Anthesteria, one of the four Athenian festivals in honour of Dionysus (collectively the Dionysia), was held annually for three days, the eleventh to thirteenth of the month of Anthesterion (the January/February full moon); it was preceded by the Lenaia. At the centre of this wine-drinking festival was the celebration of the maturing of the wine stored at the previous vintage, whose pithoi were now ceremoniously opened, and the beginning of spring. Athenians of the Classical age were aware that the festival was of great antiquity; Walter Burkert points out that the mythic reflection of this is the Attic founder-king Theseus' release of Ariadne to Dionysus, but this is no longer considered a dependable sign that the festival had been celebrated in the Minoan period. Since the festival was celebrated by Athens and all the Ionian cities, it is assumed that it must have preceded the Ionian migration of the late eleventh or early tenth century BC.
The three days of the feast were called Pithoigia (after πίθοι "storage jars"), Choës (χοαί "libations"; Modern Greek: χοές) and Chytroi (χύτροι "pots").
During the feast, social order was interrupted or inverted, the slaves being allowed to participate, uniting the household in ancient fashion. The Anthesteria also have aspects of a festival of the dead who freely roamed the city, comparable to the Roman Feast of the Lemures, the expulsion of ancestral ghosts: compare All Souls' Night and carnival. Either the Keres (Κῆρες) or the Carians (Κᾶρες) were entertained, and expelled from the city after the festival, symbolizing either the souls of the dead or the aboriginal inhabitants of Attica. A Greek proverb, employed of those who pestered for continued favours, ran "Out of doors, Keres! It is no longer Anthesteria".
The name Anthesteria (Ἀνθεστήρια), according to the account of it given above, is usually connected with ἄνθος (plural: ἄνθη or ἄνθεα; root: ἀνθεσ-) "flower," or the "bloom" of the grape, cognate to Sanskrit andhas "Soma plant".
In the era of the Cambridge ritualists, A. W. Verrall explained the name as a feast of "revocation" (from anathessasthai, ἀναθέσσασθαι, to "pray back" or "up"), at which the ghosts of the dead were recalled to the land of the living (perhaps to be compared to the Roman ritual of opening the mundus). His contemporary Jane Ellen Harrison regarded the Anthesteria as primarily a festival of "all souls", intended to placate ancestral spirits. Harrison understood the Pithoigia as the feast of opening the graves (pithos, πίθος, in this case meaning a large urn used for burial purposes), Choës as the day of libations (χοαί, choai), and Chytroi (chutroi, χύτροι) as the day of grave-holes (not "pots," χύτραι), in point of time really anterior to the Pithoigia. Later scholars of myth and ritual such as Eleanor Rohde and Martin P. Nilsson take the chutroi to mean "water vessels," and connect the ceremony with the Hydrophoria, a libation festival said to propitiate the dead who had perished in the flood of Deucalion.
The month Anthesterion is named after the festival, not vice versa. A month by this name appears in both the Attic calendar, and in calendars of Ionia. It was thus thought in antiquity that the festival predated the Ionian colonisation, making it the oldest datable part of the Eleusinian Mysteries. An archaic element was the choosing of the "king" (basileus, βασιλεύς). In the course of the festival the consort of the king (basilinna) was given up to the god in a mystical marriage (hieros gamos), which took place in the Boukolion (Βουκόλιον) in the agora. Precisely what this entailed, and how physical was the public union, are matters of discussion. Walter Burkert regards the ceremony as a reflection of the myth in which the Attic founder-king Theseus' released Ariadne to Dionysus.
On the first day, called Pithoigia (Πιθοίγια "opening of the casks"; cf. οἴγειν "to open"), libations were offered from the newly opened casks to the god of wine, all the household, including slaves, joining in the festivities. The rooms and the drinking vessels in them were adorned with spring flowers, as were also the children over three years of age.
The second day, named Choës (libations), was a time of merrymaking. The people dressed themselves gaily, some in the disguise of the mythical personages in the suite of Dionysus, and paid a round of visits to their acquaintances. Drinking clubs met to organize drink-off matches, the winner being he who drained his cup most rapidly. Others poured libations on the tombs of deceased relatives. On the part of the state this day was the occasion of a peculiarly solemn and secret ceremony in the sanctuary of Dionysus en limnais - ἐν λίμναις, "in the marshes", closed for all the rest of the year. The basilissa - βασίλισσα (or basilinna - βασιλίννα), wife of the archon basileus for the duration, went through a ceremony of marriage (hierogamy) to the wine god, in which she was assisted by fourteen Athenian matrons, called gerarai, chosen by the basileus and sworn to secrecy.
The days on which the Pithoigia and Choës were celebrated were both regarded as apophrades (ἀποφράδες, Latin equivalent nefasti, "unlucky") and miapai (μιαραί, "defiled"), necessitating expiatory libations; on them the souls of the dead came up from the underworld and walked abroad. According to Photius, people chewed leaves of buckthorn and besmeared their doors with tar to protect themselves from evil. But at least in private circles the festive character of the ceremonies predominated.
The third day was named Chytroi ("feast of pots", from χύτρος, "a pot"), a festival of the dead. Cooked pulse was offered to Hermes Chthonios, Hermes in his capacity of a god of the lower world, 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. Although no performances were allowed at the theatre, a sort of rehearsal took place, at which the players for the ensuing dramatic festival were selected.
See also 
- Thucydides (ii.15) noted that "the more ancient Dionysia were celebrated on the twelfth day of the month of Anthesterion in the temple of Dionysus Limnaios ("Dionysus in the Marshes").
- Walter Burkert, Greek Religion 1985 §V.2.4, pp 237-42, offers a concise assessment, with full bibliography.
- Burkert 1985: §II.7.7, p 109.
- Noted in Harrison 1903, p34.
- A. W. Verrall, Journal of Hellenic Studies, xx., 1900, p. 115.
- Themis 100, 109, and Prolegomena.
- "The deluge is of course introduced to get mythological precedent" (Harrison, p 37).
- Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985: §II.7.7, p 109.
- Walter Burkert points out that as there were no actual marshes in the immediate surroundings of Athens, the name must have been imported with the cult.
- W. Burkert, Homo necans (1971)
- J. Girard in Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités (s.v. "Dionysia")
- J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903); Chapter II:"The Anthesteria: the Ritual of Ghosts and Spirits"
- F. Hiller von Gartringen in Pauly-Wissowa's Realencyclopadie (s.v.)
- August Mommsen, Feste der Stadt Athen (1898)
- Martin P. Nilsson, Studia de Dionysiis Atticis (1900), Griechische Feste (1906)
- Otto, Walter F. Dionysus, Myth and Cult. Spring Publications (1989). ISBN 0-88214-214-3
- E. Rohde, Psyche (4th ed., 1907), p. 237.
- Georg Friedrich Schömann, Griechische Alterthümer, ii. (ed. Justus Hermann Lipsius, 1902), p. 516
- F. A. Voigt in W. H. Roscher's Lexikon der Mythologie (s.v. "Dionysos")
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Anthesteria.|
- The Anthesteria Bibliotheca Arcana (1997)