Dionysus, Greek god of wine and revelry, was more than just a 'party god'

Dionysus could bring holy ecstasy to his followers and cruel revenge to his foes. Associated with rebirth, he shaped religious practices across the Mediterranean until the dawn of Christianity.

By David Hernández de la Fuente
Published 25 May 2022, 19:56 BST
Teenaged god

In this oil painting from 1595, Caravaggio depicted Bacchus (the Roman name for Dionysus) as a callow adolescent, his head crowned with grape leaves and a glass of wine in hand.

Photograph by Scala, Florence

Dionysus was so much more than just the master of the vine; he was also charged with fertility, fruitfulness, theatre, ecstasy, and abandon. Whether called Dionysus (his Greek name) or Bacchus (his Roman one), he is perhaps the strangest of the gods in the vast classical pantheons. Though his pagan-like cults and mysteries may seem to have existed outside the usual Greco-Roman religious and philosophical spheres, archaeological evidence in the 20th century proved that he was a fully realised god.

Dionysus is depicted as an older man on a sixth-century B.C. plate from the British Museum.
Photograph by ACI

The son of an immortal god and a mortal princess, Dionysus’ role forged a crucial link between humanity and the divine, serving as a force of cyclical, unbridled nature who drew men and women out of themselves through intoxication. In that sense, Dionysus, a genial but wild and dangerously ravishing intermediary, represents one of the enduring mysteries and paradoxes of life.

Dionysus’ association with wine embodies this paradox. Wine is a delicious beverage with medicinal properties, but it also intoxicates. It brings liberation and ecstasy, yet, like any initiatory experience, it also introduced the risks of losing hold of identity and control.

Births and deaths

Many of the myths centered on Dionysus come from different sources. One of the most popular, the Bibliotheca, is a first- or second-century A.D. compendium of myths that draws on earlier sources, such as the Homeric Hymns from the seventh to sixth centuries B.C. as well as earlier Greek plays and poems. These texts supply a standard story of Dionysus’ birth: Like many of Zeus’s children, Dionysus was not the son of Zeus’s wife and queen, Hera, but the product of an extramarital affair. In the Bibliotheca, Zeus falls in love with a mortal princess Semele, and the two conceive a child. When Hera discovers the relationship, her jealousy drives her to try to destroy Semele and her unborn son.

Pregnant with Dionysus, Semele perishes after demanding to see Zeus in all his glory in this 17th-century oil painting by Luca Ferrari.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Scala, Florence

Disguised as a mortal, Hera plants a seed of doubt in the young woman’s mind that her lover isn’t a god and then gives her a way to obtain proof. Semele follows Hera’s plan and has Zeus swear an unbreakable oath to grant her any wish; then she asks Zeus to appear before her in all his divine glory. Because of his oath, Zeus cannot refuse and reveals his divinity, a sight that mortals cannot withstand. Semele burns to ashes.

Zeus manages to save their unborn son and sews him into his own leg. When gestation is complete, Dionysus bursts forth from Zeus’s thigh. This graphic and gruesome episode is not an unprecedented one in Greek mythology: Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, was born similarly, emerging fully formed from Zeus’s head. Dionysus thus became known as the “twice-born god.”

The infant Dionysis is portrayed in a fourth-century B.C. statue by Praxiteles from the Temple of Hera at Olympia.
Photograph by Album, DEA Picture Library
A youthful Dionysus is crowned with grapes in a first-century A.D. marble statue at the Naples Archaeological Museum.
Photograph by ACI, Alamy

After his extraordinary (re)birth, Zeus entrusts the infant Dionysus to the messenger god, Hermes. The baby is shielded from Hera and cared for and raised by nymphs. Hera’s jealous rage does not end with Semele’s death. She aims to punish Semele’s son, too, and decides to drive Dionysus mad. Stricken, the young god wanders aimlessly through the lands east of Greece, winding up first in Phrygia, a kingdom in the west-central part of Anatolia (modern Turkey). There, the mother goddess Cybele—whose own cult was associated with, and apparently resembled, Dionysus’ retinue—purifies him, perhaps recognising a kindred spirit.

Wanderings and wine

Cured of his madness, Dionysus continues to travel, and he is not alone. In many of the tales surrounding him, he is accompanied by an entourage who worship Dionysus in a state of drunken revelry, holding lavish festal orgia (rites) in his honour. Among them are nymphs called maenads—also known as the Bacchae, or bacchantes, who form the crux of his travelling retinue (the thiasus).

Pan, the hirsute fertility god associated with shepherds, often took part, along with satyrs and sileni—wild creatures that were part man, part beast. The thiasus comprised animals such as big cats (leopards, tigers, lynx) and snakes as well. The group brings the gift of wine wherever it goes.

Dionysus returns to Greece from India. He is represented here in this circa 1625 oil painting by Pietro da Cortona as a child holding bunches of grapes. Around him, maenads, satyrs, and the drunk Silenus venerate this god who has given humanity the precious gift of wine.
Photograph by Scala, Florenca

Dionysus’ odyssey takes him from Greece across Turkey and into Asia. Some modern scholars theorise that ancient Greeks believed that anywhere grapevines could be found and wine was cultivated, Dionysus had once visited. When Dionysus reaches India, on a chariot pulled by panthers, he conquers the land with wine and dance rather than weapons and war.

Dionysus encounters different peoples and not all welcome him. Those who reject his teachings are swiftly and brutally punished. In Thrace (parts of modern Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey), he encounters King Lycurgus, who refuses to recognise his status as a god and imprisons his followers. To demonstrate his power, Dionysus drives the king insane. Lycurgus kills his own son after mistaking him for a grapevine. Recovering his senses, the king is horrified, but Dionysus is not satisfied. He demands that the king be put to death or no fruit will grow in the kingdom. On hearing that, the king’s people seize Lycurgus and feed him to man-eating horses to appease the god.

The graphic death of the mythical King Pentheus of Thebes is depicted in this fresco from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. In The Bacchae, Euripides recounts how Pentheus was dismembered by a group of maenads—including his own mother, Agave—while the women were in the throes of an ecstatic Dionysian frenzy.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Scala, Florence

A similar incident occurs in Thebes, the native city of Dionysus’ mother, the princess Semele. The story is the basis of Euripides’ dramatic masterpiece of the late fifth century B.C., The Bacchae. The god’s cousin King Pentheus opposes the Dionysian cult and provokes the god’s anger. Pentheus spies on a group of Theban women practicing their bacchanalian rites on a mountainside. The frenzied women—which included Pentheus’s own mother, Agave— mistake him for a wild animal, and tear him apart with their bare hands in their intoxication.

The legend of Dionysus turning Tyrrhenian pirates into dolphins is depicted on a kylix, a shallow drinking cup, from 530 B.C., now in the State Collection of Antiquities in Munich.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Scala, Florence

Dionysus was not always cruel. When a band of Tyrrhenian pirates kidnapped the god off the west coast of what is now Italy, Dionysus responds by having grapevines sprout all over the ship. Realising they were in the presence of a god, the terrified pirates threw themselves into the sea. Rather than let them drown, Dionysus transformed the sailors into dolphins.

Worship of Dionysus was not uniform in the classic world. Some of it was public and organised, while other rituals were mysterious and carried out in secret. Many Greeks showed their reverence for Dionysus through festivals; in Rome, where he was called Bacchus, these became the Bacchanalia—wild rituals celebrated at night in forests and mountains. The maenads would enter a delirious state of ecstasy, then— inspired by the personification of Dionysus in the form of a priest—dance wildly before setting out on a hunt.

Maenads, like this first century A.D. Roman copy of a Greek original statue, danced frenetically as part of Dionysus’ entourage.
Photograph by Erich Lessing, Album

In Hellenic culture, Dionysus embodied a symbol of communal cohesion and reconciliation, closely connected with the theatre. Every March, the city of Athens would hold a festival known as the Great Dionysia (also called the City Dionysia). Dating as early as the sixth century B.C., this dramatic festival lasted as many as six days. On the first day, a procession would open the festival as a statue of Dionysus was borne to his theatre. After the day’s performances, a bull would be sacrificed and a feast held.

In the days that followed, ancient Greece’s playwrights would present their works—tragedies, comedies, and satyric drama—and compete for top honours. (According to tradition, tragedy was originally related to songs from the Dionysian feast of the tragos, goat, and oidos, song). Actors who gave the best performances would also be awarded prizes. Those taking first place would be given wreaths of ivy, in a nod to the patron god of wine.

In an attic red-figure krater from 370 B.C., Dionysus is shown mounted on a leopard, presiding over a procession of faithful maenads and satyrs.
Photograph by H. Lewandowski, RMN-Grand Palais

Dionysus was also worshipped through a series of secret rituals known today as the Dionysian Mysteries. These are thought to have evolved from an unknown cult that spread throughout the Mediterranean region alongside the dissemination of wine (though it’s possible that mead was the original sacrament).

As the patron of the Dionysian Mysteries—secret rites to which only initiates were admitted, such as those performed in honour of Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and later, of Isis (originally from Egypt) and Mithras (originally from Iran)—Dionysus was a disruptive deity, entering civilisation and throwing out the established order. When he arrived, liberation and transgression had their turn.

Located at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, the Theater of Dionysus was first erected between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. After subsequent renovations, it was enlarged to seat as many as 17,000 spectators.
Photograph by Mel Manser, Fototeca 9x12
Pergamon, an ancient city in Asia Minor that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built a massive theater with a capacity for 10,000 spectators. The seating is set into the hillside and faces a temple dedicated to Dionysus, god of the theater.
Photograph by J. Lange, Getty Images

Outsider or Olympian?

At first glance these mysteries, and the orgiastic rites that surrounded Dionysus, seem to run counter to the harmonious and ordered view of classical Greek religion. For this reason, many scholars, especially of the German tradition, for a long time did not believe that Dionysus could be truly Hellenic. They considered him to be a foreign god, perhaps Thracian or Phrygian, and discounted the possibility that the myths around his death and resurrection could be Greek. Positivist scholars of the 19th century argued that Dionysus was an imported rather than a Greek god, and that the maenads existed only in myth and literature.

These preconceptions changed over the course of the 20th century. In 1953, thanks to the decipherment of Linear B script—the writing system used by the Mycenaean civilisation, which predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries—researchers learned that Dionysus was indeed known in Greece as far back as the 13th century B.C. Ancient Mycenaean tablets found in the palace of Pylos, in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece, mention his name and prove that Dionysus was not a god adopted from abroad, but a profoundly Greek divinity.

Evidence of the maenads’ existence has been found as well, in Greek inscriptions from various time periods. Apparently there really were groups of women who would reach such a state of delirium, under the influence of Dionysus’ priestly incarnation, that they were prepared to rip apart live animals and eat their raw flesh.

In this detail from an 1881 oil painting by Giovanni Muzzioli, a maenad dances in front of a slumped and drunken man.
Photograph by Image courtesy of DEA, Album

Divine influence

Dionysus was thus a fully Greek god, whose popularity has spanned different time periods and guises; he is depicted as both a beautifully effeminate, long-haired youth and a corpulent, bearded mature man. The Greek Dionysus and the Roman Bacchus are functionally the same god, but there are a few key differences. Dionysus—a noble, youthful figure in myth and classical literature—is usually listed alongside the 12 Olympian gods. Bacchus, on the other hand, is often seen as a portly older man who, according to the Roman poet Ovid, could be vengeful, using his staff as both a magic wand and a weapon against those who dared oppose his cult and its ideals of freedom.

A loyal friend, tutor, and servant to Dionysus, Silenus was nearly always present in the deity’s entourage. His likeness appears on both sides of this kantharos from 540 B.C.
Photograph by H. Lewandowski, RMN-Grand Palais
The Greco-Roman mother of the gods, known as Cybele from about the fifth century B.C. onward, welcomed and cured Dionysus of madness. Here, she's shown in a figurine at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum, Scale, Florence

Surveying different belief systems in the ancient world, it is easy to spot Dionysus’ influence in other traditions. The term “Osiris-Dionysus” is used by some historians of religion to refer to a group of gods worshipped around the Mediterranean in the centuries prior to the emergence of Christianity. These gods shared a number of characteristics, including being male, having divine fathers and mortal virgin mothers, and being reborn as gods.

Dionysus is flanked by Apollo, god of archery, and Aphrodite, goddess of love, in this fresco from Pompeii, now at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Dagli Orti, Aurimages

The Egyptian god Osiris, for instance, was equated with Dionysus by the Greek historian Herodotus during the fifth century B.C. By late antiquity, some gnostic and Neoplatonist philosophers had expanded the syncretic equation to include Aion, Adonis, and other gods of the mystery religions. Scholars also note links between the life-giving wine of the Dionysian cult and the centrality of wine in the Christian Eucharist, as well as parallels between the Greek god and Christ himself. The sixth-century B.C. classical cult known as Orphism centred on the belief that Dionysus was torn to pieces and then resurrected. Twentieth-century thinkers such as James Frazer saw Dionysus and Christ in the context of an eastern Mediterranean tradition of dying-and-rising gods, whose sacrifice and resurrection redeemed their people.

Clearly Dionysus continues to cast a long shadow. Given the prevalence and power of wine and early ecstasy, it is no mystery why.

The horned god Pan can be seen playing his flute on a facade of a Roman sarcophagus from the third century A.D.
Photograph by H. Lewandowski, RMN-Grand Palais
A satyr is seen tending to a child and goat on a facade of a Roman sarcophagus from the third century A.D.
Photograph by H. Lewandowski, RMN-Grand Palais

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