Like the Anthesteria, the Lenaia was a widespread festival among the Ionians, to judge from the appearances of the winter month name Lenaion in inscriptions. At Athens, the festival was celebrated in the corresponding month Gamelion, and was overseen by the King Archon and officials connected with the Eleusinian mysteries, who organized a procession and musical contest, later expanded to include dramas. These competitions, at which several of Aristophanes’ comedies debuted, were held in the Lenaion, a sanctuary that has left no trace but was probably located in the agora. Little is known about the ritual activities of the Lenaia, except that Dionysos was invoked as “Iakchos, son of Semele, giver of wealth. ” In a custom common to the Lenaia and Anthesteria, scurrilous gibes were cast at the spectators by young men in the processional wagons.21
The name Lenaia is usually derived from the Ionic term lenai (wild women or mainads), though an alternative theory links it to lenos (a vat for treading grapes). If the former etymology is accurate, it points to an early mainadic element in the festival. Mainads (also known as bakchai) worshiped Dionysos in a “maddened” state of ecstasy, which was expressed primarily through physical movement: energetic dancing performed out of doors, particularly on the mountainsides. They wore distinctive animal skins over their dresses, left their hair unbound, and carried ivy-tipped staffs called thursoi. Their activities simulated those of the female half of Dionysos’ entourage, the band of nymphs who reared him in Nysa. Archaic and Classical sources have much to say of these madwomen who leave the confines of their homes for the wild mountains, but rather surprisingly, there is no unambiguous evidence of real-life mainads as opposed to mythic ones before the Hellenistic period. Still, the wealth of literary evidence strongly suggests that mainadism was practiced in at least some areas (Boiotia, the Peloponnese, and Delphi) from an early date. Again, the literary accounts often focus on mainadic transgressions (those who reject the god are driven to crimes such as the dismemberment of their own children) or tell of superhuman invulnerability and strength (e. g. the rending of a bull in Euripides’ Bacchae). It is difficult to separate the mythic elaborations from the authentic ritual core in these accounts.
A different type of evidence for Classical mainads are the so-called Lenaia vases, which depict women moving about a temporary, outdoor cult image of Dionysos, a draped column or pole topped with a bearded mask. This masked column appears first on black figured vases, mostly lekuthoi, where the presence of satyrs suggests that the female figures in attendance are to be understood as nymphs. Red figured examples (mostly stamnoi produced for export) include vases showing ecstatic, mainad-like females dancing around the column and altar of the god. On one side, we typically see stately women ladling wine from twin stamnoi set up on a table before the masked column; the other side shows women walking or dancing and holding drinking cups. Whether any of these scenes can be assigned to a specific Attic festival has been the subject of debate since the early twentieth century, with one camp opting for the Lenaia as the “festival of madwomen,” another for the Anthesteria, and a third suggesting that the scenes are generic or mythical. It is probable that the use of the masked column was not limited to a specific festival, for the vases do not form a coherent group. The scenes of dancing women are consistent with the hypothesis of cultic mainadism in Classical Attica, but they cannot confirm it in the absence of other evidence.22
Figure 10.2 “Lenaia” vase: women ladle wine before an image of Dionysos (a masked and draped pole). Attic stamnos exported to Italy, fifth century. Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Scala/Art Resource.