(Bacchus by Caravaggio, [Public domain] via Creative Commons)
Dionysus was much, much more than a partying god of wine
Remembering a god
Of all the old Greek and Roman gods, Dionysus (also known as Bacchus and Liber Pater) may be the most underestimated and misrepresented in the minds of modern-day people. While Zeus, Poseidon, Ares, Hades and Athena remain well remembered in novels, movies and videogames, Dionysus remains largely forgotten. Nowadays, Dionysus is mostly remembered as a toga-wearing (though he mostly wore fawn pelts) god of wine and parties. While this depiction is partially true, this god was much more powerful, and much more influential, than a mere god of good times. Dionysus was a god of earth who controlled plants and animals (and everything that derives from them), as well as having the ability to inspire great ecstasy or great rage—like the wine he is remembered by.
To get a sense of the power that Dionysus had in mythology there are a few modern examples that reflect the old god of the vine. Anyone who has read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or seen one of its many movie adaptations, will be familiar with the Ghost of Christmas Present. That jolly, singing, ivy-draped and bearded man who hands out drinks that cause ecstasy is a decent depiction of Dionysus on a good day. Another great literary figure with similarities to Dionysus is J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil from the Lord of the Rings books. Like the Greek and Roman god of wine and ecstasy, Tom Bombadil danced and sang around his home in the Old Forest. While the character of Bombadil remains a mystery, the books hint that his incredible power over nature dwarfed all of the other wizards, sorcerers and powerful beings in the universe of The Lord of the Rings.
The first country and people to worship Dionysus remains unknown, but many historians believe Thrace (modern Bulgaria) may be the likeliest location. Dionysus worship spread into Greece by the Mycenaean period (1650-1200 BCE) and the god’s influence was strong enough in Athens for a poet named Euripides to write an epic poem about Dionysus, The Bacchae, sometime in the 5thcentury BCE. In Greece, the worship of Dionysus became entangled in the Eleusinian (small town near Athens) Mystery Religion cult of Demeter and Persephone, but the god of wine also had a strong following in his own Mystery Religion. Before delving further into the cultic worship of Dionysus, lets look at Dionysus’ birth, adventures and powers found in mythology.
There are two major birth myths attributed to Dionysus. Both myths share the same main godly figures, but they set the events differently. In both myths, Zeus is recognized as the father of Dionysus. Both myths also portray Hera as a character who wishes harm to be done against Dionysus and his mother. Zeus saves his son in both of the stories, allowing the god of wine to be born again—which gave Dionysus the name, ‘Twice-born.”
In the normal origin myth, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and the Theban princess, Semele. For those not familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, Zeus was not married to Semele. No, he was already wed to another deity, the goddess Hera. By sleeping with Zeus, Semele brought upon herself the wrath of none other than the queen of the Olympian gods. Hera appeared to Semele and planted a terrible idea in the princess’ head. She convinced Semele that Zeus’ divinity needed to be proved, as Zeus had only met with the princess in a disguise. The next time Zeus visited Semele, the princess made the lightning god promise to reveal himself in all his godly radiance. When Zeus fulfilled the promise, Semele, who was pregnant with Dionysus, was either burnt to death by the incredible light, or she was struck dead by stray lightning. Dionysus was brought into the world by Zeus’ destructive power, but the young god was not yet fully developed. Zeus sewed Dionysus into his thigh until the god was old enough to be born again. The normal birth myth ends with Zeus tasking the messenger-god Hermes with the mission of delivering Dionysus to a group of nymphs, who would watch over him until adulthood.
The other Dionysus origin myth is from the singer Orpheus, whose hymns and writings heavily influenced the god’s Mystery Religion cult. The Orphic hymns are believed to have been written in Imperial Rome, between the reigns of Augustus and Constantine. In Orpheus’ telling of the Dionysus origin myth, the wine god’s parents were Zeus and Persephone. In this myth, Hera let the young god be born and her wrath skipped Persephone to fall solely on the young Dionysus. To eliminate the unquestionable evidence of her husband’s infidelity, Hera hired the strongest possible killers available to assassinate Dionysus—the Titans. The infant Dionysus was lured away from the safety of his powerful father, and the titans—literally—ripped the boy-god into pieces and ate the scraps. A goddess (different accounts name Athena, Rhea or Demeter) was able to salvage Dionysus’ beating heart, which was then delivered to Zeus. The lightning god was then able to impregnate Semele with that heart, bringing Dionysus back to life.
The Orphic version of the Dionysus birth story held great importance in understanding humanity in Greek and Roman religion. In Orpheus’ version of Dionysus’ origin myth, Zeus responded to the attack on his son by annihilating the Titans with his lightning. The great Titans, with the pieces of Dionysus in their stomachs, were turned to ash. The myth then states that humans were formed out of that ash—our matter from the Titans and our souls from Dionysus.
The Adult Dionysus
Both origin myths lead to a twice-born Dionysus that grows into an adult god. Only in his full-grown state did Dionysus become his true self—the god of ecstasy, vegetation and wine. In his adulthood, Dionysus became the type of person who would fit perfectly into huge music festivals and hippie communes.
Dionysus and his followers (usually called Maenads) had a dress code. They all wore animal hide or fur; Dionysus seemed fond of fawn pelts. They also frequently carried sticks (called a Thyrsus) topped with ivy and, of course, grapevine. Dionysus and the Maenads, like any youthful gathering, could not be separated from music and musical instruments. Small drums and pipes were common in the wine god’s troop.
The god, himself, could take on multiple appearances. In The Bacchae, the poet Euripides wrote that Dionysus took “whatever form he wished. The choice was his.” Despite the variety of appearances he could have chosen, Dionysus only seemed to use two—the bearded man or the youthful, clean-shaven, young adult. The bearded Dionysus is thought to have been the older and more original portrayal of Dionysus, but as his Mystery Religion cult spread and his worship continued, the god’s image shifted to the younger appearance.
Dionysus was a relatable god. When he reached adulthood, he wanted to explore the world and bring people joy and happiness. In Euripides’ The Bacchae Dionysus stated:
Wherever Dionysus went, he taught people how to grow and maintain grapevines, and how to ferment the grapes into wine. Throughout his travels, a column of devoted followers reveled behind him. These followers, called the Maenads, were exclusively women in the mythology of Dionysus, but the cult accepted men into the wine god’s mysteries. Euripides wrote of the miracles of the Maenads in The Bacchae. He wrote:
Dionysus’ Road to Thebes
Though Dionysus wandered far and wide, he eventually decided to head back toward Greece and Thebes, which was the home of his deceased mother, Semele. The mythology of Dionysus’ journey to Thebes diverges the god from his usual kind, benevolent, joyful and peaceful self—he became quite vengeful.
The first obstacle that Dionysus faced on his journey was a ship filled with pirates. Seeing a carefree man singing, dancing and drinking lots of wine, the pirates understandably thought the god of the vine to be a wealthy man who could be ransomed for a hefty profit. They brought Dionysus aboard and attempted to bind him with rope. Rope, however, could not hold Dionysus (not even his Maenads could be bound). Recognizing the pirates’ greedy intentions, Dionysus summoned vines to hold the ship in place and—uncharacteristically—turned the pirate crew into dolphins. Only a single helmsman, who had recognized Dionysus to be a god, was spared the aquatic transformation.
Pirates were not Dionysus’ only victims, and the wine god’s punishments were not always as benign as transformation into animals. In his journeys, Dionysus’ actions caused the deaths of two kings. The first king to fall was Lycurgus of Thrace. He outlawed and resisted Dionysus’ Mystery Religion cult in his realm, which caused Dionysus to withdraw from the region, temporarily. The god had a change of mind, returned to Thrace and left Lycurgus imprisoned in a cave. Where is the death, you ask? The myth claims that Zeus personally killed Lycurgus for resisting the spread of Dionysus’ cult. The other king to die was Dionysus’ own cousin, Pentheus of Thebes. After the Theban king also resisted the spread of the cult, the Maenads tore Pentheus apart much like the Titans had done to Dionysus in Orpheus’ birth myth. Though Dionysus’ own hands, again, did not commit this murder, there is no doubt that he was responsible for Pentheus’ death. The Maenads killed the king only after Dionysus drove his followers into a rage and made Pentheus look like an animal.
The Mystery Religion of Dionysus
Though the Greek and Roman mythological gods are no longer worshiped as a major religion, they were seen to be very, very real by people of antiquity. Cities would worship as a community using public temples, but some people wanted a more personal relationship with their deities. This caused Mystery Religions to spring up, where smaller congregations could worship in a more dramatic and emotional way—a way not offered by the public temples.
There was a Mystery Religion cult devoted to Dionysus. Most of the cults devoted to the god of the vine met to have a ceremonial feast of meat and, obviously, wine. For a while, the cult must have become more of a club and less of a house of worship, for the Historian, Livy, wrote of the Roman Senate banning the Dionysus Mystery Religion around 186 BCE. Nevertheless, the cult persisted. The ruins of Pompeii (buried 79 CE) contain the Villa of Mysteries that has paintings on its walls that are thought to be related to the Dionysus Mystery Religion. The Rule of the Iobacchoi, dated to around 178 CE also details that the cult was still alive and functioning, collecting dues from its members to pay for ceremonial wine in 2nd century Athens.
A lesser, but more popular, form of Dionysus worship in Greco-Roman history was the performance arts. Poems, called dithyrambs, were written in honor of Dionysus. There were also festivals devoted to the god, where plays of both comedy and tragedy were performed. Cities and rural communities, alike, held these festivals under names like, Dionysia, Anthesteria and Lenaea.
Next time you see a play or have a nice glass of wine, take a moment to remember Dionysus. When you see music festivals and care-free people strumming acoustic guitars around campfires, think of the original hippie who wandered the countryside playing hand drums and pipe-flutes. Remember the powerful god who, for the most part, ignored his strength to bring ecstasy, happiness and joy to humanity—as well as a lot of wine.
- Marvin W. Meyer. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.
- Euripides. The Bacchae in The Ancient Mysteries edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.
- Livy. History of Rome in The Ancient Mysteries edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.
- Rule of the Iobacchoi in The Ancient Mysteries edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.