Dionysian Meditations:

(Ta Kat' Agrous Dionysia)

also known as

The Lesser Dionysia
(Ta Mikra Dionysia)

of Apollonius Sophistes

  1. Forword
  2. Introduction
  3. Phallic Procession
  4. Revels
  5. Afterword
  6. Sources and Notes


Early January is the season of the
Rural Dionysia (the Lesser Dionysia). Since most of you will not have the opportunity to participate physically in this festival, I have set down the following meditation, which may be used as the basis for a visualization exercise.


We harvested the grapes at that time of the year when the Eleusinian Mysteries are held (c. Sep 29 - Oct 5), in that month when the Divine Child Dionysos was snatched from the womb of Semele (who is also Persephone), where He had been for seven months, since the time of the Lesser Mysteries at Agrai (late Feb.), when He was conceived. After Zeus had snatched the Divine Child from Semele's womb, the Father sewed Dionysos into His thigh, and He became the Sewed-in God (Eiraphiôtês). So also have we enclosed the crushed grapes in jugs, which we have placed in the Earth, so the grapes might lie hidden and protected until the wine is ready to emerge from the Earth and see the light of day.

Remember how, in the third quarter of the month Puanepsiôn (beginning of Nov.), when the Pleiades first rose, we called Dionysos Limnaios, Dionysos in the Swamps, at the place where springs erupt from the ground, the very place where He descended into the Underworld. We went there when the wine had fermented for forty days. Although its fermentation was not complete, we brought it to the sanctuary, pouring libations for the God; we mixed it with the spring's sacred water (as the Divine Child's blood was mixed with His nurses' tears) and tasted the sweet new wine (gleukos).

Now is the time, ten lunar months from conception, when Semele's child would have been born, were He mortal. But the Divine Child has a little longer yet to grow in Zeus's thigh. He will come to term at the time of the Lênaia (c. Jan 28-31), when the wine is also ready. Nevertheless the arrival of the Divine Child is eagerly anticipated even now. (And this is when, every year, on the island of Andros, Dionysos transforms water into wine.)

The three winter months (Maimaktêriôn-Gamêliôn, roughly mid Nov. - mid Feb.) belong to Dionysos; the rest of the year belongs to Apollo. But now it is still the depths of winter; indeed the coldest weather is yet to come. But the days are getting longer. Thus hope is born in the heart of darkness. When Dionysos emerges from the thigh, He will be hailed as Light of Zeus (Deos Phôs). Now is the time when the force of Indestructible Life (Zôê) first springs forth, breaking all bonds. At this time we celebrate the breaking of all barriers, the fulfillment of every wish.

We also remember the story of how with toys the chalk-faced Titans lured the infant Dionysos to Their cave. When He was there, They cut Him into seven pieces, which They put into a pot of milk on a tripod to be boiled. Then they spitted the parts and roasted them in a fire. But before the Titans ate the Child's flesh, Zeus smelled the roasting meat and came to look. When He discovered the Titanic crime, He incinerated Them with His lightning. From the soot (the Aithalê, the "sublimated vapor," of the alchemists) that rose in the air, it is said, humanity was formed. Only one part of Dionysos had not been destroyed: His virile member, the Divine Phallus. Pallas Athena placed it in a basket and took it to Father Zeus, who gave it to the Mother of the Gods (Rhea). Although Dionysos' flesh was destroyed and his bones were buried at Delphi, Indestructible Life survives through His Phallus.

The Phallic Procession (Ta Phallêphoria)

Now we stand outside the sanctuary of the God, waiting for the sacred procession, and soon it comes into sight. Everyone is dressed in their finest robes and bedecked with jewels; gaiety prevails. First are the bearers of the amphora of wine and the vine branch. Next is the leader of the sacrificial billy goat, who prances along happily. Then a young woman, the Basket Bearer (Kanêphoros), bejeweled and adorned in her best finery, carries forward the sacrificial basket of figs, that most sexual of fruit.

Behind her are the strong Phallus Bearers (Phallophoroi) carrying the giant Phallus on a platform that holds it erect at an angle. It is a long red pole, which is wreathed in ivy and has two eyes painted on the sides of the head. The Phallus Bearers' heads are crowned with ivy and violets, and their faces are shaded by the greenery. Their Phalli are erect like the Divine Phallus they carry. As they arrive at the sanctuary, the Phallus Bearers call out:

Give way! Make room
For the God! For it's His will
To stride exuberantly
Erect through the middle.
In just this way Indestructible Life expresses its will through every phallus; individual men are just the means by which it achieves its ends. In life as in the sacred procession, individual men bear the burden of the divine Phallus, but may be crushed under it. They must dedicate their phalli to the Great Mother so that the cycle of life may continue to turn. Yet, the phallus is also both a ridiculous thing and a source of joy, so the celebration today is filled with lusty merriment. Ridicule and joy will be the recurrent themes.

Following closely on the heals of the Phallus Bearers comes the Priest, who improvises a Phallic Hymn (Phallikos), which is addressed to Phalês, the companion of Bacchus. The hymn as usual is filled with double entendre and explicit sexuality.

O Phales, comrade revel-roaming
Of Bacchus, wanderer of the gloaming,
Of wives and boys the naughty lover,
Here in my home I gladly greet Ye,
The worst of winter nearly over,
And press You with my bold entreaty.

Far happier 'tis to me and sweeter,
O Phales, Phales, some soft glade in,
To woo the saucy, arch, deceiving,
Young Thratty, buxom country maiden,
As from my woodland fells I meet her,
Descending with my kindling laden,
And catch her up and I'll entreat her,
And make her pay the fine for thieving.

O Phales, Phales, come and sup,
And in the morn, to brace you up,
Of joy you'll quaff a jovial cup.**

The Priest is followed by the bearer of the pot of vegetables and by the other men and maidens. (Although married women participate in the sacrifice and revels, they are not in the procession, but watch it from the sidelines. In this festival the men are in charge, whereas the women dominate other Dionysian festivals: the Lênaia, Anthestêria and Oskhophoria.)

Now the men have set up the Phallus outside the sanctuary where the comic dancers will dance around it. Now we worship You as Orthos, He Who Stands Erect. And when they place two rocks or full wine skins at the base of the Phallus, then we will know the God is Enorkhos (He With Testicles). They say that Dionysos and His Divine Phallus are always together, and so He is with us here at the sanctuary.

Inside the sanctuary we hear the Priest call out

"Euphêmeite! Euphêmeite!" {EU)FHMEI=TE} (Speak no evil!).
The Basket Bearer comes forward and with a ladle spreads sauce on the cakes that have been brought for the God. The Priest prays to Dionysos:
'Tis well. Lord Dionysos, grant me now
To show the show and make the sacrifice
As Thou woulds't have me, I and all these folk;
Then keep with joy the Rural Dionysia;
No more of striving now. And may this rest
Restore our souls and answer to our hopes.***
Before he sacrifices the goat, the Priest says:
You, the Goat, who is the God, came and ate the fruit-bearing vines, but now the root shall bring forth grapes in abundance, and we will have sufficient wine to pour over you in this sacrifice.
The women trill the shrill "Ololugê" and the goat is slaughtered.

When the goat has been cut up, the pieces are first boiled in milk in a cauldron on a tripod, and then spitted and roasted until they have been burned up. This is because boiling softens the meat, as the grapes become soft when they ripen. And as the meat is burned up, so also then grapes will be entirely consumed, as was the mortal flesh of Dionysos.

The Revels (Ho Komos)

Now, outside the sanctuary of the God, we will celebrate the impending birth of Dionysos. While inside the sanctuary the new wine is ladled from the storage jars, outside, whenever the priest cries
Invoke the God!
Kaleite Theon!
we call out to the Divine Child:
Son of Semele, Iakkhos, Bestower of Wealth!
Semelêi' Iakkhe Ploutodota!
The scarlet lees remaining in the bottom are brought out so that the revelers can use them as makeup. Soon we will be entertained by comedic contests and we will be served new wine, nuts and other food. Each performance offered to the Divine Child will be new, fresh, like the kid that was given to Him. Each Comos (band of revelers) will strive to give greatest honor to the God through its outrageous exuberance. (Usually each Comos has twelve men and two women, like the twelve months of the year and Mother and Her Daughter.)

All barriers will be broken in these revels, so the actors and chorus will often step out of character to interact with the audience.

I too smear my face with lees and dress in a costume: perhaps a Satyr or Silenos, with a huge strapped-on leather phallus or other bodily exuberances, with pointed ears, the tail of a horse or goat, horns, or furry legs. We will touch our Phalli and our Thyrsi (Bacchic staffs) to the Earth to awaken Her to bring forth Her fruit. We will dance lewd dances. Some will see-saw back and forth, touching their noses and buttocks on the Earth. Our well-developed and admirable body parts will be compared by word and gesture to the hearty crops for which we pray.

Some men will dress as women and some women as men; all boundaries are crossed. Some will dress as Maenads and Nymphs, the companions of the Satyrs. We will take on the identities of Satyrs and Nymphs; though They are less human than us, They are often much wiser; They are untamed and do not hide Their natural vitality.

Some of us will wear masks of cloth, canvas or goatskin. Some of us will dress in animal skins; some of us will become animals. We will wear bells strapped around our chests and ankles to call the God to awaken and emerge again from the Earth.

I will not reveal my disguise! Now I am free to mock whomever I will: superiors, family members, government or religious authorities, even the Gods - indeed I may mock myself! Now my farcical actions shall fulfill all my dreams. But I will not tell you my antics; you must think of your own, as Indestructible Life springs up in your heart and goes whichever way it will.

When we have split our sides with laughter, and filled our bellies with new wine and other treats, we will thank Dionysos for His gift of Indestructible Life, and look with greater joy and optimism toward the year to come. But for now, let the Revels begin!


Here are some examples of modern activities in the spirit of the Rural Dionysia:

Sources and Notes

Semos in Athenaios XIV 622B (Kerenyi, p. 287)
adapted from Aristophanes' Acharnians ll.263-78 (tr. B. B. Rogers). See the Greek text or an English translation.
adapted from Aristophanes' Acharnians ll.247-52 (tr. B. B. Rogers). See the Greek text or an English translation.
  1. Kerenyi, Carl, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Princeton University Press, 1976, pp. 215, 242, 245-50, 260, 276-9, 285-8, 291-2, 312-5, 298, 317, 335-43.
  2. Aristophanes, Aristophanes Comedies, Rarity Press, 1931, notes in vol. I, pp. 112-3.
  3. Aristophanes, with the Translation of Benjamin Bickley Rogers, vol. I, Loeb Classics, Harvard University Press, 1924, pp. 27-31.
  4. Hunt, Yvonne, Traditional Dance in Greek Culture, Centre for Asia Minor Studies, 1996, pp. 48-58.
  5. Otto, Walter F., Dionysos: Myth and Cult, Indiana University Press, 1965, pp. 164, 166.
  6. Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.vv. Dionysia, Dionysus.
  7. Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1968, pp. 27, 34.

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Last updated: Fri Jan 24 17:35:04 EST 1997