The Athenian Anthesteria is at once the oldest festival for Dionysus celebrated at Athens and also the one for which a good deal of evidence exists. A three-day rite of early spring, it not only features the unsealing and drinking of new wine, but also, it would seem, a drinking contest, an invasion of ghosts, a sacred marriage, and an overarching pall of religious pollution. Reconstruction, however, is fraught: while the Anthesteria has long enjoyed a synthetic consideration of the evidence in which all or nearly all attestations produce a composite portrait of the festival (Deubner 1932, van Hoorn 1951, Burkert 1983 and 1985, Noël 1999, Parker 2005, Seaford 2007), such a sympathetic treatment of the both generically and chronologically disparate testimonia stands opposed to a recent trend of what can be termed analysis, a methodological commitment to considering each piece of evidence on its own terms without presupposing unity (Hamilton 1992, Robertson 1993, Humphreys 2004). These latter studies offer a categorically different Anthesteria: gone are the ghosts, the sacred marriage, and any intimation of pollution—even the number of days during which the Athenians of the Classical period celebrated the broaching of the new wine is curtailed. According to these views of the matter, what we have in this early rite of spring is essentially a festive drinking of the new wine which had been fermenting all winter long. In the wake of such controversy, there is now some caution taken when speaking of the Anthesteria in whole or part (inter alios, Lupu 2006 and Larson 2007).
While the scope of the disagreements is large indeed, a consideration of evidence hitherto not adduced bolsters the case for accepting the darker elements of the festival along with the light: a scholium to Lucian’s Timon (ad 43), suggests that the Anthesteria’s central day, the Choes, can be considered a hemera apophras, an “unlucky” day during which temples were closed, interpersonal communication was abridged, and normal life was largely paralyzed. This scholium would thus provide independent verification, for example, that all temples save one were closed on this day and that during the Anthesteria work was suspended (Hesychius, s.v. θÏραζε Κá¾¶ρες). Part of the reason that this piece of evidence has not yet been brought to bear upon the Anthesteria may be due to a conclusion reached by Mikalson (1975), who, in trying to keep at bay contamination of the hemerai apophrades with the Roman dies atri, denied that the Choes or any part of the Anthesteria could be such a day. The specifics however, as detailed in the aforementioned scholium (not treated by Mikalson) resonate with much earlier material, such as the Euripidean aition from the IT (946-960) in which Orestes describes the silence and lack of interaction observed during the Anthesteria.
Euripidean aetiology, it must be admitted, has aroused deep suspicion independent of debates about pollution occurring on the Anthesteria: Scott Scullion (2000) has recently suggested that all Euripidean aitia were spun out of whole cloth by the dramatist for the stage and not drawn from actual cult practice or belief. Against this contention, the Lucian scholium again proves its usefulness: using different language entirely, it too affirms that silence and intimations of pollution prevailed during the Anthesteria. Accepting this view would add another angle from which to assess the running debate about Euripidean aetiology, insofar as the substance if not the specifics of Euripides’ account is independently corroborated.
By way of conclusion, I revisit the divergent methodologies and find in the analytic approaches a worrisome tendency of “down-dating” evidence (e.g. Harpocration as 2nd CE instead of 2nd BCE) and of overlooking certain attestations altogether (e.g. Eustathius on Il. 24.525ff). Thus there is serious cause for concern given some of the sweeping conclusions reached in the newer studies, such as the assertion that the festival was wholly positive, without the negative undertones sounded in the sources.