In Greek mythology, Dionysus (in ancient Greek Διονυσος; Lat. Dionysus) is the god of the vine, wine and its excesses, madness and excess. He is a major figure of the Greek religion, and a god of prime importance within Orphism: the Orphic Hymns contain very many prayers in his honor and are organized to give “an image of the natural and moral world order shows that, in this order, Dionysus plays a particular role”.
Ancient Divine Fire as evidenced by many elements of his legend and worship, he is the son of Zeus and the mortal Semele or, according to Orphism, of Demeter or Persephone. Divided between autumn and spring, his festivities are linked to the annual cycle and in particular to the return of spring. God of fury and subversion, his cult is also marked by the female orgiastic celebrations celebrated by his companions, the Maenad. Its festivities were the driving force behind the development of the theatre and tragedy.
He was adopted by ancient Rome as Bacchus (from the ancient Greek Βάκχος / Bákkhos, one of his other names) and assimilated to the italic god Liber Pater.
Dionysus and satyr
He was not one of the original twelve Olympians gods, but Hestia gave him her place.
What is Dionysus the god of?
If Dionysus is first and foremost a wine god, he is only secondarily so. It is only because wine is traditionally considered as one of the forms of fire. Wine is a “water of fire”. He then specialized in the vine, which he was supposed to have given to men, as well as in drunkenness and mystical trance. Its attribution include everything related to fermentation and regeneration cycles.
He is the god of tree vegetation and all vital juices (sap, urine, semen, milk, blood), as evidenced by his epicles of Φλοῖος / Phloîos (“spirit of the bark”) or Συκίτης / Sukítês (“protector of fig trees”). He is the son of Semele, the avatar of the Phrygian goddess of the earth, lover of Ariadne, Minoan goddess of vegetation, and companion of nymphs and satyrs. He is also frequently associated with goats and bulls, animals considered particularly prolific.
He is above all the father of comedy and tragedy (from the Greek τράγος / trágos, “goat”). They were initially kinds of “illustrations” of the cult, which were performed in Greek theatre during a festival, in the presence of its priests (like the mysteries played in the Middle Ages on the square in front of the cathedrals). They had a particular literary form of chanting, the dithyramb. Dionysian songs and music use percussion and flutes. They are dissonant, syncopated, cause surprise and sometimes fright. In this sense, it is the antithesis of Apollo, who patronizes lyrical art and harmony. Moreover, flutists were perceived as jugglers and not musicians, because the use of the instrument distorted their mouths, which offended the Greek aesthetic and gave rise to jokes.
Dionysus, the god of drunkenness and ecstasy, is the one who allows his followers to overcome death. Wine, like Vedic soma, is supposed to help achieve immortality.
Jane Ellen Harrison points out that Dionysus, god of wine (drink of the wealthy diapers), replaced Dionysus, god of beer (drink of the popular diapers), or Sabazios, whose emblematic animal among the Cretans was the horse (or the centaur). It so happens that Athenian beer was a beer of spelt, trágos in Greek. Thus, the “odes to spelt” (tragedies) could be considered late, by homonymy, as “odes to goats” (the animal that accompanied the god and associated with wine in Cretans).
Friedrich Nietzsche, as an experienced philologist, will refer several times to Dionysus as the inspiration for a tragedy and as a facet of poetic creation of all time. He describes himself as a descendant of the god of the vine, from whom he takes back the ears, an instrument of inspection and analysis allowing a better precision than sight.
Crowned with vine leaves, Dyonysus straddles a goat, a donkey or a tamed panther.
The major and personal symbol of Dionysus is the thyrse he holds in his hand, which can be found at his feet or in his procession.
Pine and ivy, as well as their fruits, pine cones and ivy berries, from which it is often crowned. These plants are an apparent exception in nature, as they are always green during the year, and do not seem to lose their leaves, which refers to the resurrections of the god. It should also be noted that the real pine fruits are hidden in the apple and that the toxic ivy berries were used to make a beer that was consumed by the maenad, and which contributed to their trance. There are also pomegranates and fig trees (pomegranates come from the blood of the god, their fruits ripen in winter, and Persephone remains bound to hell for eating them; fig trees are associated with hidden life in the Mediterranean world, because they grow spontaneously where there is groundwater and reveal springs).
As he brought the vine and wine to men, there is also the vine and the grape, the drinking cup.
The Phrygian cap recalls its Asian origin. There are also flute, cymbals, and tambourines.
Birth of Dionysus
Depending on the location, legends differ greatly about his mother’s identity. Some has collected several versions that make him the son of Demeter/Ceres, or Io, but Zeus is also considered to have had him from Persephone or Isis.
Mercury entrusts Bacchus to the Nymphs
Wallace Collection, London
(1734) François BOUCHER
Theophrastus, in the 3rd century BC, wrote in Book IV of his book History of Plants, that Dionysus was born on Mount Nysa, in present-day Pakistan. Dionysus is the only god born of a mortal mother: from Homer and Hesiod, he is presented as the son of Zeus and Semele, (Ζεμελώ / Zemelố “earth” an ancient goddess Earth), daughter of the king of Thebes Cadmus and Harmonia. More precisely, the story of his conception shows that Dionysus was born from the Earth struck by lightning, “the Mother Earth fertilized by the celestial lightning of the god Heaven”, the characteristic birth of a divine Fire.
Pushed by Hera, jealous, disguised as her nurse, Semele asked to contemplate Zeus, from whom she was pregnant, in all her majesty. Unable to bear this sight, Semele died. Zeus then pulls his son out of his mother’s womb and, cutting his thigh, sews the child into it to complete his pregnancy. This account of the gestation of Dionysus in the thigh of Zeus covers a very ancient mythical nucleus: the fire lit by lightning is essential “son of Heaven”. Heaven is both his father and mother while Earth has only a passive role in the operation.
Bacchus riding a panther
(1901) Franz von STUCK
In the Orphic version of the myth, Dionysus-Zagreus is the son of Persephone and Zeus. Hera, jealous, asks the Titans to get rid of the newborn child. They cut Dionysus into pieces and cook it in a pot. Athena, however, picked up his heart and gave it to Zeus, who then fertilized Semele. In both cases, Dionysus is born twice, which explains one of his epithets, δίογονος / díogonos, “the twice-born”. To protect him from Hera’s revenge, he was entrusted to Ino, Semele’s sister, and her husband, Athamas. But discovered by Hera, Dionysus was then handed over to the nymphs, under the direction of Silenus, on a mountain of Thrace, Nysa, a mysterious and mountainous place, where the Hyades nymphs raised the young Dionysus, the “Zeus of Nysa”. To escape Hera, he was transformed into a kid. However, after the episode of Pentheus, Hera, known for her tenacious grudge, decided to punish Ino and Athamas for having taken Semele in. It drives the couple crazy.
Bacchus entrusted to the Nymphs
Facts and myths about Dionysus
Then Dionysus stayed with the Muses who taught him fine arts and especially harmony and dance. Then Silenus, who served him as his adopted father, taught him to cultivate the vine and make wine.
Milwaukee Art Museum
He then sailed for Egypt and brought the vine there; at Pharos, King Proteus received him in a very hospitable manner. Among the Libyans of the Nile Delta, opposite Pharos, lived Amazon queens whom Dionysus asked to march with him against the Titans. The defeat of the Titans and the return to the throne of King Ammon were the first of his many military successes.
Then he turned to the east, went to India and conquered the whole country, teaching the art of viticulture, passing laws on to these regions and founding large cities.
On the way back, he had to fight the Amazons, from which he rejected the hordes to Ephesus. Some of them fled to Samos; Dionysus pursued them on ships and killed many of them.
After that, Dionysus returned to Europe via Phrygia where his grandmother Rhea purified him of the many murders he had committed during his madness and introduced him to the Mysteries.
He then invaded Thrace; but his men had not earlier reached the mouth of the Strymon River, that Lycurgus, king of the Edonians, captured the entire army except Dionysus who dived into the sea and took refuge in the Thetis cave.
Frederic Leighton 1895
Rhea helped the prisoners to escape and drove Lycurgus mad: he killed his own son Dryas with an axe, imagining that he was tearing up the vine, and the soil of Thrace became barren because of this terrible crime. When Dionysus announced that this sterility would only cease if Lycurgus was killed, the Edonians led him to Mount Pangea, and his wild horses ripped him apart. Dionysus no longer met with resistance in Thrace. He went to Thebes and encouraged the women to join his orgies on Mount Cithaeron. Pentheus, king of Thebes, who disliked Dionysus’ lewd ways, arrested him and all his Maenads, but he lost his mind and, instead of chaining Dionysus, he chained a bull. The Maenads escaped again and, in a state of frenzy, returned to the mountain. Pentheus tried to stop them but, overexcited by the wine and in a state of religious trance, they broke his limbs one by one. His mother Agave drove them and she tore his head off.
In Orchomenus, Minyas’ three daughters, Alcathoe (or Alcithoe), Leucippe and Arsippe, refused to participate in the orgies, although Dionysus himself, disguised as a young girl, had invited them.
Then he metamorphosed, successively becoming a lion, bull, panther and drove them mad. Leucippe offered his son Hippasus as a sacrifice; and the three sisters, after tearing him to pieces, devoured him and then walked through the mountains in a state of frenzy until finally, Hermes turned them into birds (some say bats).
Mosiaque of the British Museum
After all of Boeotia had recognized the divinity of Dionysus, he made a trip to the Aegean Islands, spreading joy and terror wherever he went. In Icaria, he noticed that his ship was in poor condition and could no longer hold the sea, he rented one to Tyrrhenian sailors who said they were leaving for Naxos, but they were pirates. Not knowing that they were carrying a god, they set off for Asia with the intention on arrival of selling him as a slave. Dionysus grew a vine stock on deck that surrounded the mast while ivy wrapped around the rigging; he turned the oars into snakes and himself became a lion, filled the ship with ghost animals and made flutes sing so that the pirates panicked and jumped overboard and became dolphins.
In Naxos, he met Ariadne abandoned by Theseus. From Naxos, he went to Argos and punished Perseus who had first stood up to him by killing many of his companions and demented the women of Argos. Perseus quickly admitted that he had been wrong and appeased Dionysus by building a temple in his honor.
He went down to the underworld to pick up his mother who was named Thyone.
Finally, having established his cult throughout the world, Dionysus climbed Olympus where he sat to the right of Zeus; he was one of the twelve great gods.
Loves of Dionysus
- Althaea was the wife of Oceanus, king of Calydon, who offered it to Dionysus during his visit. With the god, she had a daughter, Deianira, Heracles’ future wife. As a gift, Dionysus taught the husband how to cultivate the vines.
- Alphesiboea is an Asian nymph, with whom Dionysus was in love without being able to seduce her. Then he turned into a tiger and chased the nymph. When she arrived at a riverside, she could not escape beyond it and took refuge with the god, who helped her to cross over to the other bank. From their love was born a son, Medes, who was the eponymous hero of the Medes. Dionysus named the river Tiger.
- Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had a brief affair with Dionysus. Hera cursed this union that gave birth to an ugly child, Priape.
Sine Cerere and Baccho friget Venus
by Abraham. JANSSENS
- Ariadne (or Arianne) abandoned in Naxos by Theseus became Dionysus’ wife. With Dionysus, she bore him famous children including Oenopion, Staphylus and Thoas. He then placed his bridal crown among the stars (see the boreal crown in the Constellations sheet).
Bacchus and Ariane
- Aura, daughter of an obscure Titan, Lelantus, and of the Oceanid Periboea, the virgin Titanid personification of the breeze, had upset Artemis by comparing her body with that of the goddess. The latter asked Nemesis to punish the impudent man who refused because of his family relationship but caused Aura to get drunk, which Dionysus took advantage of to abuse her. She gave birth to two twin sons and in anger, she devoured the first born but the second, named Iacchus, was saved just in time by Artemis. Completely insane she attacked herdsmen and finally threw herself into the Sangarios River where Zeus turned her into a source.
- Beroe, a goddess of the city of Beroe in Lebanon, was courted at the same time by the gods Dionysus and Poseidon and it was the latter who took his hand.
- Erigone, daughter of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, this Athenian princess was seduced by a fake bunch of grapes offered by Dionysus. She can be the mother of Eleusis’ god Iacchus.
Bacchus and Erigone (c. 1627)
© Stockholm National Museum
- According to Nonnus of Panopolis, Hera is the mother of Pasithea, one of the Charities that Hesiod does not mention. This seems difficult to believe when you know the enmity that existed between Hera and Dionysus.
- Pallene is a princess from Thrace, whose father fought all those who sought her daughter’s hand. No one had managed to defeat him until Dionysus came and won the contest and the princess’ hand as reported by Nonnus.
- Nicaea was a nymph from Bithynia in Asia Minor who had drunk too much and was abused by Dionysus.
Cult of Dionysus
Bacchanalians in front of the Pan statue
(1631-33) by Nicolas POUSSIN
National Gallery, London
The history of this cult is quite complex because the classic Dionysus has two aspects:
- he is a national, rural and popular god, the god of wine, and as such, honored from time immemorial in the Greek land;
- he is a god of ecstasy and mysteries, a foreign god, native of Thrace and Asia Minor, introduced into Greece in the 6th century BC.
It had temples in all Greek countries and festivals, the Eleuthereus. The cult of Dionysus had a considerable influence in Greece: it contributed greatly to introducing the sense of mystery into religion; into lyrical poetry, the feeling of nature; into the visual arts, the passionate movement. Several literary genres emerged: Orphic poems, dithyrambs, and the whole theatre.
Dionysus in arts
Dionysus on a donkey
It was pictured followed by a joyful procession, with satyrs, silenes, Pan, Priape, Maenads, Thyiades, Bacchantes, etc.
The artists lent him several types: first the bearded and widely draped type; it is the oldest, exclusive to the archaic period, rare since the 4th century.
Its head crowns a pillar or a hermetic hernia. The painted vases show him crowned with vine leaves and holding the thyrse; he is a man in the prime of his life, with a rather serious appearance.
The advanced classical period popularized the juvenile type, hairless, freer in its movements, dressed shorter, with simple skin, even naked. Hellenistic art likes to recount his childhood, as well as the Roman sarcophagi, which satiate the theme of his triumph in India.
The statuary often brings him closer to Ariadne, Eros, Pan, and some nymphs or Silenus.
The third type corresponds to a middle-aged man, ventripotent, of much more recent construction
by Frans FRANCKEN
Bacchus and Ariane (1664)
© Musee de l’Ermitage
by Cornelis de VOS