Anthesteria in a northern land

Last weekend was my first Anthesteria back in Maine, where there are most definitely not flowers emerging (despite the festival falling relatively late this year). I spent my first 7 or so years as a polytheist here, so I remember this problem, but back then I had just started to understand the festivals. I felt then – as I do still – a surety that Anthesteria is one of the few festivals that should not be adjusted for local climate, but I didn’t know how to manage the discrepancies, and my attempts were a little underwhelming. So I am making a fresh start in interpreting the festival for a northern landscape. I expect I will be working on this and similar issues for a few years as I slowly learn the ways of this land and the manifestations of the gods here, particularly on the Hellenic side of things.

I admit I was a little hung up on the flowers issue until I realized that they aren’t necessarily a huge part of it. Sure, the name of the festival evokes flowers, and there’s certainly something to be said for the idea that the dead emerge from the underworld in some kind of synchronicity – metaphorical or metaphysical or both – with the emergence of the first flowers of spring. But of all the varied details of these three days that have come down to us, I don’t know that any of the rites directly involve flowers. Wine, the dead, and eroticism are much more prominent themes. I did buy a pot of miniature daffodils, just as a gift to the god, and I think perhaps next year I will force some bulbs myself in advance so that they bloom at the right time. But I decided to primarily focus on other aspects, and try to root it in my local landscape.

Most significantly, in Athens the festival was held in the sanctuary of Dionysos of the Marshes…and I now live in a swamp. So I created a shrine to the god just a little ways into the trees and held rites on each day there. Because I am keeping all spiritual and magical items relatively unobtrusive there (in deference to the swamp spirits), it was very simple – some colorful cloth ribbons and a few symbolic objects wrapped around a particular tree I had picked out awhile back, surrounded by pine saplings. It felt perfect though.

The only ritual photos I take are pre- or post-, but here you can see some of the things that went into making the shrine, plus the flowers, and a particularly aptly-named local wine (Theron, by Cellar Door Winery)

On Pithoigia I went into town and visited the cemetery that holds most of the founding families – unfortunately it was under too much snow to wander in, so I poured out a bottle of wine at the entrance and hailed the dead. Then I tracked down (with some effort) a bottle of locally produced wine with Maine-grown grapes for that evening’s drinking. I came home and read through What Flowers in the Dark, as I do most years (it always helps remind me of the many threads that make up this occasion). I also went out back and shoveled a bit into the several feet of snow blanketing the swamp to make a pathway for myself to reach the shrine tree. Ritual shoveling! This is my life now.

At dusk I wrapped the tree in decorations and poured out dark red wine in a gory-looking spray across the snow at its base. I blew on my hunting horn and called to the dead. The gibbous moon was shrouded in a hazy glow. It was beautiful.

In my temple room, I returned to a practice I hadn’t done in ages – mixing wine with spring water, as was traditional in antiquity. It feels much more meaningful now because I don’t have to buy bottled water – there is a local spring where the water comes right out of the ground, safe to drink, and it is near a mountain famous for its minerals and feels especially holy. I had gathered some before the snows came to use in ritual this winter, and I keep it in a special place sheltered from miasma. It was really powerful to drink that mixed with the local wine, taking the land into my body in a visceral way. There was music and masks and celebration that night.

On Khoes, I made three hanging maiden dolls from wool yarn. It snowed all day long and there was an oppressive stillness outside – the white sky blending into the white ground. Some years I feel the miasma of this festival most on the second day and sometimes on the third, I’m not sure why. This year it was the second day for sure. That evening I had to dig my way out to the shrine again to hang the dolls from the pine trees – more ritual shoveling! – and I also took some freshly fallen snow from the temenos to melt inside and mix with the wine for this night. Another way of drinking the land and sky.

On the morning of Khutroi I hung buckthorn twigs at the doors (also local, they came from my mother’s backyard tree), before going out to do more (non-ritual) shoveling. As I filled the birdfeeder and scattered peanuts for the squirrels (which I do most days – I consider feeding the wildlife here part of caring for the land), I realized I was in essence giving them a panspermia – traditionally a combination of seeds and legumes. Of course that evening I made a true panspermia, using local beans and oats and honey, with water from my well. I trekked through the snow once more and left the porridge at several points along the border of the swamp, crying out the ritual banishment of the dead.

I have often thought of this as the festival of vessels, since each day is named after one. This year that felt more important than ever, especially with the addition of three special sources of water (spring, snow and well) to mix with the ritual food and drink. Building the sacred precinct in my own swamp worked extremely well, helped root my worship of Dionysos on my land, and also added a layer to the relationship I am building with the spirits there. But it was also nice to retire inside to the temple room to warm myself with wine. Perhaps by next year I will find a nearby swingset to use that is accessible in the snow. As always, this is a work in progress. But I will say that I did not feel that the efficacy of the festival was weakened by the lack of flowers on the ground.

Io Dionysos!

~ by Dver on March 12, 2023.

3 Responses to “Anthesteria in a northern land”

  1. Oh, so beautiful! Thanks for sharing it! I was hoping some people would write about their Anthesteria. I was in a miasmic state so wouldn’t have done a traditional festival anyway, but this year I was at a writers’ retreat- a strange but not bad way to spend it. It snowed wildly the first night, but then I went into the woods and found a tiny purple wildflower.

  2. I also felt the miasma descend on the second day very strongly.
    Lovely write up and always fascinating to see the adaptations based on location. I move every 4 years or so and struggle with the adaptations in a religious sense.

  3. […] you read Dver’s account of celebrating Anthesteria after her return to Maine? You should. It’s pretty […]

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