The Ancient Festivals Of Dionysus In Athens: ‘Euhoi Bacchoi’

The festivals of Dionysus in Ancient Greece were the City Dionysia, the Anthesteria, the Lenaia, and the Rural Dionysia, which were held annually in honor of the wine god.

Feb 25, 2021By Danielle Mackay
euhoi bacchoi
A Bacchanalian Revel, William Etty, R.A, 19th century, via Sotheby’s; The Priestess of Bacchus, John Collier, 1885-9, via Christie’s

 

The festival circuit of the golden age of ancient Greece was a busy one, especially for the residents of Athens. Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, provided the Athenians with a great excuse to let loose from societal constraints and indulge in what was usually considered taboo. In this article, we will look at a few of these festivals of Dionysus, trying to answer the following questions: What exactly took place in these – often secretive – events of the cult of Dionysus, and why did the ancient citizens of Attica love these festivals?

 

The Festivals Of Dionysus And Their Importance

bacchanalian revel william etty
A Bacchanalian Revel, William Etty, R.A, 19th century, via Sotheby’s

 

For the participants of the festivals of Dionysus, the god was a liberator. For the brief duration of the festival, women, slaves, and even prisoners could experience liberation and freedom, which were usually reserved exclusively for Athenian male citizens. This is what made Dionysus such a popular god in Athens and, also, the reason why people worshipped him so extravagantly. Not only did the god give them the pain-ending gift of wine, but he also gave them freedom from societal constraints.

 

A common feature shared by many of these festivals of Dionysus was the celebration of his role as the god of the vine and viticulture. Furthermore, they all shared the celebration of the harvest. Whether it was drinking from the vines’ most delightful produce and making rowdy libations or participating in phallic processions for the god’s blessing of fertility, the unifying theme of these rituals was to celebrate the god’s gift to mortals, wine.

 

1. The City Dionysia: The Great Athenian Festival of Dionysus

diego velazquez feast of bacchus
The Feast of Bacchus by Diego Velazquez, 1628-9, via Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

The City Dionysia, or the Greater Dionysia (ta megala Dionysia), was held each year in March to honor Dionysus Eleuthereus, an Athenian cult name for the god. In his Descriptions of Greece, Pausanias suggested that the festival was established by a Dionysiac missionary named Pegasos. The introduction of the City Dionysia in Athens most likely correlated with the rapid spread and popularity of the cult of Dionysus throughout the 6th century BCE. Above all, this festival of Dionysus allowed for the subversion of traditional societal roles for many of the residents of the city. The celebration commenced at the start of the sailing season. This meant that many foreigners were in the city in time for the festivities. Even slaves and prisoners were released for the duration of the festival.

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The Ceremonies of the City Dionysia

black figure krater painter of munich
Black-figure Column Krater, the Painter of Munich 1736, c. 520 BCE, via The J.Paul Getty Museum, Malibu

 

The City Dionysia festival commenced with a ritual procession of a wooden effigy of Dionysus called the xoanon. This was carried through the city streets to the god’s temple. The participants of the procession followed the effigy carrying phalluses. Meanwhile, a trailing troupe of actors re-enacted the fabled arrival of Dionysus in Athens. Once at the temple of Dionysus, festival participants took part in ritual sacrifices and the singing of hymns and dithyrambs to the god. At the temple precinct, a bull was led in by another ritual procession to be sacrificed to the god. Thereafter, the effigy of Dionysus was carried back to the theatre of Dionysus in a torch-light procession into the city. This procession or katagogia signified the official beginning of the City Dionysia.

 

The Theatre Of Dionysus

 

Many of the renowned Greek dramas we know of today were first performed at the Theatre of Dionysus as a part of the festival’s dramatic contest. The tragedies of Euripides, for example, Bacchae and Hippolytus, were performed here alongside comedies by Aristophanes, like Birds.

 

2. The Anthesteria: The Harvest and The Cult Of Dionysus

bacchus michelangelo
Bacchus, Michelangelo, 1496-7, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, via michelangelo.net.

 

Another festival of Dionysus was the Anthesteria. This three-day event was celebrated in both Attica and Ionia and took place annually at the end of February. The Anthesteria’s name is derived from the term anthos, which is a viticultural term for the fermentation process.

 

 

a grecian harvest festival james barry
A Grecian Harvest Festival, James Barry, 1791, via MoMA, New York

 

Like much of what we know about the ancient world, the origins of the festival are still widely debated. However, we do have an account of the festival passed down from antiquity. In his work Heroicus, Philostratus suggested that the Anthesteria festival was intended to parallel a rite of passage ritual. The festival included boys and girls, who were just passing out of infancy, wearing crowns of flowers. This parallelled the maturing of the vine and the ripening of the grapes. The festival days of the Anthesteria were called Pithoigia (Opening of the New Wine), Choes (Jars), and the Chytroi (Pots).

 

The Festival Days

bacchus and ariadne pietro benvenuti
Bacchus and Ariadne, Pietro Benvenuti, 1819, via Sotheby’s

 

Each day of the festival began at sunset on the previous evening. This meant that the whole night could be spent drinking the wine of the harvest. 

 

The Pithoigia took place near the god’s sanctuary, the center of the cult of Dionysus in the city, where citizens and slaves alike made libations to the god and drank wine from the previous harvest. The second day, Choes, was celebrated by drinking wine throughout the city and culminated in a drinking match. Finally, the last day of the festival, Chytroi, saw the opening of the sanctuary of Dionysus, where sacred ceremonies took place. One of these, the hieros gamos, involved the basilinna – wife of the archon – entering into a symbolic marriage with Dionysus.

 

 

The Sacred Marriage

 

The sacred marriage ceremony between the basilinna and the god acted as a fertility ritual. In addition, it was a dramatization of the mythological union between Dionysus and his mortal wife, Ariadne. The ceremony itself was secretive and did not take place in the shrine of the cult of Dionysus, where most of the Anthesteria’s other activities took place. Instead, it was held in the Boukoleion. This served as the office of the archon, beside the Prytaneion or town-hall in the center of Athens. Meanwhile, a religious procession escorted an effigy of the god to the Boukoleion. The effigy was placed in a wagon shaped like a ship. This act also re-enacted a scene from Dionysus’ mythology, in this case, the myth of Dionysus and the pirates.

 

3. The Lenaia: The Winter Festival

jean simon berthelemy wooded landscape
A wooded landscape with a bacchante playing the cymbals and a sleeping faun, Jean-Simon Berthélemy, 1783, via Christie’s

 

Another festival of Dionysus in the Athenian calendar was the Lenaia, which took place in the winter month of January. Like the City Dionysia, it was a state-sponsored festival and was mostly attended by the resident population of Athens. The festival took place in the cult of Dionysus’ sanctuary, in the lower part of the Athenian agora. Like the two festivals of Dionysus previously mentioned, the Lenaia also included a procession. This was conducted by the archon of Athens or archon basileus and the epimeletai or officials. It featured an effigy of the god adorned with ivy followed by bands of bacchants in ecstatic revelry and dance. This dancing and revelry, by both male and female participants, was an important aspect of this festival. Besides, surviving depictions on Greek pottery, known as the Lenaian vases, feature prominent images of dancing bacchants.

 

bacchus michelangelo merisi da caravaggio
Bacchus, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1598, via The Uffizi Museum, Florence

 

A sparagmos rite, the ritual dismemberment of a sacrificial animal, took place once the procession was completed. The sparagmos also has its foundations in the mythology of the god, like many other Dionysiac rituals. The deadly dismemberment of Pentheus at the hands of frenzied bacchants in Euripides’ Bacchae is an example of this ritual. Like other festivals of Dionysus, the Lenaia also featured the singing of hymns and dithyrambs, as well as the performance of dramatic contests. Many popular tragedies and comedies could be judged by a panel of officials. This panel would crown the best playwrights of comedy and tragedy the victors.

 

4. The Rural Dionysia: The Lesser-Known Festival of Dionysus

maenads john collier
Detail from Maenads, John Collier, 1886, via Southwark Art Collection, London

 

The Rural Dionysia, or ta kat’agrous Dionysia, was a series of smaller festivals of Dionysus, celebrated in December throughout Attica. These Rural Dionysia were much older and provided the template for what would become the City Dionysia. In addition, the City Dionysia would, in time, become greater and more elaborate than its rural counterpart. Αlso, the Rural Dionysia made up a part of the greater festival circuit of the cult of Dionysus around Athens. It provided rural residents the opportunity to experience what festival participants in the city enjoyed during the City Dionysia.

 

The foundation myth of the Rural Dionysia was recorded by Latin author Hyginus in his Fabulae. Hyginus reports that in Eleutherai, Eleuther refused to accept the worship and cult of Dionysus into his city. As a reprise, Dionysus drove his daughters to madness. In response to his daughters being driven mad, Eleuther gave in and established the festival honoring the god, and the worship of Dionysus in Eleutherai.

 

Like the other festivals of Dionysus, the Rural Dionysia saw the performance of many Dionysiac rituals, dramatic contests, and ceremonies. The most identifiable ritual of this festival was the phallic procession conducted to encourage the fertility of the seeds sown in the autumn.

 

The Role of Women in the Festivals of Dionysus

priestess of bacchus john collier
The Priestess of Bacchus, John Collier, 1885-9, via Christie’s

 

In the social context of ancient Athens, women were usually forbidden from taking part in public and religious life. Most women could only go into the public under the immediate supervision of a male family member or kyrios. Nevertheless, women were key participants in the festivals of Dionysus. For instance, the Dionysia featured secret rituals that were performed solely by women. 

 

Also, a striking feature of these festivals was the prominence of women and the important roles they played during rituals. In the procession of the City Dionysia, kanephoroi or ‘basket-carriers’ would carry the baskets of offerings for the god. Moreover, at the Lenaia, women took part in the procession as bacchants. Finally, at the Anthesteria, the wife of the archon and fourteen older women or gerairai conducted a sacred marriage ceremony.

 

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By Danielle MackayDanielle is currently completing her MA in Classical Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. She earned her BA degree in Classical Studies and Linguistics and completed her studies of the Ancient Greek language as well as Latin. Her research focuses on Ancient Greek Religion and Mythology, specifically found in Late Antiquity Egypt, with a focus on the god Dionysus.