Generally, the name Dionysus brings the images of drunken festivities, orgies, and other debaucheries. This isn’t too far from the truth, as Dionysus is mainly associated with human pleasures and pain with wine and fertility, among other things.
While he definitely took part in some crazy rituals, he was also one of the most important gods in Ancient Greece. The stories about him describe his journeys to many parts of the world, teaching people about vineyards and viticulture. During his travels, he was accompanied by daemons to possess women who gave themselves to ecstasy.
Character Overview of Dionysus
As per Greek mythology, Dionysus was the God of ecstasy, wine, and fertility famous throughout the ancient period. In Ancient Rome, people called him ‘Bacchus’. Holding a mind-boggling contradictory divinity, Dionysus assumed two altogether different characters in Greek folklore.
Being a god associated with ripeness, he was closely connected to harvest, crops, and seasons. On the other side, being a god of ecstasy and wine, he was firmly related with wild sexuality, franticness, and drunkeness. Talking about his nature, he was the combination of several things such as animal-like brutality , life-giving, and productive aspects.
Origins and Background of Dionysus
The myth of Dionysus is believed to have its foundations in Thrace, which is currently considered part of Northern Greece. He was also associated with Phrygia, presently known as Turkey.
Many Greek city-states at first dismissed the followers of Dionysus due to his unfamiliar beginnings and his wild, tipsy ceremonies. During the early periods of Rome, Dionysus admirers held their festivals in secret. However, later on, both in Rome and Greece, the faction of Dionysus followers received recognition and acquired numerous adherents.
When it comes to the origins and background of Dionysus, there are so many connected myths. The most popular myth is that he was a child of Zeus, the god of lightening and the mortal Semele, who was a daughter of the hero, Cadmus and Harmonia.
The story of Dionysus’ birth goes like this. Zeus fell in love with Semele, however, Zeus’ wife, Hera soon began having suspicions. Hera wanted to confirm these suspicions, so she camouflaged herself as the caretaker of Semele. After some time, Hera was convinced that Zeus was and Semele were having an affair.
So Hera began plotting her revenge. She convinced Semele to ask Zeus to show her his true form, knowing that no mortal could look upon the true form of a god. Semele did as such, and Zeus agreed. But as Hera expected his power was unbearable for a human and Semele burned at the sight of him, killing her.
But before Semele died, Zeus saved the unborn baby (Dionysus) in her womb. He cut open his thigh and placed the baby inside. A couple of months after the incident, Zeus opened up his thigh and Dionysus was born. The newborn child was left with Semele’s sister Ino, who masked him as a young lady to shield him from the wrath of Hera.
A few critics are of the opinion that Hera made Dionysus partially crazy. Due to his wild nature and Hera’s work, Dionysus meandered the world, accompanied by his maenads (female followers), groups of satyrs, Silenus, and his teacher.
Among his many travels, Dionysus made a trip to Egypt. Here, myth says he taught the method of grapes growing and the techniques of winemaking to the people. Similarly, he went to Libya and laid out a prophet in the desert. He also ventured to India, overcoming all who went against him, bringing regulations, urban communities, and winemaking to the nation.
Finally, when he was returning to Greece, his grandma, Cybele appeared. She restored him from his frenzy, and showed him the true secrets of resurrection and life.
Dionysus’ Connection with Fertility and Wine and Madness
Dionysus’ influence on over-ripeness reached out beyond crops to creatures and humans as well. This power gave him the image of an innovative god, the soul of nature. As a result, many women were avid followers due to his close nature with fertility and childbearing.
As per custom, these women would leave their families and travel to the wide-open to partake in Dionysus celebrations, referred to in Rome as Bacchanalia. They wore creature skins and conveyed wands that were called Thyrsi. These wands consists of fennel stalks that were bound with ivy and grapevines. They were a tangible symbol of intoxication, reproduction, and fertility.
During these celebrations, the followers of the Greek Lord Dionysus, called ‘Maenads’ made their entry, and they moved to the beats of drums waving Thyrsi. It is believed that at some point in the celebrations, they acquired some sort of supernatural powers that allowed them to destroy creatures. They even could tear humans apart with their exposed hands.
There are many stories depicting the adventures of Dionysus. However, certain elements are common in all of his stories including: madness and drunkenness. In one story, Dionysus masked himself as a human and became inebriated on an island close to Greece. A few pirates found him and decided to take him onboard. The pirates wanted to sell the disguised Dionysus into slavery. One of them, Acoetes, recognized him as a god and tried to convince the others with no success. At that point, when the pirates guided their boat away from Naxos, the breeze stopped.
Unexpectedly, a knot of grapevines covered the boat. The paddles transformed into snakes, groups of grapes developed on Dionysus’ head, and wild creatures showed up and played at his feet. Driven to frenzy, the pirates jumped off the boat, but Dionysus spared Acoetes. He then steered the boat to Naxos, where Dionysus made Acoetes a cleric of his followers. It was on Naxos that Dionysus likewise met the princess Ariadne, who turned into his better half. See more resources here
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 is said to have ventured into Hades and brought his mother Semele back. She also became immortal.
Late 6th Century BCE: At this point, people built a temple to Zeus in Athens. Zeus was the father of Dionysus.