I have been celebrating festivals for Dionysos since my first days as a pagan, in 1996. In recent years, I have developed a festival cycle for Him which seems to satisfy my requirements as His priestess (a role I consider very personal, between me and Him, mostly having to do with honoring and assisting His seasonal movements and changes and not involving any human community). Some of these festivals are ancient, some I created to fill a need. Over the years I also have performed various other festivals, and still do outside of that specific cycle, when it feels right (and of course, plenty of more spontaneous devotional activities).
It’s a constant process of refinement, and while there is great power in repeated ritual (some festivals I have done since the very beginning), there is also power in being present with the god as our relationship evolves and altering, adding or subtracting things as needed. I am not going to outline my personal festival cycle here, because frankly no one should be copying it, but rather developing their own which makes sense for them and Him together.
Below, instead, are a number of notes on Dionysian festivals which I’m bringing over here from Wildivine. First is the festival calendar of the group Thiasos Dionysos, circa 2004, which is itself a combination of ancient and modern. I know a few people still use some of these. Next is an article on lesser-known ancient Dionysian festivals by John H. Wells (who I hope doesn’t mind me re-posting this here). Last are a few random bits and pieces on obscure ancient festivals.
May this all inspire you to go out and honor the wild god!
FESTIVAL CALENDAR OF THIASOS DIONYSOS, CIRCA 2004
Date: Gamelion 12-15 (around January)
Synopsis: The festival of vats, when the wine is mixed. It was originally held at the Lenaeon, the oldest temple of Dionysos in Athens, and was celebrated with a great civic banquet. All of the meat for the festival was provided at the public expense, and there were comedic presentations put on. This festival was thought to reawaken the slumbering vegetation after the long, still months of winter.
Thriambia – Triumphal Procession
Date: Cheese Monday / mid-February
Synopsis: Celebrates Dionysos’ triumph over Pentheus, Lykourgos, the Indians, etc. As Dionysos was victorious, so too, can we overcome all of our obstacles.
Possible features: Retelling of the myths, a triumphant procession (masked revellers), the composition and/or performance of Thriamboi, triumphal poems/songs/stories/jokes/limericks/mimes/skits/whatever of Dionysos Triumphant.
Note: The ancient Triumphs are one almost certain source of the Carnival (Mardi Gras) parades, which are celebrated the day after Cheese Monday (thus tying this in with the following festival). Also, in fairly recent times, some rural Greeks celebrated a festival of the Kalogeros on this date, which may have Dionysian roots.
Propompeia – For satyrs, maenads, etc.
Date: Mardi Gras Tuesday / mid-February
Synopsis: A Festival in honor of the Propompoi, the companions and attendants of Dionysos in His revels – the Maenads, the Satyrs, the Muses, the Nymphs, the Graces, the Kouretes, etc. Everyone’s already honoring Dionysos with drunken carousing, rampant silliness, and great phallic worship on this day – we’ll just rechristen it.
Date: Anthesterion 11-13 (mid to late February)
Synopsis: The first day was called Pithoigia or the “Opening of the Jars”. This was when the wine casks were opened for the first time, and masters and servants alike were allowed to taste the new wine. The second day Khoes or “Cups” was celebrated with a great public feast, and young children were given their first drink of wine. At Dionysos’ oldest temple, the Lenaeon, the wife of the Archon Basileus “King and Ruler” was wedded to Dionysos in a Sacred Marriage. The Basilissa was thought to represent the country, and thus her wedding with Dionysos was seen as a way of uniting fertility with the land once more. It’s not sure how this was done, whether a Priest of Dionysos functioned as a stand-in for the God, or whether the Basilissa made love to the ancient phallic wooden statue that was housed in the temple, or whether her husband the Archon Basileus impersonated the God. There was a general sense of erotic expectation in the air, which may have culimnated in nocturnal orgies. The third and final day of the festival, Khutroi or “Pots”, was entirely given over to the spirits of the dead. Sacrifices of cooked vegetables and seeds were given to Hermes and the dead.
Date: March 17 (some sources say it’s the 16th and 17th consecutively)
Synopsis: “The celebration of Liber Pater, an old Italian god of both fertility and wine. He is associated with the Greek Dionysus. Old women, acting as priestesses of Liber Pater, wear ivy weaths and displaying cakes (libia) made of oil and honey. They would sacrifice these cakes to Liber Pater for the passersby. A later development included the goddess Libera (as a counterpart to the male Liber); the two split jurisdiction over the female and male seed respectively. A rustic ceremony, a large phallus was carted around the countryside to encourage fertility and protect the crops from evil, after which a wreath was placed upon it by a virtuous matron.” (Nova Roma)
Date: Elaphebolion 9-13 (around March)
Synopsis: This was probably one of the most important of the Athenian festivals, and it drew visitors from all parts of Greece and beyond. It lasted for five days, the final day of which was dedicated to bestowing civic honors, such as when the Golden Crown was bestowed to Demosthenes. The rest of the time was devoted to the performance of new tragedies and comedies. Usually there was a set of three tragedies, with a final comedy or satyric drama to lighten the mood. The Greeks took their drama very seriously, and to win the competition for best play was one of the greatest honors a man could receive. The winning plays would be performed during the next Rural Dionysia. Throughout the festival there were processions, and choruses of boys singing dithyrambs which were sacred to Dionysos. Dionysos’ ancient wooden statue was taken from his Lenaeon temple, and he was worshipped as the liberator of the land from the bondage of winter.
Date: April 13
Synopsis: For Dionysos Meilichios. A day of gentleness, sweetness, peaceful pleasure; figs featured as the distinctive ingredient in the feast. Also a day of healing from anxieties and distress and emotional problems, as Meilichios was a God who healed from dysmania, unhealthy madness.
Taureia – Day of the Bull
Date: April 30 (falls during the sign of Taurus)
Synopsis: Commemorates his animal epiphany and the things associated with it: power, fertility, lustiness, earthiness, etc.
Possible features: A feast of roasted meat. Bull-dancing. Lots of bull decorations. Dressing up in rawhide or leather.
Date: May 21-23
Synopsis: The Anastenaria is a festival celebrated in certain parts of rural Greece to this day. It was imported by immigrants from Thrace. It is officially an Orthodox holiday, in honor of St. Constantine, however it has a clearly pagan feel, and more importantly, is thought to be a survival of Dionysian rites. First, they sacrifice a black male lamb or bull. Then they process around the village with the icons of the saint, offering blessings to people at their houses. But the main aspect of this festival is at night, when they firewalk. They make a huge fire, and when it is down to extremely hot coals, some of them (only some people are “called” to do this) walk and dance on the fire. This is reputed to have miraculous healing effects. It is also done mostly by women, or somewhat effeminized men, which reminds one of maenads and other devotees of Dionysos. They say that you have to completely give yourself over to the saint in order not to be burned. The Anasterides (as they are called) are often accused by outsiders of being drunk, crazy, or overly sexual, also reminiscent of Dionysians.
Possible Features: The main feature would be a firewalk. Of course, this would be one where you’d need a group of people, some to tend the fire, some to actually dance through it. Some people can just dance around the fire too, if they are not called to go into it. Alternately, if you didn’t have a group, sometimes there are firewalks offered by other kinds of groups, that you could participate in, in honor of Dionysos, or other kinds of fire-play that can be done alone (though safety concerns should always come first).
Date: June 4
Synopsis: Yarilo is essentially the Slavic Dionysos – a god of sexuality and vegetation. He is pictured as blonde, dressed in white, and barefoot, wearing a crown of flowers and riding a white horse. In one hand he holds a bunch of wheat, and in the other a skull. Wherever he treads, flowers and wheat grow in his wake. He is also associated with the god of summer, Kupalo, and with the sun. This is traditionally his festival day.
Possible features: This is the time to honor the life-giving, solar aspects of Dionysos, especially as it is at the start of the warmer part of the year. A simple celebration, like wearing white clothes, and garlands of flowers, and having picnics out in the sun.
Bebakcheumenia – The day of being filled with Dionysos’ frenzy
Date: July 1
Synopsis: A day given entirely to drunkeness, madness, ecstacy, prophecy, and living totally in his world for 24 hours. No other commitments, obligations, or concerns.
Kybernesia – Festival of the Helmsman
Date: July 3 (alternate: June 27)
Synopsis: Specifically honors Akoetes, the good helmsman, who was the only man to see Dionysos for who he was when pirates had kidnapped him. Akoetes pleaded with his friends to release the God, but they wouldn’t listen; he was spared when the rest of his crew were turned into dolphins or mauled by wild creatures. Afterwards, he became a prophet and wandering holy man for Dionysos. Also honors all those who have spread or helped maintain the Dionysiac Way(s), from mythic figures to modern “helmspeople”.
Possible features: Reading of the Akoetes myth and others like it. Feast (with dolphin-free tuna of course) and prayers. Perhaps something involving water and boats. Honoring whatever event, revelation, friend, book, etc., was the link that first brought you into relationship with Dionysos.
Notes: July 3rd was the day of Jim Morrison’s death, a man who seemed to so strongly possess a Dionysian spirit, whose lyrics remind many of the god, and whose life – by strange roundabout routes – even brought some of us to the god. Therefore some thought it was appropriate to hold this particular festival on this day. However, for those who are uncomfortable with using the date because of the more unpleasant aspects of Morrison’s personality and life, we will keep the original date of June 27 as an alternate.
Date: Moveable – on the first thunderstorm of summer
Synopsis: In honor of the God of Noise. Drumming, music, etc., go out raving in a thunderstorm, or on the beach at night to the sound of crashing surf…
Thaumasia – Festival of Miracles
Date: August 4
Synopsis: Commemorates the daughters of Anios, who were devoted to Dionysos. The God blessed them with wonderful gifts: with but a touch, they could make corn, oil, and wine spring up from the ground. With this gift, the girls fed their people in times of trouble. But when Agamemnon and the Greeks learned about this on their way to Troy, they sought to kidnap the girls to feed their army. As they were being bound, the girls prayed to Dionysos, and he freed them, turning them into white doves.
Possible features: A reading of the myth. Apropriate decorations, such as vines, doves, etc. And a meal that contains something from each daughter: Elais (Olive), Spermo (Seed), and Oino (Wine). A donation to a local food pantry. Celebrating *all* His reality-expanding wonders (including votive magic tricks, transformations, etc., observing and appreciating the miracles to be seen and experienced around us.)
Ampelia – Day of the Vine
Date: August 19
Synopsis: Commemorates his vegetative epiphanies and the things associated with them: the paradox of vibrant life and chthonic gloom. This is also the date of the Roman Vinalia.
Possible features: Lots and lots of entheogens. A totally vegetarian meal. Decorating with vines, flowers, and all kinds of plants.
Date: August 31
Synopsis: Go running around at night for Dionysos Nyktipolos. A Pannychia, an all-night Dionysia; maybe go to a Rave and dance your ass off for the God; maybe regress and do some literal running around after dark like teenagers – go run through a cemetery, go Oreibasia in a park with a hill, just find some way to votively run amok in the darkness…
Date: September 19-21
Synopsis: A 3 day festival for Ariadne. “Finding” to commemorate her exposure on the island, and the triumphal appearance of Dionysos; “Union” to commemorate their love and passion, her status of Queen of the Bacchantes, etc.; “Separation and Final Joining” commemorates her death at the hands of Artemis, Dionysos’ anguish at her loss, his descent, and her apotheosis.
Mimneskia – Day of Remembrance
Date: October 7
Synopsis: Commemorates Rome’s suppression of the Bacchanalia on this date in 186 BCE. A solemn, mournful event, commemorating the victims of this tragedy, as well as all who have chosen death of the body over death of the spirit.
Possible features: Fasting and prayer throughout the day. A specific ritualized lament. The telling of stories, especially Livy’s account of the persecution, or some other means of dramatizing our Bacchic heroes and what they suffered.
Date: Puanepsion 7 (around October)
Synopsis: Historically, this was a festival in honor of the ripened grapes. Supposedly it was founded by the great hero Theseus upon his return from Crete as a means of appeasing the God of wine. It gained its name from the shoots of vines with grapes on them which were borne from the temple of Dionysos in Limnae, a suburb of Athens, to the sanctuary of Athene Sciras. There were races, and a procession led by young boys in women’s clothing. It culimnated in a fine banquet.
Possible Features: An elaborate dinner with a number of different kinds of grapes and wines and lots of great food. Telling the story of Theseus and his return from Crete at this time, since it was he who established this festival. Telling the myth of Dionysos’ giving the vines to Ikarios. Making your own wine, or visiting a vineyard.
Date: November 16
Synopsis: Honors Semele, the mother of Dionysos. Both her pregnancy and her ascension to Olympos.
Possible features: Prayers and sacrifices. Dancing, as Semele was said to dance while pregnant with Dionysos. A feast to commemorate her apotheosis.
Date: last half of Poseideon (around December), can be celebrated on the winter solstice
Synopsis: This festival was traditionally held to commemorate the first tasting of the new wine. It was a simpler form of the Greater Dionysia held in the rural districts and countryside. It was a time of merriment and feasting, and troups of actors traveled around, performing the plays that had premiered at the Greater Dionysia.
Date: December 31 – New Year’s Eve/Day
Synopsis: The Feast of Freedom. Could be a serious veneration of freedom and emancipation (from political to personal) or could be a more libertine and playful Great Why-Not Festival, where the answer to every suggestion is a gleeful “Why not?!” Set on the new year to acknowledge starting with a blank slate. Also can coincide with many civic First Night celebrations.
Date: 13th of every month (by the lunar calendar)
Synopsis: A fixed day each month to honor our god, in whatever way seems appropriate. Especially by celebrating a Theoxenia, or feast for the god. A Feast and Symposion, in which the Symposiasts dedicate the joys of their comradeship and conversation to the God, and of course pour bounteous libations (both internally and externally).
The intercalendary month of Poseideon
Date: Every three years, repeated after the first Poseideon, around December
Synopsis: Since traditionally, intercalendary days are given over to partying, role-reversal, and general madness, and because Poseideon hosts one of the major ancient festivals of Dionysos, it seems appropriate to dedicate this entire month, when it appears, to the god.
Related Festivals – in which Dionysos plays a part
Greater Eleusinia – Boedromion 15-21 (around September, sometimes observed in modern times at the autumnal equinox), the Mystery rites of Demeter and Persephone, in which Iacchos played a role.
Haloa – Poseideon 26 (around December, the same time as the Rural Dionysia), a festival in honor of Demeter – and secondarily Dionysus – named after the halos, or threshing floor. Later the festival acquired a phallic character, and there may have been orgies.
LESSER KNOWN DIONYSIAN FESTIVALS BY JOHN H. WELLS
Worshipers of Dionysos who have devoted significant amounts of time studying the god and actively practicing his worship are aware of the festivals of Athens and Attica that were either partially or entirely devoted to the god: Oskhophoria, Haloa, Country Dionysia, Lenaia, Anthesteria, and City Dionysia. Most of the information available both in print as well as on the Internet is devoted to discussion of these festivals. This is not surprising-the majority of what we know about ancient Greece comes from Athens, due primarily to the high value their culture placed upon written works compared to the other Greek states.
This might lead the modern worshiper to conclude that the Athenian festivals represented the typical cycle of Dionysian festivals celebrated throughout the whole of ancient Greece. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dionysos was a very popular god in the ancient world, and dozens of different festivals dedicated to him existed throughout the ancient Greek world. While there were parallels between the Dionysian ritual practices from different localities, there were also some very marked differences.
The problem with the surviving information for many of these lesser-known festivals is that the information is typically quite fragmented. Often, only a line or two describing a particular festival exists; sometimes, neither the name nor the date for a particular festival has survived the ravages of time. However fragmented the material may be, information about these more obscure festivals could still be of considerable interest to modern worshippers of the god.
This article presents known information for a number of obscure Dionysian festivals celebrated in the ancient world. The majority of information that follows is drawn from L. R. Farnell’s book Cults of the Greek States, Volume V. It is important to note that this is an older reference published in 1909. So while the existence of festivals described by Farnell’s text is inarguable (instead of referencing “Text A by Scholar B” he simply provides the actual Greek or Latin text from Pausanius, Firmicus Maternus, Diodorus Siculus, and others), more modern interpretations may exist regarding the purpose or details of some of the festivals he describes. Some of the information herein is supplemented and/or supported by Kerenyi in Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Otto in Dionysos: Myth and Cult, Parke in Festivals of the Athenians, and a nifty web page consisting solely of quotes from ancient writers at: http://www.theoi.com/Cult/DionysosCult.html.
The intent of this article is not to provide an exhaustive description of the wide variety of Dionysian festivals observed in the ancient world; rather, this article serves more as a set of notes organized by festival name or type, intended to serve as a springboard for further research and/or the development of new festivals for use by the modern Hellenic pagan community.
The author intends to continue his research into the more obscure Dionysian festivals celebrated in the ancient world, and is open to comments from anyone who has additional information to add regarding the festivals described herein.
A note about dates: often, no date exists for a particular festival described herein. It is generally accepted that Dionysos had no summer festivals of his own (he may have been a “guest” at some festivals, like Hermes is at the Anthesteria), so one may reasonably assume that the festivals without dates that are described below took place sometime between the modern months of September and April.
A note about festival names: if the underlined name for the festival is in quotes, the name provided is a descriptive name arbitrarily invented by the author of this document.
Agrionia – While the Athenians were celebrating the City Dionysia, much of Greece was busy celebrating some local version of this festival. Similar festivals took place in a wide range of ancient Greek states, often going by alternate but obviously similar names such as Agronia, Agrania, Agriania, etc. The Boeotian version of the Agrionia is based upon a myth involving the oleiai, three daughters of King Minyas who in their madness craved human flesh and devoured one of their own children. At the festival, the Priest of Dionysos pursued the oleiai with a drawn sword. Any of the oleiai that the priest caught was slain-evidence suggests this may have involved actual human sacrifice in rare cities. The death of the oleiai, whether it was actual or merely symbolic, served as atonement for the ancestral sins of the people of the city, and thus was a holy, albeit fearful act.
At some point during the Boeotian Agrionia, female votaries of the god would search for the god as if he had run away and had “taken refuge with the muses”. This supposedly played into the myth of Lykurgos, who had “provoked the muses” during his outrage towards Dionysos. Farnell suggests that these muses were actually “Thracian water nymphs” who were companions to the god when he was thrown into the water (see “Emergence from the Waters Festival” described below, which probably had some mythological tie in to this ritual practice).
In Kos, Sparta, Kalymna, and Rhodes, this festival took place during their month of Agrionios and was called the Agriania. In Argos, the local version of the Agrionia was called the Nekusia; was often referred to as a “feast of the dead”; and the Proitides may have replaced the oleiai, who were chased over the mountains by Melampus and his sacred troop. In Orchomenos, men would wear black garments at their local Agrionia, and the festival had an air of gloom and death.
“Emergence from the Waters Festival” – In Argos and surrounding areas, the tale of Dionysos descending into the underworld to retrieve his mother Semele was the key myth behind a group of local festivals. Lake Alkyonia, near Lerna, was believed to be the lake into which Dionysos descended into and emerged from the underworld. It is also the lake into which, according to local myth, Perseus flung the dead body of Dionysos.
It is believed that these festivals typically involved the following:
Dionysos descends into the underworld, usually symbolized in the form of an effigy of some type (usually a straw man) that was thrown into a lake, well, or other body of water. At the same time, they threw a lamb into the waters as a sacrifice to placate Kerebos (the guardian at the gates of Hades).
Later, a trumpet was blown over the water, both to signify that Kerebos had been placated and to summon Dionysos back to the world of the living.
Dionysos then reemerged from the underworld, with his mother Semele in tow.
This is believed to have been a spring rite, probably intended to bring Dionysos into mystic union with Demeter & Kore and their myth cycle. This festival may also have been imported to Rhodes, where an inscription was found describing a functionary of the god “who rouses the god with the water organ.”
Some localities (e.g. Macedonia) tied this festival in with the myth of Ikarios, who disguised himself as Dionysos and distributed wine to the people. The people subsequently passed out from drinking too much, blamed Ikarios for poisoning them, and then killed him and tossed his dead body into a well (or under a tree in some versions of the myth). Elements of this festival have even survived into modern times; in Macedonia (circa 1900, and possibly to the present day) a local festival is celebrated where a straw man is thrown into a well.
Trieteric Rites – Sources describe a wide range of “trieteric” rites (collectively known as “trieterica”) that were celebrated throughout Greece. “Trieteric” means “every other year”, and these festivals typically involved the myth of the god’s death and rebirth. Some cities celebrated two separate festivals, one for death and one for rebirth. Evidence for such festivals exists from Arcadia, Thebes, Orchomenos, Delphi, and many other localities. Some of the other rituals described herein, such as the Agrionia, are sometimes categorized as Trieterica.
Farnell theorizes that the Trieterica were associated with the shifting of land cultivation and may have been consecrated by a special ritual to the god of the soil. We know that the Thracians shifted their cornfields every year. The maenads would be called to charge themselves with vegetative magical potency from the fountainhead of all life (Dionysos) and did so through typical practices used to invoke entheos (e.g. omophagia, whipping, wild dancing with tossing of head, whirling of torches, frantic clamor of wind and percussion instruments, holy silence, wearing goat skins, wearing fawn skins, etc.). This magical vegetative energy would be used to revive the earth for the new growing season.
While the Trieteric festivals were by their very definition Dionysian festivals of the “two-year period” some localities, such as Delphi and Phrygia, may have observed their Trieteric festivals on an annual basis.
Thyia – A festival from Elis. Three large, empty pitchers were placed inside a temple, and the doors to the temple were closed. The priests then placed a seal upon the doors, and the citizens of Elis were allowed to affix seals of their own to assure that the temple was not entered. Then, according to ancient accounts, the priests checked the seals, opened the temple doors, and found the pitchers miraculously filled with wine. There are also references to 16 women at the festival who would engage in an orgiastic chant of “evoi” at some point during the festival.
Turbe – A festival celebrated near the source of the Erasinos, somewhere on the road between Argos and Tegea. The festival consisted of sacrifices offered to Dionysos and Pan. As the name suggests, it was a “turbulent” festival of ecstatic and violent character.
“Orgies at Taygetos” – No details are available, other than the fact that Taygetos was considered by the ancients to be one of the celebrated centers of furious Bacchic orgy.
“Divine Funeral Festival” – In Crete there was a divine funeral festival, organized in accordance with a sacred year of “trieteric” (celebrated every other year) rites. During the festival, the Cretans would celebrate everything the boy-god did or suffered from his birth to his death. They would rend a living bull with their teeth and simulate madness by shrieking with discordant clamor while running through secret places in the forest. It is unknown if this was an official, state sponsored festival like those of other cities, or if it was a private festival sponsored by wealthy families.
Feast of the Worthy Bull – The name is lost for this festival that took place on the island of Tenedos, but Pausanius described it as the “Feast of the Worthy Bull”. The men of Tenedos would select a pregnant cow and tend her in great reverence until its calf was born. When the time for the festival came, they would take the calf, dress it up in buskins (boots, probably for hunting) of the god, sacrifice it, and then devour its flesh. The people would then pretend to stone the official who slew the “calf god” and symbolically banish him from the city until he successfully ran to the sea. Overall, this was a quiet and more “civilized” omphagia than those observed in other locations.
“Dionysian Foot-Race Festival” – In Sparta, 11 maidens would run a ritual race in honor of the god. These 11 women may have also served as the official bacchae for this and other festivals dedicated to Dionysos at Sparta.
“Orgies to Dionysos and Netherworld Aphrodite” – In Melangeia in Arcadia, orgies of Dionysos were associated with a “nether-world Aphrodite” where the Meliastai were sacred functionaries of the god and whose name expressed the magic by which ash trees were made to grow.
“Mystic Chest Orgy” – Little is known about this Cretan orgy, where a “mystic chest” in which “the sister buried the heart” played part. This may refer to the myth of Athena salvaging the heart of the dismembered Zagreus.
Kateunasmoi – A Phrygian winter burial rite. This was an orgiastic rite, part of a two ritual cycle celebrating the annual death and rebirth of Dionysos as a seasonally dying god. This festival was followed up in the spring by its companion festival, the Anegerseis.
Anegerseis – A Phrygian spring resurrection rite. Also orgiastic, this was the companion ritual to the Kateunasmoi, where the god is reborn as part of their seasonally dying god cycle.
“The Awakening of the Liknites” – A festival celebrated in Delphi. According to Plutarch, “The Delphians believe that the remains of the dismembered Dionysos are stored in their keeping by the place of the oracle; and the holy ones offer a secret sacrifice in the Temple of Apollo whenever the Thyiades awaken Liknites.” The liknites refers to baby Dionysos who was placed in the liknon, a cradle consisting of a winnowing fan shaped like a shovel. This winter festival was intended to arouse the infant god, to return life to the vegetation and bring back the vivacity of spring.
Liknophoria – A Thracian festival obviously having something to do with the liknon, but no other records survive describing this festival. May have been similar to the Delphic “Awakening of the Liknites” festival.
“Chest Emerging from the Sea Festival” – Like Perseus, Dionysos had a myth where he and his mother Semele were placed in a chest and set afloat on the sea. In a number of coastal cities, festivals were celebrated where the divine child Dionysos is brought up from the sea in a chest. In one local myth cycle at Prasiai, the inhabitants believed that Semele and Dionysos were put into an oblong chest called a larnaz by Cadmus and thrown into the sea. The chest washed ashore, and Semele died. Ino then tended to the infant god. The Dionysian Priest at Prasiai would take the larnaz out of the temple in the middle of the night and down to the local river. The worshippers would follow, bathe in the river and crown themselves with ivy. They would then retrieve the chest and bring it back with them to the Temple of Dionysos. This festival is believed to have taken place during the late winter or early spring.
“Ship-Chariot Festival” – In Smyrna during the spring, there was a Dionysian festival where a holy trireme (an ancient Greco-Roman ship with three banks of oars) was borne around the marketplace in honor of the god. The trireme probably brought from the sea a revivified image of the god for spring, to ensure a good agricultural year. This festival may not originally be a Dionysian festival, considered by some to have evolved from a festival celebrating some ancient naval victory.
“Travail of Semele” – Described in an Orphic verse, this apparently was a Theban ritual where a holy drama was enacted either every year or every other year to honor Semele as Dionysos’ mother and her tragic death. In Thebes, there was a “Thalamos of Semele” which was a smoldering ruin marking the place where she died from Zeus’ lighting and probably where this festival took place.
“Return of Semele Festival” – In Thebes, they had an annual festival to celebrate the return of Semele in the early spring. This festival may have involved a drama or puppet show of some sort to reenact her return. There is also record of maenads from Thebes called katabatai who descended into the underworld to assist with Semele’s resurrection. In Delphi, a similar festival called Herots was celebrated once every 8 years. In Attis, a somber version of this festival called Katabasis was celebrated just before the day of Semele’s resurrection.
Katagogia – Not much is known about this festival from Priene. It may have involved Aphrodite, since local records describe an Aphrodite festival (Anagein) where the goddess is put to sea, and the Katagogia was celebrated 9 days after her return. The season for this festival is unknown, but suspected to be during the spring.
“The Torches of Dionysos” – A mid-winter festival observed in Parnasos and elsewhere. Torches were believed in some areas to call the god by name, hinting at its mystical power. The use of torches may have had something to do with vivifying the warmth of the earth, as seen in some Demeter/Kore observances. Torches would be thrown into a pit in some non-Dionysian observances; this may or may not have occurred here. The maenads at this festival would whirl torches, which may have served to purify the air of impure influences. Parallels of this ritual act are seen in several other ancient world rituals, including some Dionysian celebrations in Athens.
Lampteria – A winter “Feast of Torches” celebrated in Pellene. Men carried lighted torches to the Temple of Dionysos during the night, and would set up bowls of wine throughout the city.
Theodaisia – Translated as “the entertainment of the gods” this was a festival consecrated to Dionysos and the nymphs. This festival was observed in January in many states, including Anaphe, Lesbos, Kos, Kaymnos, Rhodes, Lindos, Crete, and Kyzikos.
Skiereia – A festival celebrated in Arcadia and Alea during the winter, where women/maenads were flogged in accordance with instructions from the Delphic Oracle.
“Winter Bull Feast” – In Kynathea in Arcadia, a winter festival was celebrated, where men would smear themselves with grease, and take a bull from the herd (the choice was made by the god) in their arms to the sanctuary of Dionysos.
“Festival of Dionysos Melanaigis” – In Hermione in Argolis, an annual festival was held in honor of Dionysos Melanaigis (of the black goat-skin) where they held a competition for music and offered prizes for swimming races and boat races.
Protrygaia – An autumn rite in honor of Poseidon and Dionysos-location unknown. This was an atonement rite after the gathering of the grapes, to ensure that they were cleared of impure influences. This ritual may have some similarities to the Oskhophoria.
Astrydromia – A festival celebrated in Kyrene, also known as the “Town Running Festival”, was a birthday festival for the city that somehow involved Dionysos.
Phellos – A festival celebrated in the “rocky lands” where goats were grazed in Attica. No other details are available.
“Revelation of the Grape Cluster” – In Laconia, there was a festival were a grape cluster was miraculously revealed. No other details are available.
“Dionysia to Honor the Fallen Gods” – In Boeotia, there was a spring festival where Dionysian revelers brought “an amphora of wine, a small vine-spray, a goat, a basketful of dried figs” as offerings to the gods who had fallen at the season. We see some similarities to this preserved in the procession at the Athenian City Dionysia.
Trygeton – An Athenian festival (known from inscriptions-perhaps an older festival), where a vintage offering to Dionysos and the other gods was made on the 18th of Beodromion (right before the Greater Eleusinia). Participants may have smeared their faces with wine lees at the time of the vintage.
Theoinia – We know of this Athenian festival’s existence, as well as the Iobaccheia, from surviving texts describing the oath taken by the Gerarai at the Anthesteria: “I sanctify myself and am pure and holy, from all things which are not purifying and particularly from intercourse with a man, and I shall act as Gerara at the Theoinia and Iobaccheia in the ancestral fashion and at the appropriate times”. This festival celebrated Dionysos Theoinos, or “Dionysos of the wine”. According to Harold Willoughby in Pagan Regeneration, the festival of Theoinia was “celebrated by those families who were believed to be direct descendents of Dionysos’ original followers, in whose vineyards grew vines which were offshoots from the vine spray that the god himself had given them. Under such circumstances the devotees of Dionysus would be sure of the presence of the very god himself in the consecrated wine made from the sacred grapes.” The ancient author Suidas suggests that the Theoinia may have been an early version of the Country Dionysia.
Iobaccheia – Little is known about this Athenian festival, other than the fact that it existed.
MORE INFORMATION ON OBSCURE DIONYSIAN FESTIVALS
SOURCE: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) (eds. G. E. Marindin, William Smith, LLD, William Wayte)
AGRIO´NIA (agriônia), a festival which was celebrated chiefly at Orchomenus, in Boeotia, in honour of Dionysus, surnamed Agriônios, i. e. the wild or boisterous. It appears from Plutarch (Quaest. Rom. 102), that this festival was solemnised during the night only by women and the priests of Dionysus. It consisted of a kind of game, in which the women for a long time acted as if seeking Dionysus, and at last called out to one another that he had escaped to the Muses, and had concealed himself with them. After this they prepared a repast; and having enjoyed it, amused themselves with proposing riddles to one another. This festival was remarkable for a feature which proves its great antiquity. Some virgins, who were descended from Minyas, and who probably used to [p. 93] assemble around the temple on the occasion, fled and were followed by the priest armed with a sword, who was allowed to kill the one whom he first caught. The sacrifice of a human being, though originally it must have formed a regular part of the festival, seems to have been avoided in later times. One instance, however, occurred in the days of Plutarch (Quaest. Graec. 38). But as the priest, Zoilos, who had killed the woman was afterwards attacked by disease, and severál extraordinary accidents occurred to the Minyans, the priest and his family were deprived of their official functions. The festival, as well as its name, is said to have been derived from the daughters of Minyas, who, after having for a long time resisted the Bacchanalian fury, were at length seized by an invincible desire of eating human flesh. They therefore cast lots on their own children; and as Hippasos, son of Leukippe, became the destined victim, they killed and ate him, whence the women belonging to that race were at the time of Plutarch still called the destroyers (ogeiai or aiolaiai) and the men mourners (psoloeis). Agrionia of a similar kind were celebrated also at Thebes and at Argos (Hesych. s. v. Agriania, which seems to be only another form for Agriônia). At Thebes the festival was celebrated with games and contests, while at Argos it was a festival of the dead (nekusia). (Müller, Die Minyer, p. 166, &c.; K. F. Hermann, Gottesd. Alterth, § 63, n. 13; Schömann, Griech. Myth. vol. i. p. 429.) [L. S.]
AMBROS´IA (ambrosia), festivals observed in Greece, in honour of Dionysus, which seem to have derived their name from the luxuries of the table, or from the indulgence of drinking. According to Tzetzes on Hesiod (Op. et D. v. 504) these festivals were solemnised in the month of Lenaeon, during the vintage. (Etym. M. s. v. Lênaiôn, p. 564. 7; G. E. W. Schneider, Ueber das Attische Theaterwesen, p. 43; K. F. Hermann, Lehrb. d. gottesdienstl. Alterth. d. Griechen, § 58, n. 7.) [L. S.]
There was also a quinquennial festival called Brauronia, which was celebrated by men and dissolute women, at Brauron, in honour of Dionysus. (Aristoph. Pax, 870, with the note of the Scholiast; and Suidas, s. v. Braurôn.) Whether its celebration took place at the same time as that of Artemis Brauronia (as has been supposed by Müller, Dor. ii. 9, § 5, in a note, which has, however, been omitted in the English translation), must remain uncertain, although the very different characters of the two festivals incline us rather to believe that they were not celebrated at the same time. According to Hesychius, whose statement however is not supported by any ancient authority, the Iliad was recited at the Brauronian festival of Dionysus by rhapsodists. (Comp. Hemsterh. ad Pollucem, ix. 74; Welcker, Der Epische Cyclus, p. 391; A. Mommsen, Heortologie, p. 409 foll.) [L. S.]
LERNAEA (lernaia) were mysteries celebrated at Lerna in Argolis in honour of Demeter and also to Dionysus, for both deities had shrines there. Dionysus had descended by the marsh of Lerna to the nether world to seek his mother Semele. Pausanias says that part of these rights might be revealed to the uninitiated, but that which belonged to Dionysus might not. Probably these mysteries reproduced the doctrines of Eleusis about a future life. We are told that there was a doubtful tradition to the effect that Philammon instituted these mysteries. In ancient times the Argives brought firs for them from the temple of Artemis Pyronia on Mount Crathis. (Pans. ii. 36, 37, viii. 15; Maury, Relig. de la Grèce, ii. 370.) [L. S.] [G. E. M.]
PROTRYGAEA (protrugaia) a festival celebrated in honour of Dionysus and Poseidon (Hesych. s. v.; Aelian, V. H. iii. 41; cf. theoi protrugaioi, Poll. i. 24). The origin and mode of celebration of this festival at Tyre are described by Achilles Tatius (ii. init.). On the association of Poseidon, see Plut. Symp. 5, 1; Preller, Gr. Myth. i. 554. [L. S.] [G. E. M.]
THALY´SIA (thalusia), a festival celebrated in honour of Dionysus and Demeter (Menand. Rhet. quoted by Meursius), or according to others of Demeter alone, as it is described by Theocritus in his seventh idyll, and by the grammarians who wrote the arguments to the same. It was held in autumn, after the harvest, to thank the gods for the benefits they had conferred upon men (Spanheim ad Callimach. Hymn. in Cer. 20 and 137; Wüstemann ad Theocrit. Idyll. vii. 3). [L. S.]