A Post-Festival Guide to Anthesteria
I realize this would have been a more useful post BEFORE the festival happened this year, but I only just thought of it. I’ll try to remember to link back to it when Anthesteria rolls around next year.
I know many people have trouble figuring out how to celebrate the ancient Greek festivals, especially when they’re alone or with only one or two other people. Anthesteria in particular can be tricky – it’s several days long, and has a complicated mixture of symbols and contexts. (Sannion already wrote a great piece on doing the festival solo, and also collected all the primary sources that talk about it.) After celebrating this festival in some form for over a decade, I feel I’m finally getting to its heart. Much of this cannot be transmitted to anyone else in words, because it is a personal understanding of the Mystery of the festival itself, and the aspects of Dionysos which are revealed therein. However, I wanted to mention a few of the details we have developed, which help to properly perform the rites and thus gain a deeper experience of the festival and the gods and spirits involved.
1. Timing. There are many ancient festivals that can be moved around – shifted to the nearest weekend for convenience, for instance, or even moved more dramatically to fall in synch with local weather or culture. I don’t believe that Anthesteria is such a festival. This is because it marks a specific time when the world below opens to the world above – in other words, when the veil is thin. The whole thing with Anthesteria is that the dead re-visit the earth. Sure, there are elements of the festival that act in concert with this, helping to call up and send back the dead, but they are not the sole cause of this event. Therefore, if you actually believe in this, then you will realize that you can’t just move Anthesteria to your days off, or bump it a week because your relatives are visiting. Either the world below is open or it isn’t – you can’t force it to fit your schedule. Yes, that means that you will probably have to fit it around your day job and whatever else is going on – that’s okay, it’s more important that you act in accord with the forces that are really there, than that you devote 100% of your time for three days to it.
(As a side note, the one argument I’ve seen for shifting the festival that holds any water at all is that, being connected with the emergence of the first flowers as they too erupt from the earth, it doesn’t make sense to celebrate it on ancient Greek time if you live in a vastly different climate. However, I’d counter that even on the ancient calendar, the festival moves around quite a bit from year to year (this year, for instance, falling very late), so they obviously felt it wasn’t entirely tied to the first sighting of flowers, but to a very specific magical date. That being said, if one felt very called to shift it for climate reasons, I’d at least recommend doing some serious prayer and divination to ascertain exactly when an appropriate date would be for their local area, when there are *real* and similar forces at work, and then stick just as strictly to those new dates.)
2. Horn. Last year Sannion had the idea to add this to our celebration. A horn or trumpet used to announce the start of the festival, and the drinking contest on the second day. I had a hunting horn, which seemed perfect. But instead of just blowing it once at the beginning, we took it around town when we did our normal libations on Pithoigia, and blew it to call up the dead as we poured out the wine. This was especially powerful at the gates to several cemeteries we passed. If you can get a horn to blow (an actual cow horn is best, or some kind of metal one is fine), it’s a chilling addition.
3. Procession. As I mentioned, on the first day we make a garlanded procession through the city. We stop now and then – at cemeteries, at landscape features that have become holy to us such as rivers and groves, and wherever else Dionysos tells us to – and hail the god and the dead, pour out libations of red wine, and blow the horn. The wine is not just for the god; the aroma also attracts the dead as it sinks into the ground. We also collect whatever flowers we can find, to leave on His altar later. Some years this has only been a couple snowdrops, one year it was too easy so we switched to only collecting flowering tree branches. This is probably my favorite part of the festival these days, even though it usually leaves us quite exhausted as we walk for miles!
4. Wine Label. No detail is too small. Everything that you can tie into the theme of the festival makes the whole experience richer, more beautiful, and more powerfully symbolic. We usually look for wine with labels featuring flowers, images of Bacchus, or other things connected to the festival. This year however I found something truly special – a wine called Genius Loci. How perfect is that!
5. Silent Drinking. On the second day, the miasma has started to descend, and the drinking is done in silence. Especially good if you can do this in an appropriately swampy location. If you have other people to do it with, you could also make it into a traditional drinking contest.
6. Swinging. It’s pretty easy if you live in the city to find a park with a swingset you can use. Though we find it better to do this at night, when there are no kids present and when you can really connect with the spooky aspect of it.
7. Dolls. In the same place as you go swinging, hang up little dolls representing Erigone and the other girls who hanged themselves. These can be as simple or elaborate as you want, and making them can be a good craft activity earlier in the festival. I’ve made full 3-d effigies, paper dolls, and pipe cleaner figures, depending on the time and materials I had.
8. Hieros Gamos. People get excited speculating about how this was done in ancient times, what exactly was involved, and it’s certainly tantalizing, but I think it’s best left alone by most people. Unless you have already established a pretty intense relationship with Dionysos that is also romantic/sexual in nature and it also helps if you have a powerful connection to the land and/or people where you live, that would allow you to properly stand in for the Basilinna. In which case, you and He will have to figure it out for yourselves. For everyone else, I recommend feasting, revelry, dancing, etc.
9. Buckthorn. On Khutroi, the doors of the house were smeared with pitch, and people chewed the purgative buckthorn to repel the wandering spirits. (The temples were also roped off, and some people now cover their shrines to mimic this, which seems pretty reasonable to me, but I don’t do this personally simply because it would be impossible in my house, as my shrines are pretty much everything I own.) Sometimes I have smeared honey on my door, but it’s not always feasible to coat your door with something sticky, especially if you don’t own the place you live in. Likewise, I don’t personally want to experiment with chewing a plant that has very distressing effects on one’s GI tract. So, instead I have combined these traditions to create a different form of sympathetic magic. I tie up a satchel of buckthorn bark and hang it on my door. Seems pretty effective so far. I usually leave this up for a week or so after the festival just to be sure. You can buy buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) here.
10. Panspermia. What the last day was named for – you bring an offering of stewed grains and honey to the dead and Hermes Psychopompos. I used to do this in the cemetery, but these days we use the swamp near my house, which also feels appropriate (and it’s also the first place we leave offerings at the beginning of the festival). Use local ingredients if possible – this year I included wine-red beans and purple barley grown locally, and local honey as well. Alternately, you could try making kollyva, a grain dish that is used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for very similar purposes, and appears to be a direct descendant of the panspermia.
Yesterday afternoon I started feeling unaccountably depressed. Before I got too carried away with it, it occurred to me that it was probably due to the miasma of Khutroi (and indeed, it lifted overnight). It is funny, this has happened several years in a row now but it always surprises me. Even though it’s an unpleasant feeling, I think it’s a good sign that I’ve fully internalized the forces at work. But I was still happy to banish it! Last night we walked to the swamp, and with the final libation of wine, and presentation of the panspermia (and this year, with a wave of a temporary rhabdos I’d picked up on Pithoigia), I uttered the traditional incantation in ancient Greek (“To the doors,Keres, it is no longer Anthesteria!”) and ended the festival. But already looking forward to next Anthesteria!