At the Gates of Spring
Winter to Spring: coming into being from the sacred silence of grief
Winter with its seemingly lifeless, unadorned nature, with its black and white background of gloomy skies or snowy motionless landscapes, bordering to underworld connotations, always loomed large to the minds of ancient cultures. Though some cultures were more pre-occupied with death, the ancient Greeks were more pre-occupied with life. Their inquiring minds, to cast the souls of the dead out, thought of winter as the start of spring, as the time of rebirthing, of rejoicing, of breaking the spell of death, of purifying it with life through communal memorial rites and rituals of offerings, of drinking, of purifications and libations.
Anthesteria: a passage rite from death to life
Ten days before the Athenian spring celebration of the Diasia, the Athenians as well as many other Ionians celebrated the Anthesteria, a 3-day festival, during the month of Anthesterion (February to March), the 8th Attic month. This annual festival was the oldest to commemorate god Dionysus in Athens and one of the oldest in Greece. W. Burkert (Homo Necans, 213-4) dates it to as early as c. 1000 BCE and thinks that it spanned over 1000 years. It was taking place at the sanctuary of Dionysus in Limnae under or close to the Acropolis (Thucydides 2.15; Burkert, Homo Necans, 212-3). Though the Anthesteria was seemingly devoted to Dionysus and to wine, it was probably celebrating the passage of winter to spring, since the course of the gloomy, withering winter to the blooming, thriving spring was an occasion for private mourning, for public lamenting and for celebrating at communal feastings. It was also appropriate for recollecting the dead and their souls in silence as well as for boisterous drinking and public mocking on wagons, for rites of passage of the young, for purifications and libations and rites for placating the god and the souls of the ancestors.
The festival lasted for 3 days, from the 11th to the 13th of Anthesterion, an Athenian month which corresponds to our early March. The celebration started in the evening, usually at sundown, and hosted different rituals and events which were given special names; so the 3 days of the festival were called the Pithoigia (the opening of the pithoi—storage jars), the Choes (wine pitchers—beakers) and the Chytroi (special cooking-pots). The rite of the Aiora (swinging), of Skommata ex’amaxis (mocking on wagons), of Hieros Gamos (sacred marriage) and of Hydrophoria (carrying of water-vessels) were also integral parts of the Anthesteria among other rites. Men, women, children and slaves were all taking part into the festival, suggestive of its importance for the community.
The 11th day of the Athenian month Anthesterion (about March 2nd) and the first day of the festival Anthesteria was called Pithoigia. At the sunset of this day people would open their clay wine jars (pithoi) with the new wine (Plut. Quaes. Conv. 3.7), a ritual associated with new life and rebirthing. This rite was so important for the members of the community that the opening and first tasting of the new wine “was a collective celebration within the sanctuary” of Dionysus in Limnae (Burkert, Homo Necans, 217). An ancient source (FGrHist 325 F 12) also informs us that the name Limnae (Marshes) was given to the temple of Dionysus because there wine was mixed with water before offered to god and consumed by the participants.
On the afternoon of the Pithoigia, a rope was fastened around all temples and sanctuaries of the city (perischinisai, Pollux 8.141), apart from the temple of Dionysus in Limnae. When temples were shut it was an official holiday: no oaths could be sworn, no sacrifices could be performed and so no transactions could be performed in the city. Αll activity would then centre around the temple of Dionysus, which would open its gates at sunset and would stay open just for 24 hours in the year. All free and unfree members of the community were allowed to participate within the precinct of this temple in opening the pithoi and tasting the new wine (Scholiast on Hesiod Works and Days 368-70). Children alike were taking an active part into the 3-day celebrations, taking days off school, sipping their first wine, crowned with flowers and getting presents as in modern Christmas.
On the sunset of the 12th day of the Athenian month Anthesterion people celebrated the 2nd day of the Anthesteria, called the Choes. The term derived from the Greek word to pour (cheo). Α 'chous', a vessel which could hold about 2.5 liters of mixed wine, was for drinking wine. Choes were given to all participants of the festival to use and keep them their own forever, while miniatures of this vase were also serving as gifts for the children attending the festival (Euripides Iphigenia in Tauris 953, 960; Burkert, Homo Necans, 219).
The day involved a fertility rite, the Sacred Marriage (Hieros Gamos) of Dionysus with the wife (Basilinna) of the Archon Basileus (the religious leader of the year) at the temple of Dionysus in Limnae and at Boukoleion at the heart of the city (Demosthenes, Against Neaera 59, 73; Burkert, Homo Necans, 216). This rite was probably associated with the myth of Theseus, Ariadne and Dionysus, symbolizing the union of the god with the people as a means of rebirthing.
Yet to live you should also think of death and the ones who died and so there was a silent, mourning-like communal feasting where everyone was bringing his own food and drink, sitting at his own table without interacting with each other. The story goes that Orestes, after having committed matricide, arrived at Athens while the Athenians were at a public feast celebrating Dionysus Linaious. Since it was considered impure to talk to him, they continued their communal feasting in silence, suggestive of memorial practices (Euripides Iphigenia in Tauris, 958-60).
So silent public feasting and drinking contests were among the main events of the Choes. When the participants with ivy wreaths on their heads had emptied their cups, they would put the wreaths on their beakers. Meanwhile, children over the age of 3 could participate, getting their own beakers, probably as a rite of passage to childhood from infancy. Generally, this was a day when all 3- and 4-year old children would get presents (Burkert, Homo Necans, 216), instructors would get paid for their services and the winners of the wine competitions would win prizes like wineskins (Aristophanes Acharnians 999). After the boozing, the intoxicated participants would get on their wagons and would start mocking all passersby (skommata ex’ amaxis).
The Choes was thought of as a day of pollution (miara imera); people believed that this was when the dead’s souls were walking on earth and so they would paint their house doors with pitch for the souls to stick to or would chew hawthorn (ramnos), since it was thought to prevent the evil and ward off ghosts (Burkert, Homo Necans, 216, 218-9). This memorial day with great associations to ceremonies for the dead would end with rites of purification and libations. The rite of the Aiora which involved the swinging of people, especially of women (with possible allusions to fertility rites) or of things on a tree was a means of purification. It was associated with either the myth of Erigone, the daughter of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, and Orestes (B. C. Dietrich Hermes 89.1 (1961): 36-50) or with the myth of Erigone, daughter of Ikarios, and Dionysus (Eratosthenes Erigone fr. 4 Powell). In both versions of Erigone’s story, the girl finds her father dead (Aegisthus or Ikarios), hangs herself from a tree, casting a curse to Athens averted only through the rite of the Aiora, which was meant to purify the city and so it was practiced that day. Finally, the participants of the Choes would bring the remnants of wine to the priestess at Limnae. These would be poured as a libation to Dionysus, while the wreaths of the beakers would also be offered to him to be placated.
On the 13th day of the Athenian month Anthesterion, people celebrated the 3rd day of Anthesteria, called the Chytroi. The term derives both from the cooking pots (chytrai) which were filled with food, mostly vegetables and porridge of seeds and grains (panspermia) and from the (chytroi) which were natural pots or holes in the ground through which according to Hysechius (s.v. χύτρινοι) Spring comes up (Theophrastus Hist. Plant. iv.118; J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the history of Greek Religion, 37). This was a feast to the dead dedicated to the Shades and to Hermes Cthonios. It was also associated with Deucalion’s flood, since it was believed that this food offering on chytrai was first made by the survivors of Deucalion’s flood to the ones who perished. None of these were ever eaten since they were meant just for the dead (Scholiast on Aristophanes Acharnians 1076; Harrison, Prolegomena, 37). Finally, there was the ceremony of bringing water and pouring it into a pit outside the Limnae district which could probably be at the temple of Olympian Zeus next to the Gates of the city of Athens. This was the rite of Hydrophoria, where people would pour water in a hole that it was believed that the waters of the Flood passed away, and so as the offering of the Chytroi, it was a libation to placate the souls of the dead so as life would spring anew.
The festival would then end with Athenians calling the souls to leave their city, for the festival of Anthesteria had ended (thyraze kires, ouk et’ Anthestiria), and so life and spring could re-enter the Gates of Athens.