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Anthesteria, the Hellenic "Samhain"

Author: Alorer
Posted: October 30th. 2011
Times Viewed: 3,415

No, it isn't truly the Samhain of the Greeks. However, both festivals deal with the dead, the ghosts of the deceased roaming the earth during those days and in general, death and the coming of rebirth.

The two festivals also have great differences. For starters, Samhain is celebrated on the 31st of October and/or the 1st of November while Anthesteria were celebrated from the 11th to the 13th of Anthesterion (one of the months of the Attic calendar named after that very holiday - the dates of the festival correspond to our February's 2nd to 4th) . Additionally, judging from the name of the festival, Anthesteria means roughly "[festival] of blossoming", a reference to the blossoming of flowers from February and onwards, with the coming of Spring. A clear symbolism of rebirth. Also, the overtones of rebirth as well as profanity are not as obvious and predominant in Samhain celebrations as they are on Anthesteria.

Anthesteria is a diverse and somewhat chaotic festival. It is dedicated to the God Dionysos, hence why they are also known as Dionysia. The first day of the festival, Anthesterion 11th (or February 2nd for our calendar) , was called "Pithoigia" (Πιθοίγια) . It was named thus because on that day the ceramic barrels (pithoi - πίθοι) containing that year's wine were opened to taste the wine. During the Pithoigia, people of all ages and social standings consumed wine and offered libations in the sacred site of the "en limnais Dionysos" (Dionysos "of the lakes") , a specific place in Athens.

The second day of the festival, Anthesterion 12th (February 3rd) was called "Choes" (Χόες - not to be confused with the chthonic libations of "choes"[χοές] - the first's emphasis is on -o- while the second's is on -e-) , a reference to the wine containers of the same name. A peculiar characteristic, tying with the aforementioned profanity, was that even though this was a wine-consuming celebration, with even children and slaves participating, everyone was completely silent, conversations and laughter were not allowed. According to the mythical explanation, Orestis, the son of King Agamemnon, visited Athens and sought accommodation some time after murdering his mother, Clytemnestra (who murdered his father for cheating on her) . Since murder was a major form and source of miasma and Orestis was thus profane and "unclean", even though he was given accommodation in Athenian homes (as the laws and Zeus Xenios' worship regarding supplicants and strangers mandated) , he was not spoken to, or allowed to partake in the family meals, nor interact with the families in any of their major activities. Re-enacting this myth, the participants of Choes acted as if they too were profane temporarily. In addition to that, all shrines and holy sites were off-limits for the duration of this day, with the exception of the aforementioned shrine of Dionysos En Limnais.

The Choes were also the time when the "Kares" or "Keres" (Κάρες - Κήρες) , the ghosts of the deceased roamed the city, forcing the citizens to employ apotropaic (evil-averting) means such as painting the houses' doors with tar, chewing leaves of mayflower etc to "drive away the ghosts". Kares/Keres were believed to be, in the beginning, foreigners or malevolent spirits, though later on, it was believed that they were the souls of the dead, specifically of the older inhabitants of Attica (in other words, of the ancestors) .

Other myths that were primarily remembered and told during the Pithoigia and the Choes were those of the origin of wine and winemaking. Most were bloody myths, telling of how the person whom Dionysos instructed to make wine was brutally killed either because his fellow men believed he poisoned them with the wine or as a means to strengthen the wine and ensure prosperity of the vine grapes' harvest. One of the most recounted myths was that of Dionysos' murder and dismemberment, in order for his blood to be ritually consumed. However, due to the belief in the immortality of the Gods, Dionysos was either promptly resurrected perhaps similarly to how a seed (something seemingly dead) blooms into a flower/plant or his sacrifice replaced with that of humans, possibly heroes.

Here, I ought to mention that the Pithoigia started in the 'en limnais' shrine, with the opening of the very first barrels and continued with the drinking celebrations and contests in the vine fields, where vine garlands and wreaths were made as celebratory symbols, worn during the drinking.

Near the end of the Choes, after the drinking of wine ceased, people had to gather the vine garlands and wreaths that were made and used during the celebration and take them to the 'en limnais' shrine to give to Dionysos' priestess who resided there, as well as "perform all the additional sacrifices".

In the 'en limnais' sacred site, resided fourteen women who were called simply "venerable ones" (γέραιραι - gerairai/gerares) . These were appointed by the "vasilissa" (queen - in ancient Greece, the terms king and queen were often given to those who presided over and held religious duties and authority) who also had the most sacred role: that of mating with the God Dionysos himself in a "Hieros Gamos" (Sacred/Holy Marriage) . It is unknown how that occurred since we are unaware of the actions leading to that (e.g. the procession (pompe - πομπή) of the vasilissa, the place etc) and whether the act itself was literal (i.e. the vasileus [king] dressed as the God mating with her) or a symbolic act where the vasilissa fell into ecstasy. Nonetheless, it is one of the most clear and direct mentions of Hieros Gamos in Greek literature. What we do know is that it took place on a bed called "the bed of Dionysos and Ariadne" in a (most probably dark) chamber.

The union was performed during the night and/or in a dark chamber with many of those drinking in the celebrations before observing it while holding lit torches. There was also a strange idol present; a bearded mask on a short column or large stick, clothed with a veil, representing Dionysos.

The third day of the festival, Anthesterion 13th (February 4th) , was called "Chytres" (Χύτρες - cauldrons/cooking pots) , again in reference to the central item/tool of that day. People cooked a "primitive" porridge, made of seeds of all kinds of grains and honey. This was considered "the food of the dead"; it was mentioned in the Cataclysm myth as the food the survivors prepared while remembering those they lost during the cataclysm itself. Priests were the only people not allowed to eat from it, similarly to the closing of the shrines during the previous day. People ate this porridge, remembering their dead and gaining new courage to continue living on. They also performed sacrifices to Hermes Chthonios, the only deity, apart from Dionysos, that was honored, approached and addressed during the whole festival. The profane days were past, the masks had broken and the dead had to leave: θύραζε, Κάρες, ουκέτ' Ανθεστήρια (thyraze, Kares, ouket' Anthesteria - out/be gone, Kares, Anthesteria have ended) was a common saying during the Chytres.

The new beginning and rebirth was noted with athletic games. A special game, mostly for girls, was the swing. The myth behind the significance of this game during the last day of the festival is rather morbid. One of the mythical figures to whom the origins of winemaking were attributed, Ikarius of Attica, was supposedly found dead by his daughter, Erigone, whom was previously taken as a bride (read: raped) by Dionysos. Upon finding her father's dead body within the well on their property, she proceeded to hang herself from a nearby tree. The swing game mirrored her hanging and was a form of symbolic atonement of the crime, performed by all Athenian girls.

That is the grim yet strangely mirthful festival of Anthesteria, a festival of death and profanity, ending with rebirth and cleansing.

Sources: Greek Religion by Walter Burkert



Location: Athens, Greece


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