Wednesday, 6 March 2013


“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.” - Aristophanes

Today is the first day of the Anthesteria (Flower Festival), one of the several Athenian festivals in honour of Dionysus, the wine god, held annually for three days in the month of Anthesterion (February–March) to celebrate the beginning of spring and the maturing of the wine stored at the previous vintage.

On the first day, the Pithoigia (“Jar Opening”) were celebrated and libations of the new wine were offered to Dionysus from the freshly opened casks. The rooms of each house were adorned with spring flowers, and the children over three years of age were bedecked with garlands. Drinking vessels were decorated with flowers, especially violets, which in any case were used to wine by steeping them in it.

The second day, Choes (“Wine Jugs”), was a time of popular merrymaking typified by wine-drinking contests in which even slaves and children participated. People dressed themselves gaily, some in the guise of the mythical personages in the suite of Dionysus, and paid a round of visits to their acquaintances. The primary activity of the day was a drinking competition, in which participants sat at separate tables and competed in silence at draining a chous (a five-litre container) of wine. Miniature choes were given to children as toys, and “first Choes” was a rite of passage.

Also on the second day, the state performed a secret ceremony in a sanctuary of Dionysus in the Lenaeum, in which the wife of the king archon went through a ceremony of marriage to Dionysus. The queen was assisted by 14 Athenian matrons, called geraerae, chosen by the archon and sworn to secrecy. The fullest description, which omits many details, is found in Apollodorus’s speech “Against Neaera.”

The third day, Chytroi (“Pots”) was a festival of the dead, for which, apparently, pots of seed or bran were offered to the dead. None of the Olympian gods were included in the prayers and no one tasted the pottage, which was food of the dead. Although no performances were allowed at the theatre, a type of rehearsal took place, at which the players for the ensuing dramatic festival were selected (remembering that Dionysus was also the patron god of the theatre). On these days, it was believed, the souls of the dead came up from the underworld and walked abroad; people chewed leaves of whitethorn and smeared their doors with tar to protect themselves from evil. A common invocation was: “Away with you, Keres (evil spirits), it is no longer the Anthesteria”.

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