Dionysus (mythology)

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Dionysus is the Greek god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness, fertility,[1][2] theatre and religious ecstasy in Greek mythology. Alcohol, especially wine, played an important role in Greek culture and the Greek Symposion with Dionysus being an important reason for this life style.[3] His name, thought to be a theonym in Linear B tablets as di-wo-nu-so (KH Gq 5 inscription), <name=KHGq5/> shows that he may have been worshipped as early as c. 1500–1100 BC by Mycenean Greeks; other traces of the Dionysian-type cult have been found in ancient Minoan Crete.[4] His origins are uncertain, and his cults took many forms; some are described by ancient sources as Thracian, others as Greek.[5][6][7] In some cults, he arrives from the east, as an Asiatic foreigner; in others, from Ethiopia in the South. He is a god of epiphany, "the god that comes", and his "foreignness" as an arriving outsider-god may be inherent and essential to his cults. He is a major, popular figure of Greek mythology and religion, and is included in some lists of the twelve Olympians. Dionysus was the last god to be accepted into Mt. Olympus. He was the youngest and the only one to have a mortal mother.[8] His festivals were the driving force behind the development of Greek theatre. He is an example of a dying god.[9]

The earliest cult images of Dionysus show a mature male, bearded and robed. He holds a fennel staff, tipped with a pine-cone and known as a thyrsus. Later images show him as a beardless, sensuous, naked or half-naked androgynous youth: the literature describes him as womanly or "man-womanish".[10] In its fully developed form, his central cult imagery shows his triumphant, disorderly arrival or return, as if from some place beyond the borders of the known and civilized. His procession (thiasus) is made up of wild female followers (maenads) and bearded satyrs with erect penises. Some are armed with the thyrsus, some dance or play music. The god himself is drawn in a chariot, usually by exotic beasts such as lions or tigers, and is sometimes attended by a bearded, drunken Silenus. This procession is presumed to be the cult model for the human followers of his Dionysian Mysteries. In his Thracian mysteries, he wears the bassaris or fox-skin, symbolizing a new life. Dionysus is represented by city religions as the protector of those who do not belong to conventional society and thus symbolizes everything which is chaotic, dangerous and unexpected, everything which escapes human reason and which can only be attributed to the unforeseeable action of the gods.[11]


Bacchus the name adopted by the Romans for the Greek god Dionysus. [12] and the frenzy he induces, bakkheia. His thyrsus is sometimes wound with ivy and dripping with honey. It is a beneficent wand but also a weapon, and can be used to destroy those who oppose his cult and the freedoms he represents. Like Eros. he is also called Eleutherios ("the liberator"), whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverts the oppressive restraints of the powerful. Those who partake of his mysteries are possessed and empowered by the god himself.[13] His cult is also a "cult of the souls"; his maenads feed the dead through blood-offerings, and he acts as a divine communicant between the living and the dead.[14]

In Greek mythology, he is presented as a son of Zeus and the mortal Semele, thus semi-divine or heroic: and as son of Zeus and Persephone or Demeter, thus both fully divine, part-chthonic and possibly identical with Iacchus of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Some scholars believe that Dionysus is a syncretism of a local Greek nature deity and a more powerful god from Thrace or Phrygia such as Sabazios[15] or Zalmoxis.[16]


Ampelos is the Ancient Greek for "vine".

In an etiology told by Nonnus, the vine is personified as a beautiful satyr youth, who was loved by Dionysus, and whose death was foreseen by the god. There are two versions of his death and Dionysus’s reaction to it.

According to Nonnus, Ampelos was gored to death by a wild bull after he mocked the goddess Selene, a scene described as follows:

"Ampelos, love of Dionysos, rode upon the back of a wild bull: He shouted boldly to the fullfaced Moon (Mene)—‘Give me best, Selene, horned driver of cattle! Now I am both—I have horns and I ride a bull!’
So he called out boasting to the round Moon. Selene looked with a jealous eye through the air, to see how Ampelos rode on the murderous marauding bull. She sent him a cattlechasing gadfly; and the bull, pricked continually all over by the sharp sting, galloped away like a horse through pathless tracts [it then threw and gorged him to death]"[17]

Upset by his death, Dionysus transformed Ampelos’s body into the first grape vine and created wine from his blood.

The second version involves grape vines in a different manner. According to Ovid:

“the reckless youth fell picking gaudy grapes on a branch. Liber Dionysos lifted the lost boy to the stars,” turning him into one of the stars of the constellation Vindemitor or Vindiatrix (better known as Boötes).[18]


  1. Hedreen, Guy Michael. Silens in Attic Black-figure Vase-painting: Myth and Performance. University of Michigan Press. 1992. ISBN 9780472102952. page 1
  2. James, Edwin Oliver. The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study. Brill Publications. 1966. page 234. ISBN 9789004016125
  3. Gately, Iain (2008). Drink. Gotham Books. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-592-40464-3. 
  4. Kerenyi 1976.
  5. Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought, Allsworth press, 2002, pp. 118–121. Google Books preview
  6. Reginald Pepys Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: an interpretation, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p.109 Google Books preview
  7. Zofia H. Archibald, in Gocha R. Tsetskhladze (Ed.) Ancient Greeks west and east, Brill, 1999, p.429 ff.Google Books preview
  8. Sacks, David; Murray, Oswyn; Brody, Lisa R. (2009-01-01). Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438110202. http://books.google.com/books?id=yyrao0dadqAC. Retrieved on 20 April 2013. 
  9. Dionysus, greekmythology.com
  10. Otto, Walter F. (1995). Dionysus Myth and Cult. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-20891-2. 
  11. Gods of Love and Ecstasy, Alain Danielou p.15
  12. In Greek "both votary and god are called Bacchus". Burkert, Greek Religion 1985:162. For the initiate as Bacchus, see Euripides, Bacchantes 491. For the god, who alone is Dionysus, see Sophocles, Oedipus the King 211 and Euripides, Hippolytus 560.
  13. Sutton, p.2, mentions Dionysus as The Liberator in relation to the city Dionysia festivals. In Euripides, Bacchae 379–385: "He holds this office, to join in dances, [380] to laugh with the flute, and to bring an end to cares, whenever the delight of the grape comes at the feasts of the gods, and in ivy-bearing banquets the goblet sheds sleep over men." [1]
  14. Xavier Riu, Dionysism and Comedy, Rowman and Littlefield, 1999, p.105
  15. Dictionary of Ancient Deities by Patricia Turner and the late Charles Russell Coulter, 2001, p.152.
  16. Dictionary of Ancient Deities by Patricia Turner and the late Charles Russell Coulter, 2001, p.520.
  17. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 11. 185 ff
  18. Ovid Fasti 3. 407 ff

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