Agony and Ecstasy: Exploring Dionysian Worship in ancient Greece

In today’s lesson, we started by thinking about the sort of atmosphere invoked by attending a large music festival – we played a clip of a festival, with people exploring a forest, dancing and listening to music in large groups, and we explored how this sort of communal experience might make people feel – you used words like “disorientated”, “distracted” and even “confused” as well as “happy”. The ancient Greeks also tapped into this sort of experience through their worship of the god Dionysus.


We have already met Dionysus – god of revelry, of wine, and of theatre. His female followers were called “maenads”, “bacchae” or “bacchanals” and they would run out in forests and mountains, dance, and get into a state of “ekstasis”, e.g. a state of consciousness that was different from the everyday. We looked at an image of a bacchae, and discovered that she wore animal skins, and held a stick called a “thursos”, which had a pine cone at the end concealing a sharp point.

Dionysos riding on a panther. Ca. 120—80 B.C. Delos, House of the Masks.

We looked at how Dionysus was worshiped at a festival called the Dionysia. Initially, the worship of Dionysus involved hymns, but gradually one person set apart from the chorus and answered to it, and through this, ancient Greek theatre was said to have emerged. We looked at how at the Dionysia, there would be a procession through the streets, followed by young male choirs singing hymns, and then finally playwrights would put on tragedies – three plays and one satyr play (a very silly, rude, funny play) – per day. There were three days of plays, and one or two days of hymns. The winning actor was said to have been awarded a goat, and this is why the word “tragedy” means “goat song” in ancient Greek!


We looked at some of the structures of Greek tragedy – there is always a chorus who represents the community, and the plays are very formulaic. Actors wore masks and were all male, and the plays featured stories from myth. The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that people watched these plays and experienced “katharsis”, a sort of emotional cleansing, and noted how the main characters had a “harmartia”, a flaw in their judgement that drove the plots and led to their downfalls.

We watched this short clip exploring key aspects of Greek tragedy.

Next week, we will explore some other ancient festivals! Please don’t forget to return your reply-slip for the Mary Beard Trip on Friday. We will meet outside the Sheldonian at 4.45pm so we can get seated in time for the 5pm start.

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