City Dionysia

The holidays, celebrations, and festivals of Ancient Greece were not in short supply. They were significant aspects of Ancient Greek culture that served as meaningful customs revolving around the Gods. Their holidays may seem strange and unfamiliar to us because their calendar does not line up with the one we use most commonly today, but for the Greeks, holidays involving drinking, sacrificing, rowdiness, and dancing were among the most celebrated of traditions. For the holidays revolving around female deities, women tended to dominate the festivities, the same was true for men when the deity being celebrated was male.

external image 200px-Michelangelo_Bacchus.jpg
City Dionysia was a major holiday in ancient Greek society. Held in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine, Dionysia was celebrated in Athens during Elaphebolion (what would have been March on the modern Gregorian calendar).[1] The weather was becoming warmer and the seas were not as rough as they had been during the winter months.[2] Celebrations began when a statue of Dionysus was carried to the Acropolis. Those who participated in this procession carried wine, bowls, bread and phallic symbols and animal sacrifices were made.[3] Citizens of every sex, age, and social status could be found at this procession. These proceedings were a true spectacle, and many who participated wore lavish, colorful garments, theatrical makeup, and various kinds of dramatic masks and costumes.[4] The origins of this tradition are commonly associated with the story of Dionysus’ first arrival in Eleutherai. The king is said to have rejected Dionysus and as a punishment, all of the men in town were stricken with a condition of permanent arousal. The remedy, they discovered, was a procession of a statue of Dionysus through Athens.[5] The festival of Dionysia is often credited to Peisistratus the tyrant; for during his final reign he is believed to have revived the holiday to its former importance and popularity.[6]

Choral hymns known as dithyrambs were competitively performed by a group of 50 men, and a group of 50 boys to honor Dionysus on the first day of the celebration.[7] These choruses were composed at random and were meant to represent the ten tribes of Attica.[8]
The following is an example of an adapted dithyramb by Bacchylides:
Who is this one?
What is His name?
A Wanderer from
exotic lands?
Of iron heart,
who checks the strength
of every foe.
Bright flames leap from
His shining eyes
like Lemnos-fire.
With hunting boots
and dearskin clad,
His staff held high,
He comes to us.
He marches through
our noble town.
A God has come,
who forges laws
to rid the land
of monstrous things.
Every outrage
will be answered!
The flow of Time
ends everything.[9]

Theater was the most monumental part of this festival, with comedies and tragedies being frequently performed over the course of several days. Playwrights competed against one another, each presenting three tragedies and one satyr over a three day period in the Theatre of Dionysus. The tragedies were the most monumental part of the theatrical proceedings of Dionysia.[10] Those who wished to have their plays presented, had to submit them over the summer to the Archon who was in charge of selecting which pieces would compete during City Dionysia. Those who were selected were assigned actors who would be paid for by the state, as well as a wealthy member of Athens who would finance all aspects of the upcoming performance.[11]
Dionysia Satyr.
Dionysia Satyr.

The men of Athens would overindulge in wine, while women took on the persona of maenads. Maenads are portrayed in Greek literature as wild, violent and frenzied women who destroyed animals and the natural landscape. They are the worshippers of Dionysus who are in constant throws of drunken ecstasy. They are not logical, or even civilized; they are passion and indulgence personified. While there is no evidence of this exact behavior being mimicked by the real women of ancient Greece, they would ascend on Mount Panassus, handling raw sacrificial meat just as the frenzied maenads of literature did.[12] Maenads, surprisingly enough, still find themselves into modern pop culture. On the popular HBO television series True Blood, a character named Maryann is revealed as a maenad. Throughout her run on the show, she exhibits wild and violent behavior, possesses mystical powers, hosts orgies in which participants completely black out, and expresses a desire for the approval of the god Dionysus.
Traditional Maenad in Ancient Greece.  Shown dismembering an animal.
Traditional Maenad in Ancient Greece. Shown dismembering an animal.

Maryann the maenad on "True Blood."
Maryann the maenad on "True Blood."

Months of the Ancient Greek Calendar

  • Hekatombaion- June/July
  • Metageitnion- July/August
  • Boedromion- August/ September
  • Pyanopsion- September/October
  • Maimakterion- October/November
  • Poseideon- November/December
  • Gamelion- December/January
  • Anthesterion- January/February
  • Elaphebolion- February/March
  • Mounychion- March/ April
  • Thargelion- April/May
  • Skirophorion- May/June [13]

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