Dionysus or Dionysos, was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology. His name in Linear B tablets shows he was worshipped from c. 1500-1100 BC by Mycenean Greeks: other traces of Dionysian-type cult have been found in ancient Minoan Crete.
His origins are uncertain, and his cults took many forms; some are described by ancient sources as Thracian, others as Greek. In some cults, he arrives from the east, as an Asiatic foreigner; in others, from Ethiopia in the South. He is a god of epiphany, "the god that comes", and his "foreignness" as an arriving outsider-god may be inherent and essential to his cults. He is a major, popular figure of Greek mythology and religion, and is included in some lists of the twelve Olympians. His festivals were the driving force behind the development of Greek theatre. He is an example of a dying god.
The earliest cult images of Dionysus show a mature male, bearded and robed. He holds a fennel staff, tipped with a pine-cone and known as a thyrsus. Later images show him as a beardless, sensuous, naked or half-naked androgynous youth: the literature describes him as womanly or "man-womanish".
In its fully developed form, his central cult imagery shows his triumphant, disorderly arrival or return, as if from some place beyond the borders of the known and civilized. His procession (thiasus) is made up of wild female followers (maenads) and ithyphallic, bearded satyrs.
Some are armed with the thyrsus, some dance or play music. The god himself is drawn in a chariot, usually by exotic beasts such as lions or tigers, and is sometimes attended by a bearded, drunken Silenus. This procession is presumed to be the cult model for the human followers of his Dionysian Mysteries. In his Thracian mysteries, he wears the bassaris or fox-skin, symbolizing a new life. Dionysus is represented by city religions as the protector of those who do not belong to conventional society and thus symbolizes everything which is chaotic, dangerous and unexpected, everything which escapes human reason and which can only be attributed to the unforeseeable action of the gods.
Dionysus was also known as Bacchus and the frenzy he induces, "bakcheia". He is the patron deity of agriculture and the theatre. He was also known as the Liberator (Eleutherios), freeing one from one's normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine. The divine mission of Dionysus was to mingle the music of the aulos and to bring an end to care and worry. Scholars have discussed Dionysus' relationship to the "cult of the souls" and his ability to preside over communication between the living and the dead.
In Greek mythology Dionysus is made to be a son of Zeus and Semele; other versions of the myth contend that he is a son of Zeus and Persephone. He is described as being womanly or "man-womanish". Dionysus had an unusual birth that evokes the difficulty in fitting him into the Olympian pantheon.
His mother was Semele (daughter of Cadmus), a mortal woman, and his father Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus's wife, Hera, a jealous and vain goddess, discovered the affair while Semele was pregnant. Appearing as an old crone, Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that her husband was actually Zeus. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Curious, Semele demanded of Zeus that he reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his godhood. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he agreed. Mortals, however, cannot look upon a god without dying, and she perished. Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus, however, by sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, Dionysus was born.
In another version of the same story, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, the queen of the underworld. A jealous Hera again attempted to kill the child, this time by sending Titans to rip Dionysus to pieces after luring the baby with toys. Zeus drove the Titans away with his thunderbolts, but only after the Titans ate everything but the heart, which was saved, variously, by Athena, Rhea, or Demeter. Zeus used the heart to recreate Dionysus and implant him in the womb of Semele, hence he was again "the twice-born". Sometimes people said that he gave Semele the heart to eat to impregnate her.
The rebirth in both versions of the story is the primary reason he was worshipped in mystery religions, as his death and rebirth were events of mystical reverence. This narrative was apparently used in certain Greek and Roman mystery religions. Variants of it are found in Callimachus and Nonnus, who refer to this Dionysus under the title Zagreus, and also in several fragmentary poems attributed to Orpheus.
The legend goes that Zeus took the infant Dionysus and gave him in charge to the rain-nymphs of Nysa, who nourished his infancy and childhood, and for their care Zeus rewarded them by placing them as the Hyades among the stars (see Hyades star cluster). Alternatively, he was raised by Maro. When Dionysus grew up he discovered the culture of the vine and the mode of extracting its precious juice; but Hera struck him with madness, and drove him forth a wanderer through various parts of the earth.
In Phrygia the goddess Cybele, better known to the Greeks as Rhea, cured him and taught him her religious rites, and he set out on a progress through Asia teaching the people the cultivation of the vine. The most famous part of his wanderings is his expedition to India, which is said to have lasted several years. Returning in triumph he undertook to introduce his worship into Greece, but was opposed by some princes who dreaded its introduction on account of the disorders and madness it brought with it.
As a young man, Dionysus was exceptionally attractive. Once, while disguised as a mortal on a ship, the sailors attempted to kidnap him for their sexual pleasures. Dionysus mercifully turned them into dolphins but saved the captain, Acoetes, who recognized the god and tried to stop his sailors.
Once, Dionysus found his old school master and foster father, Silenus, missing. The old man had been drinking, and had wandered away drunk, and was found by some peasants, who carried him to their king, Midas (alternatively, he passed out in Midas' rose garden). Midas recognized him, and treated him hospitably, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness, while Silenus entertained Midas and his friends with stories and songs. On the eleventh day he brought Silenus back to Dionysus. Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wanted.
Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold. Dionysus consented, though was sorry that he had not made a better choice. Midas rejoiced in his new power, which he hastened to put to the test. He touched and turned to gold an oak twig and a stone. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. Then he found that his bread, meat, daughter and wine turned to gold.
Upset, Midas strove to divest himself of his power (the Midas Touch); he hated the gift he had coveted. He prayed to Dionysus, begging to be delivered from starvation. Dionysus heard and consented; he told Midas to wash in the river Pactolus. He did so, and when he touched the waters the power passed into them, and the river sands changed into gold. (Note: this explained why the sands of the river Pactolus were rich in gold)
When Hephaestus bound Hera to a magical chair, Dionysus got him drunk and brought him back to Olympus after he had passed out. For this act, he was made one of the twelve Olympians.Acis, a Sicilian youth, was sometimes said to be Bacchus' son.
A satyr named Ampelos was a good friend of Bacchus.Callirhoe was a Calydonian woman who scorned a priest of Dionysus who threatened to inflict all the women of Calydon with insanity. The priest was ordered to sacrifice Callirhoe but he killed himself instead. Callirhoe threw herself into a well which was later named after her.
As Dionysus was almost certainly a late addition to the pantheon of Greek mythology, there was some hostility to his worship. Homer mentions him only briefly and with much hostility. Euripides also wrote a tale concerning the destructive nature of Dionysus in his play entitled The Bacchae. Since Euripides wrote this play while in the court of King Archelaus of Macedon, some scholars believe that the cult of Dionysus was malicious in Macedon but benign in Athens. In the play, Dionysus returns to his birthplace, Thebes, ruled by his cousin, Pentheus.
Pentheus was angry at the women of Thebes, including his mother, Agave, for denying his divinity and worshipping Dionysus against his will. The worshippers of Dionysus were known as blood-thirsty, wild women called Maenads. The women tore Pentheus to shreds after he was lured to the woods by Dionysus. His body was mutilated by Agave.
When King Lycurgus of Thrace heard that Dionysus was in his kingdom, he imprisoned all the followers of Dionysus, the Maenads. Dionysus fled, taking refuge with Thetis. Dionysus then sent a drought and the people revolted. Dionysus made King Lycurgus insane, and he sliced his own son into pieces with an axe, thinking he was a patch of ivy, a plant holy to Dionysus.
An oracle then claimed that the land would stay dry and barren as long as Lycurgus was alive, so his people had him drawn and quartered. With Lycurgus dead, Dionysus lifted the curse.
It is possible that Dionysian mythology would later find its way into Christianity. There are many parallels between the legends of Dionysus and Jesus; both were said to have been born from a mortal woman but fathered by a god, to have returned from the dead, and to have transformed water into wine. The modern scholar Barry Powell also argues that Christian notions of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus in order for individual followers to feel Jesus within them was influenced by the cult of Dionysus.
Certainly the Dionysus myth contains a great deal of cannibalism, in its links to Ino. Dionysus was also distinct among Greek gods, as a deity commonly felt within individual followers. In a less benign example of influence on Christianity, Dionysus' followers, as well as another god, Pan, are said to have had the most influence on the modern view of Satan as animal-like and horned. It is also possible these similarities between Christianity and Dionysiac religion are all only representations of the same common religious archetypes.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the story of Jesus turning water into wine is only found in the Gospel of John, which differs on many points from the other Synoptic Gospels. That very passage, it has been suggested, was incorporated into the Gospel from an earlier source focusing on Jesus' miracles.
Modern Neopagans view Dionysus in different lights, depending largely on the individual sects and the other gods worshipped by a sect. Dionysus is often seen as the god of Earthly Delights and is thought to play a role in euphoria. In the United States, some Hellenistic Neopagan sects forbid the worship of Dionysus, because Dionysus worship is associated with hedonism.
Sects which worship Hera and Themis in particular may forbid Dionysus worship. However, there are sects that make Dionysus a central figure of their faiths. Many sects may include both the worship of Themis and Dionysus, holding that moderation is key to virtue and that earthly delights are virtuous when maintaining responsibility and moderation. Depending on individual sects, and the other gods within the sect, worship of Dionysus can take many forms.
Sects that include worship of Themis and Hera for instance may allow the drinking of wine and various festivities, but actively discourage "decadence" and promiscuity.Those sects who worship Dionysus exclusively, or in more common cases Dionysus and Aphrodite, are sometimes known to conduct orgiastic rituals and use numerous intoxicants in attempts to reach earthly gratification and euphoria (Such sects are often considered cults even by Neopagan standards).
Most sects agree that it is unwise to trade future well being for a moment's pleasure. However, some followers of Dionysus believe that they are inspired to relish in earthly delights, ignoring any consequences.
The bull, the serpent, the ivy and the wine are the signs of the characteristic Dionysian atmosphere, and Dionysus is strongly associated with satyrs, centaurs, and sileni. He is often shown riding a leopard, wearing a leopard skin, or in a chariot drawn by panthers, and may also be recognized by the thyrsus he carries. Besides the grapevine and its wild barren alter-ego, the toxic ivy plant, both sacred to him, the fig was also his symbol. The pinecone that tipped his thyrsus linked him to Cybele. The Dionysia and Lenaia festivals in Athens were dedicated to Dionysus. Initiates worshipped him in the Dionysian Mysteries, which were comparable to and linked with the Orphic Mysteries, and may have influenced Gnosticism. Orpheus was said to have invented the Mysteries of Dionysus.
Dionysus was another god of resurrection who was strongly linked to the bull. In a cult hymn from Olympia, at a festival for Hera, Dionysus is invited to come as a bull; "with bull-foot raging." Walter Burkert relates, "Quite frequently Dionysus is portrayed with bull horns, and in Kyzikos he has a tauromorphic image," and refers also to an archaic myth in which Dionysus is slaughtered as a bull calf and impiously eaten by the Titans. In the Classical period of Greece, the bull and other animals identified with deities were separated from them as their agalma, a kind of heraldic show-piece that concretely signified their numinous presence.
The god appeared on many kraters and other wine vessels from classical Greece. His iconography became more complex in the Hellenistic period, between severe archaizing or Neo Attic types such as the Dionysus Sardanapalus and types showing him as an indolent and androgynous young man and often shown nude.
The 4th century Lycurgus Cup in the British Museum is a spectacular cage cup which changes color when light comes through the glass; it shows the bound King Lycurgus (Thrace) being taunted by the god and attacked by a satyr.
Elizabeth Kessler has theorized that a mosaic appearing on the triclinium floor of the House of Aion in Nea Paphos, Cyprus, details a monotheistic worship of Dionysus. In the mosaic, other gods appear but may only be lesser representations of the centrally imposed Dionysus.
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