The Anthestheria - Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Anthestheria
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

See also February Feasts, Candlemas, Imbolc, and Lupercalia.

The Anthestheria, “the festival of flowers,” heralds the arrival of Dionysus, Lord of New Life and Wine, literally. It hails the birth of the deity plus the annual ritual opening of new casks of wine. The festival was devoted to birth, death, purification, and fertility.

Only one of several annual festivals honoring Dionysus in Greece, the Anthestheria was held for three days in the month of Anthesterion (February/March). According to some analyses of the festival (much is enshrouded in myth), the festival also corresponds with Dionysus’ birth. If there is such a thing as a “triple goddess” then Dionysus is the corresponding “triple god”; during this festival he is honored as infant, husband, and dying god.

Opening the new casks of wine isn’t as simple and forthright as it sounds. The wine casks were half-buried in Earth during the fermentation period, so their removal is like a birth, specifically like a Caesarian section and even more specifically like Dionysus’ own birth. Dionysus’ mother died before he was born; the unborn child was surgically removed from her womb and then sewed up within his father Zeus’ thigh, where he was allowed to mature in peace until the time was ripe. Ritually unearthing the casks and opening them is a metaphoric re-enactment of Dionysus’ birth. His devotees share in the deity’s essence by consuming him; drinking the wine accomplishes this purpose.

Initially the festival was apparently celebrated by women and children, but there are many gaps in the historical narrative. Many aspects of devotion to Dionysus fall under the category of “mystery traditions” and hence secrecy was always a component. In addition, the more femaleoriented aspects of his devotion ultimately became disreputable and illegal. Information regarding them was suppressed.

The first two days of the festival were devoted to honoring the deity and the new wine. The festival’s days (and nights!) were punctuated by secret celebrations for mature women, rituals of initiation for children, and general revelry and celebration for all. Everyone was invited to the party, including men, ancestral spirits, dead souls, and various spiritual entities.

There are two levels to this festival, however. It was a public festival, with some aspects were celebrated by all, but it was simultaneously also a mystery celebration. Dionysus’ most devoted servants, the maenads and others, celebrated secret rites in his honor, apparently including the Great Rite, the sacred marriage between deity and devotee. (See DICTIONARY: Great Rite.)

The festival’s three nights were reserved for women’s mysteries. The maenads celebrated privately in the mountains and forests. Little information survives, however mature women were understood to play the role of brides of Dionysus at this time. (In some legends, Dionysus’ marriage to Ariadne coincides with this festival; other legends suggest that the wedding was held on May Eve.) Among the festival’s goals was the stimulation of personal and agricultural fertility.

Rituals and celebrations evolve over time. Attitudes toward ghosts changed. What seems to have originally been a day devoted to honoring dead ancestors (see Dias de los Muertos; Festivals of the Dead) eventually became a time of fear. Household doorposts were smeared with pitch in an effort to keep ghosts out. Many shrines and temples were kept tightly sealed on this day, allegedly to prevent ghosts from entering and lingering longer than their allotted time on Earth. (Another explanation suggests that this day belongs only to Dionysus and Hermes; therefore other spirits are prevented from leaving their shrines and joining the rituals.)

The festival concludes when women carry pots of cooked grains and vegetables to the marshes to bid farewell to the dead with the ritual incantation “Begone Ghosts! The Anthestheria is over!

If rituals are conducted correctly, the end result is the removal and purification of malevolent ghosts, low-level spirits, and spiritual debris. Modern versions and adaptations of the Anthestheria are celebrated by some Neo-Pagans.