Dionysus, often associated with revelry, madness, and theater, is perhaps most famously linked to wine. Known as Bacchus in Roman mythology, Dionysus was the Greek god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and wine, symbolizing not only the intoxicating power of wine but also its social and beneficial influences. The relationship between Dionysus and wine is deep-rooted in mythology, history, and culture, revealing the intricate ways the divine and the earthly intertwine.
Dionysus: The Birth and Myth
Born of a mortal woman, Semele, and Zeus, the king of the gods, Dionysus had a birth story steeped in drama and magic. When Hera, Zeus’s wife, tricked Semele into demanding Zeus reveal his divine form, Semele was burned to death by Zeus’s lightning. However, Zeus managed to save the unborn Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh until he was ready to be born, thus making Dionysus twice-born .
According to mythology, Dionysus discovered the grapevine and the process of winemaking. He is often depicted in art carrying a thyrsus – a fennel staff topped with a pine cone, intertwined with ivy and vine leaves – symbolizing fertility and prosperity, and, by extension, wine’s bounty. Wine, under Dionysus’s patronage, became a significant aspect of Greek life, used in religious rituals, social functions, and everyday meals .
Dionysus: The God of Wine and Ecstasy
Dionysus, with wine as his emblem, embodied both the beneficial and potentially destructive effects of wine. On the one hand, wine was a symbol of civilization, bringing people together in social gatherings and religious ceremonies. Wine also played an essential role in the symposium, an integral part of Greek society where philosophical and political debates often took place .
On the other hand, Dionysus was also the god of ritual madness and ecstasy. Excessive consumption of wine could lead to a loss of self-control, a state often associated with Dionysian rituals. The Bacchic rites, named after Dionysus’s Roman counterpart, Bacchus, were notorious for their wild, ecstatic nature, often involving wine-fueled dancing and music .
Dionysus in Literature and Art
In ancient literature and art, Dionysus’s connection to wine is frequently highlighted. In Euripides’s play “The Bacchae,” Dionysus returns to his birthplace, Thebes, to introduce his Bacchic rites. The play explores themes of moderation and self-control, hinting at the dangers of excessive wine consumption and the loss of reason .
In ancient Greek art, Dionysus is often depicted holding a kantharos (a type of wine cup) and surrounded by vines and grapes, reinforcing his association with wine. In Roman times, he was popularly depicted in mosaics and sculptures, often in the context of the Bacchic rites, again emphasizing the link between Dionysus, wine, and ecstatic revelry .
Dionysus and Icarius
Icarius was a saint of Athens whom Dionysus visited while in Attica. Icarius invited the god to visit and learned the craft of wine production. Anxious to share his new art, Icarius gave the art of winemaking to his shepherds. One day the shepherds consumed a tremendous amount of alcohol all at once, and in their drunk state killed the blameless Icarius.
The shepherds recovered, realized their error, and buried Icarius. He was later found by his daughter, Erigone with the assistance of her canine, Maera. Driven by sorrow, Erigone hung herself over her father’s grave. When Dionysus knew about the incident, he rebuffed Athens with a dry season and a plague, causing madness to every unmarried lady, who hung themselves as Erigone did.
The frantic Athenians moved toward Apollo and Dionysus and begged him to lift his revile. As repentance, Athenians chose to respect the passings of Icarius and Erigone every year.
Dionysus and Midas
Silenus was the instructor of Dionysus. He was a father-like figure to him. When Silenus disappeared and strayed into an alcoholic state in Phrygia, the realm of Midas, he accidentally fell into a whirlpool and suffocated, but King Midas rescued him. Midas treated him with kindness, sending him to Dionysus, who was worried about his instructor.
A cheerful Dionysus granted Midas a wish as an award for caring for his mentor. Midas’ wish was to turn everything he touched into gold. Dionysus agreed, and a thrilled Midas rushed to test his recently divine power. Cheering, he got back and requested his workers set his table to eat, but all his food and drink were transformed into gold with his touch.
Later, when he embraced his wife and she too transformed into gold, Midas understood the results of his error and voracity. Frantic and humble, he implored Dionysus to return him to his previous state. Finally, Dionysus accepted his supplications, and the wish was reversed.
Dionysus’ Association with Ariadne
King Minos of Crete demanded seven young men and women from Athens in exchange for not attacking the city. These young men and women were sent at regular intervals into the maze of Knossos, where they were at last eaten by Minotaur (an animal that was half man and half bull).
One of these young men was the Athenian legend, Theseus. King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne fell in love with Theseus. When it was time for him to enter the maze she gave him a brilliant string to traverse the Minotaur labyrinth. Ariadne then helped Theseus kill the Minotaur and together they escaped Crete.
Before Ariadne helped Theseus escape he had promised to marry her. However, he abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos while she was asleep. Later, Dionysus found her and carried her to Olympus, where the two were married.
In certain varieties of the legend, it was Dionysus who trained Theseus for the killing as he was fascinated by Ariadne. Later, Ariadne was killed and stoned by King Perseus. However, Dionysus slid into the underworld, Hades to save her and carried her back to Olympus. Ariadne proceeded to have a few off-springs with Dionysus, with the most noted being Oenopion (Lord of Chios), Staphylus, and Theas (Ruler of Lemnos).
Dionysus’ Association with Lycurgus
Dionysus’ association with Lycurgus was tragic. Lycurgus was a protector of Edones in Thrace. According to Homeric fantasy, Lycurgus assaulted Dionysus and his admirers on the hallowed pile of Nysa. As Dionysus ran away from the area by bouncing into the ocean, he was saved by the ocean sprite Thetis (Nereid).
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Zeus assaulted Lycurgus and blinded him as revenge for his actions against Zeus’ son, Dionysus. In another version, when Lycurgus drove away Dionysus from his realm and detained the maenads, Dionysus cursed his property with a dry spell and him with franticness.
Having gone crazy, Lycurgus confused his child with a full-grown trunk of ivy (ivy was sacred to Dionysus) and killed him with a hatchet.
After returning to normal, Lycurgus observed his kingdom’s barrenness. He went to the oracle to find out how could save his land, and the oracle announced that the country would regain its glory only if Lycurgus was killed. The ruler was subsequently tied by his own kin and killed.
Dionysus And Orpheus
As per Greek mythology, Dionysus had a strong association with Orpheus, a fantastic artist and diviner who was the originator and prophet of the supposed “Obscure” secrets. Orpheus was so gifted that he could fascinate every living thing and even stones with his music.
As narrated in a rundown of Aeschylus’ lost play, Bassarids, as Orpheus became older, he turned into an ardent admirer of Apollo (God of insight). Once, he was visiting Dionysus at Mount Pangaion and giving his praise to Apollo. The act angered Dionysus, and Thracian Maenads killed him for not praising Dionysus.
However, the alternate version tells that Orpheus turned into a devotee of Dionysus. In this version, it is said that Orpheus was later destroyed by the ladies of Thrace for his mindlessness.
Dionysus and the Cult of Dionysus
The cult of Dionysus, known for its ecstatic and often frenzied rituals, played a significant role in spreading the culture of wine. The followers of Dionysus, called Bacchants or Maenads, often used wine in their rites as a means of achieving a state of ecstasy and a mystical union with the god. These practices were seen as a form of liberation from the self and the social order .
Dionysus and wine are inextricably linked, representing not only the joy and camaraderie that wine can bring but also the potential chaos and madness that can result from its overindulgence. This duality is embodied in Dionysus, whose worship often revolved around achieving states of ecstasy and liberation through wine.
The Greek historian Herodotus reports that wine was an integral part of Dionysian festivals, where it was consumed in abundance . These festivals, often featuring drama performances, celebrated the transformative power of wine, linking it to Dionysus’s dual nature as both a promoter of civilization and a force of wild, untamed nature.
As the god of wine and the vine, Dionysus was worshipped as a god of abundance and fertility. The vine was seen as a symbol of life’s constant renewal, just as wine was seen as a symbol of joy and conviviality . In this way, Dionysus and wine became symbols of life’s pleasures and the cyclical nature of existence.
Dionysus and Wine: A Lasting Legacy
Dionysus’s influence extends beyond ancient times, leaving a lasting legacy on the way we view and consume wine. His mythology provides a cautionary tale about the need for balance and moderation when it comes to wine consumption. This lesson, as relevant today as it was in ancient Greece, reminds us of the dual nature of wine – as a source of pleasure and social connection, but also as a potential source of excess and disorder.
Today, the image of Dionysus continues to be associated with wine, often appearing on wine labels, in winery names, and in wine-related art and literature. His story lives on in the many festivals around the world that celebrate the grape harvest, echoing the ancient Dionysian festivals of Greece.
In conclusion, the connection between Dionysus and wine is deeply rooted in history, mythology, and culture. It’s a relationship that speaks to the joys and dangers of wine, the importance of balance and moderation, and the enduring power of myth in shaping our understanding of the world.
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- Euripides. (2003). Bacchae. Trans. Paul Woodruff. Hackett Publishing Company.
- Boardman, J. (2019). Greek Art. Thames & Hudson.
- Dodds, E. R. (1951). The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press.
- Herodotus. (2003). The Histories. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. Penguin Classics.
- Vernant, J-P. (1991). Myth and Society in Ancient Greece. Zone Books.
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On This Day
- 13th Century BCE: Dionysus’s name appeared on Linear B. It showed that people during the time of Mycenaean worshipped him.
- 186 BCE: During this time, people in Italy prohibited the celebration of a festival called ‘Bacchanalia.’
- 520 BC: Dionysus ventured into Hades and brought his mother, Semele back. She also became immortal.
- Late 6th Century BCE: At this point, people built a temple of Zeus in Athens. Zeus was the father of Dionysus.
- 327 to 325 BCE: Alexander departed the region after making a campaign alongside the Indus River. He never returned.
- 5th Century CE: Nonnus of Panopolis wrote the Dionysus, an epic poem describing the deity Dionysus’ voyage to India.
- 1300 BC: Mycenaean Greece has the first recorded accounts of Dionysus worship.
- 570 BC: The oldest picture of the Greek God Dionysus to have been discovered is believed to be from this time.
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