Lenaia is an ancient Athenian festival held in the month of Gamelion (Jan-Feb) in honour of Dionysos. Scholars suggest the name Lenaia comes from lenos, meaning “wine press”, and therefore is a festival of viticulture, though may also refer to lenai, which is another term for maenads. The Lenaia was an important festival for Athens, involving a procession from outside to the city to Dionysos’s temple, where the officials sacrificed a bull and speeches and dramatic contests took place in the temple theatre. Later in the day the revelers would retire for private celebrations and drinking wine, while Dionysian women would erect a wooden pole and decorate it as Dionysos; hanging a mask from it and draping it with ivy and grapes. The maenads would dance before the image of Dionysos and bring Him offerings of wine.
How does this translate into the practices of a 21st century solitary Dionysian living in rural Somerset?
While the Lenaia was an important civic festival in which the participation somewhat cemented Athenian identity, the themes of Lenaia are strongly khthonic and rural. Going out beyond the walls of the city and processing to the temple calls Dionysos from the wilderness, from out beyond the “hedge” between civilisation and the wild. At the coldest part of the year there is a sense of drawing Dionysos’s influence up from the damp, dark earth, which seems barren in the dead of winter. The maenads offer Dionysos wine and dance to please Him so that he will bestow His blessings on the community and the land.
This is the emphasis I place on my Lenaia celebrations and rites. I live in an agricultural area that is still dependent on good weather and fertility to prosper, and so my ritual actions are based around asking Dionysos to bless the landscape. The county I live in is mostly known for its orchards and cider production, so here Dionysos is the Lord of the Orchard and His life-force is seen in the budding, blossoming and ripening apple harvest. One of His epithets is Limnaios “of the marshes”, and after heavy rain The Levels are a liminal wetland, particularly around this time of year.
I will purify myself and go beyond the boundary of the village. I’ll lay the wooden phallus in a ploughed field, anoint it with cider and call the God up with bullroarer and sung epithets. I will offer more drink and scattered herbs and bring the phallus back into the village where I shall put it back upon my shrine and set up my altar with the ivy-clad mask and bowls for wine. I will offer the God red things and green things and earthy-smelling incense and play music for His pleasure while I dance for Him and hail the coming spring.