Pagan Paths

Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.

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Celebrating the Anthesteria

At dusk today, one of Hellenismos' most important festivals (if one can give classifications to the festivals at all) starts. It's the Anthesteria, and held in honor of Dionysos Limnaios, wine, and the dead. The Anthesteria was held annually for three days, the eleventh to thirteenth of the month of Anthesterion. It is an ancestral festival, the oldest of the festivals for Dionysos in Athens, a time of reflection and trust in the new growing season to come, a time to celebrate with the spirits of the departed the indefatigable resurgence of life. The festival centered around the celebration of the maturing of the wine stored at the previous vintage, whose pithoi were now ceremoniously opened, and the beginning of spring. The three days of the feast were called Pithoigia (after πίθοι 'storage jars'), Khoes (χοαί 'libations') and Khytroi (χύτροι 'pots').


On the first day, the pithoi were brought to the city of Athens and opened in the temple of Dionysos. Everyone from age three and up wore garlands of new flowers, and many were present when the pithoi of new wine were opened, and a libations was offered to Dionysos before drinking of it. It was a truly celebratory day.

On the second day, all temples were closed, except the temple of Dionysos. Social order broke down on this day--as slaves were permitted to celebrate alongside everyone else--and there was a drinking contest in the afternoon where three liters of wine were drunk in complete silence, from khoes. Whomever finished first, won. At the end of the day, the garlands that had been worn were wound around their khoes which they then took to the priestess in charge of the sanctuary at the Limnaios (the marsh) to be dedicated. The wife of the Archōn Basileus--the Archon in charge of religious and artistic festivals--the Basilinna might have taken part in a sacred marriage with Dionysos, either with her husband acting as a conduit for Dionysos, or one of His priests. Geriai, priestesses or followers of Dionysos, might have assisted in this ritual, or would have held their own cult rituals on this day. Young women swung in trees and decorated them to commemorate the death of Erigone, as chronicled below.

On day three, everyone joined in a procession to the temple of Dionysos. It was a somber day consisting of the preparation of a mixture of a panspermia, grains and beans boiled together (a good recipe can be found here), along with honey which was offered to Hermes Khthonios on behalf of the spirits of the dead, especially those who died in Deukalion’s flood. The slaves, as well as the dead, were then told to go home, as 'the Anthesteria had ended'.

The origins of the Anthesteria are based in myth. After the battle of Troy, King Agamemnon returns home to his wife Klytaemnestra (Κλυταιμνήστρα). When Agamemnon returns, playwright Aeschylus in his Oresteia, writes Klytaemnestra as not having been faithful to her husband. She has taken as her new lover and husband Aegisthos (Αἴγισθος), cousin of Agamemnon, and when Agamemnon and his young slave come home, Klytaemnestra kills them both. Orestes (Ὀρέστης), son of Agamemnon and Klytaemnestra ends up killing Aegisthos, as well as his mother for her crime, under orders of Apollon. Yet, the matricide is a terrible offense in the eyes of the Theoi, and the Erinyes--Khthonic deities of vengeance--are sent to kill Orestes. They chased him relentlessly and upon reaching Delphi he is told by Apollon that he should go to Athens to seek Athena's aid.

Phanodemus (Athenaeus 10.437c-d) describes what happens to Orestes next, as it is this practice that was reenacted again and again, during the second day of the Anthesteria:

“When Orestes arrived at Athens after killing his mother, Demophon [king of Athens] wanted to receive him, but was not willing to let him approach the sacred rites [to Dionysos] nor share the libations, since he had not yet been put on trial [and had not yet been cleansed of miasma]. So he ordered the sacred things to be locked up and a separate pitcher of wine to be set beside each person [instead of sharing a drinking vessel as usual], saying that a flat cake would be given as a prize to the one who drained his first. He also ordered them, when they had stopped drinking, not to put the wreathes with which they were crowned on the sacred objects, because they had been under the same roof with Orestes. Rather each one was to twine them around his own pitcher and take the wreathes to the priestess at the precinct in Limnai, and then to perform the rest of the sacrifices in the sanctuary.”


As mentioned, Orestes arrives at Athens during an existing festival to Dionysos. It is posed that this festival was the Aiora, a festival instituted to commemorate the death of Erigone, her father, and their dog Maera. The story goes that Ikários (Ἰκάριος) was such a fine winemaker that he could produce wine so strong, those who drank it appeared to be poisoned. His skill turned out to be his undoing; Íkaros was killed by those who drank his wine, thinking the wine maker was out to kill them. His daughter Erigone was taken to his body by the family hound, Maera, whereupon both she and the dog committed suicide by hanging. It may have been that Dionysos was so angry over the murder and the following suicides, He punished Athens by making all of the city's maidens (or only the daughters of those who had killed Ikários) commit suicide in the same way. The citizens of Athens turned to the oracle of Delphi to stop these suicides, and the oracle told them to burry the three with honors, and appease their spirits. The Athenians buried the bodies with full honors, and a festival was founded where young Athenian women swung in swings, and hung ribbons, cups, and dolls in trees.

The Anthesteria might sound like a confusing festival, and it was, in a way. The three days were almost completely separate events, but have a few things in common. It's a fertility festival, but birth is linked to death. All life is linked to death, after all, and both birth and death were miasmic events. After the rough winter, everything was dead: the soil, the remaining food stores, people... miasma tainted everything. So, as new life began from the ashes of the old, Dionysos was invoked and sacrificed to, to cleanse the old, to remove the miasma resting upon the earth and the people. It is not odd to find mythology connected to this festival which is so strongly linked to miasma, birth and death.

How does a modern Hellenist celebrate the Anthesteria? Sannion has a wonderful solitary Anthesteria ritual, but you can, of course, create your own. The first day should focus upon the fertility aspects of the festival: the coming abundance of flowers, wine, and fruit now the spring is almost upon us. Day two began at night, and was filled with... well... sex. People were intoxicated, enthusiastic about the upcoming spring and the end of winter, and they tended to find each other in the dark of night. I would suggest starting there for day two, if you have the option.

On this second day, cover any other shrine you may have in the house, but the one on which you will honor Dionysos, to prevent them from becoming tainted with miasma. Think about Orestes, and what he was forced to do--fail either his father by not punishing his killer, or fail his mother by killing her, and dooming himself, regardless--and think about hard decisions you have had to make, and ask forgiveness for them. If you are of legal age and have the opportunity to do so, empty a glass of wine, and feel it swirl in your stomach, as restless as the spirits of the mythic dead who will come up from the Underworld tomorrow. Swing on a swing, as high as you can, and revel in the feeling. Decorate trees with knick-knacks. If you made yourself a garland, take it outside, preferably something wet, and beg that Dionysos accept it and cleanse you of the pollution you carry within you. Again, this night is perfect for making love, especially in honor of Dionysos.

Keep your shrines covered for the third day, as miasma has not yet been lifted, and the dead roam the earth freely. Give honors to family members, and others who were close to you, who have died. Speak with them and try to find closure. Make them a meal; a panspermia is best, but eggs, leeks and garlic also work well. There are different stories surrounding the eating of the panspermia yourself. Some say no one was to eat from it, but Walter Burkert in 'Greek Religion' notes:

"On the 13th Anthesterion, the day of the Pots, grains of all kinds are boiled together in a pot along with honey. This is the most primitive cereal dish of the early farmers, older than the discovery of flour-milling and bread-baking; in funeral customs it has survived down to the present day. But the idea of food for the dead, conjoined to an abridged version of an ancient source, has lead to the mistaken view that the living were actually prohibited from eating from the Pots. According to the full text, it is only the priests who are barred from eating this food, in accordance with the fact that all sanctuaries are closed on the Choes day. The meal of pottage is linked to the myth of the flood: once the water had subsided, the survivors threw everything they could find into a pot and cooked it as their first meal after the cataclysm, an occasion for summoning up new courage and yet in memory of the dead. One sacrifices to the chthonic Hermes for the sake of the dead and eats from the Pots in the certainty of life regained. The day of defilement is over, the masks and the dead lose their rights: 'Out you Kares, the Anthesteria are over' became a proverbial saying."
 
Yet, Harrison in 'Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion' has the following to say:
 
"The panspermia has not, I think, been rightly understood. In commenting on it before, misled by the gift-theory of sacrifice, I took it to be merely a 'supper for the souls.' No doubt as such it was in later days regarded when primitive magical rites had to be explained on Olympian principles. But it was, to begin with, much more. The ghosts had other work to do than to eat their supper and go. They took that 'supper', that panspermia, with them down to the world below and brought it back in the autumn a pankarpia. The dead are Chthonioi, 'earth people', Demetreioi, 'Demeter's people,' and they do Demeter's work, her work and that of Kore the Maiden, with her Kathodos and Anodos."


Where you stand, you must decide for yourself. I will not taste of the panspermia. Like with the Deipnon, however, setting outside the meal will lift the miasma from your person and the house, so afterwards, you can uncover your shrines again.

The Anthesteria is a festival of deep, emotional, involvement, and it is best celebrated by emerging yourself as completely as you can. As with any rites to Dionysos, transformation within yourself is almost always a consequence. The Anthesteria is a heavy festival, but filled with joy, regardless, because you are working towards spring. Burdens will be lifted from you. Rejoice with all that is left behind in mind, and you will get through these festivals just fine. Enjoy!

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Elani Temperance is a twenty-seven year old woman, who lives with her partner in The Netherlands. She has been Pagan for a little over twelve years and has explored Neo-Wicca, Technopaganism, Hedge Witchery and Eclectic Religious Witchcraft before progressing to Hellenismos. Although her home practice is fully Hellenic, she has an online Neo-Pagan magazine called 'Little Witch magazine' (www.littlewitchmagazine.com) in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BaringTheAegis

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