AskDefine | Define dithyramb

Dictionary Definition



1 a wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing
2 (ancient Greece) a passionate hymn (usually in honor of Dionysus)

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A choral hymn sung in ancient Athens in honor of the god Dionysus.
  2. A poem or oration in the same style.

Extensive Definition

The dithyramb was originally an ancient Greek hymn sung to the god Dionysus. Its wild and ecstatic character was contrasted by Plutarch with that of the paean. Dithyrambos seems to have arisen out of this song: just as paean was both a hymn to and a title of Apollo, Dithyrambos was an epithet of Dionysus as well as a song in his honor. Greeks recognized in the epithet "he of the miraculous birth" and constructed an etymology to confirm this. According to Aristotle, the dithyramb was the origin of the Ancient Greek theatre, and one may recognize as a dithyramb the chorus invoking Dionysus in Euripides' The Bacchae. Plato, in The Laws, discussing various kinds of music, mentions "the birth of Dionysos, called, I think, the dithyramb".


In Athens dithyrambs were sung by a Greek chorus of up to fifty men or boys dancing in circular formation (there is no certain evidence that they may have originally been dressed as satyrs) and probably accompanied by the aulos. They would normally relate some incident in the life of Dionysus. The leader of the chorus later became the solo protagonist, with lyrical interchanges taking place between him and the rest of the chorus.
Competitions between groups singing dithyrambs were an important part of festivals such as the Dionysia and Lenaia. Each tribe would enter two choruses, one of men and one of boys, each under the leadership of a choragos. The results of dithyrambic contests in Athens were recorded with the names of the winning teams and choregoi recorded but not the poets, most of whom remain unknown. The successful choregos would receive a statue which would be erected - at his own expense - on a public monument to commemorate his group's victory.


The first dithyrambs were composed in Athens around the seventh century BC. Their inspiration is unknown, although it was possibly non-Greek, as the word is of unknown but probably non-Greek derivation. The form soon spread to other Greek city-states, and dithyrambs were composed by the poets Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides (only the latter's works have survived in anything like their original form). Later examples were dedicated to other gods but the dithyramb subsequently was developed (traditionally by Arion) into a literary form. According to Aristotle, it evolved into the Greek tragedy, and dithyrambs continued to be developed alongside tragedies for some time. The clearest sense of dithyramb as proto-tragedy comes from a surviving dithyramb by Bacchylides 1 2, though it was composed after tragedy had already developed more fully; as a dialogue between a single actor and a chorus, it is suggestive of what tragedy may have resembled before Aeschylus added a second actor. By the 4th century BC the genre was in decline, although the dithyrambic competitions did not come to an end until well after the Roman takeover of Greece.
Dithyrambic compositions have rarely been written in English, although one notable exception is Alexander's Feast by John Dryden (written 1697). A wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing is still occasionally described as dithyrambic.



  • Pickard-Cambridge, Sir Arthur Wallace
    • Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy , 1927.
    • The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, 1946.
    • The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 1953.
  • Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane, Tragedy and Athenian Religion, Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Wiles, David, The Masked Menander: Sign and Meaning in Greek and Roman Performance, 1991.

See also

dithyramb in German: Dithyrambus
dithyramb in Modern Greek (1453-): Διθύραμβος
dithyramb in Spanish: Ditirambo
dithyramb in Esperanto: Ditirambo
dithyramb in French: Dithyrambe
dithyramb in Croatian: Ditiramb
dithyramb in Italian: Ditirambo
dithyramb in Hebrew: דיתיראמבוס
dithyramb in Dutch: Dithyrambe
dithyramb in Japanese: ディテュランボス
dithyramb in Polish: Dytyramb
dithyramb in Portuguese: Ditirambo
dithyramb in Russian: Дифирамб
dithyramb in Slovak: Dityramb
dithyramb in Slovenian: Ditiramb
dithyramb in Serbian: Дитирамб
dithyramb in Finnish: Dityrambi
dithyramb in Swedish: Dityramb
dithyramb in Ukrainian: Дифірамб
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