Originally written on February 2021 – Updated 2023
The Anthesteria, in Ancient Greek Ἀνθεστήρια, was one of the four Athenian festivals in honor of Dionysus, “dead and reborn”. It was held each year from the 11th to the 13th of the month of Anthesterion, around the time of the January or February full moon.
It celebrated the beginning of spring, particularly the maturing of the wine stored at the previous vintage.
During the feast, social order was interrupted or inverted, the slaves being allowed to participate, uniting the household. However, the Anthesteria also had aspects of a festival of the dead: either the Keres (Κῆρες) female death-spirits goddesses who personified violent death and who were drawn to bloody deaths on battlefields,or the Carians (Κᾶρες) , ancient inhabitants of Caria in southwest Anatolia, were entertained, freely roaming the city until they were expelled after the festival. A Greek proverb, employed of those who pestered for continued favors, ran “Out of doors, Keres! It is no longer Anthesteria”.
The first day was Pithoigia, literally the Jar-Opening. The jars of wine from the previous year were opened, libations offered to Dionysus, and the entire household (including the slaves) joining in the festivities. Spring flowers were used to decorate the rooms of the house. It was believed that, the souls of the dead came up from the underworld and walked abroad. People chewed leaves of hawthorn or buckthorn and besmeared their doors with tar to protect themselves from evil. Nonetheless, the festive character of the ceremonies predominated.
The second day was Choës or ‘The Pouring’.
And merrymaking continued: during the day a court of masked figures opened, from which part of our Carnival probably comes. People dressed themselves gaily, some in the figures of Dionysus’s entourage, and paid a round of visits to their acquaintances.
Drinking clubs held contests to see who could drain their cups the most rapidly, while others poured libations on the tombs of deceased relatives. The day also marked a state occasion: a peculiarly solemn and secret ceremony in the sanctuary of Dionysus “in the marshes”, which was closed throughout the rest of the year. Despite the name, there were no actual marshes in the immediate surroundings of Athens and the sanctuary was located in the Bouleuterion in the Athenian Agora. Athens’ ritual queen, the basilinna, underwent a ceremony of marriage to the god. She was assisted by the gerarai, 14 Athenian matrons chosen by her husband the archon basileus, who were sworn to secrecy.
The third day was Chytroi, literally “The Pots”, a real festival of the dead. Fruit or cooked pulse was offered to Hermes in his capacity as Hermes Chthonios, an underworld figure, 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.
In any case, we are at the gates of spring, Dionysus is celebrated “dead and reborn” and there are three days of celebration.
The subsequent Christian derivation of the risen Christ is quite clear, who obviously combined this myth together with the astronomical calculations of the vernal equinox (and not only)….