Sorry for the title, it's a bit fabricated. It was the only way to make this timely post about the Dionysia ta en Astei fit in the Pagan Blog Project structure, which posts every friday. As for this post, it will be about the Dionysia ta en Astei, and the theatrical plays that were performed there. I have written about both before, although the focus of that post was slightly different.

The Dionysia ta en Astei (Διονύσια τὰ ἐν Ἄστει), Dionysia ta Megala (Διονύσια τὰ Μεγάλα), Great(er) Dionysia, or City Dionysia, was and is a true theatric festival of Dionysos. The City Dionysia is held on the 10th to 17th days of Elaphebolion. It is thought to have been founded, or at least revived, by the tyrant Pisistratus (around 530 BC), and was held in Athens, when the city was once again full of visitors after the winter. The festival honors Dionysos Eleuthereus (Διονυσος Ελευθερευς), who was said to have been introduced into Athens from the village of Eleuterae (Ελευθέραι). The festival focuses on the performance of tragedies, but has included the performing of comedies since 487 BC. It was the second-most important festival after the Panathenaia.

We've looked at the archōns of Athens before. The archōns served one-year terms for most of the time the system was in place. Organizing the Dionysia ta en Astei was prepared by the Archōn Epōnymos, not the Archōn Basileus, who was in charge of religious affairs. The Archōn Epōnymos chose three tragic poets to compete in the Greater Dionysia, right after he was elected. He then chose the chorêgos (χορηγός) for the festival, and three actors. The chorêgos was always a wealthy Athenian, who would train the selected actors,  the chorus, and would pay for any part of the productions not paid for by the state. These expenses included costumes, masks, rehearsal costs, all sets, props, special effects like sounds and lights, as well as the musicians--all except the flute player, who was paid for by the state.

According to myth, the festival was established after Eleutherae, a border-town between Attica and Boeotia, chose to become part of Attica. The Eleuthereans had an established festival of Dionysos--which then became the rural Dionysia--and celebrated to occasion by bringing a statue of Dionysos to Athens. The Athenians, by then not big on the worship of Dionysos, initially rejected the statue, but Dionysos punished the Athenians with a plague affecting the male genitalia. The Athenians, rightfully spooked, accepted the statue and honor of Dionysos, and the plague was cured. These events were recalled each year by  two processions, the first, carrying the statue of Dionysos from His temple outside of the city of Athens into the city, and the second where various groups proceeded through the city to the theater, arrayed in groups distinguishable by color or other articles of dress.

Dionysos was a métoikos in a city of Athens, a resident alien, and on the first two days of the festival, the métoikoi of the city got to wear brightly colored festival clothes--mostly purple--and carried trays of offerings in the processions, something métoikoi never got to do otherwise. The Athenian citizens, on the other hand, wore their day-to-day clothes and carried wine and bread with them, or herded the bulls which would be sacrificed. At the end of the processions, the statue of Dionysos was placed in His temple in the theater district, and sacrifices were made to Him. Flute players and poets held contests, and were eager to outdo each other. After all of this, the festival most likely became very Dionysian, indeed.

Singing and dancing had always been a big part of the City Dionysia, but after a while, the structure of the seven day festival became more apparent. Instead of random singing and dancing, from the third day onward, everyone flogged to the theaters to view the plays, whose names and creators had been announced the day prior. The next three days of the festival were devoted to the tragic plays. The three chosen playwrights performed three tragedies and one satyr play each, one set of plays per day. Famous playwrights include Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. They were judged by judges (agonothetai) chosen on the second day.

On the sixth day of the festival, five comedies by famous playwrights like Philemon, Chionides, and Aristophanes were performed. Comedies were of secondary importance at the Dionysia--the Lenaia was far more important for those--but winning the comedic prize at the Dionysia was still regarded a great honor. It seems that, from the fifth century BC onwards, plays could be recycled, and the audience seemed to have appreciated it. These plays were fan favorites, and were not rushed to completion.

Another procession and celebration was held on the final day, and the winners of the competitions were declared. The winning playwrights won a wreath of ivy, or a goat, although, when old plays were performed, the producer was awarded the prize rather than the long-dead playwright.

The Dionysia ta en Astei always seems like the perfect time for an impromptu karaoke competition, or one of those performance nights you had at camp. Personally, I think it would be a hoot to perform plays or other forms of entertainment for other members of your thiasoi. Alternatively, watching movies, attending plays, or even engaging in a few rounds of Rock Band or Guitar Hero would greatly amuse Dionysos. It's a time to have fun, but also to take a critical look at humanity and society: that was the purpose fo many of the tragedies. Remember that undercurrent while you revel, and the Dionysia ta Megala should be a great success.

Image source: Dionysos