The rural sanctuary of Dionysus

Athens is often credited with having been the birthplace of intellectual, political and popular pursuits central to the development of Western civilization, including philosophy, democracy and drama. The Sanctuary and Theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Athenian Acropolis, beginning in the early 5th century BC, was the city?s primary venue for musical performances accompanied by actors. These performances ? essentially choral dances interspersed with dramatic characterizations and storytelling ? were intended for public amusement but also as sacred rites dedicated to Dionysus, the god of grapes, wine, ecstasy (achieved partly through drunkenness) and ritual madness. The worship of Dionysus was a liberating experience that freed people from their daily cares by encouraging them temporarily to leave behind their normal selves and ordinary lives.

Classical Athenian audiences flocked to the Theater of Dionysus beside the Acropolis to immerse themselves in tragedies ? plays that may have evolved, according to Aristotle (?Poetics,? 1449a) from dithyrambs ? Dionysiac dances originally performed by circular choirs ? and ?satyrics? ? also ritualistic dances performed by followers of Dionysus (satyrs), who costumed themselves as goats (tragoi) by donning goat ears. These religious rites were originally performed in rural areas, possibly on conveniently flat, circular grain-threshing floors that may have been the forerunners of the circular orchestras in permanent Greek theaters. As time passed, the strictly religious performances were modified and augmented, resulting, specialists suggest, in the appearance of the ?tragodia? ? tragedy ? literally, a ?goat song.?

How did popularized rural religious rites modified into dramatic public entertainment make their way into the heart of ancient Athens? And where did these performances come from? Just outside Athens, on the northern slopes of Mount Penteli, lies a rural sanctuary of Dionysus on the outskirts of the modern community of Dionysos. Today, this village is known for its white Pentelic marble, a material extensively quarried only a few hundred meters away from the ancient Dionysus sanctuary and used in the restoration works on the Athenian Acropolis. In ancient times, this area was called Icaria or Icarion, one of the 139 ?demes? (equivalent perhaps to a township or municipality) into which Attica was divided after Solon?s reforms at the end of the 6th century BC.

Icaria was a center for Dionysiac worship and appears to have been the first community in Attica to embrace the god. The people of Icaria traced their community?s name to a (tragic) local hero, Icarios, who, according to ancient authors, befriended and offered hospitality to the young Dionysus. To express his gratitude, Dionysus gave Icarios a grapevine and taught him to make wine. Icarios in turn taught his neighbors, who subsequently drank too much of their own product, became inebriated, concluded Icarios had poisoned them, and killed him. Every autumn the people of Icaria celebrated Dionysus (and probably the story of Icarios) in a festival of drinking, feasting, singing and dancing. This country festival appears to have inspired similar rural Dionysia elsewhere and eventually, by at least 534 BC, the establishment of the City Dionysia ? a spring festival for Dionysus held in the city of Athens. Ancient Greek tradition holds that an Icarian named Thespis was the first performer to play a character in a story as an actor. The Roman poet Horace wrote in the late 1st century BC (?Ars Poetica,? 275-7) that Thespis had traveled through Attica with his fellow performers on a wagon. They performed essentially street theater in the central market (agora) of Athens but in 534 BC Thespis reputedly received an award at the City Dionysia ? the first bestowed for performance of a tragedy.

The site where Thespis may have first acted publicly, the Sanctuary of Dionysus at Icaria, was excavated in 1888-89 by Augustus C. Merriam and Carl D. Buck of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (see below). Among the expedition?s important discoveries were sculptures, including a colossal Archaic head of Dionysus, an Archaic torso of a satyr, a carved relief depicting a goat sacrifice, and several fine funeral stelae. Seventeen inscriptions were also recorded, which provided the identity of the site itself as well as of its temple of Apollo and of three choregoi (producers) who had won an award for a theatrical performance. These three benefactors, Agias, Xanthippos and Xanthidis, erected a semicircular choragic monument in the first half of the 4th century BC, the architectural remains of which have now been reconstructed by the Ministry of Culture. Also visible on the site today are the foundations of a possible temple of Dionysus, a small stoa and several stone thrones ? seats for VIPs ? at the forward edge of a slope that must have once served as the simple auditorium of a small country theater.

The terrace wall of a narrow rectangular orchestra can also be detected. The delightful wooded archaeological site, although now seldom frequented except by locals picking the abundant pink cyclamen wildflowers, is a historically rich spot that played a fundamental role in the far-reaching cultural impact of ancient Athens.

Identifying Icaria

Excavation was begun here on January 30, 1888, and continued till March 19. (?) Almost at once an inscription was found proving beyond doubt that this was Icaria. Though diligent search was made, the theater of Icaria, wherein it may be supposed Thespis? dramas were acted, was not discovered. As a matter of fact the excavators had actually cleared it but failed to recognize it because of its primitive shape.

Louis E. Lord, ?A History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1882-1942? (Cambridge, Mass, 1947)