THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE
Anthesteria, one of the four Athenian festivals in honour of Dionysus (Dionysia), was held annually for three days, the eleventh to thirteenth of the month of Anthesterion (the February/March full moon). At the center of the festival was the celebration of the maturing of the wine stored at the previous vintage, and the beginning of spring. The festival was likely celebrated for more than two millennia, from before 1500 BC to after AD 500. The three days of the feast were called Pithoigia (casks), Choës (beakers) and Chytroi (pots).
During the feast, social order was interrupted or inverted, the slaves being allowed to participate, uniting the household in ancient fashion. The Anthesteria also have aspects of a festival of the dead who freely roamed the city, comparable to the Roman Feast of the Lemures, the expulsion of ancestral ghosts: compare All Souls’ Night and carnival. Either the Keres or the Carians were entertained, and expelled from the city after the festival, symbolizing either the souls of the dead or the aboriginal inhabitants of Attica. A Greek proverb, employed of those who pestered for continued favours, ran “Out of doors, Keres! It is no longer Anthesteria”. The festival was called Rosalia in Latin, loaned as Rusaliya into Slavic. The Rusalki were originally spirits associated with the cult.
The name Anthesteria, according to the account of it given above, is usually connected with (“flower,” or the “bloom” of the grape, cognate to Sanskrit andhas “Soma plant”)
The month Anthesterion is named after the festival, not vice versa, and since the month’s name is not restricted to the Attic calendar, but was known also in Ionia, it follows that the festival predates the Ionian colonisation, making it the oldest datable part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, originating likely as early as 1500 BC.
A. W. Verrall (Journal of Hellenic Studies, xx., 1900, p. 115) explains the name differently, as a feast of “revocation” (from to “pray back” or “up”), at which the ghosts of the dead were recalled to the land of the living (cp. the Roman mundus patet). J. E. Harrison (ibid. 100, 109, and Prolegomena), regarding the Anthesteria as primarily a festival of all souls, the object of which was the expulsion of ancestral ghosts by means of placation, explains as the feast of the opening of the graves (meaning a large urn used for burial purposes), as the day of libations, and as the day of the grave-holes (not “pots,” which is), in point of time really anterior to the E. Rohde and Martin P. Nilsson, however, take it to mean “water vessels,” and connect the ceremony with the Hydrophoria, a libation festival said to propitiate the dead who had perished in the flood of Deucalion.
On the first day, called Pithoigia (opening of the casks), libations were offered from the newly opened casks to the god of wine, all the household, including servants and slaves, joining in the festivities. The rooms and the drinking vessels in them were adorned with spring flowers, as were also the children over three years of age.
The second day, named Choës (feast of beakers), was a time of merrymaking. The people dressed themselves gaily, some in the disguise of the mythical personages in the suite of Dionysus, and paid a round of visits to their acquaintances. Drinking clubs met to organize drink-off matches, the winner being he who drained his cup most rapidly. Others poured libations on the tombs of deceased relatives. On the part of the state this day was the occasion of a peculiarly solemn and secret ceremony in one of the sanctuaries of Dionysus in the Lenaeum, which for the rest of the year was closed. The basilissa (or basilinna), wife of the archon basileus for the duration, went through a ceremony of marriage to the wine god, in which she was assisted by fourteen Athenian matrons, called geraerae, chosen by the basileus and sworn to secrecy. The days on which the Pithoigia and Choës were celebrated were both regarded as (nefasti, “unlucky”) and (“defiled”), necessitating expiatory libations; on them the souls of the dead came up from the underworld and walked abroad; according to Photius, people chewed leaves of buckthorn and besmeared their doors with tar to protect themselves from evil. But at least in private circles the festive character of the ceremonies predominated.
Thucydides noted that “the more ancient Dionysia were celebrated on the twelfth day of the month of Anthesterion in the temple of Dionysus Limnaios (“Dionysus in the Marshes”) (Thucydides, ii.15).
The third day was named Chytroi (feast of pots), a festival of the dead. Cooked pulse was offered to Hermes Chthonios, Hermes in his capacity of a god of the lower world, and to the souls of the dead, who were then bidden to depart. None of the Olympians were included and no one tasted the pottage, which was food of the dead. Although no performances were allowed at the theatre, a sort of rehearsal took place, at which the players for the ensuing dramatic festival were selected.
The Carneian festival was one of the most important religious festivals in ancient Sparta and other Dorian cities, held in honor of Apollo Carneios, who was worshipped in various parts of the Peloponnesus. There were nine major festivals on the Spartan calendar, the most important of which were the Carneia, the Gymnopaedia and the Hyakinthia held at Amyclae.
The Carneia began on the seventh day of the month of Carneios (the Athenian Metageitnion) and lasted nine days. Nine tents were pitched near the city walls, inhabited by nine men who lived like soldiers, obeying the commands of a herald. The priest conducting the sacrifices was known as the Agetes; thus, the festival was sometimes known as Agetoria or Agetoreion. From each of the Spartan tribes, five unmarried men (Karneatai) were chosen as the Agetes’ ministers, an office they held for four years, during which they were not allowed to marry. Some of the Karneatai were called staphylodromoi (“grape-cluster runners”). During the festival, the staphylodromoi chased after a man wearing a garland; to catch him meant good luck in the coming harvest.
According to tradition, the army was not allowed to leave the Spartan territory during this festival. The Spartan rulers were not permitted to lead any kind of military campaign or declare war, and all male citizens had to be purified. Because of this, the Spartans did not send any soldiers to the Battle of Marathon or Thermopilea until the festival ended.
The Carneia was also celebrated at the Sharmen city of Cyrene in North Africa, as attested in Pindar’s fourth Pythian ode and Callimachus’s hymn to Apollo.
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pomeraan