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 D I O N Y S O S 
Introduction - The myth The attributes of the godThe cult - Festival days in Athens - Antique iconography - Modern iconography - Dionysos and the theatre - Greek theatre and Euripide's Bacchae - Dionysos in ancient Greek literature - References and links 
Study of iconography - Bacchus, myth and cult - Sophocles' Antigone

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The festivals of Dionysos in Athens

  The Rustic Dionysia     The Lenaea     The Anthesteria    The Great Dionysia 

Four festivals are dedicated to Dionysos, from the beginning of Winter to the beginning of Spring :


This festival spreads throughout the month of Poseidon. Each deme would organise its thiasos. A symbol of the phallos, sign of fertility, was carried through the dancing and singing procession which ended with a sacrifice consisting of baked bread or a gruel of cereal (Aristophane, The Acharnians, verse 237 and following).


The most ancient of the festivals dedicated to Dionysos : the procession would advance towards the sanctuary of Dionysos called Lenaeon, probably at the foot of the western slope of the Acropolis. It seems that this festival consisted of orgies (to do Lenaea = to do bacchanalia(s)) led by the daduchus (the torch carrier, dais, daidos), who invites the participants to invoke lacchos, son of Semele, provider of the earth's fertility. This invocation is maintained in the inauguration of the theatrical competitions.


Boy holding a bunch of grapes, walking towards a bird, 410 B.C. - © Louvre.edu Woman seated on a swing, 530-520 B.C. - © Louvre.edu
© Louvre.edu

Takes place before the full moon of March, and is connected with the growth of vegetation (anthos = flower). It is thought that this three-day festival lifted the ban on the consumption of produce saved during the winter. On the first day, jars (pithoi) containing the new wine were opened. On the second day, there was a drinking competition (the wine was poured into earthenware pitchers, khoes) : "This competition was open to men and young boys from the age of three. For the occasion, they received a jug adapted to their capacity" (Louvre.edu, Sophie Padel). The champion was crowned with ivy and received a filled wine skin. The festival honours beneficial humidity: the image of the god was carried on a float shaped like a boat.
Afterwards, at the sanctuary called the Boukoleion, a hierogamy would take place - the King Archon and his wife would unite symbolizing the union of Dionysos and Basilinna - ancient queen of Athens.
On the third day, the festival of the pot (khytroi) was the festival of the dead : a gruel was prepared from several cereals, the panspermy, which was to be eaten with one's family before night fall. Sacrifices were made to Hermes psychopompos (conductor of souls into the underworld) and bad spirits were willed away : "Go, you Keres, the Anthesteria is ended".


The first day was consecrated to choruses called dithyrambs (dithurambos, probably the double thriambos, which gave the latin name triumphus), eulogies in honour of the gods : fifty men danced and sang around Dionysos' altar (altar called thymele) to the sound of flutes and tambourines, on the Agora not far from the altar of the twelve gods. Originally these dithyrambs would take place at night in the glow of torches and lead to phenomenon of ecstasy or hysteria.
The second day, athletic or poetic (rhapsodist competitions) jousting matches (agones) were held.
The three following days were dedicated to theatre: tragedies, dating from 534 (etymologically songs in honour of the goat, tragos, animal associated with Dionysos), each trilogy of tragedies was followed by a satiric play (the chorus made up of satyrs, half men/half goats). Comedies, which some say originate from the cortèges of inebriated peasants, (songs of komoi, of the villages) do not become dialogued texts until 486.
From the point of view of the cult of Dionysos, the Great Dionysia festival ends with a triumphal procession and the crowning of the god.