The Ancient Greek Festival to Honor the Wine God

The Dionysia was a grand celebration in ancient Athens honoring the Ancient Greek deity Dionysus, the god of Wine. The main activities of which were artistic displays of tragedies and comedies.

It was the second most significant celebration after the Panathenaia. The Dionysia was actually two separate festivals, the Rural Dionysia and the City Dionysia, held at different times of the year.

They were also an essential component of the Dionysian Mysteries and the most important theatrical event in 5th-century Athens.

Every spring (about March), playwrights competed to captivate the throngs of Athenian citizens. 

Up to 16,000 Athenian citizens (excluding women, enslaved people, metoioi, and metics) would crowd into the amphitheater to see the latest plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes.

Even if the plays changed, this feast of regeneration would not.

A massive procession, or Pompe, would bring the sacred statue of Dionysus from beyond the city limits to the Dionysus theater, which was located near the Acropolis. 

In celebration of Dionysus, choruses would sing Dithyrambs, and gigantic phalloi would be paraded along the cortege path. All of this would be complemented by copious amounts of booze and general debauchery.

The day would commence with another parade after a night of rest. The war orphans would march down the boulevard in remembrance of their fathers who had given their lives for the sake of the city.

They would then have front-row seats in the theater. This parade would be preceded by three tragic pieces by a single playwright, as well as a semi-comedic Satyr play.

The Satyr plays were designed to relieve “womanly feelings” induced by tragedies and restore the audience’s “maleness” through bawdy jokes and even more alcohol. 

What was the significance of the Dionysia?

The wine festival was once Dionysia’s center point. Dionysia is an excellent and lavish festival held in ancient Athens in honor of the God Dionysus.

This was regarded as the second most important and famous celebration, the first being the Panathenaia.

Why was the Dionysus festival important to the Athenians?

Not only did Dionysus grant Athenians the gift of wine to alleviate their pain, but he also granted them freedom from societal limitations.

The celebration of Dionysus’ status as the deity of the vine and winemaking was a feature shared by many of these Dionysus celebrations.

Dionysia in the Countryside (Rural Dionysia) 

A Hellenistic Greek mosaic depicting the god Dionysos riding on a tiger
A Hellenistic Greek mosaic depicting the god Dionysos riding on a tiger

The Dionysia was presumably a rural event in Eleuthera, Attica, honoring vine cultivation. It was most likely an ancient event initially not related to Dionysus.

This “country Dionysia” was celebrated in the month of Poseidon during the winter (the month straddling the winter solstice, i.e., Dec.-Jan.). 

The Pompe, or parade, was the main event in which phalloi were borne by phallophoroi.

Kanephoroi (young girls carrying baskets), obeliaphoroi ( – who bore long loaves of bread), skaphephoroi ( – who carried various tributes), hydriaphoroi ( – who held jars of water), and askophoroi ( – who carried jars of wine) also partake in the Pompe. 

There were dance and singing contests following the Pompe procession, and choruses (headed by a choregos) reciting dithyrambs.

Some celebrations featured dramatic acts, presumably of tragedies and comedies staged the previous year at the City Dionysia. This was more widespread in larger cities like Piraeus and Eleusis.

Because numerous towns in Attica conducted their celebrations on different days, spectators could attend more than one event per season.

Athenian inhabitants also needed to travel beyond the city if they had not done so during the rest of the year.

This also permitted traveling troupes of performers to play in more than one town during the festival’s run. In his comedy, The Acharnians, Aristophanes’s comic playwright mocked the Rural Dionysia.

Origins of the City Dionysia

Epiphany of Dionysus mosaic, from the Villa of Dionysus
Epiphany of Dionysus mosaic, from the Villa of Dionysus

The City Dionysia (also called Dionysia ta en Astei –, also known as the Great Dionysia, Dionysia ta Megala) was the festival’s urban component, likely created during Peisistratus’ reign in the 6th century BC. 

This celebration was presumably held three months after the rural Dionysia, from the 10th to the 16th of the lunar month Elaphebolion (the lunar month straddling the spring equinox, i.e., Mar.-Apr in the solar calendar), to commemorate the end of winter and the reaping of the year’s crops.

According to legend, the festival was founded after Eleutherae, a town on the boundary of Attica and Boeotia, opted to become a part of Attica.

The Eleuthereans carried a Dionysus statue to Athens, which the Athenians initially rejected. 

As a result, Dionysus then cursed the Athenians with a plague afflicting male genitalia, which was remedied when the Athenians adopted Dionysus’ cult.

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Every year, a procession of townspeople carrying phalloi was held to commemorate this. The urban celebration was a comparatively new concept.

This ceremony was overseen by the Archons of Athens, rather than the basileus, to whom religious celebrations were granted after the position of archon was established in the 7th century BC.

The Proagon and the Pompe

City Dionsyia Festival
City Dionsyia Festival

The archon began preparing for the City Dionysia as soon as he was appointed, by appointing two páredroi (o, “reeves,” literally: “by the chair”) and ten epimeltai (, “curators”) to assist in the festival’s organization. 

The pomp (“pomp,” “procession”) was hosted on the first day of the festival.

Public, metics, and representatives from Athenian territories paraded to the Theatre of Dionysus on the southern slope of the Acropolis, hauling the wooden statue of Dionysus Eleuthereus, the “leading” or eisagg (, “introduction”). 

They also held phalloi made of wood or bronze outstretched on poles, as did the Rural Dionysia, and a cart towed an even more enormous phallus.

Basket carriers, as well as water and wine carriers, took part in the Pompe, as they did at the Rural Dionysia.

Various gifts and weaponry displaying Athens’ strength were also transported during the zenith of the Athenian Empire in the mid-5th century BC.

Bulls to be slaughtered in the theater were also included in the procession. 

Likewise, the chorgo (“sponsors,” literally: “chorus leaders”) were the most visible members of the procession, clothed in the most lavish and extravagant clothes.

The chorgo led their choruses in the dithyrambic bouts after the pomp.

These were highly competitive, with the best flute musicians and star poets (like Simonides and Pindar) offering their musical and poetic skills.

Following these contests, the bulls were sacrificed, and a banquet was thrown for all Athenians. 

Following that, a second procession, the kmos, took place, which was most likely drunken merrymaking through the streets.

Then, the following day, the playwrights declared the titles of the plays to be presented, and the judges were chosen at random: the “proagn” (v, “pre-contest”). 

Likewise, it is unknown where the proagn originated, but it was conducted in the Odeon of Pericles at the foot of the Acropolis after the mid-5th century BC.

The proagn was also used to honor essential citizens, frequently foreigners, who had helped Athens in some way over the year. 

Orphaned children of those killed in combat were hoisted in the Odeon during the Peloponnesian War, probably to honor their fathers.

The proagn might also be adopted for other announcements; for example, the death of the playwright Euripides was publicized there in 406 BC.

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Theatrical Performances

View of the Theatre and Sanctuary of Dionysus
View of the Theatre and Sanctuary of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus was sanctified after the Pompe by the sacrifice of a bull.

According to legend, the first rendition of the tragedy at the Dionysia was given in 534 BC by the playwright and actor Thespis (from whom we get the term “thespian”). 

His reward was supposedly a goat, a typical Dionysus emblem, and this “gift” may have suggested the derivation of the word “tragedy” (which translates to “goat-song”).

Five days of the event were reserved for performance around the fifth century BC, though researchers dispute what was performed each day.

At least three full days were dedicated to tragic plays, with each playwright presenting his composition of three tragedies and one satyr theatrical play on successive days.

The majority of the ancient Greek tragedies, including those by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, were played at the Dionysus Theatre.

The archons, epimeletai, and judges (agonothetai) sat in the front row and observed.

Until 487/6 BC, when comic poets were legitimately admitted to the agons and entitled to their own rewards, the other two days of the celebration were most likely allocated to dithyrambic contests.

Similarly, each of the five comedy playwrights performed a single play (except during the Peloponnesian War, when only three plays were played).

However, it is unclear whether they were initiated continuously on one day or spread out over the course of the five-day festival. 

Until 449 BC, only theatrical works were recognized at the agon, but performers were also qualified for commendation after that date.

Conclusion 

The celebratory days of Dionysia comprised three tragedies followed by a Satyr play. A day of five comic plays followed, providing Athenians a much-needed emotional break.

After the day of the comedy presentation, one day was set aside for recovery from the previous five days of inebriation and drunkenness. 

Finally, the crowd would choose a winner on the seventh day (Aeschylus was a favorite, but Sophocles and Euripides also had their moments), and the festival came to an end.

So, how do masks fit into the overall picture of the festival? The festival supplies the mask with a much-needed social, physical, and religious context for its position as a mediator in Greek tragedy. 

As such, Dionysia was the most prominent arts festival in the ancient Greek world. People from all around Greece attended the six-day Spring event in Athens, which included theater, music, dance, and community.

The festival also presented itself as a venue for gathering the Athenian legislative body.

As part of the meeting, Athenian inhabitants reviewed the festival and the performances and began arranging the event for the following year. 

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