Dionysian Meditations:

The City Dionysia
(Dionysia ta en Astei)

or the

Great Dionysia
(Dionysia ta Megala)

of Apollonius Sophistes
© 1997, 2000


The City Dionysia is held on the 9th to 13th days of Elaphebolion (c. Mar. 24-28), that is, between the first quarter and full moon of the month. This festival concludes the Dionysian part of the year (the winter). Now Spring has arrived and we celebrate the resurgence of Indestructible Life (Zôê). (Exactly six months from now, at the time of the wine harvest, we will celebrate the Greater or Eleusinean Mysteries.)

We honor Dionysos Eleuthereus (the Free) in the image of Him that was brought from Eleutherai, a country village, and is kept in the old temple of Dionysos in the theater district. When the God first appeared to the daughters of Eleuther, He was dressed in a black goat-skin (Melanaigis), but they rejected Him, therefore He made them mad. To be made well, they had to worship Him as Melanaigis, Lord of the Dead, which is why we offer Him Tragedies (Tragôidia = Goat-song) at this festival. (Therefore also this is the month of the He-goat.)

Further, we men rejected the God when the missionary Pegasos first brought His worship to our city, and so He struck us with a terrible illness: we could not lose our erections, and although we were always erect, we were impotent (satyriasis). An oracle told us to make wooden Phalloi to free ourselves from this curse. That was not long after the Trojan War, and since that time men have joined women in the worship of Dionysos.

Once again the World lies open (Mundus patet), as it did during the Anthesteria, in which women and children took the larger role; now when Souls walk the streets again, we men take a bigger part; we wear the masks, we appear as Spirits. The festival combines Tragedy and Comedy: grief that the God has died and joy that He has returned from the Dead. From the sacrifice of the God we learn that Death is an essential part of Indestructible Life (Zôê). The profound mystery of this festival is that Dionysos exists in two aspects; He has gone down among the Dead, and yet lives on earth in our Phalloi. At one time He is both the Emasculated Lord of the Dead and the Young Hunter on Earth. As the former, we see Him as the Masked Pole (Stulos). As the latter we see Him dressed in the Nebris (Dearskin) and hunting boots; ribbons are tied around His head and hands, and He carries a branching narthex stalk for His Thursos (Dionysian Staff).

Since the City Dionysia is not so old as the other Dionysian festivals (especially the Older Dionysia or Anthesteria), it is under the control of the Arkhôn (Chief) rather than the Sacred King (Basileus). He supervises the Procession and the Contests, with the assistance of his two Paredroi {PA/REDROI}. In addition, the ten Epimelêtai {E)PIMELHTAI/} assist in the Procession.

Yesterday (8 Elaphebolion) we celebrated the Asklepieia (a feast for Asclepios), comprising a sacrifice and communal banquet. We also held the Proagôn {PROAGW/N} (Contest Preliminary), which is a prelude to the Contests (Agônes). Each poet stood with his actors, all wearing garlands but no masks or costumes, on the Okribas {O)KRI/BAS} (temporary platform) and announced the subjects of his plays. This gave us a chance to see (without masks) the actors and chorus for each play.

Eisagôgê - The Bringing In

We begin tonight (the evening of the 9th of Elaphebolion) by celebrating the arrival of the God in our city. First the ancient wooden image of Dionysos Eleuthereus is taken from the temple in the theater district, back along the path by which He arrived, and it is placed at the Eskhara (Hearth) of the Dionysian temple near the Academy (Akademeia). (The Eskhara is a low altar with a hollow surface for burnt offerings.) There we make sacrifice to the God and sing hymns to Him.

Next is the Eisagôgê (Bringing In) from the Eskhara (Eisagôgê apo tês Eskharas): The Image is escorted back to the city by the Epheboi (Young-men) in a torch-light procession. Many of the rest of us also accompany the God. He will be brought to the theater to witness the contests (and He will be present on each day of the contests).

[ship chariot] The image is carried in His ship-chariot, with its mule-head prow, for this is the way the God came across the sea to Eleutherai. The lusty mule is dear to Dionysos because it knows the value of pleasure, even when it serves no purpose. (Also, the ship-chariot reminds us that this festival marks the beginning of the sailing season.)

In a secret ritual in the sacred precint of the Theater, the priests of Dionysos sacrifice a Black He-Goat (Tragos) on the Thumele, the Sacrificial Table in the Theater. We call this altar Eleos, which sounds like the Greek word for Pity and evokes the spirit of Tragedy. We feel pity for the He-goat because he will be punished for a crime he doesn't understand; the leafless stalks of the Vine will drink his blood now, although the tender leaves he ate will sprout later in the year. The heroic Goat is a friend of shepherds, but an enemy of the vineyards. Therefore we venerate him and sacrifice him.

Later in the evening the sacred Image will be returned to His temple in the theater district.

Pompê - Procession

On the morning of the following day (10 Elaphebolion) we have a procession to the God's temple in the theater district. This procession marks the official beginning of the festival.

The Procession is led by the man who sounds the Tyrrhenian Salpinx (Etruscan Trumpet) to call the God and herald His arrival. Next comes the Kanephoros, an aristocratic maiden who carries on her head a golden basket filled with sacrificial offerings, especially grapes. The Arkhôn is also at the head of the Procession. Then there are the Obeliaphoroi in pairs, each pair carrying an Obelias (four-foot-long loaf on a spit); Skaphephoroi, who carry offering trays (skaphia); Hudriaphoroi, bearing water jugs (hudriai); Askophoroi, who carry leather wine-skins (askoi) on their shoulders; and the young man who carries the Thumaterion (Censer) containing the sacred fire.

The Epheboi lead the Axios Tauros (Worthy Bull), which will be sacrificed at the temple, though we take no joy in this killing, for Dionysos Himself is called Axios Tauros. In addition to the Bull, many men and women carry bloodless offerings for the God.

Many of us wear beautiful robes, especially the Khorêgoi {XORHGOI/} (Chorus Leaders), who will direct the dramatic performances. We see robes of scarlet and royal purple, gold embroidered. Some of us wear golden crowns.

Some men carry erect Phalloi, especially those who have come to represent other cities at our festival. In this way we honor the God as we were instructed to do those many centuries ago when He first came to us. For, as Varro ( Augustine, De Civ. D. 7.21) explained, Dionysos the Lord of Moist Nature (Kurios Hugras Phuseos) has sovereignty not only over the vital sap of plants (of which wine is the highest essence), but also over the fertile sperm of animals.

[dithyramb singers] Along the way we pause at many altars, including the Altar of the Twelve Gods, for choral performances, especially of Dithyrambs. In our procession we also have the usual Ribald Songs (Skômmata) and Vulgar Shouts to drive off the enemies of Life. Indeed, the Procession is a joyous efflorescence of irrepressible Life, and many pleasant contacts are made or renewed within the happy crowd.

After the Procession, we make sacrifice to Him at His temple. Besides the bull, there are many bloodless offerings. Then more Dithyrambs are performed for Dionysos, which celebrate Him as Lord of Indestructible Life (Zôê):

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.

(adapted from a dithyramb by Bacchylides, Campbell 18 [Perseus], ll.31-45, 54-60)

Finally, there is a banquet at which we feast on beef from the sacrifices, washed down with much wine from the God.
[image of Satyrs]

Cômos - Revel

Now that evening has arrived, we hold the Cômos (Revel), in which we men light torches and go around the city, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of reed-pipes (auloi) and harps.

Agônes - Contests

The City Dionysia will have Dithyrambic and Dramatic Contests, three "teams" competing on each of three days. Thus, on each of the remaining days (i.e. beginning 11 Elaphebolion), there are sacred performances - mystery plays. Usually we offer the God new plays, but sometimes we perform the best ones from earlier years, or revisions of them. Some time ago, the Arkhôn decided which poets would be allowed to compete and assigned a Khorêgos and Chorus to each of them. Now they are ready for the competition. Often the poets act in their own plays (as did Thespis, the inventer of drama).

At daybreak each day the Peristriarkhoi will offer a sucking-pig to purify the Theater and the Strategoi pour libations to the God. Awards will be announced for whomever the city owes thanks. On most days this will be followed by three Tragedies and a Satyr Play in the morning, and a Comedy in the late afternoon (after an leisurely lunch). Each dramatic performance is preceded by a trumpet blast. The actors don their naturalistic masks and the play begins.

[actor image]


In the Tragedies, or Goat-Songs, we see some Hero suffering in the way the Hero must, as the Goat is sacrificed for his crime, which he could not avoid. (Early Goat-dances for local Heroes were eventually transferred to Dionysos as Heroic God.)

After the trumpet blast, the chorus of 15 marches in from the right-hand side in a rectangular formation (3X5 or 5X3); they are preceded by the chorus leader and followed by the reed-flute player. After reaching the dancing floor, they turn to face the audience and begin their choral ode. The tragedy includes choral and solo song, chant, recitative and speech. At the end of the tragedy, the chorus will leave in the same rectangular formation.

Many of the dances in tragedy are serious and noble, involving elaborate, conventional hand-gestures, which can tell an entire story, and yet are intelligible even to barbarians. The chorus will often move in rectangular formation, marching and counter-marching to the Strophes and Antistrophes of the ode, but sometimes they dance in circular formation.

Although many of the dances are dignified, some are very lively. For example, the "figures" include the "fire tongs" (leaping with rapid leg-crossing), the "sword thrust," and the whirling "basket dance," which imitates the basket carrying in religious processions or the basket-dances of Maenads and Satyrs in the worship of Dionysos. There will also be tumbling, dances imitating searching and flying, Victory Dances and fragments of religious processions.

The actors and chorus will also slap themselves to express grief, anger or joy. Further, the chorus will often carry the tall staffs commonly born by Athenian citizens, and may use them to threaten violence or pretend to beat the actors or each other. Such ritual beating is a common way to drive away Evil and ensure Fertility, both important in a Dionysian festival (see also on Theft Dances and Comedy below).

Satyr Play

In the Satyr Play (Saturikon) the chorus members (who belong to a Dionysian Society) dress up as the God's companions to celebrate His Phallic Power. Its subject is related to that of the Tragedies, but brings the Hero down a peg by its earthy humor. Some Satyr Plays hint at initiation into a Dionysian Thiasos (Society) through riddles or stories concerning release from the Underworld, or the capture and escape of the Satyrs, or the care of Divine Children. In many ways the Satyr Play reveals deeper mysteries than the Tragedies or Comedies; it is the most ancient Mystery Play (predating the Tragedies and Comedies, which developed from it).

There will be two or three actors, a reed-flute player, and a chorus of twelve, who will be dressed as tipsy Silenoi (horse-men), Satyrs (goat-men) or various blends of the two. Thus they wear short pants to which a large Phallus and a horse's tail are attached; they also wear soft dancing shoes that resemble hooves. The chorus leader will play Silenos, the traditional drunken attendant of Dionysus; he will wear a shaggy costume resembling an animal skin and over his shoulder a panther hide (a traditional attribute of Dionysos). Wine and dance are proverbially connected, for one must dance on the grapes to make wine, and the wine in turn makes you dance!

The overall structure of a Satyr play is similar to the structure of a Tragedy, but with some differences. For example, the chorus will not enter or exit in rectangular formation. Also, the overall impression will be boisterous and bawdy, and often the actors will act like circus clowns engaging in acrobatics, bufoonery and horse-play.

Although the Satyr Play may borrow or parody any of the dances of Tragedy, Comedy or Ritual, its characteristic dance is the Sikinnis, which is for Protection and Fertility. Some call it "lively, rapid, vigorous and lewd" and it has much in common with the Kordax and other dances of Comedy (see below). As in Tragedy, the dances involve expressive gestures, but in the Satyr Plays they are often bawdy. In addition to whirling, leaping, kicking and slapping dances, there is The Itch and the Konisalos, a spirited leap intended to expose the genitals. Other dances involve sexually suggestive shaking or trembling, such as we have in our fertility dances. We may also expect Theft and Gobbling Dances representing the stealing and eating of food, often with consequent beatings (see above); such dances are common in our Rites of Purification.

More common in the Satyr Play than in Tragedy is the dance figure known as Peering or the Owl Dance, in which the chorus looks around as though searching for something - part of the message of the Satyr Play. This especially associates the Satyrs with the Divine Shepherd Pan (called Aposkopos, "Beholding from Afar"). Thus Dionysian routs often include Pans, Satyrs and Silenoi indiscriminately.


In the Comedies the high-and-mighty, whether God or mortal, will be lampooned. Comedy (Côm-ôidia = Cômos-song) echoes the less formal Revels (Cômoi), both of which celebrate the resurgence of Indestructible Life. The comic actors wear grotesque masks and over-stuffed body-suits with padded buttocks and stomach and a large leather phallus - even if the actor is playing a female character! This is because Comedy harks back to our rural Phallic Processions to invoke the powers of Fertility and to drive off pestilence. These processions include Contests (Agones) in which the bystanders and members of the procession will hurl verbal abuse and invective at each other (a magical act in itself, as many know). So also, Comedy incorporates such Contests, between the actors, between the chorus and an actor, and between two hostile semichoruses.

The Comic Chorus is larger than the Tragic, 24, often in rectangular formation (4X6 or 6X4). They may wear elaborate robes representing animals, clouds, cities, etc., which may be removed for part of the performance. The chorus members engage in both solo and ensemble song and dance. Many dance forms will occurr in the Comedies, including parodies of those used in Tragedy and religious Ritual. As in the Tragedies there may be ritualized slapping and beating to stimulate Life, promote Fertility and drive out Evil, as well as spinning, leaping, high kicking and hopping.

The Kordax is the most characteristic dance of Comedy; some say it promotes Fertility, like the Courtesan's Dance to which it is probably related. The Kordax has been called "lascivious, ignoble and obscene," and some uptight people say that no respectable citizen will perform it without wearing a mask! It can take many forms and may include sexually suggestive rotation of the abdomen and buttocks - sometimes with the body bent over - as well as stirring or grinding motions of the hips and shoulders. Some say the dancers wriggle like a lizard or snake, and "flicking the tail" is certainly one of the dance's "figures." Perhaps the Kordax began as one of our fluid Snake Dances, and developed into the Rope Dance of ass-masked worshippers to draw in the Spirit of Moisture and Fertility. (It is worth recalling that, at the beginning of the festival, Dionysos, Lord of Moist Nature, was drawn into the city on a mule-headed ship-chariot.) In these dances, especially in the Comedies, the rope may be replaced by intermeshed arms.

The typical finale of a Comedy is a spirited dance in which the actor leads the chorus out. Often it takes the form of a Victory or Nuptial Dance, sometimes both together.


On some days the Comedies will be preceded by Dithyrambic Contests, rather than the Tragedies and the Satyr Play. At the festivals last year, each Clan (Phulê) chose their two Khorêgoi, one for the Mens' Chorus, one for the Boys'. The Khorêgoi drew lots to see who would get first choice of a Poet and Piper for their chorus. Each Khorêgos also picked his Chorus of 50 from the members of his Clan (the Khorêgoi for the plays are not restricted in this way).

For these contests Pindar and Bacchylides composed their memorable Dithyrambs (see below). The Dithyramb is a sort of Hymn in honor of Dionysos as God of Fertility, Grapes and Wine; it tells the story of His birth, rebirth and further adventures. Originally it was a frenzied dance involving animal mummery (Satyrs, Silenoi etc.), but by now it has become quite dignified and makes use of the same expressive hand-gestures used in Tragedy and Comedy.

After the trumpet signal, the chorus will enter single-file from the right; their Leader will come first and they will be followed by the Piper, all wearing magnificent costumes: shining crowns or wreaths and colorful embroidered robes. The Piper takes a position near the center of the dancing area, perhaps on the steps of the Altar of Dionysos, and the chorus circles around him. While he plays the double reed-pipe (aulos) in the Phrygian Mode, the chorus dances in a circular formation around the Altar of the God. You may see this as a typical magical Encircling Dance to consecrate, protect and worship the central object (the Altar of Dionysos).

Like many Choral Odes, the Dithyramb is organized into Strophes, Antistrophes and Epodes. While the chorus sings the Strophe they move to the right (counter-clockwise), which represents the East-to-West motion of the Stars; during the Antistrophe they move left (clockwise), representing the West-to-East motion of the Planets; and during the Epode they stand still, representing the stationary Earth. Thus the chorus performs a Cosmic Dance, for indeed the Greeks say that the Heavenly Bodies "dance" in the sky.

After a final Circle Dance, the chorus exits single-file as they entered.

During the performances wine is poured for the audience and sweetmeats are passed among them (either for free or for a price). During the Comedies, the chorus throws nuts and raisens to entertain the spectators. Though the performances are sacred and consecrated to the God, the audience makes their opinions known, either applauding or hissing and hooting. The plays are also a focus for political and social debate; the plays (especially the Comedies) are laced with allusions to contemporary issues and will be a stimulus for discussion following the festival.

The Arkhôn has chosen by lot ten Judges (one from each Clan) to decide the Contests. At the end of the festival the Herald will announce the victor in the Theater, and the Arkhôn will place the ivy-crown on his head. The victorious Khorêgos will receive a tripod, which he will dedicate to the God, and his Poet will be crowned with ivy and gay ribbons for his homeward procession. After the Contests are over, each Khorêgos treats his Chorus to a sumptuous banquet.

Ecclêsia - Assembly

On the day after the Dionysia we have an Assembly, at which we review the conduct of the festivals and deal with any complaints anyone might have. We give honors to those who have helped to make the festival a success. On the next full moon (which is on the same day as the Assembly unless the Dionysia was short), we celebrate the Pandia, which is a simple festival for Zeus, the Father.


In the morning read Aeschylus' Oresteia (comprising the
Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides) [Perseus]; also available from [Internet Classics archive].

Follow these with Euripides' Cyclops (one of the few surviving satyr plays) from [Perseus] or [Internet Classics archive].

Alternately, read Bacchylides' Dithyramb 3 (Bacch. 17) and Dithyramb 4 (Bacch. 18) [Perseus] (see also Barnstone, Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets ##429, 431; Knox, Norton Book of Classical Lit., pp. 264-6).

In the afternoon read one of Aristophanes' plays from [Perseus] or [Internet Classics archive].


  1. Kerényi, Carl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Princeton, 1976), pp. 163-5, 172-4, 296, 317, 319-21, 323-5, 380-1.
  2. Lawler, Lillian B. The Dance of the Ancient Greek Theatre (Univ. of Iowa Press, 1964), pp. 2-14, 23-46, 58, 64-89, 92, 94, 103-4, 106, 108, 110, 114-5, 117-20.
  3. Oxford Classical Dict. (3rd ed., Oxford 1996), s.vv. agônes; comedy, Greek, origins of; comedy (Greek), Old; dithyramb; satyric drama; tragedy, Greek.
  4. Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult (Indiana, 1965), p. 164.
  5. Parke, H. W. Festivals of the Athenians (Cornell, 1977), pp. 126-8, 130-1, 134-6.
  6. Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur. Dramatic Festivals of Athens (2nd ed., Oxford, 1968), pp. 57-70, 75-7, 84, 86, 89-90, 93, 96-9, 213.
  7. Simon, E. Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary (Wisconsin, 1983), p. 103.
  8. Taplin, O., Greek Tragedy in Action (California 1978), pp. 3, 10, 14.

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Last updated: Thu Nov 28 13:56:23 EST 2002