: Khutroi (Pots)

The third day begins at sundown, and, although the contests are officially over, drinking continues throughout the night, for there will be many symposia to keep us men occupied. We will have drinking and dancing, Aulêtrides (Flute girls) and Hetairai (Escorts). Thus the women keep us diverted while they indulge their secrets. What of it? I strip off my clothes, and hand them to a friend to hold, so that I can dance more freely with my Khous.

Meanwhile at the Limnaion the Basilinna prepares to perform the Arrhêta Hiera (Ineffable Secret Rites) by which she will become the Horned God's bride. The Gerairai have also conducted their secret rituals in the Marshes and at the twice-seven altars. Little more than this can be said about the Arrhêta Hiera:

The Basilinna's rich wedding garments are draped over a swing (aiôra) above a fire, on which a female assistant pours aromatic oils and sprinkles incense. When dressed, the Queen will be escorted by holy Pompê (Procession) to the Boukoleion, where she will see what no other mortal is permitted to see. Perhaps it is an Agalma, an archaic cult statue of the Horned God. Nobody but she knows.

[Dendrophoroi image] An empty wagon pulled by mules comes for the Queen. (Unlike in an ordinary, mortal wedding, the Divine Groom does not accompany His bride.) She steps into the wagon, which continues to the Boukoleion. She is preceded by a Satyr, wearing an Ependutês (decorative tunic) and carrying the two torches that signify a wedding processing. Another Satyr follows with the tall basket containing her dowry. Next are the Dendrophoroi (Tree-bearers), Silenoi carrying the Dionysian Pole, and the rest of the procession. Eros is in the air.

When they arrive at the marriage chamber, the bride is escorted inside. A Satyr takes his position as Thurôros (Porter) at the threshold of the marriage chamber. Revellers with torches keep vigil outside the Boukoleion and sing wedding hymns.

Alone inside the inner sanctum, the Basilinna awaits the arrival of the God. She performs the Theion Prêgma (Divine Act), the Mystêrion that calls the Immortal Lord to her in Sacred Marriage (Hieros Gamos) and Divine Union (Theia Summeixis) - the Consummatio Divini Matrimonii. This night the King (Basileus) surrenders his wife to the God, as was first done by Theseus. Tonight she is Ariadne. Dionysos' mules remind us that this union is to affirm Indestructible Life (Zôê), not to beget children. By this sacred rite the Basilinna awakens Indestructible Life and invokes It to move upon the Earth.

Also on this very night on the crags above Delphi the raving Maenads awaken Dionysos Liknitês, the God in the Winnowing Fan. Nurses of the Child, they now unite with the Mystery in the Winowing Fan. Thus is the God awakened and called back among the living.

On this night all mature women may become Dionysos' brides, but especially the women who have taken mortal husbands in the preceding Month of Marriages (Gamêliôn), especially on the night preceding the new moon two weeks ago. Tonight they will unite with the source of Indestructible Life through Dionysos, for which their earthly marriages have been a prelude. (Virgins had a lesser union by means of the Aiôra during the day.)

Daimônes (Divinities) walk the streets tonight! While I am celebrating tonight, some torch- or thursos-bearing Silenos or Satyr, sent by the God, may come to my house, and my wife will follow him into awesome mysteries, perhaps led by his hand as though to her wedding. Where will she go? To the mountains? To the clandestine rites of some Thiasos? I dare not wonder! Tonight all women may unite with Lord Dionysos, whomever He calls and whoever is willing.

[mitra image]
And yet there are also times when I'm a Satyr or Silenos! We men who belong to Dionysian Brotherhoods of Satyrs (Dionusiakoi Thiasoi Saturôn) will take on the identities of His animals, especially the He-Goat or Stallion, and spread His Phallic Energy throughout the town. And on this night of exuberant life, if I wear the headband of Dionysos Mitrêphoros, I may find myself approached by thursos-bearing Bacchants to be led off by torch-light to manifest for them the God or some lesser Daimôn in their mysteries. (This Dionysian Mitra or headband proclaims my willingness to invoke my Lord; it encircles the head and loops are pulled up under it so the ends hang like flaps at the ears.) Dionysos is the God of the Mask and, all night long, masked souls will roam the streets manifesting the awesome presence of Divinity.

* * *

With daybreak we turn our attention to appeasing the Dead and driving Them from the land of the Living. The Khoes was a happy day, but now begins the Khutroi, the somber part of the Anthestêria, a day of gloom. This day is named for the Khutroi, the pots in which we prepare a Panspermia, a honeyed porridge of many vegetables and grains, which we give, as food for the Dead, to the Psychopompos (Soul-guide), Hermes Chthonios. The Ithyphallic Herms embody the Underworld Guide. (No Gods are present in the city today except Hermes and Dionysos, and some say that They are the same.)

Just so, long ago, on the day after the Anthestêria, the survivors of the Great Flood in the time of Pyrrha and Deukalion, cooked their first meal after the water receded. They celebrated the triumph of Life while lamenting those who perished. The Flood marked a fresh beginning in which the old was washed away to make way for the new, and so we celebrate new beginnings. (We all eat this Panspermia, except the Priests, for the temples are closed today.)

We also honor our distant ancestors who died in the Flood, and we give thanks for the disappearance of the water. Young girls celebrate the Hudrophoria (Water-bearing) by making offerings of wheat-flour and honey and by pouring libations of water to the victims of the Flood. (We offer water because that is what the Thirsty Ones may be given.) The girls carry water-jugs (hudriai) on their heads to the cubit-wide chasm into which the flood waters drained; it is a passage to the Underworld.

Among the day's amusements are the Contests of the Khutroi (Agônes Khutrinoi), in which the Comoi (Comic Revellers) compete for the honor of performing at the City Dionysia next month, but as the day grows old, we carry the pots and escort the Dead to the Marshes. Glutted with wine, They will return at our bidding to the Underworld. We have honored the Dead and now They can depart. At sundown we all shout:

Begone Ye Ghosts!
Thuraze Kêres!

Begone Ye Ghosts! The Anthestêria are done!
Thuraze Kêres, ouket' Anthestêria!

By this spell, as also by the Aiôra and Hudrophoria, the city is cleansed of all impurities and hostile spirits. The paradoxical God Dionysos both descends with the Shades to the Underworld and remains above with us, a divine mystery, simultaneously alive and dead, at once Child and Husband.


Read Aristophanes' Frogs, which is about Dionysos in the Marshes.


  1. Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion, pp. 237-41.
  2. Hyginus. Poetica Astronomica II.4.
  3. Kerenyi, Carl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, pp. 73-5, 77-8, 152-60, 169-70, 182, 198-9, 233-4, 289-90, 292-3, 300-13, 317, 323-5, 362, 364, 366, 378.
  4. Nilsson, M. P. Greek Folk Religion, p. 33.
  5. Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult, pp. 80, 100, 116-7, 139, 159.
  6. Parke, H. W. Festivals of the Athenians, pp. 107-19.
  7. Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur. Dramatic Festivals of Athens, pp. 1, 9-19.
  8. Simon, E. Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary, pp. 92-9.


based on Parke 108
adapted from a speech attributed to Demosthenes
adapted from Kerenyi 198-9
Plutarch, Quaest. Graec. 299A-B

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Last updated: Mon Feb 1 11:20:34 EST 1999