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Bacchanalia (băkənāˈlēə), in Roman religion, festival in honor of Bacchus, god of wine. Originally a religious ceremony, like the Liberalia, it gradually became an occasion for drunken, licentious excesses and was finally forbidden by law (186 B.C.).
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Dionysia (Bacchanalia)

Type of Holiday: Ancient
Date of Observation: Various
Where Celebrated: Greece
Symbols and Customs: Bull, Goat, Thyrsus, Winnowing Fan


The Greek religion flourished in the ancient Greek city-states and surrounding areas between the eighth and fourth centuries B . C . E . The city-state of Athens was the center of ancient Greek civilization and major ceremonies took place there. Within Athens, the Acropolis was the religious center, consisting of temples dedicated to the gods and goddesses. However, smaller sanctuaries to the gods and goddesses also existed throughout the region.

Ancient Greek religion pervaded every aspect of life, and there was no concept of a separation between sacred and secular observances. Thus, ancient Greek festivals were religious occasions. Ritual and sacrifice, athletic games, dramatic performances, and feasting were all elements of festivals.

A series of festivals in ancient Greece were held in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and drama. In the fall there was the Oschophoria ("carrying of the grape cluster"), which included a footrace for young men. The rustic Dionysia was held in December or January at the first tasting of the new wine. The Lenaea, held in Athens in January or February (Dionysus was sometimes known as Lenaeus), included a procession of jesting citizens through the city. The Anthesteria, observed in February or March, celebrated the beginning of spring and the maturing of the wine stored during the previous year. Best known of all was the Great Dionysia, held in the spring (March-April) in Athens for five or six days. It featured the performance of new tragedies, comedies, and satiric dramas at the Theater of Dionysus on the side of the Acropolis. According to mythology, Dionysus was the offspring of Zeus and Semele. When Semele died in the sixth or seventh month of her pregnancy, Zeus saved the infant by keeping him in his thigh until the full nine-month term was up. When the child was reborn from his father's thigh, he was given to Semele's sister, Ino, and her husband, Athamas, to rear. Hera, whose intense jealousy was originally responsible for Semele's death, drove Athamas mad, and the care of Dionysus was transferred to the nymphs on Mount Nysa. Roaming freely over the mountain, Dionysus tasted the wild vine and discovered how to extract its juice.

Like other vegetation gods, Dionysus was believed to have died a violent death. In one myth, he is attacked by the Titans with knives to punish him for mocking his father. He keeps changing form, appearing first as a young man, then a lion, a horse, and a serpent. It is finally in the form of a BULL that he is cut to pieces. In some versions of the myth, he is pieced together again, or rises from the dead and ascends to heaven. His resurrection was believed to ensure the regeneration of plants and the fertility of animals in springtime. At the festivals in his honor, Dionysus' death and resurrection were reenacted by killing a BULL (or GOAT ) and then stuffing and setting up the slain animal, as was customary at the Athenian BOUPHONIA.

The Dionysia came to Greece by way of Egypt. Because the Greeks already had other fertility gods, the Dionysian rites there focused on wine and the exhilaration it produced. There were obscene songs and dances designed to magically stimulate plant growth, and sex orgies whose original purpose may have been to induce fertility in the fields. Peasants and shepherds dressed in animal skins and pretended they were Satyrs. The spring rituals in honor of Dionysus included a procession into the fields led by a maiden carrying a phallus and followed by the farmer, his wife, and his daughters, all of them singing bawdy songs. When the worship of Dionysus was introduced into Rome (where he was known as Bacchus, and his festival as the Bacchanalia), the debauchery eventually reached the point where it resulted in a wave of crime and immorality throughout Italy. The Roman authorities cracked down on such behavior and instituted a death penalty for anyone who failed to obey the new restrictions.

Just as wine could make people either high spirited or drunk and irresponsible, Dionysus was both a merry god who inspired great poetry and a cruel god. His festivals therefore combine elements of bloodshed and revelry. He is usually shown as an effeminate young man wearing a crown of vine and ivy and carrying a THYRSUS .



Although Dionysus was a god of vegetation, he was often represented in animal form, especially that of a bull. One theory as to why he is associated with the bull Dionysia

is that he was the first to yoke oxen to the plow, which had formerly been dragged along by hand. But whatever the reason, images of Dionysus frequently show him wearing a bull's hide with the head, horns, and hoofs hanging down behind him. Sometimes he is shown as a calf-headed child with clusters of grapes around his brow and horns sprouting from his head.

The tearing apart of live bulls and calves was a regular feature of Dionysiac rites. According to Greek mythology, it was when he had assumed the form of a bull that Dionysus was torn to pieces by the Titans. When his worshippers killed a bull and ate it, therefore, they were symbolically killing the god and partaking of his flesh and blood, thus securing for themselves a portion of the god's life-giving and fertilizing influence.


To save him from the wrath of the jealous Hera, Zeus changed the youthful Dionysus into a kid. And when the gods fled to Egypt to escape the fury of Typhon, Dionysus was turned into a goat. But this is only part of the explanation for why worshippers of Dionysus often tore a live goat to pieces during his festival and ate its flesh raw. Although it may seem a strange practice to kill and eat an animal who embodies the god being worshipped, the custom of killing a deity in animal form can be traced back to a very primitive stage of human culture. Goats may also have been sacrificed during the Dionysia because they had a tendency to nibble away at grapevines, and Dionysus was the god who protected the vineyards.

Dionysus is closely associated with Pan, the Satyrs, and other minor deities who resemble goats. Pan is usually shown in painting and sculpture with the face and legs of a goat, while the Satyrs are depicted with pointed goat-ears, sprouting horns, and short tails. In early Greek drama, their parts were often played by men dressed in goatskins.

Whether it was a goat or a BULL that was sacrificed at the Dionysia, the purpose of eating the flesh raw was to physically ingest some of the positive force associated with the god of vegetation. Some worshippers carried pieces of goat home and buried them in their fields to convey to the earth some of the god's quickening influence.


The thyrsus, a staff tipped with a pinecone and twined with ivy, is always associated with Dionysus, the Satyrs, and Dionysian revelers. In addition to being the god of the vine, Dionysus was also the god of trees in general, and cultivated trees in particular. Fruit farmers would often set up an image of him in the shape of a natural tree stump in their orchards. Among the trees sacred to Dionysus was the pine tree. Like other evergreens, it was a symbol of immortality. Pinecones, because they contained so many seeds, symbolized fertility. So the thyrsus was not only a phallic symbol, in keeping with the wild sexual behavior that Dionysian revelers engaged in, but also an apt reminder of the fertility and regeneration in the natural world over which Dionysus was thought to have influence.

Winnowing Fan

A winnowing fan is a large, open, shovel-shaped basket. Until modern times, it was used by farmers to separate the grain from the chaff by tossing the corn in the air and allowing the chaff to blow away. Dionysus is said to have been placed at birth in a winnowing fan, and in paintings he is often shown as an infant cradled in such a basket.


Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962. Fowler, W. Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. New York: Macmillan Co., 1925. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Lemprière, John. Lemprière's Classical Dictionary. Rev. ed. London: Bracken, 1994. Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981. Whibley, Leonard. A Companion of Greek Studies. 3rd ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1916. Dionysia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.




(1) In Ancient Rome, mystery plays in honor of Dionysus (Bacchus) which took on the character of orgies in the second century B.C. Initially, only women participated in the Bacchanalia; later, men were permitted to take part as well. In 186 B.C., by a special resolution of the senate, Bacchanalia were prohibited in Italy on pain of criminal prosecution. However, they were held secretly in certain areas of southern Italy up to the time of the Empire.

(2) Wild revelry or orgy (figurative).

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dionysia (Bacchanalia)

Various dates
The Dionysia was a festival in ancient Greece in honor of Dionysus (also called Bacchus), the son of Zeus and god of wine, fertility, and drama. There were a series of Dionysian festivals: the Oschophoria, the rural or Country Dionysia, the Lenaea, the Anthesteria, the urban Dionysia, and the most famous—the City or Great Dionysia.
The Great Dionysias were held in the spring (March or April) in Athens for five or six days, and their centerpieces were the performances of new tragedies, comedies, and satyric dramas. These took place in the Theater of Dionysus on the side of the Acropolis and were attended by people from throughout the country. The earliest tragedy that survives is Persai by Aeschylus, from the year 472 b.c.e. The dramatists, actors, and singers were considered to be performing an act of worship of the god, and Dionysus was thought to be present at the productions.
The City Dionysias were a time of general springtime rejoicing (even prisoners were released to share in the festivities) and great pomp. The statue of Dionysus was carried in a procession that also included representations of the phallus, symbolizing the god.
Dionysus was both a merry god who inspired great poetry and a cruel god; the Greeks realistically saw wine as something that made people happy and also made them drunk and cruel. Thus, like the god, his festivals seem to have combined contrasting elements of poetry and revelry.
The small rustic Dionysias were festive and bawdy affairs held in December or January at the first tasting of new wine. Besides dramatic presentations, there were processions of slaves carrying the phallus, the singing of obscene lays, youths balancing on a full goat-skin, and the like.
The Leneae, held in Athens in January or February, included a procession of jesting citizens through the city and dramatic presentations. The Oschophoria ("carrying of the grape cluster"), held in the fall when the grapes were ripe, was marked by a footrace for youths.
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 830, 867
EncyRel-1987, vol. 4, p. 358
NewCentClassHandbk-1962, p. 399
OxClassDict-1970, p. 350
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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