Tracing Back the Origins of Comedy to Dionysis, The Greek god of Wine

Comedy has been an entertainment staple for centuries, tracing its roots to ancient civilizations. One of the earliest known origins of comedy can be found in Greek mythology, specifically in the figure of Dionysus, the god of wine and celebration. Dionysus was often depicted as a mischievous and playful deity, and his influence can be seen in the development of comedy as an art form.

Did You Know That:

“On the last day of the Anthesteria, a meal was offered to Erigone, the mythological daughter of Icarius. Icarius was the mortal to whom Dionysus had famously given the gift of wine. However, after the death of Icarius, Erigone killed herself, giving a mythological precedent for the joint worship of wine and the dead.”[1]

Who was Dionysus?

Dionysus was one of the twelve Olympian gods in Greek mythology and was known for his association with wine, theater, and fertility. He was the son of Zeus and Semele and was said to have been born from his mother’s thigh after a lightning bolt killed her. Dionysus was often depicted as an indulgent and carefree deity who enjoyed indulging in wine and revelry.[2]

Greek god of Wine

Figure 1. Dionysus, the Greek god of Wine

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One of the most notable aspects of Dionysus’s personality was his love for theater. He was credited with inventing tragedy and comedy and was often depicted as a patron of actors and playwrights. In Greek theater, Dionysus was often invoked as a source of inspiration and guidance for the actors, and his presence was believed to bring good luck to the performance.[3]

Connection Between Dionysus and Comedy

The connection between Dionysus and comedy can also be seen in the myth of his travels to India. According to the myth, Dionysus traveled to India to spread the worship of himself and the cultivation of grapevines. During his journey, he encountered a group of people who could not appreciate the joys of wine and celebration. To teach them the importance of laughter and joy, Dionysus turned them into apes, known for their playful and comical nature.[4]

The influence of Dionysus can also be seen in the development of Greek theater. The theater was a central part of Greek culture and was often used as a political and social commentary platform. The plays performed in the theater were divided into two categories: tragedies and comedies. Tragedies were serious plays that dealt with themes of loss and suffering, while comedies were more light-hearted and focused on poking fun at societal norms and conventions.[5]

The connection between Dionysus and comedy can also be seen in the fact that the word “comedy” itself is derived from the Greek word “kosmos,” which means “revelry.” This connection highlights the importance of joy and celebration in developing comedy as an art form.[6]

Anthesteria Festival

One such ceremony that may have taken place on this day was the Anthesteria, a festival held annually in honor of Dionysus. The Anthesteria was a three-day festival in Anthesterion, roughly equivalent to the modern month of February. During the festival, the Greeks would offer sacrifices to Dionysus and hold several ceremonies and rituals. One of the central ceremonies of the Anthesteria was the Pithoigia, which involved opening new wine barrels and offering the first wines of the season to Dionysus. On this day in ancient Greece, Dionysus was likely celebrated somehow. The Greeks held festivals in honor of the gods, and Dionysus was no exception. These festivals often involved the consumption of wine, and it is possible that Dionysus was honored with a special ceremony dedicated to wine.[7]

Column Drum from the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus

Figure 2. Column Drum from the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus

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The Anthesteria was a celebration and revelry, and comedy likely played a role in the festivities. It was a time for the Greek people to come together and honor Dionysus, the god of wine and joy, and embrace the pleasures of life. The connection between Dionysus and comedy and the importance of joy and celebration in developing comedy would have been evident during the Anthesteria.

The 3-day Festival Timeline

11th Anthesterion: The Pithoigia[8]

From the actions performed on this day comes the literal translation, “the opening of the pithoi (storage jars).” A crowd gathered outside Limnais’s Sanctuary of Dionysos on this day, but none went inside. Instead, they poured some wine from pithoi that had been stored since the grapes were picked the previous autumn. After that, everyone drank wine. The sipping of the new wine on this day was considerably more pleasant and restrained than on the previous day.

12th Antheseterion: The Choes[9]

The Anthesteria crowning achievement, the Choes, marked a turning point in human history. Named after the shape of the chous, the vessels used to sip the wine, this is the festival’s second day. Throughout the city, individuals sipped wine at private gatherings on this day. The event’s Archon Basileus even oversaw a drinking competition. However, there was also the belief that ghosts and apparitions of the deceased may prowl the streets on this day. To avoid any potential misfortune, all other temples and commercial establishments were closed on the Choes and the Chytroi.

13th Anthesterion: The Chytroi

On this day, families around Athens would fill their Chytroi pots with a porridge-like material (made from seeds and grains) and bring them to the altar to honor Hermes Cthonios. This day, these vessels were offered to Hermes Cthonios. Family members would shout as they made their way around the house at day’s end, “‘Out the door [spirits]! Anthesteria is over.”

, Tracing Back the Origins of Comedy to Dionysis, The Greek god of Wine

Figure 3. Dionysos or Bacchus[10]

Image Source

Conclusion

In conclusion, Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and celebration, played a significant role in developing comedy as an art form. His association with theater, his love for revelry, and his mischievous personality all contributed to the evolution of comedy. Today, comedy continues to be a popular form of entertainment, and the influence of Dionysus can still be seen in the performances of comedians and actors worldwide.

On This Day

11th – 13th Day of Anthesterion[11]

The Anthesterion ceremony was held on these dates, where wine and death were revered in the Anthesteria. Hermes Chthonios, also known as Hermes of the Underworld, and Dionysos were both honored at this event. In many ways, modern Halloween may be compared to Anthesteria. Over three days, the event took place from the 11th to the 13th of the month of Anthesterion (which corresponds to the end of February and the beginning of March on our calendar). Women, children, and enslaved people all played key roles in this.

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References

[1] James Lloyd, “The Anthesteria,” World History Encyclopedia, October 2015, https://www.worldhistory.org/The_Anthesteria/

[2] GreekBoston.com, “Birth of Dionysus – Greek Mythological God of Wine,” Greekboston.com, April 4, 2017, https://www.greekboston.com/culture/mythology/dionysus/

[3] Shukir Muhammed, “Column Drum from the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus,” World History Encyclopedia, May 15, 2016, https://www.worldhistory.org/image/5068/column-drum-from-the-temple-of-artemis-ephesus/.

[4] Natalie Sofie Utheim, “The Ancient Greek Festival of Anthesteria,” Duo.uio.no, February 14, 2020, https://doi.org/http://hdl.handle.net/10852/73109.

[5] Natalie Sofie Utheim, “The Ancient Greek Festival of Anthesteria,” Duo.uio.no, February 14, 2020, https://doi.org/http://hdl.handle.net/10852/73109.

[6] Shukir Muhammed, “Column Drum from the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus,” World History Encyclopedia, May 15, 2016, https://www.worldhistory.org/image/5068/column-drum-from-the-temple-of-artemis-ephesus/.

[7] Natalie Sofie Utheim, “The Ancient Greek Festival of Anthesteria,” Duo.uio.no, February 14, 2020, https://doi.org/http://hdl.handle.net/10852/73109.

[8] James Lloyd, “The Anthesteria,” World History Encyclopedia, October 2015, https://www.worldhistory.org/The_Anthesteria/.

[9] James Lloyd, “The Anthesteria,” World History Encyclopedia, October 2015, https://www.worldhistory.org/The_Anthesteria/.

[10] Mark Cartwright, “Dionysos or Bacchus,” World History Encyclopedia, May 18, 2013, https://www.worldhistory.org/image/1239/dionysos-or-bacchus/. [11] James Lloyd, “The Anthesteria,” World History Encyclopedia, October 2015, https://www.worldhistory.org/The_Anthesteria/.
Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: January 20, 2023

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