Greek God Dionysus
Dionysus was the god of the vine. He invented wine and spread the art of tending grapes.
He had a dual nature. On one hand, he brought joy and divine ecstasy. On the other hand,
he brought brutality, thoughtlessness and rage. This reflected both sides of wine’s nature.
If he chooses, Dionysus can drive a man mad. No normal fetters can hold him or his
Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele. He was the only god to have a mortal parent.
Zeus came to Semele in the night, invisible, felt only as a divine presence. Semele was
pleased to be a lover of a god, even though she did not know which one. Word soon got
around and Hera quickly realized who was responsible. Hera went to Semele in disguise
and convinced her she should see her lover as he really was. When Zeus next came to her,
she made him promise to grant her one wish. She went so far as to make him swear on the
River Styx that he would grant her request. Zeus was madly in love and agreed. She then
asked him to show her his true form. Zeus, was unhappy, and knew what would happen
but, having sworn he had no choice. He appeared in his true form and Semele was
instantly burnt to death by the sight of his glory. Zeus did manage to rescue Dionysus and
stitched him into his thigh to hold him until he was ready to be born. His birth from Zeus
alone conferred immortality upon him.Dionysus’ problems with Hera were not yet over.
She was still jealous and arranged for the Titans to kill him. The Titans ripped him into
pieces. However, Rhea brought him back to life. After this, Zeus arranged for his
protection and turned him over to the mountain nymphs to be raised.
Dionysus wandered the world actively encouraging his cult. He was accompanied by the
Maenads, wild women, flush with wine, shoulders draped with a fawn skin, carrying rods
tipped with pine cones. While other gods had temples, the followers of Dionysus
worshipped him in the woods. Here, they might go into mad states where they would rip
apart and eat raw any animal they came upon.
Dionysus was also one of the very few that was able to bring a dead person out of the
underworld. Even though he had never seen Semele, he was concerned for her. Eventually
he journeyed into the underworld to find her. He faced down Thanatos (Death) and
brought her back to Mount Olympus.
Dionysus became one of the most important gods in everyday life. He became
associated with several key concepts. One was rebirth after death. Here his
dismemberment by the Titans and return to life is symbolically echoed in tending vines,
where the vines must be pruned back sharply, and then become dormant in winter for them
to bear fruit. The other is the idea that under the influence of wine, one could feel
possessed by a greater power. Unlike the other gods, Dionysus was not only outside his
believers but, also within them. At these times, a man might be greater then himself and do
works he otherwise could not.
The festival for Dionysus is in the spring when the leaves begin to reappear on the vine. It
became one of the most important events of the year. Its focus became the theater. Most
of the great Greek plays were initially written to be performed at the feast of Dionysus.
Those who took part, including writers, actors and spectators, were regarded as sacred
servants of Dionysus during the festival.
This is a god who gives pleasure to mankind: he discovered honey and the vine and its
cultivation. But some say that it was Aristaeus who discovered honey and that he
competed with his honey against the wine of Dionysus but Zeus gave the first prize to the
wine. Some say that Oeneus, king of Calydon, was the first to receive a vine-plant from
Dionysus. Dionysus formed the women (MAENADS) into an army and made a campaign
over all the inhabited world. Dionysus is also known because of his Indian campaign. He
also instructed all men in the knowledge of his rites, but he punished severely those who
opposed him (like Lycurgus and Pentheus). He was attended by SATYRS, MAENADS
Semele was a daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia. Zeus fell in love with Semele and
consorted with her. But Hera was jealous, and in order to delude Semele, Hera took the
shape of Beroe, Semele’s nurse, and told Semele to ask Zeus to come to her as he comes
to Hera, so that she would know what pleasure it is to sleep with a god. At her suggestion
Semele made this request to Zeus and was smitten by a thunderbolt. Later Dionysus
brought up his mother from Hades, named her Thyone, ascended with her to heaven and
there she was made immortal by Zeus.
After Semele’s death Zeus carried the unborn child in his thigh. When the child was born
Zeus brought him to Nysa in Arabia where the boy was reared by NYMPHS. But it is also
said that Hermes entrusted Dionysus to Athamas and Ino, and persuaded them to rear him
as a girl. But Hera (or Tisiphone) drove them mad, and Athamas hunted his elder son
Learchus as a deer and killed him. The CORYBANTES are also named as guardians of
Dionysus in his growing days. The HYADES are sometimes said to have been the nurses
of Dionysus and to have been put to flight by Lycurgus, king of the Edonians (Thrace) or
the Arabians, who was the first to expel Dionysus. Or else, river NYMPHS (NYMPHS
LAMUSIDES), took care of the child Dionysus, but they were maddened by Hera.
Hera hated him so much that she promised Artemis to the giant Alcyoneus if he
would fight against Dionysus. And to the giant Chthonius she promised Aphrodite if he
would do the same thing. Hera incited also the giant Peloreus against Dionysus and to the
giant Porphyrion she promised Hebe as his wife if he would fight Dionysus.
Hera drove Dionysus mad and when Dionysus was afflicted with madness he came to a
large swamp which he could not cross. He was then met by two Asses and one of them
carried him across the water so that he could reach a temple of Zeus. When Dionysus
came to the temple he was freed at once from his madness and, feeling gratitude for the
Asses he put them among the stars (Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis in Cancer) and
gave human voice to the Ass which had carried him. This Ass is said to be the saddle-ass
of Silenus, a Satyr adviser and instructor of Dionysus.
He came to Cybela in Phrygia where Rhea, the mother of the gods, purified him and
taught him the rites of initiation.
He then came to Thrace where Lycurgus was king of the Edonians, who lived beside the
river Strymon. This Lycurgus was the first to insult Dionysus and expel him. Dionysus
learned of the plot of Lycurgus against him from Charops, the grandfather of Orpheus,
and he conquered the Thracians in a battle and killed Lycurgus, or else Lycurgus was
maddened by the god and killed himself. Thereupon, out of gratitude to Charops for his
aid, Dionysus made over to him the kingdom of the Thracians and instructed him in the
secret rites connected with the initiations. Later the son of Charops took over both the
kingdom and the initiatory rites.
It is also said that when Dionysus was persecuted by Lycurgus he took refuge in the sea
with Thetis the Nereid, while the MAENADS were taken prisoners together with the
SATYRS that attended him. But when the MAENADS were released, and Dionysus
drove Lycurgus mad, the latter struck his son dead with an axe, imagining that he was
lopping a branch of a vine, and having cut off his son’s extremities, he recovered his mind.
Others say that Lycurgus was almost killed by the MAENADS but was saved by Hera and
made immortal, but first he was driven mad by Zeus so that no other man should be as
proud as he. It is also told that the Edonians themselves bound him to horses which rent
him in pieces, because they believed Dionysus who had said that the land would not bear
fruit until Lycurgus was put to death.
When Dionysus came to Thebes, he forced the women to abandon their houses
and rave in Bacchic frenzy on Cithaeron. King Pentheus attempted to put a stop to these
proceedings, but he was torn limb from limb by his mother, who believed him to be a wild
beast, or by the MAENADS.
After Thebes Dionysus came to Argos, and because they did not wish to honor
him, he drove the women mad, and they devoured the infants whom they carried at their
breasts to the mountains.
On another occasion Dionysus desired to sail from Icaria to Naxos. He then hired a
Tyrrhenian pirate ship. But when Dionysus was on board, they sailed not to Naxos but to
Asia, intending to sell him as a slave. So Dionysus turned the mast and oars into snakes,
and filled the vessel with ivy and the sound of flutes so that the SAILORS went mad, and
leaping into the sea, were turned into dolphins. Others say Dionysus came on board when
these SAILORS, having leapt ashore, captured him, stripped him of his possessions and
tied him with ropes.
When Theseus came to Crete, Ariadne, being amorously disposed to him, offered
to help him if he would agree to carry her away to Athens and have her to wife. Theseus
having agreed on oath to do so, she asked Daedalus to disclose the way out of the
labyrinth. And at his suggestion she gave Theseus a clue when he went in. And having
found the Minotaur he killed him; and drawing the clue after him made his way out again.
And by night he arrived with Ariadne at Naxos. There Dionysus fell in love with Ariadne
and carried her off, when deserted by Theseus. He brought her to Lemnos and there she
had children by him. Some say she had children by Theseus as well.
Ariadne’s final fate is most uncertain. Some say that she was killed by Artemis, for
something that Dionysus told the goddess. Others say that she was turned into stone when
Perseus shook in front of her the face of Medusa. Still others say that she hung herself
because she was abandoned by Theseus. It is also told that Theseus and Ariadne, coming
from Crete, were driven out of their course by a storm to Cyprus. Ariadne was big with
child and Theseus set her on shore alone, while he was borne out to sea again by the
storm. Ariadne was taken into the care of the Cyprian women, who helped her during the
pangs of travail, and gave her burial when she died before her child was born. Yet others
say that Ariadne was made immortal by Zeus and that Dionysus set the Crown among the
stars as a memorial of the dead Ariadne.
Aura, a Phrygian huntress unacquainted with love, daughter of the Titan Lelantus
and the Oceanid Periboea, was ravished by Dionysus while asleep. She had twins but killed
one of the children and in despair she threw herself into the river Sangarius and was
transformed into a fountain by Zeus.
Nicaea was a huntress and nymph of Astacia with whom Hymnus fell in love. She grew
angry and killed him as he was declaring his love for her. However later, having drunk
wine, she fell asleep and Dionysus seduced her.