Dionysus & the Anthesteria, Festival of Love & Death

Bonnie Sklarski, "Dionysus"

Bonnie Sklarski, “Dionysus”

“We are mortals. It’s not possible for us to maintain that peak of pure experience, of divine joy, indefinitely. Some try and manage an intimacy with him which most can only dream of–but even the greatest mystic must eventually come down from the mountain and walk amid the mortal world. And for some this can be a sad and disheartening experience. But it needn’t be–in fact, it shouldn’t be. Because Dionysos is no world-denying, body-hating ascetic contemptuous of the commonplace, dreaming of a fantasy land that doesn’t exist. His world is here, now, and he recognizes no dichotomy–and in fact tears down all barriers which might impede the flow of life and spirit.

“The goal of the Dionysian is not to have great mind-blowing trips, to cultivate strange powers and unique experiences like notches on a belt, with all the time between as this dull, dismal interlude to real existence. Rather, the purpose of the true Dionysian is to resist such spiritual dilettantism and to work a much more subtle and powerful form of magic than the maenads of old did when they drew fountains of wine from the earth or tore apart wild bulls with their bare hands. Our task is to gradually transform consciousness, to awaken ourselves to an awareness of the world as it truly is, to its beauty and complexity and contradictory nature, the inherent rhythm of creation and destruction which beats through the hearts of all living things. This pulse is so omnipresent that we often cannot hear it, since it has been with us from the moment we drew our first breath and before that even.”

Sannion, “Meditations on the Dionysian Life”

Dionysus is youthful exuberance and delight. He is at once the long-haired youth with a gentle touch and the bearded, experienced purveyor of pleasure with lines deeply grooved in the skin of his face from so much smiling and jovial divine laughter. He is King Zeus’ gift to humankind, spurred by Aeon’s desire to improve mortal life.

Workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, “Bacchus,” 1510 – 1515, oil on walnut panel transferred to canvas

Yet one of his mysteries is that we also honor him as Dionysus Limnaios (“of the marsh”) and Chthonios (god of the underworld), and praise his darkest face as Lord of the Dead as we go from lusty licentiousness on Pithoigia, the first day of Anthesteria yesterday, to solemn silent mourning on Khutroi, the third. For the past few days, the pit has been opened, and “when the mundus is open, it is as if a door stands open for the sorrowful gods of the underworld” (Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, Saturnalia, quoting Marcus Terentius Varro: Mundus cum patet, deorum tristium atque inferum quasi ianua patet).


Dionysus is twice-born, the child of two mothers, seduced Persephone and unwitting then-mortal Semele. “Zeus put on a deceiving shape of many coils, as a gentle drakon twining around her in lovely curves, and ravished the maidenhood of unwedded Persephoneia” (Nonnus, Dionysiaca). Persephone, ravished by Zeus the Serpent, bore him the horned god-son Zagreus.

Some say it was Hera who stirred the Titans to cannibalistic blood-lust. If it was, she surely knew the greatness that Dionysus’ second birth would serve; but whether the goddess-queen played that role or not, the Titans nonetheless tore Zagreus from the throne of heaven and ruthlessly devoured him. Nothing was saved but his immortal heart.

“He [Zeus] rescued Semele’s son [Dionysos] from the flaming fire, he saved Bakkhos from the thunderbolt, while still a baby brat . . . But Zagreus the heavenly Dionysos [Persephone’s son] he would not defend, when he was cut up with knives! What made me angrier still, was that Kronides gave the starry heaven to Semele for a bridegift,–and Tartaros to Persephoneia! Heaven is reserved for Apollon, Hermes lives in heaven–and you have this abode full of gloom! What good was it that he put on the deceiving shape of a serpent, and ravished the girdle of your inviolate maidenhood, if after bed he was to destroy your babe?”

Nonnus of Panopolis, Dionysiaca (trans. W.H.D. Rouse)

Icarius & the Gift of Wine

Dionysus presents Icarius and his daughter (here “Akme”) with grapes and wine, Roman floor mosaic in the “House of Dionysus” at Paphos, Cyprus, circa 3rd century CE

Dionysus is, of course, associated with wine in the popular imagination, and for good reason: it was he who first instructed Icarius in the brewing of wine. During the reign of King Pandion of Athens, Dionysus and Demeter traveled to Attica, and were granted the hospitality of Celeus, who welcomed the goddess of grain at Eleusis, and Icarius, who invited the youthful god into his home. In return for his hospitality, Dionysus gifted the man with a vine-cutting and instructed him in viniculture.

“When he had planted the vine, and by careful tending with a pruning-knife had made it flourish, a goat is said to have broken into the vineyard, and nibbled the tenderest leaves he saw there. Icarus, angered by this, took him and killed him and from his skin made a sack, and blowing it up, bound it tight, and cast it among his friends, directing them to dance around it. And so Eratosthenes says: ‘Around the goat of Icarius they first danced.'”

Gaius Julius Hyginus, Poeticon Astronomicon

With the rich divine wine still on his lips, Icarius was eager to share this new god-given knowledge with mankind, but in their eagerness, delight, and greed, the shepherds to whom he brought the wine gulped it down undiluted, drinking themselves ill. When they awoke from their stupors bleary and with heads pounding, they thought themselves poisoned, and in their fury, slew the wine-maker, blessed of Dionysus; but when the fog cleared and their drunken madness abated, they saw reason, and gave him a proper burial.

Icarius had a young daughter Erigone, who wandered that next day in search of her missing father with the help of Icarius’ faithful furry companion Maira, and it was the dog who unearthed his corpse. Erigone was overcome with grief, knowing in the deepest parts of her soul that this sadness was insurmountable, and hanged herself from the tree looming above her father’s unearthed grave; with her last breath, she prayed that Athenian girls suffer the same fate as she if the Athenians did not investigate their deaths and bring justice to her father. The hound “was celebrated for having in its excessive love for its mistress declined to outlive her” (Claudius Aelianus, On the Nature of Animals).

“When Father Liber went out to visit men in order to demonstrate the sweetness and pleasantness of his fruit, he came to the generous hospitality of Icarius and Erigone. To them he gave a skin full of wine as a gift and bade them spread the use of it in all the other lands. Loading a wagon, Icarius with his daughter Erigone and a dog Maera came to shepherds in the land of Attica, and showed them the kind of sweetness wine had. The shepherds, made drunk by drinking immoderately, collapsed, and thinking that Icarius had given them some bad medicine, killed him with clubs. The dog Maera, howling over the body of the slain Icarius, showed Erigone where her father lay unburied. When she came there, she killed herself by hanging in a tree over the body of her father. Because of this, Father Liber afflicted the daughters of the Athenians with alike punishment. They asked an oracular response from Apollo concerning this, and he told them they had neglected he deaths of Icarius and Erigone. At this reply they exacted punishment from the shepherds, and in honour of Erigone instituted a festival day of swinging because of the affliction, decreeing that through the grape-harvest they should pour libations to Icarius and Erigone. By the will of the gods they were put among the stars. Erigone is the sign Virgo whom we call Justice; Icarius is called Arcturus among the stars, and the dog Maera is Canicula.”

Gaius Julius Hyginus, Fabulae (trans. Grant)

The myth of Icarius, Erigone, and Dionysus’ gift . With her last breath, Erigone prayed that Athenian girls suffer the same fate as she if their people did not investigate their deaths and bring justice to her father; when Dionysus aided this magic and suicide became a plague among young Athenian women, as “Hyginus” writes in the above, they turned to Apollo through the oracle, who pronounced that Erigone must be appeased if the affliction was to be lifted. And so every year, on Khutroi, the third and final day of Anthesteria, the Athenians took to swinging girls from the trees in a less deathly fashion in the maiden’s honor.

Ariadne, Love & Death

“She was the darling of the gods and she has her emblem in the sky: all night a ring of stars called Ariadne’s Crown [constellation Corona] rolls on its way among the heavenly constellations” (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, trans. Rieu).

Dionysus’ great love Ariadne was mortal-born to King Minos of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa, and his Queen, Wide-Shining Pasiphae, oracular and cunning goddess, the daughter of Helios and mother of the Minotaur. Minos had prayed to Poseidon for a sign after receiving his kingship, and from the oceans emerged a brilliant white bull. Giddy with excitement at this omen, Minos made elaborate plans and promises to sacrifice the bull in honor of the god of the sea, but at the last moment, sacrificed a different bull instead. Infuriated by his greed, Poseidon and Aphrodite cursed Pasiphae with a lust for beasts, and, like Europa, she was seduced and impregnated by the white bull; but it took the cunning of the Cretan inventor Daedalus, father of Icarus, to create a means for her to do so, tricking the bull by constructing an artificial white cow and placing the hungering Pasiphae inside.

Homer tells us that the labyrinth was also one of Daedalus’ constructions, intended as a ritual dancing ground for Ariadne; but when the queen gave birth to a monstrosity, a giant beast with the body of an enormous man of superior strength and the head of a bull, Minos in his shame gave it another purpose: the prison for the Minotaur. (Such shame that, in his fear of the secret of his wife’s monstrous son and his location within the winding labyrinth being exposed, he imprisoned Daedalus and the tinker’s son Icarus within the maze, who escaped by use of artificial wings crafted by the inventor, but not without tragedy.) Like all legends, truth and mystery overlap in the myths regarding King Minos, but Pausanias in his second-century description of Greece says the story of the Minotaur is not unreasonable, “for even in our time women have given birth to far more extraordinary monsters than this” (trans. Jones).

The Minotaur suffered a similarly distasteful hunger as his mother: a cannibalistic taste for youthful flesh. The beast was given a boon when the oracle at Delphi instructed the Athenians to “give Minos whatever retribution he should choose” for the mysterious death of his son Androgeus during a bull-fight orchestrated by the Goat-King Aegeus of Athens with the Cretan Bull that pricked his mother, after Androgeus defeated the king at every contest in the Panathaneic Games (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca).  The Cretan king heard the news from the graces while sacrificing to them; wrought with grief, he attacked Athens but failed to sack the city, and prayed Zeus punish Athens for the death of his son, which Minos considered to be no accident, and which the King of the Gods avenged by draping famine and pestilence over the city like a shroud. Horrified, they turned to the oracle, and then to Minos’ will. To sate the Minotaur, and to keep Athens compliant, King Minos demanded fourteen Attican youths, seven of each gender, be drawn by lots and sent as sacrifice to the bull-headed monster of the maze every nine years. No one escaped the labyrinth or the beast laying in wait, not until Ariadne fell in love with one of these young men.

“Ariadne’s Thread,” from “The Labyrinth: Symbol of Fear, Rebirth, and Liberation” by Helmut Jaskolski

“Theseus was on the list of the third tribute to the Minotauros (some say he volunteered) […] [Ariadne] pleaded with Daidalos to tell her the way out of the labyrinth. Following his instructions, she gave Theseus a ball of thread as he entered. He fastened this to the door and let it trail behind him as he went in. He came across the Minotauros in the furthest section of the labyrinth, killed him with jabs of his fist, and then made his way out again by pulling himself along the thread.”

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca

Considering that Theseus was the son of the Athenian king, it is logical that the hero may have volunteered himself for the task; if so, love was his reward for his bravery. Her loyalty appealed to him, and together they sailed for Athens, meaning to be wed. Whether he loved her as deeply as she did him, or loved her at all, is questionable, because he ran from her in the dead of night when Dionysus, at first sight of the buxom beauty, fell in love with the Mistress of the Labyrinth and challenged Theseus. As Diodorus Siculus relates in his Library of History (trans. Oldfather), “Theseus, seeing in a dream Dionysos threatening him if he would not forsake Ariadne in favour of the god, elft her behind him there in his fear and sailed away. And Dionysos led Ariadne away by night to the mountain which is know as Drios; and first of all the god disappeared, and later Ariadne also was never seen again.”

Titian, “Bacchus and Ariadne,” 1520 – 1523, oil on canvas

Philostratus the Elder disagrees, as many mythographers did on the point of Theseus’ “abandonment” of Ariadne and how Dionysus came to take her as a wife, painting as beautiful a portrait of love’s call to sacrifice as the one he must have been describing:

“That Theseus treated Ariadne unjustly–though some say not with unjust intent, but under the compulsion of Dionysos–when he abandoned her while asleep on the island of Dia [Naxus], you must have heard from your nurse; for those women are skilled in telling such tales and they weep over them whenever they will. I do not need to say that it is Theseus you see there on the ship and Dionysos yonder on the land, nor will I assume you to be ignorant and call your attention to the woman on the rocks, lying there in gentle slumber.

“Nor yet is it enough to praise the painter for things for which someone else too might be praised; for it is easy for anyone to paint Ariadne as beautiful and Theseus as beautiful; and there are countless characteristics of Dionysos for those who wish to represent him in painting or sculpture . . . but this Dionysos the painter has characterized by love alone. Flowered garments and thyrsoi and fawn-skins have been cast aside as out of place for the moment, and the Bakkhai are not clashing their cymbals now, nor are the Satyroi playing the flute, nay, even Pan checks his wild dance that he may not disturb the maiden’s sleep. Having arrayed himself in fine purple and wreathed his head with roses, Dionysos comes to the side of Ariadne, ‘drunk with love’ as the Teian poet says of those who are overmastered by love. As for Theseus, he is indeed in love, but with the smoke rising from Athens, and he no longer knows Ariadne, and never knew her, and I am sure that he has even forgotten the labyrinth and could not tell on what possible errand he sailed to Krete, so singly is his gaze fixed on what lies ahead of his prow. And look at Ariadne, or rather at her sleep; for her bosom is bare to the waist, and her neck is bent back and her delicate throat, and all her right armpit is visible, but the left hand rests on her mantle that a gust of wind may not expose her. How fair a sight, Dionysos, and how sweet her breath! Whether its fragrance is of apples or of grapes, you can tell after you have kissed her!”

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines (trans. Fairbanks)

The Anthesteria celebrates their love through the marriage of Dionysus to the Tyrant’s wife in the cow-shed on Khoes (Cups), the second day of the three-day festival, as Dionysus’ priest “becomes” the god and weds the Basilinna in the sacred marriage of hieros gamos. At this time we also acknowledge the conception of the Divine Child Dionysus, who grew in Semele’s fiery womb to be conceived by Zeus’ firebolt at the Eleusinian Mysteries, when Maira, Icarius’ faithful hound, appears as the Dog Star in the night sky to inform us of the grape harvest. Anthesteria is a celebration of love as much as of death; “Indestructible Life (Zôê) necessitates the birth and death of Individual Lives (Bioi), and so our Mother Earth both brings forth fruits and welcomes the dead back to Her bosom” (Apollonius Sophistes, The Anthesteria). On the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth of the second moon following the Winter Solstice, the limnaios, the pit between the worlds is exposed like a great cunt of the earth, through which the dead emerge to wander the earth (who are honored with the panspermia) and the brave and mad might plunge to cum to the Underworld.

Maenads enter their ecstatic frenzy in devotion to their god of lustful madness. They look for him walking the wooded valley wreathed in ivy and laurel, abandoning their former lives of domesticity and motherhood to run wild with Dionysus’ frenzy in the mountains, singing and dancing in ecstasy. We learn from them, making wild lustful love, frenzied as we are by the smell of death, cunt, and fresh wine in the air.

Dionysus’ is the Many-Named God; honor him this festival as Aigobolos (“slayer of goats”), Agrios (“wild one”), Aisymnetes (“elected monarch, judge”), Akratophoros (“of unmixed wine”), Aktaios (“of the seacoast”), Anthios (“god of all blossoming things”), Auxites (“bringer of growth”), Bassareus (“fox god, Thracian”), Briseus (“son of the nymphs”), Bromios (“boisterous”), Charidotes (“giver of grace”), Choreutês (“dancer”), Chthonios (“subterranean”), Dasullios (“of the thicket, wild-wood”), Diphyes (“two-natured”), Eriphios (“goat kid”), Euanthes (“fair blossoming”), Euios (“from the ritual cry”), Hagnos (“pure, holy”), Hues (“of moisture”), Hugiates (“dispenser of health”), Iackhos (“crier, caller”), Iatros (“healer”), Isodaites (“divider of sacrificial meat”), Katharsios (“he who releases”), Kissobryos (“ivy-wrapped”), Kissokomes (“ivy-crowned”), Kissos (“ivy”), Korymbophoros (“cluster-laden”), Kresios (“Cretan”), Kryphios (“hidden, secret”), Lampteros (“torch-bearer, of lights”), Leibenos (“of libations”), Liknites (“in the liknon, cradle, winnowing-fan”), Limnaios (“of the marsh”), Luaeus (“he who frees”), Lusios (“liberator”), Mainomenos (“frenzied”), Manikos (“mad one”), Mantis (“prophet, seer”), Meilikhios (“mild, gentle”), Melanaigis (“he of the black goatskin”), Melpomenos (“harp-singer”), Morychos (“dark one”), Nyktelios (“nocturnal”), Nyktiphaês (“night-illuminating”), Nyktipolos (“night prowler”), Orthos (“the erect”), Pelagios (“of the sea”), Perikionios (“bestower of riches”), Polyeides (“of many images”), Polygethes (“bringer of many joys”), Polymorphos (“many-formed”), Polyonomos (“many-named”), Polyparthenos (“of many maidens”), Protogonos (“first born”), Protrugaios (“feast before the vintage”), Pyrigenes (“fireborn”), Skêptouchos (“scepter-bearer”), Soter (“savior”), Taurokeros (“bull-horned”), Taurophagos (“bull-devourer”), Teletarches (“lord of initiations”), Trigonos (“thrice-born”), and Zagreus (“hunter”).

References & Further Reading:
Ariadne by Aaron J. Atsma
Dionysus by Aaron J. Atsma
Minotaur by Aaron J. Atsma
The Anthesteria by Apollonius Sophistes
Bibliotheca by Pseudo-Apollodorus
Dionysos’ Epithets by Dver and Sannion
Dionysiaca by Nonnus of Panopolisannion
The 99 Adorations by Sannion
Anthesteria for the Lonely Soul by Sannion
Homeric Hymn 26 to Dionysus
Meditations on the Dionysian Life by Sannion


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