Lenaia was one of the most important festivals of ancient Athens — important not only as concerns the worship of Dionysos (as it is among his earliest attested festivals) but important to the Athenians in shaping their own civic identity. Like the City Dionysia Lenaia was an occasion for the premiere of new theatrical pieces, but unlike that festival which brought in curious spectators from all parts of the Hellenic world the performances at the Lenaia were viewed by Athenian citizens and metics only. (Pragmatically this may have begun as a result of adverse travel conditions caused by frigid winter winds but in time it became a point of pride for them.) There were massive parades through the streets led by the Archon Basileos and the Epimeletai, officials who oversaw the sacred ceremonies of the Eleusinian mysteries as well. There were speeches by political grandees, awards given to outstanding citizens, veterans and their families, and the vital business of the day was discussed in public. Most people, however, looked forward to their own private Lenaia celebrations where the old wine flowed copiously and all sought ways to keep themselves warm on such frigid nights. (Plato’s Symposion is an account of one such private celebration, hosted by Agathon flush from his victory at the games.) In fact, participation in the festival could be seen as part of what made up one’s essential Athenianness as Athenaios demonstrates when he has Mandrogenes the buffoon quip, “But you who never go out of Athens think yourself happy when you hear the precepts of Theophrastos and when you eat thyme, and salads, and nice twisted loaves, solemnizing the Lenaean festival, and the Potfeast at the Anthesteria.” (Deipnosophistai 4.130c)
Part of what made the Lenaia so important was its incredible antiquity. Scholars have hypothesized that its roots extend back to the earliest of Minoan pillar-cults, but there is of course no way to prove this. We do know, however, that the Lenaia was already firmly established in Hellas before the Ionian migration as we find it celebrated not only in Attica but in Italy, Asia Minor and wherever else the descendants of Ion settled. In many of those places it was a significant enough festival that the month in which it fell was named Lenaion or Lenaeon after it. This was a common enough practice that Hesiod, in an attempt to make his work more relevant to a Panhellenic audience, refers to the month by that name (Works and Days 504) even though his own Boiotian Askra used a different calendar. The involvement of the Archon Basileos should tell us just how old the festival was in Athens — for this official had control of the city’s most primitive rites of fertility and appeasement. Originally Athens, like all Hellas, was a monarchy with the King functioning not only as head of state but as a mediator between his people and the sacred. In time the Athenian people adopted systems of isopoliteia and demokratia (equal citizenship and rule by the people, respectively) but the Gods, and especially those under the earth, proved far more conservative in their tastes and would accept the rites only when performed by a proper King — thus the Archon Basileos remained as an important religious position, stripped of most of its temporal power except the authority it retained over cases of homicide and blasphemy. (Demosthenes’ Against Neaira is probably the most extensive discussion on the role of the Archon Basileos to come down to us, though Aristotle’s Athenian Consitution provides some important details as well.)
At least in Athens — and we are sadly underinformed when it comes to Lenaia celebrations in other parts of the Hellenic world — there is a stark contrast between the public and private observance of this festival. At the public level this was primarily a theatrical and civic affair. The city invoked the God Dionysos in his role as bringer of wealth and the blessings of civilization. According to Stephanus of Byzantium (s.v. Lenaios) the great pompê or procession began en agrois “outside the walls” or “in the countryside” and wound inward through the maze of streets until it reached his temple just beyond the marketplace. This temple was called the Lenaion and after the 5th century BCE contained one of Athens’ largest theaters, capable of seating thousands (though the theater used in the Civic Dionysia was even bigger.) In addition to the Archon Basileos, the officials from Eleusis and local dignitaries the pompê consisted of actors, Dionysian priests, men in Satyr costumes and women dressed as Nymphs or Maenads dancing with snakes. This suggests that the pompê was in some sense a reenactment of the triumphant army that Dionysos marched at the head of when he came to teach King Amphiktyon viticulture and how to properly mix water with wine to avoid the more dangerous side effects of the divine beverage (Athenaios 2. 38c-d). To further emphasize Dionysos’ role as culture hero and founder of refined and civilizing institutions (paralleling the accomplishments of Demeter) the Dadouchos or Torch-bearer of Eleusis hailed him during the sacrifice as Iakchos (the guide of initiates) and Ploutodotos (the bestower of the earth’s riches) as we learn from the scholiast on Aristophanes’ Frogs 479. Once the public sacrifice of a bull was over the dramatic contests began.
There are notable differences between these contests and those held during other Dionysian festivals. For instance there were only tragedies and comedies — the rough and often obscene Satyrika or satyr-play being left out — and comedies appear to have been much more popular with the Lenaia audiences, to the point where tragic playwrights often saved their best work for the later Civic Dionysia. There is likewise variance in tone and subject matter between comedies written for Lenaia and those intended for other festivals, something that is especially noticeable in the work of Aristophanes. It is as if they felt light-hearted laughter was necessary to drive the barren cold from the land but the situation was too precarious to completely cut loose for fear of offending the chthonic powers.
Such gentility and restraint may strike one as humorously out of place when we consider that the name of the festival is thought to derive from the Lenai or ecstatic Maenad priestesses of the God. There has been much debate about this in scholarly circles, with some proposing a derivation from lenos or the wine-press instead. This is problematic for a number of reasons. To begin with the adjectival form of lenos is leneios whereas “adjectives of the –aios form are usually connected with feminine substantives of the first declension.” (Arthur Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens page 29) Secondly, and more importantly, none of our sources — visual or literary — show any involvement of the wine-press in this festival. It would be pretty astounding if they did since Lenaia fell during the middle of winter and for the most part within our January. Should one leave behind the ivory halls of academia they would be hard pressed to find grapes still on the vine or being crushed at this time of year in Greece or anywhere else in the Mediterranean for that matter. All the hard work had already been done months before, around the time of Oschophoria and the other autumn harvest festivals; there were only a few weeks left at this point until the casks were broached and the new wine tasted for the first time at Anthesteria. Lastly, Maenads have an essential role to play in this festival so it only makes sense that it should take its name from them, especially since many of our earliest sources — Herakleitos frag. 76 for instance — use Lenai as a common default designation for the votaries of Dionysos.
Most of our written sources are concerned with the civic and theatrical aspects of Lenaia — or frustratingly mix in details from other winter festivals of Dionysos — but we do learn that the Maenads performed sacred dances that lasted well into the night, feasted the God in a ritual banquet or deipnon and were assisted by the Gerarai or Fourteen Venerable Matrons who would later help prepare the Basilinna for her marriage to the God in the ox-shed during Anthesteria. All of which is helpfully confirmed by the visual record.
Indeed we have far more evidence from vases concerning Lenaia than we do written sources — in his testimonia section on the festival Pickard-Cambridge collected only 31 documents, many of which are scholia that repeat the same scant material as their predecessors or fragmentary inscriptions recording victors of the agones. Compare that to the massive corpus compiled by August Frickenhaus and substantially updated since the 1912 publication of his groundbreaking work Lenäenvasen. Despite the striking abundance of these vases, the scenes they depict are fairly uniform. According to Pickard-Cambridge (Ibid. pp. 30-31) these vases represent Dionysos:
“… in the form of a bearded mask set upon a pole, pillar, or column, often apparently of wood; the ‘pillar’ is usually clothed, with varying degrees of decoration; the mask of the God and the ‘pillar’ are often crowned with ivy to which (or to some other part of his decoration) are attached, in a number of vases, thin ritual cakes of the type known as πλακουντες, and the adornment sometimes includes grapes. The ritual is performed invariably by women, in various stages of ecstasy, with thyrsi, torches, flutes and tympana … Towards the middle of the fifth century there is a sharp break in the treatment of the scene: ecstatic maenads give way to stately aristocratic figures, and a sacred table appears in front of the idol, usually bearing two large stamnoi, out of which wine is being ladeled into skyphoi which some of the women carry and also into the kantharos as an offering to the God.”
For such a static scene there has been an impressive amount of controversy regarding these vases. As early as 1916, for instance, Martin P. Nilsson contested their association with Lenaia, arguing instead that they represented a wine-consecration ritual of Anthesteria (Jahrb. Arch. 31 pp. 323 ff) while in 1998 Sarah Peirce (Cl. Ant. 17 pp. 64-67) proposed that these vases were not representative of everyday cultic reality since they sometimes show a mixed-sex thiasos (rare before the Hellenistic period) and wine-drinking Maenads (apparently a verboten topic for artists) and should thus instead be viewed as a mythological scene. Specifically she identifies the women as “Bacchic Nymphs,” the Nurses of the infant God found in Homer and later divine prototypes of the historical Maenads. Although Peirce demonstrates commendable clarity of logic — she points out that as Satyrs are “manifestly unreal” their inclusion in a scene means that that scene cannot be depicting reality — I think she has missed the other side of the coin. An idol consisting of a mask affixed to a pillar strung with vegetation belongs to the realm of cultus and not myth. Every other time Dionysos is depicted in the company of his Nymph Nurses he appears as a young man or a babe — but for some reason the artists made an exception in this series? Seems unlikely.
Unfortunately that exhausts most of what we know about the Lenaia, though we can offer meager supplementation by considering how the festival was observed outside of Attica. For instance, in Mykonos a religious calendar prescribes sacrifices on 10 Lenaion to Demeter, Kore and Zeus Bouleios and on 12 Lenaion to Zeus Chthonios, Ge Chthonie and the related Gods (SIG3 1024) — both of which were done for the good of the fields. An inscription from Magnesia on the Maeander mentions mystic rites performed by a private religious association at this time and there is a record of a contest during the Lenaia at Rhodes dating from the Roman period (I.G. xii 1. 125) as well as an inscription from Priene (SIG3 1003) that details the proper attire for the priest of Dionysos to wear at the Lenaia.
What can we gather from all of this?
Lenaia appears to be an essential component of Dionysos’ winter festival cycle which begins with the harvest at Oschophoria and culminates in Anthesteria. Coming in the middle as it does, the coldest and most barren part of the year, it is concerned with arousing and joyously placating the God so that he will have the power and inclination to bless the land with abundant fertility during his later marriage with the Basilinna. This is done in two ways — the procession, public sacrifice and theatrical performances of the city on one hand and the private banquet, dances and ecstatic worship of the Lenai on the other. Both are intended to establish an amicable bond with the God — the public rites by reminding him of his visit to the city in the remote mythic past when he shared his gifts and brought civilized culture to the Athenians and more intimately with regard to the Maenad priestesses. They clothe and decorate his idol, they sing and dance and play music for his entertainment, they share the remaining bounty of their fields with the God and they stir the wine as they hope he will stir the life-force in the frozen earth for them. In many ways a simple and unassuming festival — but absolutely essential for the well-being of the polis and to set the stage for the even more important Anthesteria.
Before I close, however, I would like to address an important point.
Many in the recon and neopagan communities have made Lenaia about the birth or youth of the God. There is absolutely nothing to support this in the primary sources except a) the offerings presented to Dionysos by the Maenads are carried in a liknon, the fan-shaped wicker basket that was used in a variety of ancient rituals including initiations, funerals and marriages and b) Dionysos is hailed as the “son of Semele” by the Dadouchos. It is certainly true that Dionysos has the epiklesis Liknites and is sometimes depicted using the basket as his cradle but, as mentioned, the liknon appears in plenty of other contexts without suggesting the infancy of the God and in the Lenaia vases the liknon is stuffed with offerings and set up before the masked idol of the God. If his spirit is anywhere it’s in the mask and not the liknon — furthermore that mask is always bearded, implying that it is the potent, adult form of the deity that they are dealing with. (Which is further demonstrated by the ecstatic, and in some vases quite erotic, dances of the Maenads. Dancing like that for a child, even a child such as Dionysos, seems quite inappropriate.) And I find point b) even less persuasive. Calling Dionysos “son of Semele” does not imply that he had recently been born any more than calling him “son of Zeus” suggests that he had just emerged from his father’s thigh. The Dadouchos also addresses him as Iakchos who is usually represented as a young adult and as Ploutodotos implying a potency and fertility that children simply do not possess. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere a winter-born Dionysos makes no sense considering the rest of his mythic and festive cycle.