The Theatre of Dionysus is among the things you can visit with the ticket you need to have to enter the Acropolis of Athens. Chances are very high that you will pay this historical site a visit but, while other sites like the Parthenon, the Caryatids, and the Temple of Hephaestus might be more familiar and recognizable because it's constantly used in brochures, magazines and other Greece-related tourism or traveling publications, the theatre of Dionysus might just slip by you. Sure, a massive theatre that could host up to 17,000 people is hard to miss, but its current empty and ruined look clashes with the importance the theatre had in ancient Athens. Actually though, this theatre deserves some more time and some previous reading on Dionysus and his legendary stories will help you out during the visit.
Dionysus was the god of wine and ecstasy, he was perpetually young, and his family story is as mythological as it gets: his mother Semele was a woman of great beauty and his father was Zeus, king of the Olympus and the other gods. Zeus’s goddess sister Era was jealous of Semele and, in classic vindictive Greek-god fashion, talked Zeus into appearing in front of her in all of his majesty, knowing that a regular woman would die before such an incredible sight. Era’s plan worked smoothly and Semele died turning in ashes. In these ashes, though, Zeus spotted the unborn child, picked him up, and just sewed him into his thigh, keeping him there until he was ready to come out!
Growing up, Dionysus travelled around quite a lot, usually using a chariot carried by tigers or panthers. Legends place him everywhere, from Greece to Asia, passing through India where he taught people how to plant, grow, harvest, and process grapes for wine. Sometimes he is described as calm, benevolent, and caring- when he goes to hell to find his mother and bring her into the Olympus, for example - while other times he seems as cruel and violent: Thebes’ King Pentheus, who forbid his people to worship him, was eaten alive by his mother and sister as they were wracked with Dionysian fury, while Lycurgus, a king in Trace, was turned blind and mad because he dared to joke about him.
There were various celebrations in honor of Dionysus throughout the year, and the most important were the Dionysia, which happened two times a year. At the heart of this celebrations there were mock representations of the God’s lives; these performances were conducted in the Theatre of Dionysus and they are what we think about when we are talking about the origins of Greek comedy and tragedy.
The Theatre of Dionysus was built around the VI century B.C. , probably the oldest ever, and it was a wooden construction until the 326 B.C when the works for a full reconstruction using stone were finally completed. In Athens’ golden age this venue hosted the works of the founding fathers of the theatre, could host up to 17000 people (usually coming from all over Attica) and was one of the focal locations in the city’s life.
Cover picture credits © iStock/Radist
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