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Dionysus (Greek: Διόνυσος Dionysos) is the god of wine, vegetation, ecstasy, revelry and madness in ancient Greek religion and myth. Originally a demigod, Dionysus was the patron god of theatre and festivity, a reflection of the god’s own overwhelmingly dramatic and often unpredictable nature; some of the most well-known pieces of ancient poetry were written for Dionysus, and all those who participated (from the writer to the actors and singers) were regarded as the god's servants. While on Earth, he was accompanied by a procession of followers called the Thiasoi, comprised of nymphs, satyrs, and other nature spirits, who would dance and sing praises in his honor. The youngest of the Olympians, Dionysus is usually portrayed as a beardless, effeminate youth of exceptional beauty, with long flowing hair and a crown of ivy leaves atop his head, holding a staff tipped with a pine-cone, known as a thyrsus, which would drip sweet honey when he was pleased. As Bacchus (Greek: Βάκχος), Dionysus was the protector of those who do not belong to nor are capable of confirming to conventional society and its expectations, a symbol of the chaotic, dangerous and unexpected, all of that which escapes human reason. During his worldly wanderings, Dionysus was often welcomed as Eleutherios (“the liberator”), his intoxicating creation having freed others from self-consciousness and fear, inducing in them a state of bliss and happiness. His symbols include ivy, thyrsus, and grapevine, tiger or leopard skin, and the panther, tiger, leopard and cheetah were his sacred animals.

Mythology[change | change source]

Birth and Childhood[change | change source]

Dionysus was born a demigod; his mother was Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, and his father was Zeus. Zeus' wife, Hera, eventually caught word of her husband's act of infidelity and concocted a scheme to punish Semele, who was now pregnant. Appearing as an old crone (in other stories a nurse), Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that Zeus was the father of the baby in her womb. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Hera convinced the young princess that, in order for him to prove his divinity, she should request "Zeus" to reveal himself in his divine form the next time he comes to her. The next night when Zeus came down to lay with Semele, he swore to grant her anything she requested, and Semele did as Hera suggested.

Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, Semele persisted and he agreed. Therefore, he revealed to her his true divine form, wreathed in columns of fire and lightning; mortals, however, could not look upon a god's true form without dying, and Semele perished in the ensuing blaze. Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus from his mother's womb, sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, when Dionysus was ready to be born, Zeus journeyed to Mount Pramnos in Ikaria, where the infant emerged from Zeus' thigh fully-grown and healthy. In this version, Dionysus is born by two "mothers" (Semele and Zeus) before his birth, hence the name twice-born, from the term dimētōr ("of two mothers"). Zeus then gave the infant Dionysus to the care of Hermes, instructing him to take the boy to King Athamas and his wife Ino, sister of Semele and Dionysus' maternal aunt. Hermes bade the couple to raise the boy as a girl, so as to hide him from Hera's wrath. Hera eventually discovered the boy's location, and in her anger, drove Ino and Athamas mad, causing them to kill both their children and themselves. Zeus then transformed Dionysus into a goat in order to escape Hera's wrath, taking him to the slopes of Mount Nyssa, where he is cared for by the local nymphs (known as the Nysiades); the satyr Silenos served as the god's mentor, later becoming his life-long companion. Sources disagree as to where exactly Nyssa was located; some say Greece, while others seem to regard Dionysus' childhood as having taken place in lands to the east far, beyond the boundaries of Greece, seemingly a reflection of Dionysus' origins as a foreign deity: either Egypt, Phoenicia, Arabia, or India.

Madness and Wanderings[change | change source]

When a vindictive Hera inflicted him with madness, a young Dionysus wandered across the world, first into Syria and eventually Egypt, where he was welcomed by King Proteus. There Dionysus was eventually nursed back to health and continued on his way.

Journeys & Conquests[change | change source]

Lycurgus[change | change source]

King Lycurgus of Thrace heard of Dionysus, he regards him and his procession as a threat. So when the new god arrived in his kingdom, Lycurgus had many of Dionysus' followers, including the Maenads and hundreds of satyrs, imprisoned, as he drove Dionysus from the city. Dionysus then seeks refuge with the Nereid Thetis, sending a drought which stirred the people into revolt. Enraged, Dionysus then drove Lycurgus insane, during which he hacked his own son into pieces with an axe, believing him to have been a wild patch of ivy. An oracle then claimed that the land would stay barren as long as Lycurgus was alive; the people then stormed the palace and captured Lycurgus, tying his arms and legs to four horses, as he was torn apart limb from limb.

Encounter With Pirates[change | change source]

On his way to Thebes, Dionysus was sailing across the Aegean when he was spotted by a group of Tyrrhenian pirates. Dressed in extravagant robes with a crown of ivy atop his head, the pirates took him for royalty and captured him, hoping to receive a ransom. The god infested their ship with phantoms of creeping vines and wild beasts, and in terror the men leapt overboard as they were transformed into dolphins.

Pentheus[change | change source]

Dionysus soon made his way to Thebes, then ruled by his cousin Pentheus (his mother was Agave, a daughter of Cadmus and sister of Semele). King Pentheus found the god's rituals strange and disturbing, and when Dionysus arrived in his court, he insulted him and banned his citizens from taking part in Dionysus' revelry. Believing him to be mortal, Pentheus had Dionysus imprisoned; Dionysus soon escaped, making his way into the nearby mountains, where most of the women in Thebes, including Agave, joined him to to take part in the god's revelry. Pentheus, tempted to see what actually went on during the so-called Bacchic rites, disguised himself as a woman, and sets out to see for himself; expecting a sexual orgy, Pentheus is spotted by the Maenads, who, recognizing him, decide he cannot be allowed to intrude on the god's sacred rites. They drag him from his hiding place in the tree and tear him apart limb from limb in a drunken frenzy. Afterwards, Dionysus again journeyed into Egypt and Syria, bringing with him the gift of ecstasy and liberation from societal norms; successful, he then moved onto lands beyond, including Phoenicia and Libya, to the kingdoms of Phrygia and Asia Minor. Wherever Dionysus went he taught men how to cultivate vines, and inviting them to take part in the mysteries of his new cult. Emerging triumphant, the god set out to conquer India, joined on his quest by the Kaiberoi, twin sons of the lame god Hephaistos.

Related pages[change | change source]