Dionysus (god of wine) has been the subject of many different festivals, including Anthesteria, which pays homage to new wine, as well as the god himself. In the majority of Ionian communities, the festival was celebrated, however, what is known about the celebration is recounted through the Athenians. The festival was quite important to this culture.
Each year, Anthesteria was held over the course of three days (the 11th to the 13th) during what was referred to as the month of Anthesterion (February-March). When dissecting the meaning of the festival, its reference should have indicated a Festival of Flowers, yet Anthesteria was mainly celebrated with an opening of the new wine and soothing the spirits of the dead.
First Day of Anthesteria
Festivities begun on the evening of the first day, where casks of old wine were transported to the sanctuary of Dionysus in the Marshes. They then offered libations to the god of wine. This first day was called Pithoigia (which translates into ‘jar-opening’). Rooms and drinking vessels were decorated with spring flowers. Any child older then three years old was also dressed up for the occasion.
Second Day of Anthesteria
As the second day began (known as Choes (the old word for ‘pitchers’), the real fun began. People dressed up in a festive manner. It was not uncommon to see individuals put on masks and disguises of mythical proportions , usually mimicking Dionysus. At this time, dressed up individuals would make the rounds to all of their friends houses. Drinking competitions were in full swing at this time. Eager participants would gather at separate tables and compete in total silence, while they drank a five-liter container (called a chous) of wine. The festival was quite liberal, as even slaves could partake in the drinking. Children receiving a miniature sized choes meant for a toy. As a rite of passage, “first Choes” were also given.
Third Day of Anthesteria
During Anthesteria, there was the belief that spirits of the dead were able to walk the earth once again. The third day of the festival (called Chytroi , meaning ‘pots’) concentrated on this belief. At this time, the dead were offered pots filled with seed and vegetable bran. Rituals included the chewing of whitethorn leaves and the smearing of tar on their doors in an attempt to keep evil away. This is also expressed in the common proverb: “Away with you, Keres (evil spirits), it is no longer Anthesteria.”
Other Customs of Anthesteria
Anthesteria was also the time when the state participated in a secret ceremony that involved the wife of the king. She actually reenacted a ceremonial marriage to Dionysus during the festival. 14 Athenian matrons (called ‘geraerae’) were chosen by the king and made to swear a secret oath. This ritual then took place in a sanctuary of Dionysus in the Lenaeum, which was specially opened for the event , only on this day.