Among the Greek festivals for Dionysos four types may be distinguished:

1) the Great Dionysia, introduced in Athens in the sixth century BCE.
2) the Anthesteria, concerned with wine-drinking;
3) the Agrionia, which included mimicking a women's uprising, madness, and canibalistic fantasies; and
4) the rustic Dionysia with goat sacrifices and a phallus procession.

I describe in this handout only 1) which was the annual Athenian dramatic festival. Yet, because misconceptions based on outdated notions abound, I append a clarification on evidence of "maenadic" rites and on the Roman Bacchanalia.


This important festival took place in late March/April. It was organized, administered, and paid for by the city. Peisistratos introduced it in the sixth century BCE. The area of the theatre, on the slope of the Acropolis, included the temple of Dionysos and an orchestra (circular area for dancing). In the fifth century BCE Pericles had the temple rebuilt and all the parts of the theatre were further developed. A tragic writer normally wrote three tragedies and one satyr play for one presentation. They competed against each other.
The official primarily responsible for the organization of the Great Dionysia was the archon, a magistrate chosen annualy by lot, and whose name was given to the year. Prospective playwrights applied for a chorus, namely for official acceptance as one of the three tragedians, or three or five comic writers, whose works were to be performed in the following spring. Private citizens, selected as producers for each playwright had to pay (as a city service or "liturgy") the bulk of the expenses. The introduction of a public subsidy for poorer citizens to attend the performances is attributed to the Athenian politician Pericles. Their place of honor in the amphitheatre and their functions in the ceremonies speak about this occasion as an initiation of the city's ephebes.


Before the festival the statue of Dionysos Eleuthereus was taken to a temple on the road to Eleutherai, a sacrifice was offered, and then the statue was escorted by the city's ephebes back to the temple. The myth associated with this procession told the story of the arrival of Dionysos at Eleutherai, where either the king or his daughters rejected in some way the god. Dionysos punished all the men in the town with satyrism (a pathological condition of permanent arousal), and when they in despair consulted the oracle of Apollo they were told that they would be cured if they took the statue of Dionysos to Athens in a procession. Once in Athens, the statue was taken in a great procession leading up to the sacrifice in the sacred precinct of Dionysos. A trumpeter at the head, and maidens with sacrificial implements led the bull to be sacrificed in the sacred precinct. In the second century this sacrifice was conducted by the ephebes. A celebratory revel perhaps followed.


The most influential and important representatives of the state were involved in the opening religious ceremonies. For example, before the performance of the tragedies, the tribute of the cities of the Athenian empire was brought into the theatre. At the same time they led in upon the stage the sons of those who had lost their lives in the war; they were paraded in military uniform, which had been provided by the city. There was also a Proagon, an introduction of the whole personnel active in the contests (poets, choregoi (citizens responsible for expenses), actors, musicians, chorus members). A contest of ten dithyrambs (choruses in honor of Dionysos) was carried out on the first day of the festival. Each chorus of men or boys represented a "tribe" (religious and civic district in Attica).


Five comedies were presented, then three tetralogies one each day. A tetralogy consisted of three tragedies and one satyr play. A final assembly was held, at which prizes and awards were distributed. At least once the ten generals were made the prize-awarding tribunal (for Sophocles). Normally the members of this tribunal were chosen by lot.


Ritual wine-drinking in the name of Dionysos was the privilege of Greek males, while ritual maenadism was practised exclusively by women. Public festivals in honor of Dionysos included both sexes. The prevailing stereotype of the Greek maenad is almost exclusively determined by maenadic myth, especially as it is enacted in Euripides' Bacchant Women. This stereotype is a romantic vision of wild ecstasy and blood-thirsty violence, according to which women went to the woods and turned into a destructive mob who at the height of their frenzy climbed mountains, tore apart animals or even human beings, and devoured the raw flesh of their victims.

Evidence of maenadic cult does not support any element of the preceding description. Women belonged to local congregations of maenads; unlike the mythical maenads of Euripides, they suffered from exhaustion, were stuck in snowstorms, and were respectable enough to be honored by their cities after their death. Ritual maenadism proper was apparently not practised in Attica: Athenian women went to Delphi to celebrate maenadic rites on Mount Parnassus. Descriptions of the rituals of the Delphic maenads (known as Thyads) tell us that married women and girls participated, that they conducted initiations, went to the mountain and perhaps handled raw meat from the (ceremonial) sacrifices. There is no reference to their "madness," and they were called "maenads" because they mimicked the behavior of the mythical maenads. Once they came down from their mountain, they resumed their normal lives, and waited for the return of the ritual two years later.

 In the Hellenistic and Roman period, worshippers of Greek and foreign gods were commonly organized in local cult-associations of private character. The distinction bewteen maenadism and other less restricted forms of Dionysiac worship became occasionally blurred. Despite the phallic obscenity connected with Dionysiac festivals, sexual acts in the cult of Dionysos were apparently more symbolic and mythical than real. Aphrodite is occasionally found in cultic association with Dionysos. The Roman historian Livy describes outrageous actions connected with Bacchic orgies in Rome, the Bacchanalia. In 186 BCE the Roman Senate decreed the destruction of most Bacchic shrines and the strict control of all Bacchic worship in Italy.