Aequinoctium Vernum

(Spring Equinox, Ostara, c. Mar. 21)
Gk. Hê Isêmeria Earinê.

©1995, Apollonius Sophistes

March was the first month of the Roman year, and the Spring Equinox was on the 25th day. [SFR 84-5]

Anthestêria (Grk., c. Feb. 25-27; ancient: 11-13 Anthestêriôn, full moon).

This is the “Festival of Flowers,” when the first shoots of blossom appear, and is one of the oldest Greek festivals, dating back to the second millennium BCE; it was also called the Older Dionysia. At this time the vines are pruned again and the second fermentation of the wine is complete; it is now ready for drinking, and so this festival complements the Oskhophoria (c. Oct. 22), which celebrates the vintage. [A “Dionysian Meditation on the Anthestêria” is available.]

1st day: Pithoigia (Jar-opening)

The first day celebrates the opening of the pithoi (jars) in which the wine has fermented. A pompê (procession) symbolizes the coming of Dionysos from the sea in a ship-chariot to His sanctuary; the God may be represented by an image or a masked man. The procession includes musicians and bearers of the ritual instruments, and other men, riding in the carts and perhaps masked as Satyrs, merrily hurl insults at bystanders.

The pithoi are also brought, and after they are broken open and the wine is mixed by the priestesses (i.e. diluted with water, as Dionysos taught the Greeks to drink it), a first-fruits offering is made to Him with a prayer that the wine be beneficial. Then the wine is tasted and there are songs and dances, in which He is celebrated as the Fair-Flowering, the Reveller, the Stormer, etc.

2nd day: Khoes (Pitcher Feast)

On this day all the temples of the gods are closed except the Limnaion, the temple of “Dionysos in the Marshes” (limnais, though there may be no marshes present), which is only open during this festival. Thus the underworld spirits are free to roam and join the feasts of the living. For protection people paint pitch on their doors and chew buckthorn in the morning; business is suspended and no oaths are sworn.

Also on this day it is customary that everyone at least three years old drinks wine. (Children are expected to participate because of their connection to fertility.) Everyone, including the children, has their own khoes (pitchers, 2-liter for adults) and drinking cups for wine, often purchased at the festival. The khous has a round body, short neck and trefoil mouth.

This is a very child-oriented festival, and a child’s first Khoes is one of the major milestones of life: Birth, Khoes, Puberty and Marriage. He or she is crowned with flowers and might be given a khous, as well as other gifts, such as toys and pets; teachers often invite their pupils to a reception.

This is a day for drinking parties, both public and private. Distinguished people are invited by the high priest of Dionysos to a public drinking contest. A trumpet signals the start of the contest, during which no one may speak (for at this time people are cut off from one another as from all other gods but Dionysos). The victory goes to the first to empty his khous, who is awarded a full wineskin. Private contests are similar, but the prize is a cake.

Participants bring their own food, cups and khoes, already filled with mixed wine (from the Pithoigia); the host provides the garlands, perfume and dessert. After the contests, they put their garlands around their khoes and proceed to the Limnaion, where they give their garlands to the priestess. There they all thank Dionysos by pouring a libation for Dionysos of the last of the wine from their khoes.

3rd day: Khutroi (Pot Feasts)

Since the Greeks and Romans reckoned the day from sundown, the last day of the festival begins on the night of the Day of Pitchers. This is the night of the Hieros Gamos (Sacred Marriage) of Dionysos with the Basilinna (Queen), the wife of the Archôn Basileus (Priest King); he must surrender his wife to Dionysos as Theseus, his distant predecessor, surrendered Ariadne to Him.

In the sacred precinct the Basilinna administers an oath of purity to the fourteen women, the Gerarai (Venerable Ones) of the Limnaion, who are appointed by her:

“I sanctify myself and am both pure and holy, from all things which are not purifying and especially from all intercourse with men, and I shall act as Gerara ... in the ancestral fashion and at all appropriate times.”

They then conduct secret rites, which include making offerings at the fourteen altars and dancing before masks of Dionysos as at the Lenaia (c. Jan. 28).

Another pompê (procession) brings the Holy Bride, who is identified with Ariadne, to her bridal chamber in the Boukoleon (perhaps the ancient house of the Archôn Basileus). She is proceeded by a guide bearing two torches, who embodies Hermes Psukhopompos (Spirit Guide); he wears the ependutês, a decorative tunic. A Satyr (perhaps masked) carries the tall dowry basket on his head or holds a sunshade over the Basilinna; one of the Gerarai bears a torch.

The actual rites of the Hieros Gamos are secret, but this much can be said. The Holy Bride waits on her bridal bed, while a Satyr acts as Thurôros (Doorkeeper) at the bridal chamber. Then, in secret but for an accompanying Satyr bearing His khous, Dionysos comes drunk to His bride for the consummation of their marriage, during which the revelers with their torches celebrate outside the bridal chamber. (It has been hypothesized that the Basillena may sleep with a herm of Dionysos or with a masked person, perhaps the Archon Basileus or the high priest of Dionysos.)

After daybreak the Aiôra (Swing) commemorates Erigone (Early-born), who hanged herself in grief when her father, who brought viticulture to Athens, was killed by drunken men. Girls swing on swings and boys jump on sacks filled with wine. By these actions and by hanging swaying masks and puppets in trees, the children transform the memory of a sad death into a symbol of joyous new life, purify the vintage of this tragedy (swinging is a traditional means of purification by Air) and banish the underworld spirits (see below).

Also on this day the Hudrophoria (Water-bearing) is celebrated: a procession of girls carrying hudriai (water jugs) on their heads go to a place where the water can be poured into a cubit-wide chasm in the earth; thus they commemorate their ancestors who died in the flood of Purrha and Deukalion, and celebrate the disappearance of the flood waters into the earth.

Finally, a meal is prepared for the dead (and for Hermes Psukhopompos, their guide) by cooking various grains with honey in khutrai (earthen pots, after which this day is named). According to tradition, it was this meal, which is the most primitive cereal dish, that was eaten after the flood. Everyone shares this food except the priests (for the temples are closed).

At the close of the festival the underworld spirits are banished by saying:

Thuraze Kêres, ouk eni Anthestêria! [LSJ s.v. Kêr, I]
“Begone, Keres (Death Spirits), the Anthesteria are finished!”

The ritual celebration of the flood, the swinging, and the banishing of the dead mark a resurrection, like that of Dionysos Himself.

[BGR 237-41; NFR 33; PFA 107-19; SFA 92-9]

Festival for Mars (Rom., Mar. 1; ancient: Kal. Mar., new moon).

In pre-Julian Roman calendar, March was the first month, the time when nature returns to life after the winter; thus this day was the old New Year's Day. The month is named for Mars, who is much more then a war god; He is the protector of family and field. Cato prescribes (De Agri Cultura, cxli) the following prayer to Him (abridged):

“Father Mars, I pray and I beseech Thee to be merciful and gracious unto me, and to my house, and to my family; therefore has the offering been brought around my field, my house, my farm; that Thou might turn away, ward off, remove all sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness, destruction, ruin and untimely influences. Grant good health and strength to me, my house and to my family. For this goal, to purify my farm, my land, my ground, for making expiation, please accept these offerings, Father Mars.”

He is offered strues (finger-cakes) and ferta (oblation-cakes). In addition, prayers and libations are offered to Jupiter and Janus.

Mars is further honored on this, His birthday, by the Salii (Dancers or Leapers), two groups of twelve priests, who dance in armor and carry ancilia (ancient, bronze-age figure-eight shields). In ancient times one of these shields was the original ancile that had fallen from the sky as a gift from Jupiter. The Sallii dance through the city to flute music, and sing a song so ancient that even the Romans didn't understand its words. According to Frazer, the clashing arms routs the evil spirits and the stamping feet and leaping promotes the earth's fertility. The priests feast throughout the month.

[CDA 114, 120-2; SFR 84-6]

Festival for Anna Perenna (Rom., Mar. 15; ancient: Ides Mar., full moon).

The goddess Anna Perenna (Unfailing Years), who appears as an old woman, presides over the turning of the years, and so Her festival falls on the first full moon of the ancient year. There are offerings for Her, and prayers that the year will be prosperous and healthy. Men and women go to the park or countryside, stay in tents, and celebrate, singing, dancing and drinking as many cups of wine as the number of years they hope to live. (Frazer considers this to be a relic of fertility rites.) Whenever people meet they address each other as "Blessed" (Fortunatus or Fortunata). [OF p. 406; SFR 90]

Liberalia (Rom., Mar. 17; ancient: XVI Kal. Apr.)

This is a festival for Liber Pater (Father Liber), a god of fertility and especially of the vine, often identified with Dionysos, and for Libera Mater (Mother Libera) who brings fertility to women (as Liber does to men). They are closely associated with Ceres, and the three correspond to Iakkhos, Persephone and Demeter, respectively.

On this day old women act as priestesses for these Gods; they sit by the side of the street and sell liba (offering cakes) made of oil and honey, which they will offer to the Gods on their small altars. There is a procession bearing a phallus to the market place (cf. the City Dionysia, c. Mar. 24), where a virtuous matron lays a wreath upon it. There may also be games on this day, and the “coming of age” for boys is celebrated on this day. [SFR 91-2]

City Dionysia (Grk., c. Mar. 24-28; ancient: 9-13 Elaphêboliôn, first quarter to full moon).

A principal characteristic of the City Dionysia, as opposed perhaps to the Rural Dionysia (c. Jan. 7), is the presence of dramatic contests. On the first day, costumed choruses of men and boys sing dithyrambs (odes to Dionysos), on the second day there are comedies (such as Aristophanes'), and on the third to fifth days there are trilogies of tragedies (such as Aeschylus’s). Crowns and other prizes are awarded. The priest of Dionysos presides over the contests, and the image the God attends them; the officials in charge of administrative details are called chorêgoi. Other honors may also be announced and awarded.

The sacred image of the God is a wooden stulos, or column, on which is affixed a terracotta mask of the bearded Dionysos. A procession called “Bringing in from the Sacrificial Hearth,” which may include mounted Ephêboi (youths), brings the image to His sanctuary and mimics the arrival of the God in the city. (The image is removed from the sanctuary and taken outside the city for this purpose.)

On the following day is the main procession, the central feature of which is the Sacred Phallus, made of wood and carried on a tray (indeed, there may be several such phalli in the procession). A maiden of good birth is chosen as Kanêphoros (Basket Carrier), and she bears the Kaneon, a golden basket filled with first-fruit offerings. Next come the Askophoroi (Bottle Carriers), citizens of the city bearing on their shoulders askoi (leather bottles) of wine to be offered as first fruits to the God; they may wear whatever they like. Others carry obeliai (spit-like things), phallus-shaped loaves of bread, on their shoulders. Likewise purple-robed Skaphêphoroi (Tray Carriers) bear skaphia (trays) of offerings. In ancient times bulls were brought for sacrifice. The day ends with a Kômos (Revel), a feast on beef and wine. At night, accompanied by flute and harp music, the people sing and dance through the streets.

[PFA 125-34; SFA 101-4]

[A “Dionysian Meditation on the City Dionysia” is available.]

Quinquatrus (Rom., Mar. 19-24; ancient: XIV-X Kal. Apr.)

This is a spring equinox festival in which Mars and Minerva are honored. In ancient times it inaugurated the military campaigning season; nowadays, since Mars was originally a vegetation god and Minerva is a patron of the crafts and arts, we may think of it as a celebration of new beginnings.

Though named for Mars, March is under the protection of Minerva, and the first day of the Quinquatrus is especially sacred to Her because it is Her birthday; therefore no bloodshed is permitted on that day, though She likes to see martial contests on the following days. Ovid exhorts practitioners of every art to pray to Minerva for knowledge and skill; here is an abridged version:

Pray now to Pallas, boys and tender girls;
whoever wins Her favor will be skilled,
for She’s the Goddess of a Thousand Works.

[LEM 207; OF III.809-34; SFR 92-4]

Veneralia (Rom., Apr. 1; ancient: Kal. Apr., new moon).

April is under the protection of Venus, and some ancient authors derived the month's name from Aphrodite (perhaps via a conjectured Etruscan form, Aprodita); others derive it from aperire (to open), since it is the time when, according to Cincius and Varro, “fruits and flowers and animals and seas and lands open.”

The Veneralia, on the first day of Venus’ month, honors Venus Verticordia (Changer of Hearts) and Her companion Fortuna Virilis (Bold Fortune). In ancient times all the women, married and unmarried, went to the men's baths, as today they might go to swimming pools. Upon arriving they offer incense to Fortuna Virilis and pray that the men will not see any blemishes the women might have. They make a libation and drink the potion Venus drank on Her wedding night: pounded poppy with milk and honey. An ancient commentary (probably by Verrius) says they go to the baths to view the men's virile members. The women, crowned with myrtle wreaths, bathe and pray that Venus will bring them concord and a modest life. Ovid says, “beauty and fortune and good fame are in Her keeping.”

In addition, the women remove the jewelry and other ornaments from the statues of Venus and Fortuna so that they can be washed, after which they are redecorated and adorned with roses (Venus’s flower). [OF IV.133-64; SFR 96-7]

Minor Festivals

Lesser Mysteries (Grk., late Feb.; ancient: early Anthestêriôn)

Initiation in the Lesser Mysteries is a prerequisite to initiation in the Greater (Eleusinian) Mysteries (c. Sept. 29); they accomplish the preliminary purification of the Mustos (Initiate). These secret rites belong to Rhea, the Mother of the Gods, and the oldest of the Rhea-Demeter-Kore triad, but no more can be said about them.

[PFA 122-3; SFA 26-7]

Matronalia (Rom., Mar. 1; ancient: Kal. Mar., new moon)

The Kalends of March, the old New Year’s Day, are sacred to Juno Lucina (from lux = light) as the goddess of childbirth, who brings babies from the womb into the light. Husbands pray for the health of their wives and give them presents; the wives, in turn, entertain the servants. Everyone dresses up, and there is general celebration, feasting and play. [SFR 87]

Diasia (Grk., c. Mar. 10; ancient: 23 Anthestêriôn)

The Diasia (from Deus = Zeus) is the principal festival for Zeus Meilikhios (The Kindly), who is Zeus in chthonic aspect, manifesting as a giant snake. On this day everyone makes bloodless offerings (thumata epikhôria) to Him, typically cakes in the shape of animals such as sheep or pigs, but also grain and fruit because He is responsible for the fertility of the soil and is often shown with a cornucopia. Since this is a festival of propitiation, the entire offering is burnt for the God. After that there is general feasting and gifts may be given to children (who are especially dear to chthonic deities). [PFA 120-2; SFA 12-5]

Elaphêbolia (Grk., c. Mar. 21; ancient: 6 Elaphêboliôn, 1 day prior to 1st quarter)

This festival (and month) is named for Artemis Elaphêbolos (Deer-shooting), that is, the Goddess as huntress; it is on the sixth day, which is always Hers. Now, as in ancient times, She is offered elaphoi (stags), which are stag-shaped cakes made from dough, honey and sesame-seeds. [PFA 125]

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