di-o-nish'-i-a (Dionusia, "festivals of Dionysus" (Bacchus)): The rural (vintage) Dionysia were celebrated in the month of Poseideon (19th day), which is roughly our December. The celebration consisted of feasts, processions, songs and (sometimes) scenic performances. The Ascolia formed one of the most prominent features. After sacrificing a goat to the god, they filled the wine-skin with wine, made it slippery on the outside with oil, and then tried to hop on it with one leg. Whoever fell down furnished great sport for the spectators, but if anyone succeeded in maintaining an upright position to the end, he was declared victor. The demarch conducted the festival, the expenses of which were paid by the deme.
The Lenea were celebrated on the 12th of Gamelion (January) in Athens, and later in Ionia in Asia Minor. At this festival also the new wine was tasted. A procession was formed and they marched through the city, indulging in all sorts of jesting and buffoonery, to attend the pantomimic performances.
The Anthesteria (Flower-Feast) came in the month of Anthesterion (February), when the first flowers appeared. This festival resembled somewhat our Christmas. On the first day (11th of the month) the wine-cask was opened; on the second was the feast of pitchers. Wine was drunk, and contests in trumpet-playing were held. At the drinking contest everybody was permitted to make as much merriment as he pleased. There was also a mystic marriage of the king archon's wife to Dionysus (compare the marriage of the Doges of Venice to the sea). On the third day they offered pots filled with vegetables to Hermes, Conductor of the Dead. This day was sacred to the gods of the nether world and to the spirits of the departed (All Souls' Day); and the people celebrated Persephone's resurrection and reunion with the god.
The Greater, or City Dionysia, were held in Elaphebolion (March) as a spring festival. This is the most important of all the Dionysia (for us), since practically all the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed in conjunction with this festival. All the demes took part. They accompanied the ancient image of Dionysus Eleutherios (from Eleutherae in Boeotia, one of the first places in which the worship of the god was established in Greece), as it was carried in solemn procession from the Lenaeon (the original center of his cult in Athens) to a small temple in the Ceramicus in the northwestern part of the city, while choruses of men and boys sang the dithurambos (the ancient hymn to Dionysus). Crowned with the vine and dressed in unusual costumes, they greeted the god with loud shouts of joy.
The festival was revived with great pomp by the Pisistratidae. In theater of Dionysus all the people beheld an imposing rehearsal of their great achievements. Even the poorest and humblest were given an opportunity to see and hear the contests between the professional rhapsodists, who recited Homer, between choruses specially trained to sing the dithyrambs, and between poets, whose great dramatic productions were presented for the first time. The state set aside a special fund for the purchase of tickets for those who were too poor to buy for themselves. Comedies, tragedies and satyr dramas were presented after elaborate preparation and at a great expenditure of money. The prize, a bronze tripod, was erected with an appropriate inscription on the Street of Tripods. The awarding of prizes to the victors concluded the festival.
The quinquennial festival at Brauron in Attica was also celebrated with extraordinary license and merriment. The city of Athens sent delegates regularly to attend the festival.
There were also Dionysiac clubs in Athens at the time of the Peloponnesian War. These had peculiar doctrines and observances. They had their foundation in Orphic mysticism. The members refrained from eating the flesh of animals. They possessed holy scriptures and had peculiar propitiatory rites. The Dionysiac religious observance continued as a state cult down to 366 AD.
J. E. Harry