Plutarch (Ploútarkhos, Πλούταρχος) was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist, who later in his life became a Roman citizen. As such, he was extraordinarily qualified to write two standard works: the 'Quaestiones Graecae' (Αἴτια Ἑλληνικά, or Greek Questions), and the 'Quaestiones Romanae' (Αἴτια Ῥωμαϊκά, or 'Roman Questions'). These essays are part of the book series 'Moralia' (Ἠθικά, loosely translatable as 'Matters relating to customs and mores'), and can be found in book IV of the series. The Greek Questions contain fifty-nine questions, the Roman version hundred-thirteen, and all pertain to matters concerned with their respective culture. Many of the answers are names, or customs, and the Greek Questions are thus valuable for research on ancient Hellenic life.

The questions have a wide range of usefulness, but many of the answers give insight into the lives of the ancient Hellenes and their views on the Theoi. As today is the first day of the Anthesteria, I wanted to do something that connects to Dionysos in some way. So, I would like to share a beautiful little hymn that was passed down through the 'Quaestiones Graecae' in question thirty-six: 'Why is it that the women of the Eleans, when they sing hymns to Dionysus, call upon him to come to them 'with the foot of a bull'?' The hymn runs as follows:

Come, O hero Dionysus,
To thy Elean holy
Temple, with the Graces,
To thy temple
With thy bull's foot hasting.

He is describing, alluding to, an actual rite or dromenon in which a Bull is summoned and driven to come in spring. It was not connected to the Anthesteria but rather a separate one at the start of the growing season. Jane Harrison, in 'Ancient Art and Ritual', notes the following about the hymn and its occasion, which I think says it all:

"It is a strange primitive picture--the holy women standing in springtime in front of the temple, summoning the Bull; and the Bull, garlanded and filleted, rushing to-wards them, driven by the Graces, probably three real women, three Queens of the May, wreathed and flower-bedecked. But what does it mean?

Plutarch tries to answer his own question, and half, in a dim, confused fashion, succeeds. 'Is it,' he suggests, 'that some entitle the god as 'Born of a Bull' and as a 'Bull' himself? ... or is it that many hold the god is the beginner of sowing and ploughing?'

We have seen how a kind of daimon, or spirit, of Winter or Summer arose from an actual tree or maid or man disguised year by year as a tree. Did the god Dionysos take his rise in like fashion from the driving and summoning year by year of some holy Bull?

First, we must notice that it was not only at Elis that a holy Bull appears at the Spring Festival. Plutarch asks another instructive Question: 1 'Who among the Delphians is the Sanctifier?' And we find to our amazement that the sanctifier is a Bull. A Bull who not only is holy himself, but is so holy that he has power to make others holy, he is the Sanctifier; and, most important for us, he sanctifies by his death in the month Bysios, the month that fell, Plutarch tells us, "at the beginning of spring, the time of the blossoming of many plants."

We do not hear that the 'Sanctifier' at Delphi was 'driven,' but in all probability he was led from house to house, that every one might partake in the sanctity that simply exuded from him. At Magnesia, a city of Asia Minor, we have more particulars. There, at the annual fair year by year the stewards of the city bought a Bull, 'the finest that could be got,' and at the new moon of the month at the beginning of seedtime they dedicated it, for the city's welfare.

The Bull's sanctified life began with the opening of the agricultural year, whether with the spring or the autumn ploughing we do not know. The dedication of the Bull was a high solemnity. He was led in procession, at the head of which went the chief priest and priestess of the city. With them went a herald and the sacrificer, and two bands of youths and maidens. So holy was the Bull that nothing unlucky might come near him; the youths and maidens must have both their parents alive, they must not have been under the taboo, the infection, of death. The herald pronounced aloud a prayer for 'the safety of the city and the land, and the citizens, and the women and children, for peace and wealth, and for the bringing forth of grain and of all the other fruits, and of cattle.' All this longing for fertility, for food and children, focuses round the holy Bull, whose holiness is his strength and fruitfulness.

The Bull thus solemnly set apart, charged as it were with the luck of the whole people, is fed at the public cost. The official charged with his keep has to drive him into the market-place, and "it is good for those corn-merchants who give the Bull grain as a gift," good for them because they are feeding, nurturing, the luck of the State, which is their own luck. So through autumn and winter the Bull lives on, but early in April the end comes. Again a great procession is led forth, the senate and the priests walk in it, and with them come representatives of each class of the State--children and young boys, and youths just come to manhood, epheboi, as the Greeks called them. The Bull is sacrificed, and why? Why must a thing so holy die? Why not live out the term of his life? He dies because he is so holy, that he may give his holiness, his strength, his life, just at the moment it is holiest, to his people.
'When they shall have sacrificed the Bull, let them divide it up among those who took part in the procession.'

The mandate is clear. The procession included representatives of the whole State. The holy flesh is not offered to a god, it is eaten--to every man his portion--by each and every citizen, that he may get his share of the strength of the Bull, of the luck of the State.

Now at Magnesia, after the holy civic communion, the meal shared, we hear no more. Next year a fresh Bull will be chosen, and the cycle begin again. But at Athens at the annual "Ox-murder," the Bouphonia, as it was called, the scene did not so close. The ox was slain with all solemnity, and all those present partook of the flesh, and then--the hide was stuffed with straw and sewed up, and next the stuffed animal was set on its feet and yoked to a plough as though it were ploughing. The Death is followed by a Resurrection. Now this is all-important. We are so accustomed to think of sacrifice as the death, the giving up, the renouncing of something. But sacrifice does not mean "death" at all. It means making holy, sanctifying; and holiness was to primitive man just special strength and life.

What they wanted from the Bull was just that special life and strength which all the year long they had put into him, and nourished and fostered. That life was in his blood. They could not eat that flesh nor drink that blood unless they killed him. So he must die. But it was not to give him up to the gods that they killed him, not to "'sacrifice' him in our sense, but to have him, keep him, eat him, live by him and through him, by his grace.

And so this killing of the sacred beast was always a terrible thing, a thing they fain would have shirked. They fled away after the deed, not looking backwards; they publicly tried and condemned the axe that struck the blow. But their best hope, their strongest desire, was that he had not, could not, really have died. So this intense desire uttered itself in the dromenon of his resurrection. If he did not rise again, how could they plough and sow again next year? He must live again, he should, he did."