Thoughts on Orestes and Anthesteria

Orestes is one of the great figures of Greek tragedy, part of the doomed house of Atreus. After his return from the Trojan War Agamemnon, the father of Orestes, was murdered in cold blood. Orestes was obligated by ancient custom, of course, to avenge his father by killing his murderer – but the catch is that Agamemnon’s murderer was his wife Clytemnestra, the mother of Orestes. Orestes fled Thebes as a matricide and was pursued by the Erinyes, who punished him with grievous madness for shedding his mother’s blood, a violation of the ancientest law of all.

In time Orestes came to Athens where the King received him as a suppliant, as was the ancient custom. However, Orestes was polluted from the murder and had not yet been purified of the crime, so he could not enter any temple or house in the city without inflicting his pollution on them as well. And yet the King could not turn away a suppliant, since that would be a violation of xenia or hospitality and almost as horrible as matricide. (All of these conflicting codes of honor are what make Greek thought so engaging: if Orestes does not avenge his father, he has sinned against him – but if he does, he has sinned against his mother; if the King accepts Orestes he risks polluting his kingdom and angering the Gods – but if he doesn’t accept him, he also risks angering the Gods, possibly even worse.)

Well, as it happened Orestes came to Athens during a Dionysian festival. And lucky him, for Dionysos is the one who navigates these complexities, these irreconcilable codes, among the Olympians. The solution: lock all the doors to the temple, and have the people come outside so no pollution will gather in their homes. Set up a tent and have a drinking contest there, that way Orestes can be given food, shelter and drink, the minimal obligations of xenia. And so it was.

Afterwards this was done in memory of the event. All the temples were closed. The men came out and had this drinking contest under the tent. But it was strange: it was observed in total silence. They left their garlands around the cups instead of taking them home so that the pollution would remain behind.

Some people feel this is an accidental addition to Anthesteria: but it isn’t. The new wine is opened and tasted, the dead walk the earth – especially those dead who drowned in Deukalion’s flood – the earth is barren from the long winter months. Everything is polluted: physically, spiritually, emotionally. But on Choes, Dionysos comes to awaken the earth, to take the wife of the King as his bride for the night. (Meanwhile, everyone else is having their own nocturnal orgies, women going off with strangers, Satyrs cavorting in the streets, young girls swinging in trees to commemorate the young lover of Dionysos who hanged herself in grief.) Their union washes away the pollution, makes everything fresh and new, gives the world a second chance: the new wine, the fresh flowers, the flood of Deukalion, the reception of Orestes, which finds a viable and novel solution to the irreconcilable ancient codes – it’s all there, it’s all about Dionysos. It’s all about creating a new beginning.

Dionysos is a purifying God. But he purifies us by having us pass through the pollution, not avoid it, not clearly mark it off, but immerse ourselves in it as completely as we can – integrating it, giving it its place – and then emerge from it, through it, purification as rebirth, recreation.