Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility, wine, and ecstasy, was popular throughout much of the ancient world. In Rome he was known as Bacchus. A complex deity, Dionysus played two very different roles in Greek mythology. As the god of fertility, he was closely linked with crops, the harvest, and the changing of the seasons. As the god of wine and ecstasy, he was associated with drunkenness, madness, and unrestrained sexuality. His nature included a productive, life-giving side and a bestial, destructive side.
Background and Origins. Dionysus did not start out as a Greek god. His cult had its roots in Thrace (north of Greece), in Phrygia (in modern Turkey), or possibly on the island of Crete. Many Greek city-states at first rejected the cult of Dionysus because of its foreign origins and its wild, drunken rituals. When the cult first arrived in Rome, worshipers held their celebrations in secret. However, in both Greece and Rome, the cult of Dionysus overcame resistance and gained many followers.
The most common myth about the origins of Dionysus says that he was the son of Zeus * and of Semele, daughter of the founder of Thebes. Zeus's jealous wife, Hera, wanted to know the identity of the child's father. She disguised herself as Semele's old nurse and went to see Semele. When Semele told her that Zeus was the father, Hera challenged her to prove her claim by having Zeus appear in all his glory. Semele did so. However, because Zeus was the god of lightning, his power was too much for a human to bear. Semele was turned into ashes.
Before Semele died, Zeus pulled Dionysus out of her womb. Then cutting open his thigh, Zeus placed the unborn child inside. A few months later he opened up his thigh, and Dionysus was born. The infant was left with Semele's sister Ino, who disguised him as a girl to protect him from Hera. As punishment for helping Dionysus, Hera drove Ino and her husband insane.
Some legends say that Hera also drove Dionysus insane. Thereafter, Dionysus wandered the world accompanied by his teacher, Silenus, bands of satyrs, and his women followers, who were known as maenads. When Dionysus traveled to Egypt, he introduced the cultivation of grapes and the art of winemaking. When he went to Libya, he established an oracle in the desert. He also journeyed to India, conquering all who opposed him and bringing laws, cities, and wine to the country On his way back to Greece, he met his grandmother, the earth goddess Cybele. She cured him of his madness and taught him the mysteries of life and resurrection.
This story contains three themes that run through the legend of Dionysus. One theme is the hostility that Dionysus and his cult face both from Hera and from the inhabitants of the places he visits. The second is the association of Dionysus with madness. The third is the idea of death and rebirth, an essential part of Dionysus's identity as god of the harvest and of fertility.
deity god or goddess
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
satyr woodland deity that was part man and part goat or horse
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
resurrection coming to life again; rising from the dead
Fertility. Dionysus's influence over fertility extended beyond crops to animals and humans as well. This power made him the
During the Dionysia festivals the maenads would enter a trance, dancing to the beat of drums and waving thyrsi. Sometimes they would go into a frenzy during which they gained supernatural powers. It was said that the maenads could tear apart animals—and even humans—with their bare hands.
In one myth, Dionysus visited Thebes disguised as a young man and caused the women there to fall under his power. He led them to a mountain outside the city where they took part in his rituals. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, was furious and imprisoned Dionysus. Miraculously, the chains fell off and the jail cell opened by itself. Dionysus then told Pentheus of the wild celebrations he would see if he disguised himself as a woman and went to the mountain. The king, dressed as a woman, hid in a tree to watch the Dionysia. However, the women saw him and, in their madness, mistook him for a mountain lion. They killed him, tearing him limb from limb.
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
Wine and Madness. Drunkenness and madness are elements that appear in many of the stories about Dionysus. In one tale, Dionysus disguised himself as a young boy and got drunk on an island near Greece. Some pirates found him and promised to take him to Naxos, which Dionysus said was his home. However, the pirates decided to sell the boy into slavery. Only one of them, Acoetes, objected to the plan. When the pirates steered their ship away from Naxos, the wind died. Suddenly, a tangle of grapevines covered the ship. The oars turned into snakes, clusters of grapes grew on Dionysus's head, and wild animals appeared and played at his feet. Driven to madness, the pirates jumped overboard. Only Acoetes was spared. He sailed the ship to Naxos, where Dionysus made him a priest of the cult. It was on Naxos that Dionysus also met the princess Ariadne, who became his wife.
One of the best-known tales about Dionysus concerns King Midas and the golden touch. Dionysus's teacher, Silenus, had a habit of getting drunk and forgetting where he was. One day after drinking, Silenus became lost while traveling in Midas's kingdom. He fell in a whirlpool and would have drowned had not Midas saved him. As a reward, Dionysus granted Midas anything he wished. Midas asked that everything he touched turn to gold. After the wish was granted, however, Midas discovered that all his food turned to gold and he was unable to eat. Then, when he hugged his daughter, she turned to gold too. Dionysus removed Midas's golden touch after the king had learned the price of his greed.
The Dying and Rising God. Because crops die in winter and return in spring, Dionysus was seen as a symbol of death and resurrection. In another story about his birth, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of crops and vegetation. Hera was jealous of the child and convinced the Titans to destroy him. Although Dionysus was disguised as a baby goat, the Titans found him, caught him, and tore him to pieces. They ate all of his body except his heart, which was rescued by Athena *. She gave the heart to Zeus, who gave it to Semele to eat. Semele later gave birth to Dionysus again. The story represents the earth (Demeter) and sky (Zeus) giving birth to the crops (Dionysus), which die each winter and are reborn again in the spring.
In his discussion of the ancient Greek the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used the terms Dionysian and Apollonian to describe the two sides of human nature. Dionysian urges—sensual and irrational impulses—are named for Dionysus. The term Apollonian refers to the rational side of human behavior associated with the god Apollo*. Interestingly, these two gods, with their very different natures, actually shared a shrine at Delphi. Dionysus was said to have the gift of prophecy, and the priests at Delphi honored him almost as much as they honored Apollo.
Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus
Literature and Art. Because of his popularity and the colorful stories about him and his followers, Dionysus has been a favorite subject of writers and artists. He appears in early Greek poetry such as Homer's Iliad *, where he is pictured as a young god. He is later mentioned in works of the Greek playwright Euripides * and the Roman poet Ovid *. Many poems and stories by English and American writers such as John Milton, John Keats, and Ralph Waldo Emerson include descriptions of Dionysus or his rituals. Famous sculptors such as Michelangelo have carved images of him, and artists throughout history have used him as the subject for paintings. He is sometimes portrayed as old and bearded and sometimes as youthful. Often he is shown surrounded by powerful animals, such as bulls and goats.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.