Classical Greek Mythology

The Dramas of Ancient Athens

What was the City Dionysia?

The City Dionysia, probably beginning in the sixth century B.C.E. in Athens, was an annual religious festival in honor of the god of wine, vegetation, and ecstasy. The festival began with processions in which a statute of Dionysos was carried through the streets. As noted above, the central element of the festival was drama.

The playwrights, such as the fifth-century writers of tragedy Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, competed for the honor of writing the best plays of the year. They each presented a sequence of plays, three tragedies—sometimes related to each other—and a satyr play.

The satyr plays were characterized by bawdy themes celebrating the Dionysian qualities of sex and general madness. They served as a kind of comic relief against the background of the tragedies themselves. The only complete satyr play remaining to us is The Cyclops, by Euripides, about the incident in the Odyssey in which Odysseus confronts the Cyclops Polyphemos. Satyrs were wild, highly eroticized followers of Dionysos. They had animal tails and hooves and were often depicted with erections. Their female counterparts were known as maenads. These figures reflect or symbolize ancient practices related to Dionysian mysteries in which intoxicant-stimulated men and women participated in Dionysian ritual acts that were outside the usual patterns of behavior considered appropriate in Greek society.

The tragedy competition was preceded by a poem known as the dithyramb, performed by a circular dancing chorus of men and/or boys. The dithyrambs were hymns to Dionysos. Then came the tragedies themselves, plays not about Dionysos but in honor of him and related in some way to the aspects of reality he represented. The characters of the plays were, for the most part, the Greek heroes discussed above. Although gods did not always appear as characters, the struggles between the human needs and desires of the heroes were contrasted with opposing laws and prophecies of the gods. This conflict was the essence of Greek tragedy, a metaphor for what the Greeks saw as an irony of life.

Also part of the City Dionysia was the presentation of comedies, of which the most famous are those of Aristophanes. These plays place the essential irony of life in a comic context.

Finally, the City Dionysia provides a clear indication of the origins of Greek drama and even of what we think of as theater today.

Painting of the cyclops Polyphemus by Guido Reni (c. 1640). The only complete satyr play we have today is The Cyclops by Euripides.


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