Dionysus wasn’t just god of wine, parties, and debauchery…
By Eleanor Tremeer
The image of the Greek wine god — frolicking through woodland, surrounded by inebriated nymphs, cups overflowing — is pretty well known in modern culture. Whether you first encountered him when strolling through a fine art gallery, or while watching Disney’s Fantasia, Dionysus certainly hasn’t been forgotten. But did you know that he once had an entire festival dedicated to him — one of the most important cultural events in Ancient Greece?
The Festival Of Dionysus
Dionysia was the Athenian festival of Dionysus. Originating in ancient rituals to celebrate the end of winter and the first grape harvest, the “Greater Dionysia” invited playwrights from around the ancient world to participate in a great festival of the arts. Beginning with a procession through the streets of Athens, choruses from various tribes would join together in dithyrambis: chants to venerate the god Dionysus. As with every event in this festival, this was a competition. And of course, the evening’s entertainment involved all the drinking and dancing that you’d expect from a festival of the iconic wine god.
The next week saw respected playwrights present their productions for the Athenian masses (probably including women, despite what some historians might argue). The festival’s competition was divided into genre categories, in much the same way that our modern award festivals categorise their entries. On each day, tragedies would be performed first, followed by a baudy Satyr play (the root of the term “satire”) to relieve the emotions brought on by the afternoon’s productions. After four days of this, a full day of comedies would commence, before a day of recovery from the unceasing entertainment. And on the seventh day, after a week of watching plays, partying, and participating in other art events, judges gave prizes for the best entrants to each category. There were even prizes awarded to the best actors in each category!
People from all around the ancient world travelled to Athens for this annual festival, and it’s easy to see why! We think of the ancient world as being far removed from the rhythms of our modern lives, but aside from the obvious differences, festivals like the Greater Dionysia prove that we have a lot more in common with ancient cultures than we might expect.
Of course, this wasn’t the only way that the Ancient Greeks celebrated Dionysus. Religion in the ancient world was segmented into cults and sects, in varying degrees of exclusivity. The most secret were the mystery religions, cults that developed a specific religious structure around one or several gods — and Dionysus’ sect was one of the most notorious.
Mystery religions are called such because, well, much of their practices still remain a mystery. Entrance to these sects was dictated by membership, with elaborate initiation ceremonies and various rituals to prove dedication and devotion. Members then kept the details of their sect’s practice close to their heart, which results in very little historical evidence about what they got up to. Some mystery religions are more well known, like the Eleusinian Mysteries that venerated Persephone and Demeter, while others remain stubbornly shrouded, like that of Mithras.
The Dionysian Mysteries, however, were infamous. Known for debauchery, ethneogenic trances, and ritual orgies, this mystery cult seems to have been populated predominantly by women. Mimicking the role of Dionysus’ nymphs, the women of this sect were known as Maenads, priestesses who lead processions and ensured everyone was good and inebriated during the celebrations. But it wasn’t just frivolous orgies: the rituals of the Dionysian mystery cult were intended to induce a transcendent state, bringing down societal constraints and unlocking a mystical, primordial nature. This was inherently linked to the cycle of birth and death, and the wild abandon with which these rites were celebrated was indicative of the purest thrill of being alive that the sect evoked.
The Dionysian Mysteries attracted the most marginalised in society, with women, foreigners, and outlaws — all considered “non-citizens” under Greek law — finding a home here. Because of this, and the liberated, primal nature of the sect’s rituals, those in charge of polite Greek society viewed the Dionysian Mysteries as a threat. Persisting even into the Roman era, the Dionysian cult faced prejudice and repeated efforts by the authorities to stamp them out.
How To Venerate Dionysus In Your Practice
Now would be the perfect time to celebrate Dionysus, in accordance with the Athenian arts festival. How you want to do that is up to you!
Perhaps, to draw inspiration from the festival of Dionysia, you could write an ode or poem in celebration of Dionysus, and invite your friends to perform together. A more private ritual could begin with the reciting or chanting of this dithyrambic piece — and of course a toast to the god with wine (or at least grape juice) would be an appropriate way to venerate him.
Any spells that involve the unlocking of primal natures, the breaking down of societal norms, or the coming-together of marginalised people could be a modern parallel to the Dionysian Mysteries — or its themes, at least. Take this opportunity to reflect on your wild side. How often do you indulge it? What aspects of yourself exist to fulfill societal expectations? Is there anything you’ve always wanted to dare to do? What’s holding you back? Maybe the best way to celebrate Dionysus is to celebrate yourself…