Learn more about Dionysus
- This article is about the ancient deity. For other uses, see Dionysus (disambiguation). For uses of the similar name Dionysius, see Dionysius.
Dionysus and Dionysos or Dionysius (Ancient Greek: Διώνυσος or Διόνυσος; also known as Bacchus in both Greek and Roman mythology and associated with the Italic Liber), the Thracian god of wine, represents not only the intoxicating power of wine, but also its social and beneficial influences. He is viewed as the promoter of civilization, a lawgiver, and lover of peace — as well as the patron deity of agriculture and the theater. He was also known as the Liberator (Eleutherios), freeing one from one's normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine.<ref>Sutton, p.2, mentions Dionysus as The Liberator in relation to the City Dionysia festivals.</ref> The divine mission of Dionysus was to mingle the music of the flute and to bring an end to care and worry.<ref>Fox, p.221, "The divine mission of Dionysus was to mingle the music of the flute and to bring surcease to care"; Fox then cites Euripides as a direct source for this statement. Euripedes, Bacchae, Choral II, lines 379-381: " Holiness, queen of the gods, Holiness, who bear your golden wings along the earth, do you hear these words from Pentheus? Do you hear his unholy  insolence against Bromius, the child of Semele, the first deity of the gods at the banquets where guests wear beautiful garlands? He holds this office, to join in dances,  to laugh with the flute, and to bring an end to cares, whenever the delight of the grape comes at the feasts of the gods, and in ivy-bearing banquets  the goblet sheds sleep over men." </ref> There is also an aspect of Dionysus on his relationship to the "cult of the souls", and the scholar Xavier Riu writes that Dionysus presided over communication between the living and the dead.<ref>Riu, Xavier, Dionysism and Comedy, Chapter 4, Happiness and the Dead, p.105, "Dionysus presides over communications with the Dead".</ref>
The name Dionysus is of uncertain significance; it may well be non-Greek in origin, but it has been associated since antiquity with Zeus (genitive Dios) and with Nysa, which is either the nymph who nursed him, or the mountain where he was attended by several nymphs who fed him and made him immortal as directed by Hermes; or both.<ref>Fox, p.217, "The word Dionysos is divisible into two parts, the first originally Διος (cf. Ζευς), while the second is of an unknown signification, although perhaps connected with the name of the Mount Nysa which figures in the story of Lykourgos ... when Dionysos had been reborn from the thigh of Zeus, Hermes entrusted him to the nymphs of Mount Nysa, who fed him on the food of the gods, and made him immortal".</ref>
| Greek deities|
|Zeus and Hera,|
The above contradictions suggest to some that we are dealing not with the historical memory of a cult that is foreign, but with a god in whom foreignness is inherent. And indeed, Dionysus's name is found on Mycenean Linear B tablets as "DI-WO-NI-SO-JO",<ref>Adams, John Paul. Professor of Classics, California State University, Northridge, 2005, Dionysos website. http://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/dionysos.html</ref> 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 being pulled by a chariot drawn by panthers. and has been called the god of cats and savagery. He always carries a thyrsus. Besides the grapevine and its wild barren alter-ego, the toxic ivy plant, both sacred to him, the fig was also his. The pine cone 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).
- Main article: Bacchanalia
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. (See: Further Reading below for an ancient description of the banned Bacchanalia)
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 5th.
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 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 Samian Dionysus Enorches ("with balls" or perhaps "in the testicles" in reference to Zeus' sewing the babe Dionysus into his thigh, i.e., his testicles) and the Dionysus Khoiropsalas, for which "cunt-plucker" has been suggested, of Sicyon.<ref>Jameson 1993, 53. Cf. n16 for suggestions of Devereux on "Enorkhes".</ref> A winnowing fan was similar to a shovel and was used to separate the chaff from the good, cut 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. 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.
 Early Life
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. (See King Pentheus or Lycurgus.)
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 bound 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.
 Other stories
|Topics in Greek mythology|
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.
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 demanded, as his reward, the right to make love to Dionysus. Prosymnus died before Dionysus could fulfil his request, so in compensation 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 privvy to the god's mysteries. It was the source of the custom of parading wooden phalloi at the god's festivities. <ref>Whitney Davis, "Wax Tokens of Libido: William Hamilton, Richard Payne Knight, and the Phalli of Isernia," in Roberta Panzanelli, ed., Waxing Bodies: Wax Images in the History of Art (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, forthcoming)</ref><ref>This story is told in full only in Christian sources (whose aim was to discredit pagan mythology). It appears to have served as an explanation of the secret objects that were revealed in the Dionysian Mysteries. Hyginus, Astronomy 2.5; Arnobius, Against the Gentiles 5.28 (Dalby 2005, pp. 108-117)</ref>
Another pederastic myth of the god involves his eromenos, Ampelos, a beautiful youth whom he loved dearly. According to Nonnus, Ampelos was killed by a maddened bull, as foreseen by his lover. The fates granted Ampelos a second life as a vine, from which Dionysus squeezed the first wine.<ref>Nonnus, Dionisiaca, (X.175-430; XI; XII.1-117)</ref>
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.
- Unknown mother
 Parallels with Christianity
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. Certainly the Dionysus myth contains a great deal of cannibalism, in its links to Ino (however, one must note that Dionysian cannibalism has no correlation with self-sacrifice as a means of propitiation). 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.<ref>Powell, Barry B., Classical Myth Second ed. With new translations of ancient texts by Herbert M. Howe. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1998.</ref> 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.<ref>The HarperCollins Study Bible. New Revised Standard Version. With the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. London, UK: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993.</ref>
According to Martin A. Larson in The Story of Christian Origins (1977), Osiris was the first savior, and all soteriology in the region borrowed this religion, directly and indirectly, including Mithraism and Christianity, from an Osirian-Dionysian influence. As with their common dying and resurrected saviors, they all share common sacraments, ostensibly grounded in their reliance on seasonal cereal agriculture, having adopted the rituals with the food itself. Larson notes that Herodotus uses the names Osiris and Dionysus interchangeably and Plutarch identifies them as the same, while the name was anciently thought to originate from the place Nysa, in Egypt (now Ethiopia).
The subject of Dionysus is complex and baffling. The problem is further complicated by the fact that he appears in at least four characters: first, as the respectable patron of the theatre and the arts; second, as the effeminate, yet fierce and phallic mystery-god of the bloodthirsty Maenads; third, as the mystic deity in the temples of Demeter; and fourth, as the divine savior who died for mankind and whose body and blood were symbolically eaten and drunk in the eucharist of the Orphic-Pythagorean celibates. Beyond this, almost all barbarian nations had their own versions of Dionysius under many names. And yet there is a simpler explanation: Dionysus, Bromius, Sabazius, Attis, Adonis, Zalmoxis, Corybas, Serapis, and Orpheus himself are replicas of their grand prototype Osiris; and the variations which appear among them resulted from the transplantation of the god from one country to another, and reflect simply the specific needs of his multifarious worshipers (37-38).
 Modern views
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, while the two remain intrinsically related and dependent upon one another in an endless state of conflict. Later, Nietzsche changed his idea about Dionysus (frenzy, uncontrollable passion and intoxication) with the idea of a contained frenzy and a focused passion which would be invested into a creation - of, for example, an artwork.
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.
 Names with the origin Dionysus
- Denise (also spelled Denice, Daniesa, Denese, and Denisse)
- Dennis (including the derivative surnames Denison and Dennison)
- Nis (as of the Nordic surname Nissen)
- Nils (Nicholas is another origin)
- Dion, Deon, Deion
- Dénes (Hungarian)
- Bacchus (Roman)
- Dionisio, Dionigi (Italian)
- Dalby, Andrew (2005), The Story of Bacchus, London: British Museum Press, ISBN 0714122556 (US ISBN 0-89236-742-3)
- Farnell, Lewis Richard, The Cults of the Greek States, 1896. Volume V, cf. Chapter IV, Cults of Dionysos; Chapter V, Dionysiac Ritual; Chapter VI, Cult-Monuments of Dionysos; Chapter VII, Ideal Dionysiac Types.
- Fox, William Sherwood, The Mythology of All Races, v.1, Greek and Roman, 1916, General editor, Louis Herbert Gray.
- Jameson, Michael. "The Asexuality of Dionysus." Masks of Dionysus. Ed. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Faraone. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. ISBN 0-8014-8062-0. 44-64.
- Kerényi, Karl, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, 1976.
- Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur, The Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, 1946.
- Ridgeway, William, Origin of Tragedy, 1910. Kessinger Publishing (June 2003). ISBN 0-7661-6221-4.
- Ridgeway, William, The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of non-European Races in special reference to the origin of Greek Tragedy, with an appendix on the origin of Greek Comedy, 1915.
- Riu, Xavier, Dionysism and Comedy, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers (1999). ISBN 0-8476-9442-9. 
- Smith, William, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870, article on Dionysus, 
- Sutton, Dana F., Ancient Comedy, Twayne Publishers (August 1993). ISBN 0-8057-0957-6.
- Livy, History of Rome, Book 39:13, Description of banned Bacchanalia in Rome and Italy
- Albert Henrichs, Between City and Country: Cultic Dimensions of Dionysus in Athens and Attica, (April 1, 1990). Department of Classics, UCB. Cabinet of the Muses: Rosenmeyer Festschrift. Paper festschrift18.
- Seaford, Richard. Dionysos (Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World). Oxford: Routledge, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-415-32487-4; paperback, ISBN 0-415-32488-2).
 External links
- Did the Dionysus myth influence Christianity? - An About-Jesus.org article that refutes claims that paganism influenced Christianity.
- The Oracles of Dionysus
- Theoi Project, Dionysos myths from original sources, cult, classical art
- A series of casts showing Dionysos held by the Beazley Archive at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
- Hymn to Dionysus, God of All Things Wild
- Iconographic Themes in Art: Bacchus | Dionysos
- Temenos of Dionysos, Hellenic polytheist site
- Thiasos Lusios, pagan Dionysian organization
- Dionysos Links and Booklist (A huge list of links.)
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