Saturday, July 2, 2011

Dionysus in myth

From Wikipedia

Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology. 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 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 of 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 in 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.


Acratophorus, ("giver of unmixed wine"), at Phigaleia in Arcadia.
Adoneus ("ruler") in his Latinised, Bacchic cult.
Aegobolus ("goat killer") at Potniae, in Boeotia.
Aesymnetes ("ruler" or "lord") at Aroë and Patrae in Achaea.
Agrios ("wild"), in Macedonia.
Bromios ("the thunderer" or "he of the loud shout").
Dendrites ("he of the trees"), as a fertility god.
Dithyrambos, form of address used at his festivals, referring to his premature birth.
Eleutherios ("the liberator"), an epithet for both Dionysus and Eros.
Endendros ("he in the tree").
Enorches ("with balls", with reference to his fertility, or "in the testicles" in reference to Zeus' sewing the baby Dionysus into his thigh, i.e., his testicles) - used in Samos and Lesbos.
Erikryptos ("completely hidden"), in Macedonia.
Evius, in Euripides' play, The Bacchae.
Iacchus, possibly an epithet of Dionysus and 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.
Liknites ("he of the winnowing fan"), as a fertility god connected with the mystery religions. A winnowing fan was used to separate the chaff from the grain.
Lyaeus ("he who unties") or releases from care and anxiety.
Melanaigis ("of the black goatskin") at the Apaturia festival.
Oeneus, as god of the wine press.
Pseudanor ("false man"), in Macedonia.


Dionysus had a strange birth that evokes the difficulty in fitting him into the Olympian pantheon. His mother was a mortal woman, Semele, the daughter of king Cadmus of Thebes, and his father was Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus' wife, Hera, 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 Zeus was the actual father of the baby in her womb. 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. Therefore he came to her wreathed in bolts of lightning; mortals, however, could not look upon an undisguised god without dying, and she perished in the ensuing blaze. Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, Dionysus was born on Mount Pramnos in the island of Ikaria, where Zeus went to release the now-fully-grown baby from his thigh. In this version, Dionysus is born by two "mothers" (Semele and Zeus) before his birth, hence the epithet dimētōr (of two mothers) associated with his being "twice-born".

In the Cretan version of the same story, which Diodorus Siculus follows, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, the queen of the Greek underworld. Diodorus' sources equivocally identified the mother as Demeter. 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. It is said that he was mocked by the Titans who gave him a thyrsus (a fennel stalk) in place of his rightful sceptre. Zeus turned the Titans into dust 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 his thigh, hence he was again "the twice-born". Other versions claim that Zeus recreated him in the womb of Semele, or gave Semele the heart to eat to impregnate her.

Infancy at Mount Nysa

According to the myth Zeus gave the infant Dionysus into the charge of Hermes. One version of the story is that Hermes took the boy to 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. 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 (e.g. Pentheus or Lycurgus).

Dionysus was exceptionally attractive. One of the Homeric hymns recounts how, 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. However, 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.


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 (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. This was an etiological myth that explained why the sands of the Pactolus were rich in gold.


When King Lycurgus of Thrace heard that Dionysus was in his kingdom, he imprisoned all the followers of Dionysus; the god fled, taking refuge with Thetis, and sent a drought which stirred the people into revolt. Dionysus then made King Lycurgus insane, having him slice 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. This story was told in Homer's epic, Iliad 6.136-7. In an alternative version, sometimes shown in art, Lycurgus tried to kill Ambrosia, a follower of Dionysus, who was transformed into a vine that twined around the enraged king and restrained him, eventually killing him


A better-known story is that of his descent to Hades to rescue his mother Semele, whom he placed among the stars. He made the ascent 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 Prosymnus' shade, Dionysus fashioned a phallus from an olive branch and sat on it at Prosymnus' tomb. 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.


Another myth according to Nonnus involves Ampelos, a satyr. Foreseen by Dionysus, the youth was killed in an accident riding a bull maddened by the sting of an Ate's gadfly. The Fates granted Ampelos a second life as a vine, from which Dionysus squeezed the first wine.


Young Dionysus was also said to have been one of the many famous pupils of the centaur Chiron. According to Ptolemy Chennus in the Library of Photius, "Dionysius was loved by Chiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the bacchic rites and initiations."

Secondary myths

When Hephaestus bound Hera to a magical chair, Dionysus got him drunk and brought her back to Olympus after he passed out.

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. Another different account claims Dionysus ordered Theseus to abandon Ariadne on the island of Naxos for he had seen her as Theseus carried her onto the ship and had decided to marry her.

Callirrhoe was a Calydonian woman who scorned a priest of Dionysus who threatened to afflict 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 Dionysus' son.

From Men, Myths & Minds

Dionysus, Greek God of Wine

    The Greek god Dionysus was lucky to even survive long enough to become an adult. The story of the premature birth of Dionysus is an interesting one.

    Dionysus was the son of the beautiful and gentle mortal Semele, who had been a moon goddess during the reign of the Titans, and the mighty Zeus, ruler of the Olympian deities. Zeus and Semele had been having a love affair for quite a while...only Semele had no idea who her lover really was since Zeus always came to her in another form, refusing to disclose his identity. But Hera, the wife of Zeus and Queen of Mount Olympus, didn't have any trouble figuring out what her husband was up to and decided to put an end to it.

    Hera, disguised as Semele's nurse, convinced her to make Zeus take an oath that he would grant her a single wish. And he did. Semele then asked him to reveal his identity, his true self. Zeus knew what would happen should he grant her request and was heartbroken. But Semele refused to change her request, and Zeus had no choice to to comply since he had sworn an oath. So he changed into his true form, and his thunderbolts filled the room. Semele was struck by the lightning and died.

    Zeus, with the help of his trusted assistant Hermes, had to rescue Dionysus from Semele's womb as she lay dying. They stitched the premature infant into his thigh, and Zeus carried him there until the baby was ready to be born. (Needless to say, Hera was not amused with this turn of events!)

    So Hera had the newborn Dionysus killed by a couple of Titan assassins who tore him to bits, even though he kept trying to escape them by changing forms to hide from them. When he died a pomegranate tree began to grow where his blood had fallen. Disconcerted by this, the Titans decided to be on the safe side and  boil the pieces of his body in a great cauldron.

    Luckily he was resurrected by his grandmother (though in some accounts it was by his half sister, Athena) and was entrusted to the goddess Persephone for safekeeping. Persephone, in turn, hid him with a king and his wife, who disguised him in girls clothing and hid him in the women's quarters of their palace. Eventually, of course, Hera discovered he was still alive and resumed her campaign of harassment, driving his royal foster parents insane and causing them to kill their own son when they mistook him for a deer. 

    To protect the infant god,  Hermes changed Dionysus into a baby goat and took him to a group of mountain nymphs (the Hyades) to be raised. They doted on the child, feeding him honey and doing everything they could to help him feel wanted.  While living in the mountains with the nymphs, Dionysus invented the process of growing grapes and making wine. (Who wouldn't need a drink after all he'd been through!)

    As he grew to manhood, Hera found him again and drove him into a state of madness. Dionysus started to wander mindlessly though the Greek countryside where he became known as "The Wanderer".

    He developed quite a following of men and women who worshipped him in the mountains, drinking, dancing ecstatically to frenzied music, and otherwise behaving like "wild ones".
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    Their celebrations alternated with periods of deep meditation and extended contemplative silences. ( The word "orgy" comes from these gatherings where the celebrants reached an ecstatic state and felt that they were "at one" with the Greek god.) Dionysus was rapidly becoming well-known as a result of his followers and their wild celebrations.

    Naturally, Hera soon heard of him. Rather than deal with her next moves, Dionysus did the smart thing and simply "took off". Travelling to Egypt, India and the Aegean Islands, Dionysus had many adventures and acquired many friends and worshippers, teaching the locals to grow grapes and make wine wherever he went.

    In some versions of the myths of the Greek god Dionysus, he traveled as a warrior with his troops and became a military hero. During a foray into the Middle East, while warring with the king of Damascus, Dionysus built a bridge from vines and ivy that allowed him to cross safely across the Euphrates river.   And the river Tigris got its name from one of the myths of Dionysus--Zeus had dispatched a tiger to help him cross the river.

    During his travels abroad, Dionysus continued to gather more followers, which was very threatening to the rulers of these countries.  Many of them opposed him, and there was often great bloodshed. Frequently Dionysus used the "trick" of turning the ruler, or his family, or the citizens of his country (especially the women) completely mad . . . often with horrific results.


    In one of the more dramatic myths, Dionysus and his followers, the Maenads, had been arrested by the king of Thebes, who instantly went mad and mistook a bull for Dionysus and shackled the bull instead. The Maenads escaped and ran throughout the countryside brutally killing all the livestock. Then they returned and tore the king to pieces, with the assistance of his mother who tore off his head, having been driven insane as well.

    Dionysus tired of his travels and began to yearn for home. To make the trip, Dionysus boarded a ship scheduled to sail to Greece, not realizing that it was actually a pirate ship.  The sailors, unaware that he was a god, turned the ship around to sail for Asia where they planned to sell him into slavery. Realizing their intent, the Greek god Dionysus foiled their plans. Turning their oars into serpents, causing vines and ivy to engulf the mast and rigging, Dionysus turned himself into a ferocious lion. While all of this was happening the air was filled with the eerie sound of flutes and ghost-like beasts floated around the ship. Crazy with fear the pirates jumped into the ocean and quickly turned into harmless dolphins.

    Given his spectacular success in foreign lands and with his worship now being established world-wide, his divinity could no longer be ignored on Mount Olympus and Dionysus was asked to come home and take his rightful place among the other Greek gods. Even the vengeful Hera finally accepted him.

    In addition to his having been resurrected from the dead himself, Dionysus brought his mother Semele back to life, descending into the Underworld and escorting her back to live on Mount Olympus.

    By bribing Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, with a sprig of myrtle to gain admittance, and then by standing up to Thanatos, the Greek god of Death, dionysus secured Semele's release.Although Semele had to change her name and live in an apartment, so that her presence among them would not be scandalous, even Hera was willing to accept her presence there.

    Dionysus married Ariadne, a princess who had been a moon goddess during earlier times when the Titans ruled. Ariadne had been engaged to the hero Theseus who had deserted her. Dionysus fell in love with her and together they had several children, none of whom achieved great fame.   The Greek god Dionysus was one of the few Greek gods who were faithful to their wives (perhaps because he'd already sown his wild oats before settling down).

    The recurrent themes of  life and death, run though the legends of Dionysus. They teach us that the journey from being the Divine Child to a fruitful kingship requires the "giving up" (death) of the old self and rebirth in a more mature form. The myths of the Greek god Dionysus remind us that the possibilities of intense, ecstatic experience (whether through alcohol, other drugs, dancing, or spiritual experience) include both a dark side with the potential for great harm to ourselves and others, as well as a bright potential for communion with others, including a greater power, and for works of healing.

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