Festivals for Dionysos are not meant to be traditional, or normal, or to conform to expectations. Therefore it is no surprise that Anthesteria alarms people, challenges them, and makes them uncomfortable. After all, that is what a God of madness and ecstasy does.
The name of the festival is the first jarring note, taking place as it does in late winter. In a Mediterranean climate, however, the winters may gentler, and it was probably not unusual to see early flowers blooming in ancient Athens in the month of Anthesteria, just as on the east coast of the United States we often get early snowdrops. This first hint of spring beauty carries darker undertones- the earth gaping open, allowing a brief exodus of spirits from the Underworld. This feeling of eeriness permeates the festival, even as more cheerful aspects are celebrated.
Anthesteria is a three-day festival. The first day, which takes place this year on April 22nd of the modern calendar, is called Pithogia, which means ‘the opening of the jars.’ This is the time when the new wine casks are breached, and the new wine mixed with water and shared. Dionysos’s image is brought to the shrine in a chariot accompanied by maenads and satyrs, an image whose similarity to Mardi Gras is striking. Children were often given their first taste of wine, and their own little wine pots, on Pithogia.
The day is celebrated with libations, the sharing of good local wines, and praise for Dionysos. Yet the knowledge that earth is opening, and that the sharp scent of the new wine attracts the notice of the shades of the dead rests uneasily in our subconscious.
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