Who is Dionysus in Greek Mythology?
DIONYSUS was the son of Zeus and Semele, who was a Theban princess. In Greek mythology, he is a youthful god of vegetation, wine and ecstasy, known as the “bull-horned god” because he often adopted the form of this mighty beast. In Roman mythology, he is represented by the god Bacchus.
Originally, he may have had a mythology role similar to that of the goddess DEMETER (“mother earth”). His cult in later times, however, developed into one of personal salvation, particularly for women worshippers who were known as maenads.
The Worship of Dionysus
The Faction of Dionysus was firmly connected with satyrs, centaurs, and sileni, and its trademark images were the bull, the snake, tigers/panthers, the ivy, and the wine. The Dionysia and Lenaia celebrations in Athens were committed to Dionysus, just as the Phallic parades. Starts loved him in the Dionysian Secrets, which were identical to and connected with the Obscure Secrets and may have affected Gnosticism. Orpheus was said to have imagined the Secrets of Dionysus.
The Religion of Dionysus follows back to, at any rate, Mycenaean Greece, since his name is found on Mycenean Straight B tablets as 𐀇𐀺𐀝𐀰, di-wo-nu-so. Dionysus is regularly shown riding a panther, wearing a panther skin, or a chariot drawn by pumas and may likewise be perceived by the thyrsus he conveys. Other than the grapevine and its wild infertile modify the sense of self, the harmful ivy plant, both consecrated to him, the fig was additionally his image. The pinecone that tipped his thyrsus connected him to Cybele.
From the beginning, the ancient Greek were well aware of the strange character of Dionysus, and in some city-states, his wild, orgiastic rites were outlawed. The most famous attempt to prohibit his worship was by King Pentheus of Thebes. The king even tried to imprison Dionysus, but the chains fell off him, and the prison doors could not be closed.
Dionysus then told Pentheus that he could observe at first hand the secret rituals performed on a mountain close to the city, but only if he disguised himself as a woman. The king readily took the bait and spied on the maenads from a hiding-place in a tree.
However, the maenads soon discovered him and, in their frenzy, thought that he was a lion and tore him limb from limb. Afterwards, his mother, Agave, who was also one of the maenads, realised to her horror that they had dismembered not a lion but her son. After his burial, Agave, together with her parents, Cadmus and Harmonia, left Thebes and went into exile.
One of the few Olympians that features in a host of stories and seems to be ever-present in the background in some shape or form is Dionysus. As a favourite of many, I’m sure he was seen as the god of wine, pleasure, festivity, vegetation, madness, and wild frenzy. And out of all of the gods in Greek mythology, Dionysus appears to be one of the most fun to be around unless you’re King, but we’ll get to that soon.
The Birth of Dionysus
Some of you may be more familiar with his Roman iteration, Bacchus, who is almost identical to Dionysus, with a few different stories here and there. With all of that being said, Dionysus is perhaps one of the most unique gods that we encounter in Greek mythology. A god giving birth to another god is relatively common. A mortal woman giving birth to a demigod is something we encounter quite often. But a human woman giving birth to a fully-fledged God was unheard of, not until Dionysus.
The stories centred around a mortal woman, Semele, who was a priestess of Zeus. In the form of an eagle, Zeus observed as Semele slaughtered a bull at his altar and then swam in a nearby river to wash away the blood. From that moment on, Zeus was instantly captivated, and he would visit the priestess several more times before she eventually fell pregnant with his child.
As a gift to the mother of his child, Zeus wore an oath from the River Styx to grant Semele anything she desired. Having learnt of this affair, Zeus’s wife Hera was extremely jealous of the pregnancy and decided that she would once again intervene. She appeared to the young priestess as an old crone and began to plant the seeds of doubt, questioning Zeus’ divinity to the point where Semele no longer believed her child’s father was Zeus but merely an imposter.
When Zeus eventually returned to Semele, she demanded to see him in his true form to prove his divinity. Zeus refused Semele’s request several times, for if a mortal were to see a God in their true form, they would immediately burst into flames. However, Zeus didn’t know that he would eventually have to grants Emily’s request because of the oath he made.
When he did eventually appear to Semele, just as he feared, she was consumed by fire, and the only thing that Zeus could rescue was the unborn child, which he did by sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, a boy was born, and that boy was Dionysus. Many would then refer to the boy as the twice-born, referring to his premature birth when his mother burst into flames and later his actual birth from Zeus.
After he was born, Dionysus would be raised by the satyr Silenus and the nymphs of Mount Nysa. Silenus himself was an ancient deity who was heavily associated with winemaking and drunkenness. So naturally, these two became drinking partners. We can see that Silenus may have had quite an enormous influence in shaping Dionysus into the god he would become.
There are a host of different stories that attempt to explain the birth of Dionysus. But this is the one I found most interesting.
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned about the goddess Hera, it’s that she’s rather persistent. After some time with Silenus, Dionysus was then entrusted to his aunt Ino, the sister of Semele. When Hera learnt of the boy’s location, she was furious that he had survived. She drove Ino and her husband mad, causing them to kill their children and then each other. Dionysus remained unharmed but now with no Guardians. He would have to stay with Silenus for several more years.
It’s ubiquitous for Dionysus to be depicted in two ways: a young long-haired man with a feminine look or an older bearded god with a much more masculine persona.
Now, as the poem at the start of this article may have suggested, Dionysus was often seen wearing a crown made of ivy, holding a pinecone staff, and being accompanied by several satyrs. Several paintings and mosaics of Dionysus were accompanied by a leopard, which was one of his sacred animals, the others being a serpent and a bull.
Dionysus being a god of vegetation and wine, meant several plants that he considers sacred—these being the grapevine, bindweed and ivy.
Attacks on Dionysus—King Lykourgos
When Dionysus was still a young boy, being raised by the nymphs of Mount Nysa, he was attacked by the king of Thrake, King Lykourgos. When they attempted to flee, the King took his axe and struck down the nymph responsible for nursing Dionysus. Protected by the rest of the nymphs, they left into the sea where they would be given refuge by the goddess Thetis, the mother of Achilles.
After such an attack on one of the sons of Zeus, Lykourgos was driven into a state of madness as a punishment, where he would kill his wife and son. He then took his axe and chopped off his own feet before eventually killing himself. As gruesome as that fate may sound, there are many other variations regarding how the king was punished.
He was wrapped in strangling vines in another story and then taken to the underworld, where he would be tormented for eternity. There is a retelling of this story, where Dionysus travelled to Thrake when he was grown, teaching the people the art of winemaking. Lykourgos, being angered at the drunken mess his people had become, attacked Dionysus and was killed as a result. But Lykourgos wouldn’t be the only king that Dionysus had some trouble with.
Dionysus and Pentheus
When Pentheus became the king of Thebes, the first thing he did was ban the worship of Dionysus—who also happened to be his cousin. Dionysus did not take too kindly to this, and so he caused the women of Thebes into a frenzy of anger and sexual activity. Pentheus eventually captured Dionysus, assuming he was just a follower of the god and imprisoned him.
However, Dionysus convinced the king to dress as a woman and travel to mount Cithaeron to see what had happened to his women. Once he had arrived, Pentheus climbed the tallest tree he could find to see what the women were doing. In their maddened state, the woman mistook the king for wild-animal, pulling him off the tree and tearing him apart limb from limb.
Ironically, the first of these women to attack Pentheus was his mother, who only realized what she had done upon returning to the city. So, if there’s one thing that we’ve learned from these two stories if you’re a king who decides to anger Dionysus, it’s probably the last thing that you will ever do.
Dionysus and Hephaestus
In my article on Hephaestus, some of you may remember that when Zeus summoned him to Olympus, he declined, and none of the other gods could convince him to change his mind. It was then Dionysus who got Hephaestus so drunk that he was able to put him on the back of a donkey and escort him to his father.
The Lover and Children of Dionysus
Now, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that Dionysus had several lovers when it comes to women. With him essentially being the party animal of Greek mythology, but he did choose to marry one.
After he killed the Minotaur, Theseus sailed from Crete with the two daughters of King Minos. Theseus eventually decided that he no longer wished to marry Ariadne. So he abandoned her on the island of Naxos, where she would be found by Dionysus, who fell in love with the princess and decided that she would be the woman he would marry.
In their union, the two had many children, but Ariadne’s life wasn’t exactly the easiest after giving birth to Dionysus’ children.
Soon after giving birth, Ariadne would be killed either by the goddess Artemis or the hero Perseus. But she wouldn’t remain in the underworld for long, which does lead us to our next story.
After losing his wife, Dionysus travelled to the underworld to face both Thanatos and Hades, convincing them both to allow him to bring back Ariadne and his mother Semele, taking them both to Olympus where they were granted immortality.
It was later believed that Dionysus was one of the few Olympians with the power to bring back to see some mortals from the underworld and restored him to life.
Dionysus and Prosymnus
When Dionysus was looking for Ariadne and his mother in the underworld, he came across a shepherd known as Prosymnus, who helped guide Dionysus. As a reward, the shepherd only wished Dionysus to be his lover.
Sadly, the shepherd died before Dionysus could honour his pledge. So, to keep his promise, he fashioned a phallus from an olive branch and placed it on Shepherd’s tomb—at this point, I cannot comprehend why Dionysus would build a penis-shaped object in honour of Prosymnus. I guess we should overlook this and act like we didn’t hear about it.
The Capture of Dionysus by the Pirates
When he was travelling through the Aegean Sea, and Dionysus was captured by a group of pirates who attempted to sell him into slavery—at this point, Dionysus was still reasonably young—he took his staff. He was able to transform most of these pirates into dolphins.
In this particular Roman mosaic, it’s relatively difficult to see Dionysus because of its damage over the years. But we do see the pirates jump in overboard as they’re being transformed. We also see some of the nymphs raised in Dionysus, along with a very plump look in Silenus.
The Story of King Midas
The final story we’ll be covering is the story of King Midas. When Dionysus and Silenus were drinking in Midas’s Kingdom, the two overindulged and became separated. When King Midas found Silenus, he offered him his hospitality and sent him back to Dionysus. Out of gratitude, Dionysus offered the king any wish of his choice. Against god’s best advice, Midas requested to be able to turn anything into gold.
When Midas no longer wanted the gift, Dionysus helped the king return everything he touched back to normal.
Dionysius is one of the most respected and valued gods in the entire Greek pantheon. Many saw him as some kind of Roman hero because he did spend most of his life travelling, teaching the art of winemaking, helping those in need and just overall having a great time.
As Dionysus travelled, his cult following only grew larger and larger, which is why there is so much classical art devoted to the god. I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff that I haven’t mentioned, but with time, we will break these stories down and give the full myth behind the god Dionysus.