"Soon shall the whole land go forth to dance . . . as Bromios leads his revellers to the mountains . . . where abides that host of women driven out in madness by Dionysus from beside their looms and shuttles . . .

Euripides' "The Bacchae"

For 364 days a year the looms are active. Women bend over the fields, heads covered with kerchiefs, as they assist in sowing or reaping the crops. A strict village code governs their demeanor: They are to be quiet and submissive within the confines of their homes.

But on Sunday the annual celebration of the ancient rite of Dionysus - god of fertility and wine - transformed this tiny mountain hamlet into a contemporary fiefdom of women's rule.

With the execption of virgins - presumed to be any unmarried females here the women of Nea Petra, a village of 550 near the Bulgarian frontier, took over city hall and the police department. They danced and swaggered to the bag pipe music of Pan. Overcome by the local wine "Mavrodgfni," they were "kings" for a day in this society where, traditionally, male chauvinism prevails.

Their menfolk were relegated to the chores and shuttered parameters of home.

Historians cite the writings of Thucydides and Plutarch, and marvel at the purity with which this ancient custom has been preserved.

This year, homage was paid to midwife Maria Bitzidou, 62, the symbol of Dionysus' mother Semele, "Mother Earth."

Shrouded in black with gold teeth flashing, ample bosom covered with popcorn chains she was paraded through the labrinthic streets of the village atop a wooden cart. It was decorated with the ancient herbs vassiliko and latini, and other symbols of spring.

As winter wheat was breaking through the frozen ground near the village, Bitzidou dispensed the ancient fertility rite, clutching a staff festooned with oranges and sausages, the latter both a phallic symbol and village specialty.

If a man dared trespass into the streets of the vilalge, he was doused with water by the contemporary Lysistratas, and fined - a practice well-documented in Aristophanes' celebrated 5th-century B.C. play.

"Ah, it's a practice from the old country," said Bitzidou, referring to Asia Minor from which the residents of Nea Petra came. They arrived in 1922 as refugees and built the present village. But when they refer to their country, they mean the land from which Dionysus himself came in Thraki, now Turkey's eastern Thrace.

"I guess it's okay," said 12-year-old Costas Papadopoulos, as he scurried around cleaning the terrace with a tiny whisk broom. "When I get married my wife can be free for one day, but that's enough, I tell you. These things are women's work."

Around him, men who had filled the village's tiny tavern Saturday evening, fortifying themselves with wine for the coming day, shook bedding from balconies. Smoke curled upward from chimneys on a bitter cold winter day. An aroma of burnt food came from the kitchens. Children, with an air of abandon, were filling up on sweets.

Male renegades huddled in byways, taunting women with buckets of water who came their way.

Like so many other Greek villagers, however, Nea Petra, with its cubistic whitewashed houses, red-tiled roofs, and central village square, is being depopulated, And customs have begun to die.

"It's her generation that will produce the last Semele," Bitzidou's 27-year-old daughter, Roula, said. "I live in Salonica. All of the young people are going away. It's a pity that the traditions are being eroded . . . but in a village like this it's hard to make a good life."

The barren, mountainous area, set near Greece's major tobacco plain, yields wheat, sugar beets, some tobacco and clover, but provides its residents with a meager, subsistence life.

"Those of us who stay will keep the traditions," protested Toula Karakatsanis, 34, wearing the traditional folkloric costume of thraki, emblazoned with gold embrodery and silver filigress. "But the truth is, what we need is true freedom for women . . . not simply a celebration during one 24-hour day."

"Independence for women? . . . Nonsense . . ." shouted her grandfather, Michalis Zaitou, who owns the village's tavern and cafe.

"Be quiet. Let her talk," his wife interrupted. "This is our only day."

"In some ways we're more independent in the village," Toula continnued, "because we work side by side with men.And, by the same token, women in the village are even more deserving of being given equal rights with men. I think it's good that women's organizations are now forming . . . and it will come to the village one day."

"Bah," said village secretary Athanassios Karayanidis, when asked the same question earlier in the day. He pounded his fist, seemingly threatened, on the oilcloth table cloth. "Statistics, statistics," he shouted. "Eighty per cent of men can drive in this country. With women it's only 10 per cent . . . that says something about the mind of a woman . . ."

"Aside from today, what do women do in the village? They do what we tell them to do."

He then shrugged his shoulders and began shuffling off towards home. His children were waiting. The housework was unattended. He was about to embark on the preparation of a meat and cabbage stew.