The City Dionysia

Artist's Impression of Theater of Dionysus

City Dionysia

Kairete! (Greetings!) Grab your favorite festival food—nuts, dates, figs, grapes… and of course, a glass of wine, and settle in to the City Dionysia, the festival of the god of wine and ecstasy. The festival that produced some of the greatest tragedies of all time and is one of a few festivals honoring the god who is often left out of other ancient epic literature and history. The City Dionysia was a festival that began in the 6th century BCE. It was held in Athens in honor of the god Dionysus Eleuthereus. The festival was a city-wide event, attended by women, men, children, and even slaves. Many people traveled from all over Greece for the festival. (3)Neck Amphora

Who was Dionysus?

Dionysus (Bacchus in Roman mythology) is the god of wine, fertility (particularly agricultural and male), madness/drunkenness, and poetic drama. He was also connected with death and re-birth. His female followers, or cult, were called the maianades in Greek and the bacchants in Latin. (2)

Dionysus is purported to be the son of Zeus and the mortal Semele. When Hera heard that Semele was pregnant by Zeus, she appeared to her as a crone and convinced her to doubt that Zeus was the father.   Semele was killed instantaneously when she demanded to see Zeus in his full form to prove that he was in fact the father of her child. Zeus then removed Dionysus from his mother’s womb and re-made him, and placed him in his thigh, from which he was born. He married Ariadne, daughter of Minos, king of Crete. Ariadne had been previously abandoned on an island by Theseus.  There are other stories conflicting with this one, however Zeus is a constant in the other myths and this is the most well-known story of his origin.

Some images associated with Dionysus are the satyr (man-goat), the wine chalice, the ivy wreath, the thyrsus (a staff with a pine cone at top—a phallic symbol of male virility), grapes and grape vines, and the phallus itself. (2)

What was the City Dionysia?

All other sanctuaries were closed, removing access to other deities. The dead were able to roam around the city during the festival, emphasizing the link between death/re-birth and Dionysus.

At sunset of the first day Pthoigia, the festival begins with the opening of the first wine of the year. The statue of Dionysus was carried from the temple to the Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis. During the procession, young girls carried phalloi, or phalluses.The temple was sprinkled with the blood of pigs sacrificed to Dionysus for purification prior to the performances.

The second day, called Choes included drinking contests—participants sat in silence while chugging the wine.

The third day, Chrytoi, begins at sunset of the second day. The wife of the king becomes the wife of Dionysus, copulating with him that night (or a masked person). This was also the day of tragic performance.

The worship of Dionysus was conducted in this way for a number of reasons. Firstly—to celebrate fertility and the flourishing of the vines, the first wine of the year was consumed at the festival. Secondly, the performance of the dramas was a way to encourage crowd participation in the imitations and the madness of suspending disbelief and to take part in cognitive efforts as a community by experiencing thoughtful reflections on their values and society. (1,3)

Who was involved?

Typically a political figure would sponsor the events to bring name recognition and positive rapport to his political ambitions.  The tragedians would also write and direct performances of their plays for the tragedy competitions, using male actors and chorus members. The most famous of the Athenian tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. (1,3,4)

What is the relevance of the festival?

The City Dionysia as a concept may at first seem an absurd combination of wine, worship, and drama but we continue to participate in community activities like this today. Concerts, movies, sporting events, even political rallies can produce the ecstatic feeling of being outside of oneself and part of the community as a whole. Not only that, but the tragedies performed served as inspiration and foundation for many classics of the Western World—including Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, among many others.


  1. In The Theater of Dionysos, Richard C. Sewell, 2007, McFarland & Company Publishers, North Carolina, USA
  2. Library; Apollodorus; Anthology of Classical Myth; 2004;  Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, IN
  3.  The Dramatic Festivals of Athens Sir Arthur Pickard-Cambridge, 1968, Oxford University Press London, England
  4. Pomeroy, S. B., Burstein, S. M., Donlan, W., & Roberts, J. T.; 2009, Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, 10016

Image Sources

  1. Retrieved 12/6/2013
  2. Retrieved 12/6/2013

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