Thursday, January 28, 2021

Anthesteria: a precursor to Roman Saturnalia?

The three-day festival of the Anthesteria was celebrated around the time of the full moon in January or February.  It celebrated the beginning of spring, particularly the maturing of the wine stored at the previous vintage, whose pithoi were now ceremoniously opened. During the feast, small gifts were exchanged and social order was interrupted or inverted, much like Roman Saturnalia, with the household slaves allowed to participate. The Anthesteria also had aspects of a festival of the dead.  Both the Keres, female spirits who bewailed violent death on the battlefield, or the Carians were ritually entertained and thought to roam the city until they were expelled at the conclusion of the festival.  A Greek proverb, said of those who pestered for continued favors,  "Out of doors, Keres! It is no longer Anthesteria!"

On day one of the festival, known as Pithoigia, 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, the home's drinking vessels, and any children over three years of age.

On day two of the festival, known as Choes, merrymaking continued: 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. 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. Precisely what this entailed, and how physical was the public union, remain matters of discussion, but it may have involved intercourse. She was assisted by the gerarai, 14 Athenian matrons chosen by her husband the archon basileus, who were sworn to secrecy. Burkert regarded the ceremony as a recreation of the yielding of Ariadne to Dionysus by Theseus during their escape from Minoan Crete.

On day three, the Chytroi, considered a 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. Celebration continued and games were held. Although no performances were allowed at the theater, a sort of rehearsal took place, at which the players for the ensuing dramatic festival were selected.

Terracotta oinochoe: chous (jug), Greek, attributed to the Meidias Painter, 420-410 BCE.  The scene depicts two women in festive dress perfuming garments. A stool suspended by chords is piled with folded clothing. On the ground below, there is a pile of wood shavings and twigs from which smoke rises. One woman carefully empties an oinochoe onto the fire. The other woman surveys the "swing" and stands beside a stately chair with a footstool over which more clothes are slung. At the far left is a wreathed boy wearing a himation (cloak). The shape of the vase associates it with the Anthesteria.  Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

This small "chous," a vessel for wine, would have been given as a gift to a young boy during the Athenian festival known as the Anthesteria, celebrating the new wine. Such vessels depict children at play, often imitating adults. Here, a chubby Eros runs, pulling a child's toy cart behind him. He wears a wreath, a spiked headdress, and a string of amulets across his chest.  Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

A red-figured chous depicting Dionysus and a satyr recalling drunken festivities of the first two days of the Anthesteria, 430-420 BCE, courtesy of the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Oinochoe with Anthesteria scene, Athens, 460-450 BCE in the Martin von Wagner Museum - Würzburg, Germany. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

No comments: