Mardi Gras and Dionysos: Secular Celebrations as Sacred Rituals

"Mard Gras Masquerade" by Jasmine Becket-Griffith

"Mardi Gras Masquerade" ©Jasmine Becket-Griffith

This time of year is important in many religious and secular traditions. February holds many traditional celebrations like Mardi Gras and Valentines Day. Both modern celebrations have their roots and correspondences with ancient festivals of the Greek and Roman world. Valentines Day, at least in its connection to lust and kinky sex, can be connected to the Roman Lupercalia.  Mardi Gras or Carnival season is a modern version of Anthesteria, a festival of Dionysos and the dead. Beginning around Valentines Day, is the Greek month of Anthesterion; named for the festival Anthesteria.  The festival “Anthesteria” means the flowers referring to grape blooms. Anthesteria is one of the four Dionysia, held for three days, and a large part of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Anthesteria is also a festival that honors the dead, believed to roam the cities like during  Carnival.  This wine-drinking festival celebrates both new wines maturity and the opening of the caskets (Pithoi) and the start of spring.  Mythically, this festival celebrates the release of Ariadne to Dionysus and the reuniting of the lovers. (Again with the romantic love…) Athens and the Ionian cities celebrated Anthesteria.  Like many other Dionysian festivals, slaves were invited to take part in the festivites with households. This festival for all participants involved was a liberating experience celebrating the sacred marriage of Dionysos and Ariadne.

The festival begins with Pithoigia, people offered libations of the new wines to Dionysus. To prepare for the festival, the household and all children over the age of three were covered in spring flowers. The second day, Choes, was a day of drinking and fun. Like Mardi Gras, participants dressed sometimes in costume and went to parties. Drinking contests were a tradition and offerings of spirits to the dead were also given. At the temple of Dionysos a sacred marriage ceremony was undertaken between the “Queen” (basilissa) of the festival and Dionysos. Also during festivities the participants choose a “king” (basileus) to become the god in a mystical marriage. We can see remnants of this festival in Mardi Gras celebrations were Kings and Queens of the court elected today. The third day (Chytroi) honors the dead. On this day, food cooked for the dead left on altars and at graveyards as offerings to Hermes and the souls of the dead.  At the end of the festival, the dead (or Kreres/Cairns) are ritually expelled from the cities after being entertained by the festivities.

"Dark Mardi Gras" by Jasmine Becket-Griffith

"Dark Mardi Gras" ©Jasmine Becket-Griffith

To me personally, celebrating festivals like Mardi Gras or Valentines Day in a secular way is just as important as celebrating in a more religious way. In a perfect world, I would know other Maenads and Dionysian devotees and we could recreate an ancient festival completely. In the real world, I’m often all alone trying to find ways to honor my gods and re-create ancient traditions out of secular holidays. This involves convincing my friends to celebrate with me (usually not difficult). So, one obvious and simple ways to mark this occasion is to participate in Mardi Gras celebrations.  I live in St. Louis, home to the second largest Mardi Gras festival in the United States, so I am usually able to celebrate publicly with friends. I enjoy public celebrations for their energy as well as generally finding them enjoyable.
My personal spiritual rituals for this festival include honoring Dionysos with libations with a personal ritual I have created. As a part of celebrating this ancient festival, I re-dedicate myself to Dionysos as the bride. This year I might meditate on the meaning of my devotion to the god and honor him with a symbolic tattoo. Additionally, as a part of the festival I will honor the dead – and specifically my best friend who died four and a half years go.  I always honor my spirits with libations and I will take time to welcome them to my life. (Note, in the ancient rituals outside of the parties in homes, many people took precautions to protect households from evil spirits: as a witch who works with spirits, I tend to be more open to the spirits than closed.) This year I am planning on making a meal for the dead using Christian Day’s ritual preparation found in this book The Witches Book of the Dead. This mixture seems authentic to the Greek traditions to me being a mixture of beans and honey, to be cooked in dedicated cookware (which I don’t have – some things are left open to interpretation). At the end of the festival, I will ask them to leave with their offerings – though I wouldn’t say “banish.” After these festivities have gone, I will start on a spiritual fast to re-focus myself on the coming year and new growth.
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About Pixie

I'm just your average 20-something trying to figure it out. I am also a theologian, yogi, witch, pagan, dirty hippie, activist (progressive politics), feminist, knitter, environmentalist, and friend. I've also been accused of being a hipster - I am not sure about that. I am sometimes happy to be Gen Y (go Harry Potter) and most of the time confused (seriously guys... ) by everyone else. My hobbies including knitting (and maybe crochet), quilting, recycling, cooking, writing, reading, and biking. I'm finishing up a masters in public policy and when I worked worked in political nonprofits as an activist.
This entry was posted in Dionysos, History, Life, Paganism, Rituals and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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