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Theater in Ancient Greece: The Festival of Dionysus

written by: Brian D. Taylor • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/6/2012

Explore the ancient annual Festival of Dionysus in Greece. The festivities held there are what led to the Greeks' mastery of theater.

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    The Myth of Dionysus

    Dionysus is commonly thought to have been the son of Zeus, the most powerful of all Greek gods and goddesses, and Semele, a mortal woman. Zeus' wife Hera was extremely jealous and planned a trick on Semele that would have her killed. She convinced Semele to ask Zeus to reveal himself in his true form. When Zeus revealed himself, Semele was burned to death after looking upon his glory. Luckily, Zeus managed to save the unborn Dionysus by stitching him into his own thigh. Because Zeus carried him until his birth, Dionysus became immortal.

    Zeus still had to deal with a jealous wife, though. Hera was now planning the death of Dionysus. Hera had the other Titans rip his body to pieces. Zeus was able to save the child, with the help of Rhea. He then sent Dionysus away with Hermes, who took him to Mt. Nysa to be raised by the half-human, half-goat creatures known as satyrs. Because of his birth story, Dionysus was always associated with rebirth.

    When he was older, Dionysus is said to have discovered the grapevine. He taught mankind how to cultivate the vine and make wine from the grapes. Dionysus became the god of wine. He was also associated with the madness and revelry that goes with it.

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    The Festival

    So four times a year, the Athenians and citizens from all over Greece would gather together to worship Dionysus. The largest and most prolific of these festivals was the City Dionysia, or Great Dionysia, which was held in late March through early April. Here, the Greeks would sing and dance and revel in a state of madness in worship of the god. Goats were sacrificed in his honor. Men would dress up as satyrs. Large amounts of wine would be consumed.

    Tragedy began here, at the City Dionysia, in the sixth century B.C.E. Few records are left that date prior to 534 B.C.E., but we do know that at some point a contest was formed to honor the best tragedy. In 534, Athens made the contests official and offered financial support for their production. Once made official, the contests and their winners were recorded by the state, giving us much more detail about the tragic contests.

    On the first day of festivities, a large statue of Dionysus was carried from the temple to the Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis. This procession was of much importance to the Athenians and Greeks and large numbers of people attended the parade. The procession itself was a spectacle, and intended as a reenactment of Dionysus' journey to Athens. Once at the theater and prior to the performance of the plays, the theater was sprinkled with the blood of sacrificial pigs for purification.

    The festival allowed three playwrights to have their plays performed in the tragic contests. Each contestant was required to submit three tragedies and one satyr play (a form of comedy that required the chorus to dress as the satyr companions of Dionysus). It is assumed that the tragedies were required to be in the form of a trilogy. While only one complete Greek trilogy remains, many of the surviving tragedies seem to have once been a part of a trilogy. The contest lasted for three days, one for each playwright. Each playwright presented all three tragedies and the satyr play in one day. The audiences would spend much of the day in the theater, though Greek plays were shorter than modern plays. After the three days of performances, the winner would be put to a vote.