The City Dionysia was an important yearly festival held in honor of Dionysus, likely dating back to the middle of the sixth century BCE. Traditionally, it revolved around revering a specific epithet of Dionysus: Dionysus Eleuthereus, an Athenian cultic name meaning “Liberator.” It was one of the most extravagant and loved Bacchic festivals, allowing for the subversion of traditional roles, even for slaves and prisoners. It would be conducted within the city walls, earning it the name of City Dionysia to separate it from similar festivals such as the Anthesteria festival, which was conducted outside the city.
The ceremonies and festivities would begin with a ritual procession of a wooden effigy of Dionysus. This effigy was specifically called a xoanon, and it would be followed by participants carrying wood, stone, and ivory phalluses. Lastly, the procession would be tailed by a group of actors reenacting the arrival of Dionysus in Athens. All members of the procession would be dressed in ornate golds and bright jewels, often having their faces covered with masks as well. This procession would continue through the city before reaching the temple, whereafter many sacrifices, prayers, and hymns would be conducted. When the day was coming to an end, the procession would follow the same road back to the shrine where the effigy had come from. It was such a spectacular and beloved sight that men and women of any age would gather on the streets to witness it and celebrate its grandiosity.
The following days would be filled with joy and entertainment. This entertainment would often come in the form of dramatic theater competitions, ranging from tragedies to comedies. Some of the most renowned Greek plays were first performed at this festival, such as Bacchae by Euripides and Birds by Aristophanes. Entertainment could also come in the form of choral competitions, where dithyrambs would be performed and accompanied by flutes. General partying and drunken fun would commence for the days that followed.
In the modern day, celebrations of Dionysia are of course vastly different than they were in antiquity. People can no longer gather for large processions in most cases, and a lot of people end up practicing in solitude a majority of the time. Temples and large festivities can seem like a faraway dream. Rest assured, you can find a way to celebrate City Dionysia and honor Dionysus without going broke or carrying phalluses on sticks. Everybody practices differently, so follow your heart! But, here are some ideas to get you started.
You can get together with some friends and have a generally good time! Eat, drink, and watch a movie. Or you could go out alone or with a group, follow the ancient spirit of Dionysia, and go out dancing. Visit your local theater and watch a live play; performers are always hoping to see smiling faces in the crowd. The plays don’t have to be ancient or traditional, you’re still following the spirit of Dionysia – after all, the plays performed back then weren’t ancient to those watching, either. You could go wine tasting (assuming you’re of legal age to do so) – sample different wines, and give your thoughts! You can honor Dionysus by making libations or offerings such as portions of your meal, cakes, breads, cheeses, etc. Spend a little extra time doing what your heart desires and having some fun to celebrate! There’s no right or wrong way to practice. Happy City Dionysia!
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Eleanor Tremeer. (April 14, 2021) “How to Celebrate Dionysia, Ancient Festival of Wine & The Arts”. Liminal 11. https://liminal11.com/2021/04/14/how-to-celebrate-dionysia-ancient-festival-of-wine-the-arts/
Bruce MacLennan. (September 14, 1999) “City Dionysia”. The University of Tennessee. http://web.eecs.utk.edu/~bmaclenn/Classes/US210/City-Dionysia.html
HelloKatieGirl. (September 15, 2013) “A Modern Dionysia”. HelloKatieGirl. http://www.hellokatiegirlblog.com/2013/09/a-modern-dionysia.html