Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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The Festival of Dionysus, otherwise known as the “Greater Dionysia” was the theatrical event of the year in 5th century Athens. Every year in the spring (around our March) playwrights would compete to entertain the masses of Athenian citizenry. As many as 16,000 Athenian citizens (this excludes women, slaves, metoioi, and metics) would file into the amphitheater to view the newest plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and others.
Although the plays changed, this festival of renewal would remain the same. At the start a huge procession, or pompe, would usher the sacred statue of Dionysus from outside the city limits to the theater of Dionysus, located near the Acropolis. Dithyrambs would be sung by choruses and giant phalloi would be carried along the procession route in honor to Dionysus. This would all be accompanied by generous amounts of wine and overall lechery.
After a night of recovery, the day would begin with another procession. The war orphans would parade down the street in honor of their fathers’ who gave their lives for the polis. They then would be privileged front row seats at the theater. This procession would be followed by three tragic works of one playwright and a semi-comedic Satyr play. The Satyr plays were intended to alleviate “womanly emotions” caused by the tragedies and return the “maleness” of the audience with bawdy jokes and even more wine (see Male and Female). The next two days would follow the same pattern of three tragedies followed by a Satyr play. Then a much needed emotional break was provided with a day of five comedic plays. After the comedy day one day was set aside for the recovery from five days of drunkenness and excess. Finally, on the seventh day a winner was announced (Aeschylus was a favorite but Sophocles and Euripides had their moments as well) and the festival would come to a close.
So where do masks fit in to the grand scheme of the festival? The festival provides a much needed social, physical, and religious context for the mask as its role as a mediator in Greek Tragedy.