Sundown yesterday marked the start of 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. It was and is held on the 10th to 17th days of Elaphebolion and is thought to have been founded, or at least revived, by the tyrant Pisistratus (around 530 BC). It was most favously 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. You can read more about its place in Athenian society here.

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. Labrys, a Hellenic Polytheistic group located in Greece, recently performed the Phallephoria, the carrying of a phallus in procession in honor of Dionysus through the streets of Athens, for the first time after almost two thousand years.

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