Dionysus

Even though he is not as well known as other gods, Dionysus played an extremely important role in Greek mythology. He was the god of wine, vegetation, madness, theater, and pleasure and he ruled Mount Olympus alongside Zeus, Poseidon and Hera, with great powers. However, he led a different life from the other gods beginning with his childhood, to his travels around the world, to living with his followers, to the women in his life, and finally to the
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Dionysus, the god of wine
mark he left on Greek culture and modern day life.


Dionysus, like many of the Greek Gods, had a very odd childhood. For one, he was commonly referred to as “twice-born”. There are many different myths as to how he received such a name, but this is the most common one. Legend says that Zeus fell in love with a mortal princess named Semele and impregnated her with the child of Dionysus. However, since he could not show his true form as a god to her or else she would parish, she never saw her lover’s true identity. Brewing with jealousy, Zeus’s wife Hera wanted Semele and her baby destroyed. She disguised herself as one of Semele’s servants and gained her trust over many months. Then one day, Hera planted malicious thoughts in Semele’s head; that Zeus was hiding from her and that she shouldn’t trust him since she had never seen his face. Hera convinced Semele to confront Zeus and demand that she see his true form. Zeus could not deny her request, but as soon as Semele laid eyes on the deity, she burst into flames and her ashes piled on the ground. However, a grape vine grew from her remains and hanging on it was Semele’s womb with the baby Dionysus inside. Zeus wanted the child to live and so he slice open his thigh and placed the baby inside, having Hermes sew up his skin. The child was then born again, once from a mortal and again from a god, getting the name “twice-born”. Zeus, fearful of Hera’s anger, entrusted Hermes with hiding Dionysus from her. Hermes hid him in the mountains where he was raised by nymphs and for most of his younger years, played with lions and tigers in the surrounding valleys. There Dionysus learned about farming and his skills in cultivation grew until one day he created wine. He had used the grape vines that grew so prosperously on his mountain and had invented “the drink of the Gods”. It was this masterpiece that spurred Dionysus’ long and great journey around the world. (Peterson)


Surprisingly, being the god of wine, madness, and pleasure, the majority of Dionysus’ followers were women. They were called the Maenads and everywhere they went they carried a thyrsus (a branch or stalk of fen
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A thyrsus

nel tipped with ivy leaves) which was Dionysus’ symbol. As Dionysus’ worshipers, the Maenads participated in religious festivals of partying, drinking and sex to honor their god. During these festivals (which often took place in the woods), Dionysus released a feeling of madness and ecstasy upon the partiers that drove them to dance wildly and even go on rampages through the forest. When on these rampages, the Maenads hunted for wild animals and when one was found, they would rip it to pieces and eat the raw flesh. One of the reasons people worshiped Dionysus was because they found the madness and parties exciting and very pleasurable. (Dionysus) They also felt very close to Dionysus because he often partied and mingled with his followers. This unique connection between the Maenads and Dionysus is said to be because from the remains of Semele, not only was Dionysus ‘born’ but man as well came from those ashes. However, some humans didn’t share the same love. The Thebian King Pentheus completely disliked Dionysus and thought his religion was foolish and meaningless. Little did he know that his own mother was a worshiper and that she frequently took place in crazed festivals and orgies in the woods. Dionysus suggested that Pentheus hide in the woods and observe one of these festivals for himself. The king did as he was advised, but in their maddened state, his mother and the other women mistook him for an animal and tore him to pieces. (Dionysos) This is an example of the dangers of Dionysus’ powers and how madness can lead to destruction. On the other hand the god’s powers sometimes lead to beauty and happiness.

Surrounded by women all day, it’s shocking that Dionysus, being such a handsome god, didn’t have a wife. This all changed though when he met the beautiful Ariadne, daughter of Minos (the king of Crete). At first, Ariadne actually fell in love with Theseus when he came to Crete to defeat the Minotaur. He promised his love to her and she sailed back to his home with him. However on the way back they made a few stops, one being on the island of Naxos. While Theseus and the crew were out scouting the lands, Ariadne took a nap on the beach. When she awoke she saw Theseus’ boat sailing away in the distance; he had abandoned her. She lay on the beach weeping until she felt a comforting presence; that of Dionysus. They instantly fell in love with each other and Dionysus made her his wife. Ariadne was brought to Mount Olympus so that she could be with her lover and she lived her life happily, giving birth to many children. (Low) However, Dionysus didn’t feel completely content; there was still something missing in his life. He remembered his mother and decided that her death had been unfair and that she be able to live on. So he traveled to the Underworld where he made a deal with Hades. In exchange for Semele, Dionysus gave Hades one of his most precious plants. Instead of returning her to the world of mortals though, Dionysus brought Semele back to Mount Olympus where she was made immortal and lived happily by the side of her son. (Bolton) It is said that he broke the natural laws of life and death by returning her to the living world, just as he had once done many years ago. It is connections between Greek life and the actions of Dionysus like these that actually make the god quite symbolic in so many ways.

Various components of Greek culture and daily life symbolize the life of Dionysus and the things he did. In the Greek theater, every hero that dies on the stage in a play is supposedly Dionysus and it is interesting that there are also many children that die on stage, just like the god-child was once killed. There is a theater devoted to him called the Dionysia where many plays and festivals take place and all the participants were considered his sacred servants. (Dionysos) There are also many similarities between Dionysus and Jesus Christ. For example, at first when Dionysus traveled around the world, there were many people that didn’t believe in his religion; some not even believing that he was a god because he had been born from a mortal. The same thing happened to Jesus when he went around preaching about Christianity; he was scorned because some believed his religion to be futile and strange. Lastly, because Dionysus brought his mother back from the dead, he represents life and death, because he rewards humans and punishes humans, he represents pleasure and madness, and because he mingles with his mortal worshipers, he symbolizes heaven and earth. (Peterson) Because of this, it is almost like he lives on with us to this very day.

Dionysus is a god with unique qualities and his attributes to the Greek world were everlasting. From his early childhood to his travels around the world, to the people that devoted their lives to him and the women that he returned that love to, and finally to how his life is seen in Greek culture and in other parts of the world, Dionysus definitely made his mark. His myth still remains, shaping the modern world we live in today.



Works Cited
Bolton, Lesley. "The Lord of Libation." The Everything Classical Mythology Book: Greek and Roman Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Monsters from Ares to Zeus. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2002. Print.
"Dionysos." Dionysia.org Is Now Fluidmind.org. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <http://dionysia.org/greek/dionysos/thompson/dionysos.html>.
"Dionysus." Greek Mythology. 2000. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <http://www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/Dionysus/dionysus.html>.
Low, Alice, Arvis L. Stewart, and Barry R. Katz. The Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes. New York: Macmillan, 1985. Print.
Peterson, Amy T., and David J. Dunworth. Mythology in Our Midst. World Folklore and Folklife. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://folklore.greenwood.com/wff.aspx?k=6&x=2000ba06&bc=DBFL1632&p=p2000 ba069970045001&tab=f&id=2&u=#hit>.