Dionysus 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.
He was also known as Bacchus the name adopted by the Romans and the frenzy he induces, bakkheia. His thyrsus is sometimes wound with ivy and dripping with honey. It is a beneficent wand but also a weapon, and can be used to destroy those who oppose his cult and the freedoms he represents. He is also the Liberator (Eleutherios), whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverts the oppressive restraints of the powerful. Those who partake of his mysteries are possessed and empowered by the god himself. His cult is also a "cult of the souls"; his maenads feed the dead through blood-offerings, and he acts as a divine communicant between the living and the dead.
In Greek mythology, he is presented as a son of Zeus and the mortal Semele, thus semi-divine or heroic: and as son of Zeus and Persephone or Demeter, thus both fully divine, part-chthonic and possibly identical with Iacchus of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Some scholars believe that Dionysus is a syncretism of a local Greek nature deity and a more powerful god from Thrace or Phrygia such as Sabazios or Zalmoxis.
Dionysus's name is found on Mycenean Linear B tablets as "DI-WO-NI-SO-JO", and Kerenyi traces him to Minoan Crete, where his Minoan name is unknown but his characteristic presence is recognizable. Clearly, Dionysus had been with the Greeks and their predecessors a long time, and yet always retained the feel of something alien.
The bull, the serpent, the ivy and wine are the signs of the characteristic Dionysian atmosphere, infused with the unquenchable life of the god. Their numinous presence signifies that the god is near. (Kerenyi 1976). Dionysus is strongly associated with the satyrs, centaurs and sileni. He is often shown riding a leopard, wearing a leopard skin, or in a chariot drawn by panthers and has been called the god of cats and savagery.
He may 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. The pinecone that tipped his thyrsus linked him to Cybele, and the pomegranate linked him to Demeter. 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 and early Christianity (see below). His female followers are called maenads (Bacchantes).
The Dionysiac rites are thought to have survived into modern and past times in the rites of Anastenaria, still practiced to the present day by Greeks descended from Thracian populations displaced during the course of the Balkan wars. Though some scholars dispute this interpretation, most are of the opinion that the fire walking accompanied by ecstatic dancing, drumming, and forays into the woods or mountains by participants "possessed by the saint", as well as the preliminary animal sacrifice and distribution of meat to the village population, are at their origin not the Christian rites they are constructed as by the villagers who perform them, but the rites of Dionysus.
Introduced into Rome (c. 200 BC) from the Greek culture of lower Italy or by way of Greek-influenced Etruria, the bacchanalia were held in secret and attended by women only, on three days in the year in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill, on March 16 and 17. Subsequently, admission to the rites were extended to men and celebrations took place five times a month.
The notoriety of these festivals, where many kinds of crimes and political conspiracies were supposed to be planned, led in 186 BC to a decree of the Senate - the so-called Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Calabria (1640), now at Vienna - by which the Bacchanalia were prohibited throughout all Italy except in certain special cases which must be approved specifically by the Senate. In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on those found in violation of this decree, the Bacchanalia were not stamped out, at any rate in the south of Italy, for a very long time.
Dionysus is equated with both Bacchus and Liber (also Liber Pater). Liber ("the free one") was a god of fertility and growth, married to Libera. His festival was the Liberalia, celebrated on March 17, but in some myths the festival was also held on March 5.
Dionysus sometimes has the epithet Bromios, meaning "the thunderer" or "he of the loud shout". Another epithet is Dendrites; as Dionysus Dendrites ("he of the trees"), he is a powerful fertility god. Evius is another of his epithets, used prominently in The Bacchae. Dithyrambos ("he of the double door") is sometimes used to refer to him or to solemn songs sung to him at festivals; the name refers to his premature birth. Iacchus, possibly an epithet of Dionysus, is associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries; in Eleusis, he is known as a son of Zeus and Demeter.
The name "Iacchus" may come from the iakchos, a hymn sung in honor of Dionysus. Eleutherios ("the liberator") was an epithet for both Dionysus and Eros. As Oeneus, he is the god of the wine-press. With the epithet Liknites ("he of the winnowing fan") he is a fertility god connected with the mystery religions. Other, perhaps more colorful forms of the god as that of fertility include the epithet in Samos and Lesbos Dionysus Enorches ("with balls" or perhaps "in the testicles" in reference to Zeus' sewing the babe Dionysus into his thigh, i.e., his testicles).
A winnowing fan was similar to a shovel and was used to separate the chaff from the grain. In addition, Dionysus is known as Lyaeus ("he who releases") as a god of relaxation and freedom from worry. In the Greek pantheon, Dionysus (along with Zeus) absorbs the role of Sabazios, a Phrygian deity, whose name means "shatterer" and to whom shattered pottery was sacrificed (probably to prevent other pottery from being broken during firing). In the Roman pantheon, Sabazius became an alternate name for Bacchus.
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 (in other stories a nurse), 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. He came to her wreathed in bolts of lightning and she perished in the ensuing blaze. Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus, however, by sewing him into his thigh (referred as his testicles). A few months later, Dionysus was born. In this version, Dionysus is borne by two mothers (Semele and Zeus) before his birth, hence the epithet dimetor (two mothers) associated with "twice-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 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. He was crucified for teaching his beliefs and later rose from the dead.
The legend goes that Zeus gave the infant Dionysus into the charge of Hermes. One version of the story is that Hermes took the boy King Athamas and his wife Ino, Dionysus' aunt. Hermes bade the couple raise the boy as a girl, to hide him from Hera's wrath. Another version is that Dionysus was taken 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). Other versions have Zeus giving him to Rhea, or to Persephone to raise in the Underworld, away from Hera. 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 sitting beside the seashore, a few sailors spotted him, believing he was a prince. They attempted to kidnap him and sail him far away to sell for ransom or into slavery. They tried to bind him with ropes, but no type of rope could hold him. Dionysus turned into a fierce lion and unleashed a bear onboard, killing those he came into contact with. Those who jumped off the ship were mercifully turned into dolphins. The only survivor was the helmsman, Acoetes, who recognized the god and tried to stop his sailors from the start.
In a similar story, Dionysus desired to sail from Icaria to Naxos. He then hired a Tyrrhenian pirate ship. But when the god was on board, they sailed not to Naxos but to Asia, intending to sell him as a slave. So Dionysus turned the mast and oars into snakes, and filled the vessel with ivy and the sound of flutes so that the sailors went mad, and leaping into the sea, were turned into dolphins. Others say that Dionysus came on board after these sailors, having leapt ashore, captured him, stripped him of his possessions, and tied him with ropes they had almost succeeded.
Other Stories -- When Hephaestus bound Hera to a magical chair, Dionysus got him drunk and brought him back to Olympus after he passed out. For this act, he was made one of the twelve Olympians.
Euripides 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. He wanted to exact revenge on the women of Thebes, his aunts Agave, Ino and Autonoe and his cousin Pentheus, for not believing his mother Semele when she said she had been impregnated by Zeus, and for denying that Dionysus was a god and therefore not worshipping him. The female worshippers of Dionysus were known as Maenads, who often experienced divine ecstasy. Pentheus was slowly driven mad by the compelling Dionysus, and lured to the woods of Mount Cithaeron to see the Maenads. When the women spied Pentheus, they tore him to pieces like they did earlier in the play to a herd of cattle. Brutally, his head was torn off by his mother Agave as he begged for his life.
Detail from a painting depicting Dionysos and the impious king Lykourgos. Lykourgos, armed with a sword, has slain Dionysos' companion Ambrosia. The god in anger summons an Erinys to drive him to madness. The Erinys is depicted as a winged huntress, whose arms and hair are draped with poisonous serpents. Dionysos in elaborate dress, holds a tree branch in his hand. Behind him stands a Mainas Nymphe with thyrsos (pine-cone-tipped staff) and opposite behind the Erinys, the god Hermes is seated.
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.
A better-known story is that of his descent to Hades to rescue his mother Semele. He made the descent from a reputedly bottomless pool on the coast of the Argolid near the prehistoric site of Lerna. He was guided by Prosymnus or Polymnus, who requested, as his reward, to be Dionysus' lover. Prosymnus died before Dionysus could honor his pledge, so in order to satisfy the shade of his erastes the god fashioned a phallus from an olive branch and sat on it at Prosymnus' tomb. This tradition was widely known but treated as a secret not to be divulged to those not privy to the god's mysteries. It was the source of the custom of parading wooden phalloi at the god's festivities.
Another pederastic myth of the god involves his eromenos, Ampelos, a beautiful satyr youth whom he loved dearly. According to Nonnus, Ampelos was killed riding a bull maddened by Ate's gadfly, as foreseen by his lover. The fates granted Ampelos a second life as a vine, from which Dionysus squeezed the first wine.
A third descent by Dionysus to Hades is invented by Aristophanes in his comedy The Frogs. Dionysus, as patron of the Athenian dramatic festival, the Dionysia, wants to bring back to life one of the great tragedians. After a competition Aeschylus is chosen in preference to Euripides.
When Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on Naxos, Dionysus found and married her. She bore him a son named Oenopion, but he committed suicide or was killed by Perseus. In some variants, he had her crown put into the heavens as the constellation Corona; in others, he descended into Hades to restore her to the gods on Olympus. Callirhoe was a Calydonian woman who scorned a priest of Dionysus who threatened to inflict all the women of Calydon with insanity (see Maenad). The priest was ordered to sacrifice Callirhoe but he killed himself instead. Callirhoe threw herself into a well which was later named after her. Acis, a Sicilian youth, was sometimes said to be Bacchus' son
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)
It is possible that Dionysian mythology would later find its way into Christianity. There are many parallels between Dionysus and Jesus; both were said to have been born from a virgin mother, a mortal woman, but fathered by the king of heaven, to have returned from the dead, to have transformed water into wine,and to have been liberator of mankind.
The modern scholar Barry Powell also argues that Christian notions of eating and drinking "the flesh" and "blood" of Jesus were influenced by the cult of Dionysus. 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.
In his book The Birth of Tragedy, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche contrasted Dionysus with the god Apollo as a symbol of the fundamental, unrestrained aesthetic principle of force, music, and intoxication versus the one of sight, reason, form, and beauty represented by the latter. The two remain intrinsically related and dependent upon one another in an endless state of conflict.
The Canadian rock band Rush also highlight a confrontation between Dionysus and Apollo in the Cygnus X-1 duology. The song details a people who are ruled alternately by the truth-seeking Apollo, who advocates reason and the passion-seeking Dionysus, who advocates love and liberty. The population suffers when following the sole doctrine of either god.
The Russian poet and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov elaborated the theory of Dionysianism, which traces the roots of literary art in general and the art of tragedy in particular to ancient Dionysian mysteries. His views were expressed in the treatises The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), and Dionysus and Early Dionysianism (1921).
Inspired by James Frazer, some have labeled Dionysus a life-death-rebirth deity. The mythographer Karl Kerenyi devoted much energy to Dionysus over his long career; he summed up his thoughts in Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Bollingen, Princeton) 1976.
Dionysus is the main character of Aristophanes' play The Frogs, later updated to a modern version by Stephen Sondheim ("The time is the present; The place is ancient Greece"). In the play, Dionysus and his slave Xanthius venture to Hades to bring a famed writer back from the dead, with the hopes that the writer's presence in the world will fix all nature of earthly problems. In Aristophanes' play, Euripides competes against Aeschylus to be recovered from the underworld; In Sondheim's, George Bernard Shaw faces William Shakespeare.
Rock star Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, often compared himself to (and was compared to by others) Dionysus. It was Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek who made the comparison first, and in turn Jim called Ray Apollo. Similarities between Morrison and Dionysus include love of song, wine, women, and a sense of poetry. Dionysus ended up becoming one of Morrison's nicknames.
In the foreword, Grant Morrison says that the myth of Dionysus provides the inspiration for his violent and explicit graphic novel Kill Your Boyfriend, about a young girl who is seduced by an older boy into killing her boyfriend and running away to Blackpool.
A nomadic cricket team in London, England is called the Bacchanalians Dricket and Crinking Club, in honour of Dionysus, or Bacchus.
Dionysus appeared in both the Disney movie & spin-off tv series of Hercules. He was depicted as an overweight drunkard as opposed to his youthful descriptions in myths. He has bright pink skin and rosey red cheeks hinting at his problems with alcoholism. He always carries either a bottle or glass of wine in his hand, and like in the myths, wears a wreath of grape leaves upon his head. He is known by his roman name in the series 'Bacchus', and in one episode headlines his own festival known as the 'Bacchanal'. But before he appeared in Hercules, the same Dionysus appeared first in the Pastoral segment of the 3rd Disney classic Fantasia. He is celebrating the wine festival, sharing wine with a drunken Unicorn, until Zeus decides to throw bolts of thunder on the festival. Luckily, he is not harmed.
In the MMORPG Runescape, the true name of the elusive Wise Old Man is thought to be Dionysus. This is discovered by the player during the Swan Song quest in which the player must recruit the Wise Old Man to help rescue a fishing colony. During this quest, a book may be retrieved from the desk of the leader of the fishing colony which details the exploits of Dionysus, which the fishing colony leader has been reading in search of aid. Also, in certain letters to the Wise Old Man in the monthly newsletter, the Postbag From The Hedge, the Wise Old Man signs his name as D. which could indicate Dionysus is his true name.
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.
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