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Anthesteria: The First of the Vintage

Anthesteria: The First of the Vintage

I just found out about the Athenian holiday Anthesteria.

There were a lot of holidays back in the day. To accommodate the entire Greek pantheon of gods who each had their own rites and rituals, about a third of each year was made up of holidays and observances. At the beginning of spring, Athenians would honor Dionysus and celebrate the maturing of wine stored at the previous vintage.

You might be familiar with Dionysus, the androgynous god of wine and wine-making, as well as theater and ritual madness—Euripides’ play The Bacchae describes the followers of Dionysus as frenzied women, galavanting about the forest with snakes twined in their hair and wild animals suckling at their breasts. Anthesteria is a bit more reserved, but barely.

Libations (pour one out for Dionysus)

On the first day of the holiday, wine casks were opened in the name of Dionysus. The first drink was offered to the god of libations, out of respect for the arts of wine-making and in thanks for Dionysus’ blessings, ensuring a good vintage for years to come.

Wine Drinking Contests

Is it really a holiday if you’re not on a mission to find out which of your friends and neighbors can drink you under the table? The merrymaking was pretty inclusive, too: women, slaves and children were invited to participate.

Secret Ritual Marriage Ceremonies

It’s exactly what you hoped it would be. The state would perform marriage rites for the wife of the current king archon (chief magistrate of Athens), who acted as the ceremonial bride of Dionysus. I myself often feel as if I’m married to the wine god.

The Souls of the Dead, of course

Of course, this holiday would not be complete without spirits walking among the land of the living. People chewed hawthorn leaves to ward off evil, and left pots of seed and grain out to appease restless spirits and help them find their way back to the Elysian Fields of the Underworld.

Anthesteria is like a Halloween or Day of the Dead celebrated in early spring, strangely enough, at a time when life is budding and new—perhaps a comment on the cyclical nature of life, a reminder that it should be celebrated with a glass of wine in hand.