Día de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, represents a synthesis of indigenous Meso-American practices with the Christian Allhallowmass festival (which itself incorporated the very Pagan Halloween). However, long before this celebration, the Greeks had created their own three day holiday that was also dedicated to the dead.
However, this festival was anything but somber – it was instead dedicated to the God Dionysus, the embodiment of irreverence, merriment, and the performing arts.
Oh, and yes, He was also the God of Wine.
So let’s take a closer look and see how the Athenians celebrated what they referred to as the Anthesteria.
First, the Athenian festival calendar (also known as the Attic calendar) was lunar, so it shifted every year. It’s believed the month of Anthesterion most likely fell between the January and February full moons, with the festival officially being held from the 11th to the 13th of the month, though no scholar has established definitive (Gregorian) dates.
What we can say for certain is that the three days in question were called Pithoigia, Choës, and Chytroi. Let’s examine each one:
Now, remember Dionysus was the God of Wine. On this day, jars of last year’s wine were pried opened, and offerings were made to the deity; in fact, the word Pithoigia translates to “The Jar Opening”.
Now, drinking offerings of wine to Dionysus were a central feature of many, if not all of his festivals, going all the way up to the Roman Bacchanalia and the Festivals of Liber (another Roman cognate of Dionysus, associated with Ceres (Demeter) and Libera (Persephone)). However, Pithoigia was unique in one manner:
Slaves were free to drink with their masters.
This might seem like a trite point, but we don’t think much about the social constructs that surrounded slavery.
It’s isn’t that slaves couldn’t drink: but slaves were never allowed get drunk with their masters.
This is, in many ways, a classic Dionysian reversal (one that continued in his Roman role as Pater Liber (consider the words liberty and libation, and you can begin to imagine the significance of the cult of Liber)).
Spring flowers were used to decorate everything. It sounds rather idyllic, doesn’t it?
Except for one thing:
The Walking Dead…
The Greeks described this day as “unlucky”, and part of the offerings of wine were intended to ward of the fact that the streets were filled with Souls of the Dead, temporarily liberated from the Underworld.
To further their protection, people chewed hawthorn or buckthorn, and painted their doors with tar.
So if you’re being overrun by the Souls of the Departed, consider those precautions.
Still, people drank, so consider that as well.
The party continued on Choës, which translates to “the Pouring”. People dressed up as Satyrs and Maenads, the retinues of Dionysus, or in otherwise casual wear. They went from house to house to drink with friends, sometimes stopping at drinking clubs, where whoever could chug the most wine in the least amount of time was crowned the winner.
Some people went to share wine with dead relatives, pouring it freely over their tombs.
Meanwhile, a secretive, politco-religious ceremony was conducted in the recesses of the Senate House. Here the Queen/High Priestess (called the Basillina) entered into sacred marriage with Dionysus. How much of this was symbolic, and how much of it was re-enacted, remains unresolved; sex may have been a part of the ritual.
At least one scholar, Walter Burkert, suggested that this represented a Minoan origin for the festival, being a reenactment of Ariadne fleeing Crete with Dionysus. Not all scholars agree with this interpretation.
Either way, the dead were still afoot, as were the Keres, death-spirits who were the daughters of the Goddess Nyx, Goddess of Night. This incidentally made the Keres the siblings of Hypnos (Sleep), Thanatos (Death) and the Fates.
The presence of the Keres during Anthesteria lead to a Greek proverb: “Out of doors, Keres! It is no longer Anthesteria!”, used to insult anyone who habitually asked for favors.
On the third day, which translate to “the Pots”, the attention shifted away from Dionysus to Hermes Cthonios. As you might recall, Hermes could freely traverse the worlds of Gods and humans alike: Cthonios, in turn, refers to his Cthonic, or Underworld aspect.
Pots of food were made, typically filled with legume stews or fruits, all of which were given as sacred offerings to Hermes and the legions of the Undead, bidding them to go away, back to Hades.
Despite this somber turn, drinking and games continued, though interestingly the theaters were closed, except for try-outs, as if to indicate the departure of the God of Theater, Dionysus Himself.
And so, after three days of libations, social equity, and visits from the departed, the Athenians went back to their normal lives.
Until the next festival…