Another Anthesteria has come and gone. Dionysos and the Gods were praised, the dead were honored, and the house has been cleansed. Thinking back on the festival, I’d like to reflect a bit on the role of flowers as offerings, both in this festival, and at our shrines and altars1 more generally.
Anthesteria is a particularly fitting occasion for this, since the name itself means something like “the festival of flowers.”
In the Mediterranean basin, the earliest flowers are already blooming around this time, so it would be a simple enough thing to seek them out, harvest some, and bring them home to adorn our festival shrines. I, however, live in the mountains of western Montana. Even though it’s been a frighteningly warm and dry winter (by local standards), there’s still a good bit of snow on the ground, and the land remains in the grip of winter. Absent a miracle on the order of “strike the rock with your thyrsos and wine will gush forth,” my chances of finding local wildflowers in early February are precisely zero. So, what to do?
I could, of course, turn to a florist. Yet that option is fraught in various ways, and especially so this year. In 2022, the Anthesteria happened to coincide with the weekend on which millions of other Americans, who are not ordinarily very religious, make an extravagant celebration of the Christian martyr Saint Valentine—thereby making it extraordinarily difficult to find anything other than overpriced red roses at the flower shop. But even in years that are free from this calendrical complication, the global flower trade that supplies most of the stock in florists’ shops from Central and South America has a host of problematic ethical and ecological issues. I’d like my life in general—and especially my offerings to the Gods—to be grounded, as much as possible, in respect rather than exploitation of my fellow humans and the world around us.
Finally, and in a way most importantly, there’s just something a bit “off” about the symbolism of bringing home an imported offering from the flower shop. As beautiful as these blooms are, which were flown in from Ecuador or Colombia, they’re not specifically connected to the life that’s happening here, where I actually live and make the offering.
So, what about placing a nice potted plant on the altar or shrine? This would definitely bring beauty, color, vibrancy to the holy place, which is a very good thing! It could also (depending on where the plant came from) avoid many of the ethical and ecological issues alluded to above: also good! But it seems to me that the potted plant falls short of some important symbolism—a critical issue, when our shrines and altars are meant to connect us to the Holy Powers through appropriate symbols and tokens.
The specific issue is: cut flowers are dying. And that matters.
The act of dying, right there at the altar, seems highly relevant. Most of us are not routinely (or perhaps ever!) performing full-on animal sacrifices. Not should we, insofar as we’re practicing alone or with only our families: even leaving aside the required training and skill, and the tremendous cost, animal sacrifice is most properly a practice for an extended community, rather than a small household or solitary individual. (This, I take it, is a key factor in Plato’s prohibition on private altars in the city described in book X of the Laws.) But if we’re not doing animal sacrifices, it seems all the more important that, as much as possible, we capture some of what those sacrifices do, in other ways. And even if we are part of a community that’s able to perform those sacrifices worthily and well, they remain an ideal model, teaching us about offerings in general.
In such a sacrifice, something’s life is very literally being returned to the Gods. I’d like to suggest that the same process is happening, at a different scale, when we offer cut flowers to the Gods. Even though they have water in the vase, the flowers have received the fatal cut, and their lives are very directly being returned to the Gods from whom they came. Something is dying, and as uncomfortable as that may make some modern people, it’s good and proper that something should die here.2
If this is right, then it suggests several corollaries.
First, it means that a reusable paper flower, or a plastic imitation, would also fall short. (Plastic is not a presently-dying thing, the way that a cut flower is. There’s a world of difference between “presently giving up its life” and “having been dead for millions of years already.”) Such a reusable imitation would, like the potted plant, provide beauty and color, and could avoid certain ethical and ecological harms, but it would also succumb to the same symbolic limitations as the potted plant.
This suggests that what we’re after is an offering which is renewable, but not reusable. Given responsible practices of harvesting and cultivation, new flowers will bloom year after year, providing offerings over and over again. Yet those cut and dying offerings depend upon—and require trust in—the ongoing, ever-renewed providence of the Gods, and our own participation in the Gods’ providential care for the world.
Our symbolism, then, is of cycles, not stasis.
So where does this leave us, in terms of deciding what offerings to place at our shrines?
We might consider plants which we can maintain indoors throughout the year, from which we can cut flowers as needed, and offer those cut stems at our altars and shrines. One of my close relatives delights in growing orchids, and she has enough of these plants that there are typically a few in bloom at any time. (The plants rotate through her house; whatever plants are currently the showiest get prime places in the living room or the kitchen.) The limitation here is that “enough of these plants” seems to mean something like 20-30 of them! Personally, my entire living space is less than 600 square feet, so I just don’t have the space all those plants would require, nor am I disposed to the year-round effort of caring for them.
This option also has some major unpredictability in what (if any) blooms would be available as needed for a specific feast-day. Though at another level, this reminder of our dependence upon other forces and factors, beyond our own preferences and desires, might be a feature rather than a bug.
Relatedly, I could seek out a local grower who sells flowers raised nearby in a greenhouse or hothouse. This too solves the ethical issues, and is reminiscent of the “Gardens of Adonis” that we hear of from the ancients (which may or may not be a symbolism we want in other contexts). So, it has potential. Though again, availability is quite limited, and this will take some planning and expense. It would, however, preserve the desired symbolism.
We might consider flowers which were cut and dried previously but still recently: say, during the most recent growing season. At my 2021 Anthesteria altar, I included some dried lavender stems-and-flowers, which a friend had gifted me a few months earlier, and which still gave off a pleasant fragrance. At the time, this was mostly a counsel of necessity: I was mildly sick the week leading up to the festival, so out of concern for my neighbors, I was avoiding the store and just making due with whatever was on hand. Is this a choice that I would make deliberately, when I had other options available? Especially with an aromatic plant like lavender, it does seem to have some potential: there’s still that breath of fragrance, that suggests that the plant has not quite fully “given up the ghost” yet; it’s still expiring there at the altar. Returning to the comparison with animal sacrifices, this approach might be the equivalent of cooking up a nice steak (even a steak which had been in the freezer for a few months) rather than slaughtering the cow there on the spot.
At the same time, the dried lavender alone just didn’t feel fully right, especially for the more exuberant first night of Anthesteria. (Though part of this may also have been that in recovering from my illness,I still didn’t feel quite right.)So while cooking the frozen steak might be the right comparison, a part of me inclines instead toward the less honorable analogy of serving up reheated leftovers for company.
The last option I’d like to propose is to look beyond flowers, to other plant-parts which might be locally and more abundantly available. I’m thinking here particularly of branches and stems with the buds that will become new leaves, especially if any of those buds are just starting to open up. This too will vary on a place-to-place basis, but will have a high degree of consistency and predictability from year to year. The buds, after all, are set in the fall, and are simply waiting for the spring to open. While I’m no horticultural expert, it may even be possible to “force” these buds indoors, cutting the branches a week or so ahead of the festival and placing the stems in water in a very warm place, to encourage them to start opening up in time for the festival itself.
While this option does not literally give us the flowers from which the Anthesteria takes its name, I think it does preserve several important aspects of the symbolism:
- It’s local: a token of what’s happening right here, in this place, at this time of the year.
- It’s opening forth.
- It’s dying.
- It’s locally renewable, without being reusable.
All of these elements seem important both for this feast, and for many other occasions of offering to the Gods at our shrines and altars. All that, in addition to bringing beauty to our shrines, avoiding ugly ethical entanglements, and allowing space for individuals or families to gather and prepare these offerings ourselves, rather than simply making a commercial transaction.
But while all these considerations are wonderful, it’s still worth remembering that the proof that this works will consist in actually trying it (and in doing divination to confirm it). While there’s quite a lot that we’re blessed to understand, ultimately the inner logic of the Gods and their tokens is an objective part of the cosmos that we sometimes fail to grasp. Symbols are not necessarily interchangeable, and so any substitutions we attempt have the potential simply to be ineffective, failing to connect us to the same Holy Powers in the same or similar ways. Whereas others work swimmingly. I’m pretty confident that these cut twigs-and-buds would make a good offering in some context, but for Anthesteria specifically? I don’t know yet.
While I’m still unsure about when, whether, and if so, which buds might be substitutable for fresh flowers, I’m highly confident of the general principle that there’s a special value in offerings which are somehow dying, being consumed, or getting used up. Things which may, with care, be renewable, but which are not reusable.
As ever, I do not at all want to descend into “this is The One True Way™” or “all the rest of you are doing it wrong.” The most important thing is that we show up, and give honor to the Gods and Holy Powers, in whatever way we can. That will take different forms based on our means and opportunities (time, health, location, finances, material resources, etc.). This is why I placed flowers from the store on the altar here last weekend, and I’m glad to have made that offering.
But I think it’s also important that, from time to time, we step back and consider the details of what we’re offering, and why. Such deliberate reflection can also, in itself, be an act of piety and devotion to the Gods, and I offer what I’ve written here in that spirit.
Addendum: After I posted this, someone drew my attention to chapter 16 of Sallustius’ On the Gods and the World, which relates closely to the points developed here:
In the first place, since we have received everything from the gods, and it is right to pay the giver some tithe of his gifts, we pay such a tithe of possessions in votive offerings, of bodies in gifts of adornment, and of life in sacrifices. Then secondly, prayers without sacrifices are only words, with sacrifices they are live words; the word gives meaning to the life, while the life animates the word. Thirdly, the happiness of every object is its own perfection; and perfection for each is communion with its own cause. For this reason we pray for communion with the Gods. Since, therefore, the first life is the life of the gods, but human life is also life of a kind, and human life wishes for communion with divine life, a mean term is needed. For things very far apart cannot have communion without a mean term, and the mean term must be like the things joined; therefore the mean term between life and life must be life. That is why men sacrifice animals; only the rich do so now, but in old days everybody did, and that not indiscriminately, but giving the suitable offerings to each god together with a great deal of other worship.
1 In this post, I’m deliberately eliding any precise distinction between shrines and altars. In common use among modern polytheists, these terms are often used imprecisely and ambiguously, though I do think that they could mark an important difference. In a more precise, technical sense, a shrine would be a place where a deity resides, while an altar would be a place where sacrifices are made to the deity. Consider the way that at many temples in the ancient Mediterranean, the deity’s “home” was inside the temple, but the sacrificial altar was set up outside. Given the limitations of modern home-based cultus, there are good reasons why these two functions or activities are often combined in a single tiny space (on a shelf, atop a dresser, etc.). Yet I suspect there could be somewhat different considerations for the way that flowers (or flower-substitutes) are used in a space that is more shrine-like, as compared to one that is more altar-like, in the senses defined here. In particular, I could see potted plants being a bit more appropriate at a shrine than they would be at an altar.
2 This is closely related to why, other things being equal, real candles made from wick and wax are preferable to electric ones: something is being consumed, burned up, immolated as a gift to the Gods, right here and now.