Why was the God of Wine, Dionysus so feared and influential?

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Introduction

The Greek gods and goddesses were remarkable and complex characters, but one of the most remarkable of them all is Dionysus. He was the God of wine, frenzy, fertility, celebration, and transformation. This divinity was always a controversial God and while he was widely worshipped, he represented forces that were considered to be dangerous. The Dionysiac myths deeply influenced Greek society and its worldview. This divinity would later be adopted by the Romans, under one of his epitaphs, Bacchus. He was always a controversial god but an understanding of the legends and tales about Dionysus offers us a better understanding of the Classical world and some would say even the human condition.

A Roman mosaic depicting Bacchus

The origin of Dionysus

According to many ancient sources and modern scholarship, Dionysus was a late addition to the Olympian pantheon. It is widely believed that the Greeks adopted this religious figure from a foreign culture. Many academics believe that he was a Thracian god in origin, while others hold that he had a Near Eastern origin. However, one school of thought argues that this divinity was a very old Chthonic or earth deity who was worshipped in the Mycenaean and Minoan era. It appears that he was originally a fertility god. Dionysus was widely worshipped by the Greeks from at least the 7th century BC [1]. Based on the surviving iconography, it seems that he was originally a God of wine but later came to be associated with intoxication, frenzy, and unrestrained sexuality. At some date, he became linked with the concept of transformation and metamorphoses and in this way, he came to be seen as a god of resurrection. Dionysus was often associated with wilderness and animals. There are many depictions of this deity in art and he is either shown as an effeminate youth or an older bearded man. While there were many temples dedicated to the deity, often his followers celebrated his cult in the woods or mountains as shown in the play of Euripides The Bacchae. The cult of this god was associated with ecstatic rituals and orgies and the major festival held in his honor, the Dionysia was accompanied by drinking and partying. Dionysus was a god of transgression and was often associated with homosexuality and cross-dressing [2]. The followers and priestesses of the divinity were the Maenads, who engaged in wild rituals. Dionysus was very important in Greek society mainly because wine was central to its social life. The Romans adopted the cult of the son of Zeus but it never really received official recognition or became part of the state’s public religion. Indeed, the worship of the Roman variant of the Dionysus cult was initially suppressed and was only later tolerated after the cult had been reformed. The worship of the god of wine was unique as unlike other cults, he was not merely worshipped, it was believed that during festivals and rituals that he was present with his followers and indeed they became as one with the divinity. By the 5th century BC, a Mystery Religion had evolved out of the wine god’s worship. These were cults that offered worshippers a more personal religious experience and often offered personal salvation to worshippers. Individuals were initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus and they were thought to be blessed with secret knowledge concerning life and their salvation. The god of wine was also prominent in other mystery religions such as Orphism [3].

The followers of Dionysus from a relief

The story of Dionysus

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, a princess. When the wife of Zeus, the Queen of the Gods heard that Semele was pregnant with her husband’s child, she decided to take her revenge. She tricked Semele into seeing Zeus in all his splendor and as a result, she died. The King of the Gods took the unborn Dionysus and put him in his thigh and eventually, he emerged from his father’s leg [4]. Zeus gave the child to the satyrs to raise and educate, who would protect him from Hera’s wrath. Dionysus is the subject of many myths. In many stories, there are tales about kings and others rejecting him and refusing to worship him. It must be remembered that Dionysus was initially on a demi-god because his mother was a human. However, he had a great many supernatural attributes and powers. Many of the fables about Dionysus concern his struggles achieving divine status or to have it recognized by humans. In one story a king of Lycurgus attacked him and his companions, the maenads, and pushed them into the sea. In revenge, Dionysus drove the king mad and this led him to massacre his family and to mutilate himself. The King of Thebes Pentheus also rejected the cult of Dionysus and even tried to arrest the god. Dionysus drove his daughters mad and in a frenzy, they tore Pentheus apart. The god also had secret knowledge and possessed the knowledge of winemaking. It is stated in several sources that he discovered this after Hera drove him mad and that he learned the secrets of winemaking in India. Dionysus gave the secret of making wine to a Greek hero Ikarios and he shared it with other mortals and for this reason, he was regarded as a benefactor of humanity. The god of wine was a wanderer, and he traveled far and wide. According to one story, he was captured by a group of pirates in the Mediterranean [5]. In retaliation, the god filled the pirate ship with vines, specters, and wild animals. The pirates jumped overboard to escape the chaos and they were transformed into dolphins. Dionysus was believed to have traveled far and wide as a conqueror and often demanding recognition as a god. Some sources claim that he was the first to invade India, which later greatly influenced Alexander the Great. It has also been claimed that Dionysus fought the Amazons who were female warriors in what is now Russia. During his wanderings, the god was to learn many secrets and acquire a great deal of secret knowledge. In a story found in Apollodorus, he learned the secret of the orgies from an Eastern Goddess, the Cybele [6]. These were ecstatic practices that it was believed allowed the devotee to attain a higher and liberated state of being. Dionysus was believed to have descended into Hades (the realm of the dead) to retrieve his mother. Here he fought and defeated the God of Death and he was able to bring Semele to Olympus. In most accounts, it was at this time that he was finally deified and became a full god. In some stories, the god of wine was crucial in the defeat of the giant monster Typhoon who challenged Zeus for supremacy of the cosmos. It is also narrated in several sources that Dionysus was also instrumental in the Olympians' destruction of the Titans during the War of the Giants. However, he was torn apart by the Titans but was later brought back to life. Dionysus was also a major character in other myths. He is often credited with bestowing on King Midas the ability to turn everything he touched into gold[7].

Depiction of Dionysus and his followers from an Attic Vase

The meaning of the myths of Dionysus

The stories about the god of wine and wine-making held several very important concepts that were important in Greek and Roman society. The first was that of restrained, while wine and celebration were important it should be done with restraint. Self-control was greatly valued in Classical society. Dionysus taught people that they needed to use wine and other pleasures cautiously, it was perfectly acceptable to have fun, but not too much. Another important concept promoted in the myth of Dionysus was that the gods had to be respected and honored, even if they were seen as alien and threatening. In the Classical world, divinities were worshipped because of their power and not because they were good or noble. Dionysus represented the principle of transformation and transgression. The myths about God were concerned with this concept and that it could be a positive and a negative thing. In the stories told about God, the ancients were taught to accept transformation but also that it was dangerous. Like wine, the god could loosen inhibitions, and this could be positive as was the case with music and celebrations. However, it could also be dangerous and could lead to violence. The fables of the son of Zeus and Semele taught Greeks that they could be inhibited but not too much and that they could transgress but should still respect social norms [8]. It seems that one aspect of Dionysus became more important over time and that he came to be seen as mainly a god of rebirth. This was because he was shown in the myths to have been brought back to life at least twice, once after he was torn apart by the Titans and the other time when he descended into Hades, the realm of the dead and survived. Because of this, he was believed to possess the secrets of resurrection. The Bacchic Mystery religion provided rituals that allowed individuals to become initiated into the secret knowledge of Dionysus. The exact nature of this mystery religion is unknown. Those initiated into the cult seemed to have believed that they would be reborn or to go to a paradise after death [9].

The cultural significance of the God of Wine

One of the many roles of Dionysus in Greek mythology was that he was the god of theatre and drama. He was the deity of transformation this was synonymous in Greek minds with theatre. They believed that the actor was inspired and altered during their roles by God. Theatre emerged as part of the Dionysia in Athens. During the celebrations of the god, plays were staged, based on mythology to honor him. Over time, they became more sophisticated and poets began to write verse dramas. During the 5th century AD, great poets, such as Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Sophocles, used these plays to raise important social, political, and philosophical issues [10]. Greek tragedy and comedy emerged out of celebrations dedicated to God and it was critical in the development of modern drama. As we have seen the cult of Dionysus was unusual, he played a major role in the mystery religions. Many believe that these mystery cults, with their emphasis on a personal relationship with a god and salvation, may even have influenced the development of Christianity. The German Philosopher Nietzsche in his work used the concept Dionysian, to explain the importance of the irrational, emotional and instinctual in art and life [11]. The term is now often used in critical works on art and literature.

Conclusion

Dionysus was the god of wine and all it represented in the Greek mind. He was the divinity of excess, transformation, and the irrational. The Classical World, unlike the modern world, recognized these forces and sought to manage and harness them. Dionysus was often the representative of the darker side but the Greeks but yet they honored him. The myths of Dionysus showed how Greeks, not the benefits of excess but rather moderation. For them, his worship allowed them to release drives and feelings, in a controlled way. Dionysus was a hugely important cultural figure and what he represents still resonates with modern culture. His myths were very important in the various Mystery Religions and they were important in the development of a more individual and esoteric form of religion, in the Classical World. Moreover, his cult was central to the development of theatre.

Further Reading

Mac Góráin, Fiachra. "Dionysus in Rome." A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology (2017): 323-336.

Robertson, Noel. "Athens' festival of the new wine." Harvard studies in classical philology 95 (1993): 197-250.

Csapo, Eric. "Riding the phallus for Dionysus: Iconology, ritual, and gender-role de/construction." Phoenix (1997): 253-295.

References

  1. Burkert, Walter. Greek religion (Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 113
  2. Burkert, p 123
  3. Angus, Samuel. The mystery-religions. (London, Courier Corporation, 2012), p 112
  4. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths (London, Pelican, 2000), p 119
  5. Graves, p 119
  6. Apollodorus. The Library of Greek myths, ii, iv
  7. Graves, p 134
  8. Henrichs, Albert. "Dionysus." In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015)
  9. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (eds) The Oxford Classical Dictionary(Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015)
  10. Otto, Walter Friedrich. Dionysus: myth and cult (Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 134
  11. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy (London, Pelican, 1987), p 78