Dionysus or Dionysos is the Greek God of the grape harvest, wine, revelry, festivity, processions, religious ecstasy, madness, drunken violence, epiphany, androgyny, homosexuality, transformation, and rebirth after death. He brought viticulture to humanity and this was a major leap in the progress of civilization.
Images of Dionysus
Early images of Dionysus show him as a bearded, mature man, but later images show him as an androgynous youth, often nude or close to it, though he may wear a leopard skin. He carries the thyrsus, a pinecone-topped fennel staff.
He often travels in a chariot drawn by big cats with a procession (thiasus) of maenads and satyrs, dancing, playing musical instruments and carrying thyrsus. Silenus often travels with him as well.
The Birth of Dionysus
Dionysus is a child of Zeus by the mortal woman Semele. Zeus came to Semele at night and never let her see his face. She enjoyed their romance and was pleased to be chosen as the lover of a God, but having never seen Him, she wasn’t exactly sure who she was with.
She wondered aloud about this and it reached the ears of Hera who came to her disguised as an old woman to whom she poured out her heart. Hera advised her to demand that her lover show her his true form by first asking that he grant her one wish and asking him to vow on the river Styx, as such a vow can never be broken.
This she did the next time Zeus visited her and, though he didn’t want to do it, he must, Zeus showed her his true form, lightening and she was burnt to a crisp. But Zeus managed to rescue their baby from her womb, though he was too small to be born. He sliced open his thigh and placed the fetus inside and stitched it shut until he was ready to be born.
Other sources say that Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone as Zagreus or Demeter as Iacchus of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
In this version, Hera sent Titans to kill the child and they lured him away with toys ((Some interesting bits about the toys can be found at https://sites.google.com/a/hellenicgods.org/www/the-toys-of-dionysos)) tore him to bits and ate him. They had eaten everything but his heart before Zeus discovered the plot and came to the rescue.
Either Rhea or Demeter retrieved the heart of Dionysus and gave it to Zeus who reformed it, perhaps by placing it in Semele’s womb. (See above for the rest of the story.)
After Zeus removed Dionysus from his thigh, he gave him to Hermes and asked him to find a safe place for the child. He is variously said to have been raised by Semele’s sister Ino, by the Hyades, rain-nymphs of Nysa, or by Persephone and some stories say he was raised as a girl, to escape the further notice of Hera.
The Adventures of Dionysus
As a young man, Dionysus loved a satyr named Ampelos who was killed when he was thrown while riding a bull. He was then transformed into a grapevine from which Dionysus produced the first wine.
Dionysus was struck with madness, forgetfulness, wanderlust (perhaps by Hera) and wandered the world for some time. In Phrygia, he met Cybele (identified as Rhea by the Greeks) and learned Her mysteries. He went as far as India, teaching viticulture and his worship to all he met along the way.
He hired a ship (or was spotted by pirates near the seashore), but the sailors, taken with his beauty, decided they would sell him as a slave. They bound him, but the ropes just fell right off of him. He turned into a lion, and a bear, he turned the oars to snakes and caused vines to grow all over the ship and the sound of flutes filled the air. The sailors went mad. Those who jumped overboard were turned into dolphins and those who fought him were slain. The captain had tried to stop the men, and so was spared.
Dionysus wondered about his mother, Semele and retrieved her from the Underworld. He was guided by Prosymnus (or Polymnus), who agreed that Dionysus keeps him as his lover. Prosymnus died before the adventure was over, but Dionysus fashioned a phallus from an olive branch and placed it in his tomb. As for Semele, she was indeed rescued and placed among the stars.
Finally, he came to Thebes, his mother’s home, but was meant with resistance by his cousin Pentheus who didn’t think the whole wine thing was a good idea and didn’t believe that Dionysus was a God or worth worship. So, Dionysus puts it into Pentheus’s head to spy on the Maenads as they engage in their forbidden rites, wandering wildly through the forest in a man, drunken rage, tearing apart and eating anything they come across- and he’s discovered by the Maenads(One of them is his mother Agave), and is torn apart.
King Lycurgus of Thrace wasn’t keen on Dionysus either and imprisoned the Maenads in his kingdom, so Dionysus sent a drought and caused Lycurgus to hallucinate and attack his own son with an ax. There are two versions of the ultimate downfall of Lycurgus. In one, he attempts to kill a follower of Dionysus named Ambrosia who is turned into a vine that wraps around the King, killing him. In another, the people consult an oracle about the drought and are told that it will continue as long as Lycurgus lives, so they have him drawn and quartered.
One day, Dionysus’s companion and teacher Silenus went missing. He had gotten drunk, wandered off, and passed out in the garden of King Midas and the King’s men had brought him before the King. Midas recognized him, cleaned him up and offered him hospitality for ten days until Dionysus arrived to collect him.
He offered the King a reward, anything he wanted, and the King asked that anything he touched should turn to gold. Dionysus told him this was a bad choice, but the King insisted, so the gift was given him. But the King soon found that everything he touched turned to gold, plants, animals, food, people and he didn’t like it so much. He prayed to Dionysus who took pity on him and told Midas to wash his hands in the river Pactolus and thus he was cured.
Friends and Family
Dionysus married Ariadne, a mortal woman who was abandoned by the hero Theseus after she helped him escape the Minotaur. She bore him 10 children. When she died, he retrieved her from the Underworld and placed her crown in the heavens, the constellation Corona.
By Aphrodite, Dionysus is said to be the father of The Charities, Priapus, and Hymenaios.
By Circe, he is said to be the father of Comus.
By Nyx, he is the father of Phthonus.
Epithets of Dionysus
- Acratophorus- Giver of (unmixed) wine
- Aegobolus- Goat killer
- Aegobolus – Ruler or Lord
- Aegobolus – Wild
- Briseus- He who prevails
- Bromios- Roaring
- Chthonios – From beneath the Earth
- Dimetor – of two mothers, twice-born
- Endendros – He in the tree
- Dendritēs – He of the tree or he who runs among the trees
- Dithyrambos – Refers to poetry and sacred hymns
- Eleutherios – The liberator
- Enorches – With balls (as in testicles)
- Erikryptos – Completely hidden
- Hestios – Of the hearth, or feasting
- Iacchus – relates to a sacred hymn
- Liknites – he of the winnowing fan
- Lyaus – loosener
- Melpomenos – Minstrel
- Morychus – smeared
- Oeneus – relates tot he wine press
- Pseudanor – false man, relates to androgyny
The Significance of the Vine
Other Gods of the Vine
The Roman equivalent of Dionysus is Bacchus.
Venus is etymologically connected with wine and the vine, but she is more often granted the attributes of Aphrodite.
Dionysus is also identified with Sabazios, Osiris, Tammuz, Liber, Zagreus, Orotalt.
Symbols of Dionysus
- Animals: Dolphins, lions, tigers, leopards and other big cats, bull, serpent
- Plants: Vines, esp grape, Ivy, fig, bindweed
- Other Objects: the thyrsus, pinecone, phallus
The Ancient Cult of Dionysus
Evidence of the worship of Dionysus has been found to date back as to 1500 BCE Mycenea but similar religious activity took place earlier throughout the Mediterranean region.
Festivals of Dionysus often included processions of people carrying phalluses, masked ecstatic dancing and theater performances.
The Orphic hymn to Dionysus suggests fumigation using any aromatic except Frankincense.
Festivals in honor of Dionysus included The City Dionysia, The Rural Dionysia and the Lenaia. He also featured in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Modern Worship of Dionysus
- Visit Hellenion’s Page in honor of Dionysus
- Hellenismos celebrates the 12 Days of Dionysus and also a discussion of Dionysus